What Jesus Knew: Language and the Lord’s Prayer
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Acts 10: 1-16
There has been a controversy going here at Foundry for a number of months that many of you are probably not aware of. I started it.
I do not believe that God is male, as opposed to female. I try to refer to God as much as possible in ways that indicate neither gender.
One day I happened to say in the presence of colleagues on staff here that we ought to think about doing something about the male designation of Father in the Lord’s Prayer, which is something we were saying in worship almost every Sunday.
Well, some of our staff here have served at churches where people have routinely begun the Lord’s Prayer by praying: “Our Father/Mother who art in heaven….” So, we just did that one Sunday without thinking too much about it.
We got two very strong reactions. Some people hated it. Some people loved it. Many people, let me add, didn’t seem to care a lot one way or another.
It quickly became a no-win situation for us. There are people who have hated it so much that they have walked out of church when they heard it. On the other hand, when we do the old version with just Father in it, there are those who come up after the service and say, in effect, “you are letting us down.”
Well, our ministerial staff has been talking about this a lot. We put a little statement in the bulletin:
“References to God in traditional prayers and hymns may sometimes be gender specific. As we pray and sing together, you are invited to substitute terms that reflect your understanding of the full inclusiveness of the spirit of God.”
But the words the worship leader says still make a difference to some of us.
We tried to be sensitive to this disagreement by using the Lord’s Prayer less frequently, but then there were those who were upset because they missed the Lord’s Prayer in our worship and it was very meaningful to them.
So we, as the worship leader staff, have been doing more talking and praying about this, and we have come up with a new strategy which I will share with you at the end of this sermon which we think may help us through this.
But before I do that, I want to talk to you this morning about the Lord’s Prayer and male gender references to God…calling God “Father,” because I think this issue raises some very interesting and important theological issues, and why have controversy unless we try to learn something from it?
I have heard three good arguments about why NOT to change the Lord’s Prayer.
One good argument is that changing the Father in the Lord’s Prayer separates us from the overwhelmingly vast majority of ecumenical Christianity. For many Christians – perhaps the majority – the Lord’s Prayer is called the Our Father. People are not arguing here that we should use only male names and references for God. The argument is: Why not just use diverse names and images of God in other parts of the liturgy and prayers in the service and leave the Lord’s Prayer alone? Why be unnecessarily divisive with the rest of Christianity?
It is a serious argument. The only problem with it is that the genie is already out of the bottle. There are enough Christians and churches using Mother/Father in the Lord’s Prayer that now we have to decide which part of the church we want to stand with: the vast majority or the bold minority. In other words, we need to deal with the question of what is the right thing to do theologically, and not just in terms of our relationship to other Christians, because both choices are going to divide us from somebody.
A second strong argument for NOT changing the Lord’s Prayer is a pastoral argument, and this is the one I am most sensitive to. It feels uncomfortable.
For many of us the Lord’s Prayer is something we learned by heart as children; it is a part of the service we can close our eyes and say by heart. It is beautiful and reassuring and it connects us with transcendence. Why disturb us?
Of course, for those who feel the use of male language for God has helped maintain and promote sexism, using an exclusively male term is very uncomfortable for them. And, they would say, and they are very right about this, that just because the Lord’s Prayer is so powerful in our worship and spiritual lives, it is something that we need to pay careful attention to. It is the things we say almost without thinking about them that we need to be especially careful about because they are so central to our religious meaning systems, and because they are what we pass on to the next generations!
Now it is really the third argument that I want to wrestle with this morning. All I’ve said so far has been introduction.
This is a very important argument for NOT changing the Lord’s Prayer. The argument is that we ought not change the words of the Lord’s Prayer because these are the words Jesus used. How do we presume we can change Jesus’ words? It is, after all, the Lord’s Prayer, not Dean’s Prayer or Your Prayer. And isn’t Jesus the expert about God? Isn’t Jesus the revelation of God whom we consider authoritative? Isn’t Jesus the one who knows about God and if he called God “Father,” who are we to say God is anything other than Father?
This is the most interesting and important argument, I think. It raises the question of what Jesus knew. If Jesus’ was God’s son, wouldn’t he know whether God was a father or mother?
It raises the question of the trustworthiness of Jesus’ teachings. If Jesus called God Father, can we trust that he knew what he was talking about?
It raises the question of who Jesus was. What do we mean when we say Jesus was the child of God?
It raises the question of salvation. What do we mean when we say Jesus saves us? How does Jesus save us?
There is a whole month of Sunday sermons in the questions raised by this argument.
Let me say a few things about all this today and we will talk some more about this in May.
Is the Lord’s Prayer the words of Jesus? Not the version we pray. The last two lines – “for thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever” – is not part of the earliest New Testament manuscripts. All the early manuscripts were copied by hand – someone thought the prayer in the Gospel of Matthew ended too abruptly and added this last phrase. The translators of the King James Bible used a late manuscript that had it in, and then in order to make Matthew and Luke the same, added it to Luke as well.
There are other parts of the Lord’s Prayer that scholars debate whether or not they are likely the actual words of Jesus or additions added by the early church in the 40 or 50 or 60 years between Jesus’ death and resurrection and the writing of the Book of Matthew.
But the one part of the Lord’s Prayer that almost all scholars agree is almost surely the actual word of Jesus is the word Father. “Father” was probably the word that Jesus used most often to refer to God, and is the term Jesus almost surely used in this prayer he taught his disciples.
So we should assume that “Father” is Jesus’ word.
So what did Jesus know? Wouldn’t Jesus know whether God was a father, or mother or mother/slash/father?
Well, we know from the Gospel of Mark, the lesson you heard this morning, that according to Mark, Jesus never claimed to know everything. Jesus Christ, as the early church knew and taught Christ, did not claim to know everything. Mark 13:32 – “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
I want to go even further. It is my belief that Jesus did not have any particular intellectual or factual information about God that was not available to anyone else in the time and place in which he lived.
Judaism had generally but not exclusively used male images to refer to God. Jesus did the same. He tended to use the word Father more than many other Jewish teachers, because, I believe, he was trying to teach, in a patriarchal, hierarchical society in which the Emperor Caesar was considered the father above all fathers, that our only true parent and authority is God.
Jesus used a male term for God because he was a person of his time and place and because he had no particular intellectual or factual information about God that was not available to anybody else.
What Jesus had was a powerfully intimate relationship with the heart of God. What he had was a powerful understanding of how God longed for us to live with one another.
Jesus applied what he discerned of the heart of God to the circumstances and situations of the world of which he was a part. He was not a time traveler from outer space with special knowledge, but a human being like you and me who showed us how to open our hearts to the love of God.
What we believe about this is important because it shapes what we believe it means to be followers of Jesus Christ and what it means to be saved.
Being followers of Jesus doesn’t mean we have special information about God that others don’t have. We are not saved because we know a secret others don’t know.
To be followers of Jesus, means through him, opening our hearts to the same profound love of God that Jesus knew and trying, like him, to walk in the way of that love. We are not saved by what we know. We are saved by the love of God, the heart of God, to who we seek to open our hearts.
Then we try to apply that way of love to the world of which we are a part…we who are people of our time and place just as Jesus was a person of his time and place.
I do not believe Jesus would want us to use a word he used 2000 years ago just because he used it. I believe he would want us to use whatever word articulated the profound love of God in which he lived and died and rose again.
John’s Jesus says something startling. John 14:12 – “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these...”
Jesus Christ expects his followers to do greater works than he did!
part of the meaning of the resurrection. Garret
Jesus isn’t dead, frozen between the pages of the New Testament. Jesus lives in the community of those of us seeking to know for ourselves the love of God Jesus showed us, and seeking to live it out in the world, not as it was in Jesus’ time, but the world as it is today.
no perfect answer to the word for God. There is something we want you to try
for a while. Our staff has compiled a variety of translations and paraphrases
of the Lord’s Prayer from around the world. Over the next several months,
we’d like to ask you to pray different ones of them as part of our worship.
Today we will use #8, the one from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer from
But this is what I would wish this experience could help us do most of us…that it could help us ask the question of why we are followers of Jesus Christ. What is it really that we have learned from Christ about God? What might it mean for us not just to repeat Jesus’ words, but to do the works Jesus did, and, heaven help us, even greater works.
(#8) From New Zealand
(#8) From New Zealand
Loving God, in whom is heaven.
The Book of Common Prayer