Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Lord, teach us to pray"

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading today includes some of the most well known verses in all of Sacred Scripture – well known, of course, because most of us learn them off by heart as children. I speak, of course, of what we call the 'Lord's Prayer' – so called because it was given to us by our Lord himself – or the 'Our Father' after the first two words; which is why it was known at the Pater Noster for so many centuries in the Western or Latin Church, those being the first two words of the prayer in Latin. We have two versions of this prayer: the longer and more familiar one in St Matthew; and the shorter one that we hear today from St Luke.

The riches and the beauty of this prayer are inexhaustible. You may recall that I preached a sermon series on it over the course of Advent a couple of years ago; and in ten sermons I think I barely scratched the surface of its wonders. But that is hardly surprising – great saints and Fathers of the Church have been exploring its wonders from the earliest days … Saint Cyprian of Carthage, for example, wrote a marvellous treatise on it in the third century … and this exploration on the part of the faithful continues to this day. So what might be said of it in the context of a single sermon, something that is of necessity quite brief? Well today, I think we might take three lessons from it, not directly from the prayer itself, but from the manner in which it is introduced by St Luke.

First, let us note what is happening before our Lord bestows this great gift upon his people. He is himself praying. One of his disciples approaches him. And he asks our Lord that he teach his followers to pray just as St John the Baptist taught his followers to pray. And our Lord begins by saying: 'When you pray … '

This brings us to the first of my three thoughts. The phrase 'when you pray' expresses an expectation of our Lord that his followers would pray. Of course he did; he uses the phrase 'when you pray' elsewhere in the gospels; he gives us his own example of prayer on many occasions to his disciples, who are called to be as Christ-like as possible in every way; the expectation that his followers would pray is in keeping with the many commandments to prayer in the Old Testament, whose continuing authority when it came to the moral law our Lord affirmed; and that this is the right interpretation of what our Lord intended to convey by his words, that those who follow him should be a people of prayer, is shown by the lives of his apostles and disciples in the generation after his Ascension and of all generations since. Prayer is an integral part of the Christian life.
And that it should be so is not simply because it is something that God asks of us – although, that in itself should be enough. No it is part of our nature that we should wish to pray. This brings me to my second point. Recall how it is the disciple who approaches our Lord and asks him that he teach those who follow him to pray. The man reaches out to the Messiah with this request, because it is only natural that we, created beings, should desire that we hold conversation with, in other words pray, the one who created us. We are his children; and the child, by his very nature, wishes to speak with his Father. And consider this also: we are created in his image and likeness; and the Son, once made made, prayed to the Father. Christ is the perfect man; and if he teaches us by his example of the necessity and goodness of prayer, then we ought to understand that prayer is something we need as much as the very air we breathe or the food we eat … things that were also given to us by our Father in heaven to sustain us during our sojourn on this earth.

Finally, note the manner in which the disciple asks the question of our Lord: teach us to pray as St John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. There is nothing wrong from seeking guidance on prayer from someone who is in spiritual authority over you; indeed, it is a good thing, demonstrating as it does the all important Christian virtue of humility. Accepting that there are things that we can learn from others – and that there are those that God has given greater gifts in certain areas – is a fundamental part of what it is to be a Christian. As St Paul taught, together we are the body of Christ; but God has given various gifts to various members for the good of all. Some are called to be apostles, others preachers, others teachers. This is a great gift to us from God; and it would be foolish indeed, not to say spiritually dangerous, to allow a proud spirit to cause us to reject what God has given us for our benefit – that is, to say, the salvation of our souls.

The salvation of souls is, of course, the first law of the Church. This is why our Lord taught his disciples to pray – that they might follow the path to their own salvation and be better equipped to help others along that path. The salvation of souls was the reason our Lord came into this world and why he was willing to suffer and die – so that we might be saved. Prayer is a powerful, and precious, and wonderful gift to us from God, given us that we might learn his laws, live them in our lives, and in the end attain the eternal life we we were created for. And today it is my prayer that you will not reject or neglect that gift … neither today, nor in the days that follow, persevering in prayer until the moment you draw your final breath. Amen

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