Our Father

Continuing to look at the Lord’s Prayer, I want to focus on the opening lines (Matt. 6:9). All passages are from the NLT.

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Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.

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The form of address is beautiful – at once acknowledging God as Lord of heaven and Earth, and yet also personal and loving. There is both an intimacy and a majesty to this address: Jesus calls God his father, and speaks to him boldly as a child is entitled to. At the same time, Jesus declares that God is holy, that He is awesome and worthy of worship and praise.

The Lord’s prayer starts by reaffirming that we have a relationship with God, and it is by the right of this relationship that we approach the Lord of all creation. We declare that God is holy, and affirm our commitment to Him. We show this commitment, as His children, by trying in turn to be holy.

Both parts, I think, must be seen in conjunction: We recognise that God is holy; we recognise also that we are His children. We respond to that by learning from our Father and striving to live in holiness. In Peter’s first letter he expands this theme:

So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy.  For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:14-16)

There are other implications that are worth considering. If we all call God our father, we are all equally His children. We must love and honour also our sisters and brothers in Christ. Peter continues a few verses later:

You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart. (1 Pet 1:23)

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Forgive us our sins

Following on from the post about daily bread, I want to look at another line in the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:12 says this (all passages from the NLT):

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and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

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In Matthew 6: 14-15, following immediately from the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns us:

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

This is not saying that God’s forgiveness is contingent on our forgiveness of others: rather to accept His forgiveness we must first acknowledge our own need for it, and that we hold that need for forgiveness in common with all people. God does not forgive us because we forgive others: He offers forgiveness to all of us. But accepting His forgiveness requires that acknowledgement. In the Gospel of Mark we see this message reinforced (Mark 11:25):

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.”

God’s forgiveness of us is not the reward for our forgiveness of each other, but to accept His forgiveness our hearts must be open to it.

Paul takes up this theme of “forgive because you were first forgiven” in his letter to the Ephesians, where he writes (Eph 4:32):

Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.

The emphasis is on the forgiveness that we should extend to others as a response to what Christ has already extended to us. Similarly, writing to the church in Colossae, Paul says (Col 3:13):

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.

Note how these passages turns our human perspective of justice on its head. We are not told to forgive others so that God will forgive us, we are rather told that God has already forgiven us. We have done nothing and can do nothing to deserve God’s forgiveness, but he offers it before we can even ask. Our response must be to forgive others – not because they deserve it, but because God has shown us greater mercy and forgiveness.

This is intensely humbling. In the midst of our feelings of anger and indignation at wrongs done to us, we are reminded that we have all equally fallen short of God’s standards. We are reminded of how far He was willing to go to forgive us and seek reconciliation, even though it meant sending His only son to his death.

Expanding on this theme, Jesus told a parable which is recorded a few chapters later in Matthew 18:21-35:

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened.  Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

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Daily bread

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Recently I attended a session where we looked into the Lord’s Prayer in greater depth. We broke into groups and each looked at only one or two lines, reflected on those lines, and then shared our reflections with the others. We looked at the fifth line, quoted here from Matthew 6:11 :-

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Give us today our daily bread

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It’s a straightforward enough line, but it carries extraordinary depth. Firstly, it is an acknowledgment that our provisions and sustenance comes from God: we don’t actually make our own bread. We don’t even make the money to buy bread by ourselves. As the line from the traditional order of service puts it, “All things come from Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee.” Every breath and every talent we have are gifts from God.

There were two other verses which were suggested in connection with this one. The first is from Proverbs 30:8-9 :-

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD ?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

I love the emphasis on sufficiency here. Provide for my needs, but not for all my earthly desires. Give me the right amount so that I can remain focussed on you – neither too much, that I become enslaved to prosperity, nor too little, that I am too concerned with my own hunger and material provisions. In either extreme, our hearts will be drawn away from God and into improper living. Yes, God is aware of our material needs as inhabitants of this physical realm, but the wisdom of the writer is in asking that he not be distracted by the physical realm so much that he ignores the spiritual.

The second passage then shifts our perspective again. This one is from John 6:32-35 :-

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.

Not only is Jesus reinforcing the message that all blessings and provisioning comes from God, he is also explaining that true fulfillment can never be found in satisfying only the needs of our bodies. Infinitely greater is the fulfillment of a relationship with Jesus, and true satisfaction will only be found there. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”

We have both body and soul – we are neither angels nor animals. Our bodies need care and nourishment, and so do our souls – but our souls are eternal, and we need to be careful that we give them the bread they need.

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