The Prayer of Jesus is more commonly called the Our Father or The Lord’s Prayer. It may be the most well known and oft repeated collection of words in the history of human culture. That alone would give it an importance unsurpassed by any other poem, sermon, essay, parable, story, or epigram known to humanity.
In addition, Jesus himself gave this Prayer to his first disciples and directed that they use it as a pattern for prayer; and those first Christian did exactly that. From those earliest days until today, the Prayer has been a central element in both the public and private worship of Christian people.
But the Prayer is not a distinctively Christian prayer. Jesus himself was a Jew and the prayer expresses core elements of Jewish theology and piety. There are no distinctively Christian elements to the Prayer: no reference to incarnation, resurrection, salvation, or the church—not even the familiar endings so common in Christian prayers: in Jesus name, or in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This Prayer is a gift to the whole human community, not just the Christian community. The desires and petitions expressed in this Prayer are universal: awe, surrender, petition, forgiveness and reconciliation, temptation and evil, and praise. The very first word reinforces the idea that this Prayer is for everyone, not just to those first disciples, not just to those who claim the name of Jesus, but to all people, everywhere, at all times.
Isn’t this the implication of the opening phrase, Our father in heaven ….? Who is included in this word our? Better, who is excluded? The answers, I suggest, are: everyone is included, and no one is excluded. When we pray this Prayer, we pray for everyone and with everyone, not just for ourselves, not just with Christians. We are interceding on behalf of people here, there and everywhere; as Jesus himself prayed for us, we pray for others.
When we pray this Prayer, we worship God in a spirit of mystery and wonder. We surrender ourselves to the purposes of God in the world. We express our trust in God to make provision for our needs and also for the needs of others, for those who have less and need more than we do. We extend forgiveness to others and seek forgiveness from others in our desire to overcome the pervasive alienation and loneliness throughout the human community. We seek God’s help to resist evil in its many forms, from our personal struggles to do the right thing to the powerful structures of wickedness that exert so much control over human affairs. Finally, as we pray, we embrace God’s ultimate future over other powers that also exist in the world, powers that seek to demean, to demonize, and to destroy what God has created and called good.
That is a summary of the Prayer.
But the Prayer of Jesus is not just a pattern for praying; it is also an excellent confession of what Christians believe. We believe in the reality of God and God’s purposes in creation and history, especially as it encompasses the care of humanity, the need for reconciliation, the resistance to evil, and the ultimate triumph of God in creating a community of life, justice, beauty, peace, and freedom.
But there is more: beyond praying and confession, there is living; and this Prayer of Jesus outlines the core practices of both the Christian community and the wider human community: humility amidst the mystery of all things, surrender to the purposes of God, care for the needs of all people, forgiveness in the face of cruelty and wickedness; resistance to all evil; and praise and adoration of the God of all creation.
Isn’t this the way we are called to live, in the name and spirit of Jesus the Risen Lord?
No wonder this brief guide to praying, confessing, and living made its way quickly to the center of Christian worship and life. By the end of the first century, this Prayer was firmly established in the daily and weekly worship routines of those who claimed Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Today, the Prayer is one of the centripetal elements of Christianity, pulling us together into a global community of praying, confessing, and practicing believers. Along with the Bible as the Word of God and the Good Confession of Jesus is Lord, the Prayer can be found everywhere, at all times, among all people who gather in the name and spirit of Jesus.
I recall so clearly my first visit to the worship of Orthodox believers; it was at the St. Andrew Antiochene Orthodox Church in Lexington, Kentucky, not far from where we lived. I did not know what to expect; and throughout the service of worship I had little sense of what was being done or said. The choir sang in their traditional acapella style; the ministers led in readings and prayers and later processed the communion elements around the sanctuary. It was all new to me, but then, in the midst of a series of what I took to be prayers, I heard something I knew and loved. Not the words, for the language was foreign; but the rhythm—it was so very familiar. It was, of course, the cadence of the Prayer of Jesus. I did not understand what was being said, but I knew what was being prayed. Suddenly, I felt at home, at ease, at one with these believers who dressed, spoke, sang, and paraded in ways no strange to me.
It was the Prayer of Jesus that pulled us together.
These, then, are the themes I will assert, elucidate, and affirm throughout these meditations on the Prayer of Jesus. To my knowledge, nothing I will write is original with me it made its way into my imagination and mind through ways I have long forgotten. May it be a blessing to you as together we consecrate ourselves to pray, confess, and follow Jesus as Lord.
Next time with The Prayer: Is the Prayer really the most widely known collection of words in human history? Really?