Teach Us to Pray
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Luke 11: 1-10
The prayer that we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer is found in two places in the Bible. It each case it is a shorter version of the prayer than what we use in our worship. In each case the words are slightly different. In each case the context in which Jesus shares the prayer with his disciples has different, although not necessarily contradictory, emphases.
A version of the prayer appears in Matthew 6 where Jesus uses it as an illustration of the way to pray as opposed to the way the rest of the world prays, what he calls “heaping up empty phrases.”
God already knows what you need, so use your prayers not to get what you want from God, but to allow God to shape you. In Matthew, the prayer that grew to be the Lord’s Prayer is an example Jesus uses of how prayer can shape our lives if we are thoughtful in our praying.
An even briefer version of the Lord’s Prayer appears in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11. I would like us to consider this morning the context in which the prayer appears here in Luke.
Luke 11:1 says: “He [Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
In Luke Jesus teaches his disciples this prayer we call, in its expanded version, the Lord’s Prayer because one of his disciples asks Jesus to teach them how to pray. Notice a couple of things here:
It is Chapter 11 in the Gospel of Luke when this happens: Chapter 11.
Jesus had called his disciples to follow him way back in the beginning of Chapter 5. Unless Luke is telling the story out of order, Jesus had already taught the disciples all sorts of parables and lessons. In Chapters 9 and 10, he had sent out two missions – the mission of the 12 and the mission of the 70.
In these missions, he had sent out his disciples to heal diseases and to cast out demons – that is, to relieve human suffering and to overturn oppressive and evil systems and spirits…ministries of mercy and justice.
Jesus had called his disciples, trained them, commissioned and ordained them, sent them out to do ministry – all without having taught them to pray?
The gospels are clear that Jesus and his disciples attended synagogue. They went to “church.” So they clearly prayed the corporate prayers that Jews memorized and prayed together in synagogue.
The gospels are also clear that Jesus had a personal prayer life that was frequent and extensive, although sometimes when you read the Gospels and you read about Jesus going away by himself to pray, you suspect he may have been maybe wanting to get away from the disciples who could be an irritating bunch. After spending so much time with his disciples, prayer may have been Jesus’ way of talking for a few minutes to someone who had a clue.
But Jesus’ disciples, in groups of 12 and 70, had done effective ministries of mercy and justice without a personal prayer life, other than what they got in synagogue.
The desire to learn how to pray came from the disciples rather than Jesus taking the initiative. Jesus didn’t seem to feel as though he had to teach them how to pray in order for them to be disciples, but the disciples, the deeper they got into doing mercy and justice, perceived that they needed to learn how to pray.
Jesus did not feel the need to teach spirituality in order for his disciples to do ministry, but the disciples came to realize that if they were going to effectively be Jesus’ disciples, they had to find spiritual resources to sustain them.
We don’t need to be spiritual in order to do ministries of mercy and justice, but if we do them for a while we will learn that we need to develop a spirituality to keep doing them…or we will burn out or become angry or bitter or cynical.
So here’s the lesson – don’t wait until you’ve become spiritual and holy and godly before you do the kinds of acts of mercy and justice to which Jesus calls us. But understand that if you are going to keep doing them, you are going to need to learn how to draw on divine resources of strength and hope, because it isn’t easy.
There are some other interesting things going on here in Luke 11: 1.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, they say, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Apparently, John the Baptist had taught his disciples a prayer discipline. If John, as scholars suspect, was an Essene, this would make sense. The Essenes, a Jewish ascetic movement of Jesus’ time, had a very disciplined and ordered life, which included the practice of getting up before the sun rose to pray while the sun was rising, bathing rituals, and prayers before and after meals.
The interesting thing is that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, they felt the need to cite a precedent. They didn’t just say, we’ve watched you pray and it’s obviously important in your life and we’d like to be able to pray like you do. They felt the need to cite the precedent of John the Baptist’s disciples as though Jesus wouldn’t want to naturally teach them how to pray.
And I think they were not all wrong. Prayer for Jesus, as opposed to John the Baptist, is a means not an end. Unlike the Essenes, for Jesus, prayer is not for its own sake. Here’s another way of thinking about it – prayer for Jesus is not for our salvation but the salvation of the world.
John taught his disciples to pray so that they might become pure and be saved. The Essenes were all about purity and separating yourself from the sinful and dirty world around you.
Jesus taught his disciples how to heal diseases and cast out demons, how to do ministries of mercy and justice in the world, in the thick of the world’s sin and dirt, and then, when they needed a spirituality to sustain them in those ministries, he taught them how to pray.
So this is what the Lord’s Prayer is in Luke…a means he offers the disciples as a way of sustaining themselves while they are doing the ministries of mercy and justice to which Jesus calls them. And the prayer has that flavor. It is all about us seeking grounding for the lives of ministries Jesus is calling all of us to live.
It begins with respect for God – Hallowed be thy name.
It focuses, not on what we want, but on what God is trying to do through us in the world: Thy kingdom come.
It asks only for what we really need: Our daily bread. Just the bread we need to live today.
It helps us remember that we are always falling short of the ministries to which Jesus calls us and that we need forgiveness, and because we need forgiveness, we have an obligation to forgive others. No ministry of mercy or justice is possible without a spirit of forgiveness. Otherwise we will become disappointed, angry and cynical.
And it asks that the demands of ministry not become more than we can manage. Bring us not into times of trial.
We have to be a little careful, I think, about the ways we think about prayer and spirituality. Spirituality has almost become a commodity in our society…an alternative to tranquilizers.
A sample group from our congregation recently took a survey as part of our church planning process…the Natural Church Development survey. The Natural Church Development people have identified eight areas of vital church life that they believe are essential for church health. They advise churches to work on whichever of the eight areas the survey suggests they are weakest in.
Our lowest score was in the area the NCD people call “Passionate Spirituality.”
I shared the results of this survey with a group of church leaders, and one of them said, “I’m not sure I want to be in a church with passionate spirituality. I’ve been in some of those churches and didn’t like it.”
I do think we do need to spend more time working on our spirituality here at Foundry, but only because we are a congregation so deeply engaged in mission. Spirituality without mission is like eating without exercise. But mission without spirituality is like exercise without eating. These things go together. Spirituality makes sense as part of the rhythms of service and ministry and mission.
This is what the Gospel of Luke is trying to teach us when it tells us about the little prayer that Jesus taught his disciples that we have expanded into the Lord’s Prayer.
It is a model of the kind of prayer and spirituality that will sustain us when we are engaged in the ministries of mercy and justice to which Jesus calls us. It exists to serve the ministries of mercy and justice to which Jesus calls us, not for its own sake.
As we say it in different versions and paraphrases as part of our worship, let it guide each of us into a life of spiritual nourishment and centeredness that will sustain us as we seek to heal the diseases and cast out the demons of our time.