The Lord’s Prayer (LP) is the most familiar, most recited, and most studied text of Scripture. Patristic theologian Tertullian referred to the LP as “a brief summary of the whole gospel” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued that “All the prayers of the Holy Scriptures are summed up in the LP and are taken up into its immeasurable breadth.” St. Ambrose likened it to the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:46).
A Missional Reading
Given its clear importance – not least because it was given by Jesus (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-2) – we will offer a missional reading of the different lines of this short prayer (from Matthew 6:9-13). In particular, we will consider these kinds of questions: what does it tell us about the heart of God, the redemptive mission of God, and how believers are invited along and caught up into this mission? Today we begin with the first four words: “Our Father in heaven” (technically this takes up six words in Greek, but let’s nice get distracted!).
To tell you the truth, when I was younger it was these first words that brought anxiety to my use of the LP – Father in heaven sounded too cold, authoritarian, and distant. As if he is the CEO in the boardroom and I, his child, barge in to ask for something. Or I might be better off never bothering him; after all, I am sure heaven is a busy place and he has a lot to do.
Moving Past Assumptions
As I have begun to study this text in depth for a class, though, especially in the context of the Jesus-story in Matthew, it is clear that I projected my own paternal assumptions onto the LP and I did not start with the most basic point in the Gospels – we can call God “our Father” because we have been graciously and joyfully invited into a close kinship relation with Him through Jesus Christ (Matthew 12:50). 5TH century bishop Peter Chysologus notes that we are called to address God as Father and not King “For He who has changed from a judge into a Father [in baptism and in spiritual communion] has wished to be loved, not feared.”I projected my own paternal assumptions onto the Lord's Prayer. Click To Tweet
Calling God “Father” means that we are “son” (that is, we enter into the privileges of the unique, only-begotten “Son” Jesus, which makes us “daughter-Son” or “son-Son”). Thus, we must remember that, in the ancient world, children were expected to resemble their parents in character and mission. No wonder Jesus calls upon his disciples to be “perfect” (i.e., mature) as the heavenly Father is “perfect” (i.e., mature).
To call God our Father is to remember that we are adopted into his family through Jesus Christ, and that we are called to take up, as first priority, the concerns and mission of the Father. All of our other concerns take a secondary place, simply because the responsibility of the child is to participate in the work of the family (Matthew 6:33).To call God Father is to remember we're adopted & are called to take up the Father's mission. Click To Tweet
Why did Jesus add “in heaven”? Is that simply the direction we pray – up? Is God far, far, and away in the clouds, and our prayers strain to reach him? May it not be! After all, Jesus emphasizes that we need not go on and on about our needs, because He knows them already (Matt 6:8). And he knows them because he is always with us and attentive to us (see Acts 17:27).
We pray to the Father in heaven probably for two reasons – firstly, heaven is the seat of power. We have a connection to the very top, and we can stand assured that nothing is beyond Him. We can barge into that boardroom because he has asked us to (Heb 4:16). I think, though, a key second point is that heaven is not corrupted by sin. To think of the Father in heaven, we aren’t meant to think of a world of puffy clouds and flying angels. As the LP says, “Thy will be done on earth as in heaven”- we are reminded that heaven is the kind of place of which the earth was always meant to be the mirror image.
When we get down in the dumps about failed ministries and the ugliness of sin all around, we can turn to the Father in heaven to ask for the perspective from His seat – help us to see beyond our limited perspective – give us your eyes, O Father.When we're down in the dumps, we can turn to the Father in heaven to ask for the perspective. Click To Tweet
Another name for the LP is the “Our Father” or the Pater Noster. This is not simply a convenience (coming from the first words in English or Latin), but it reminds us that we, the Church, are a family of ministry and redemptive mission. We are not alone. We pray for a transformed world to God, and, more particularly, to our Father in heaven. We are not impositions in this family; we are invited by grace, by Jesus his beloved Son.