Unified in Prayer

The Gospel this week (Luke 11:1-13) gives us the very familiar account of Jesus teaching us to pray the Lord’s Prayer (or the Our Father as we Catholics name it). I’m ashamed to say that there have been times in my life when I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer and thought: this again? Often I don’t even think about what I’m saying, I just go into saying it by rote. More than once, I have said, “You know, this prayer is kind of boring.” And I have heard those words from friends and parishioners too. After so many times of saying it, the prayer can feel a bit lot a hot Sunday summer afternoon, when listlessness and ennui are the order of the day.

Yet this week’s lectionary helps us reflect on the centrality of the Lord’s Prayer for our life in Christ, as well as our whole life together.

The week’s Epistle reading (Colossians 2:6-19) is Paul’s meditation on what it means to have a life in Christ via baptism. First, this new life in Christ shall mean death, and Paul describes some of the things that die because we have become members of Christ’s body. In verse 13, Christ makes us alive in the death we experience through baptism by forgiving us our trespasses. This is reminiscient of several versions of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In this letter of Paul’s, we could read that forgiveness of trespasses as being entirely personal, something between each one of us alone and God.

Yet Paul does not let us rest there. He goes on to name how forgiving trespasses affects Christians. Paul contrasts God’s life to the non-Christian Roman rule, saying that God erases “the legal record that stood against us,” (verse 14) and also “disarms the rulers and authorities,” making a public example of them (verse 15). This is quite political, as Paul makes statements about the authority of Christ over against the authority of the state. Our ruler, Jesus, brings about a true peace through death on the cross in which we share, instead of the false peace of the Roman empire of the day. Our prayer life is meant to enable us to witness to the world, including political authorities. It also sustains us in this life in Christ, which Paul will describe later in chapter 3: a full life of compassion, kindness, love, rich worship, and more.

Paul’s words remind us today that Christ unifies us even when our country’s political divisions threaten to divide us. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer that we all pray, regardless of our particular Christian communion, names our unity. It names this unity more than baptism or Eucharist. Perhaps it is only a small thread of unity – but it is nonetheless there, and we might take these often-cited words as a sign of hope in a world that needs some.

Both Old Testament readings for this week (either Genesis 18:20-32 for Roman Catholics or Hosea 1:2-10) begin with an image of a people who have trespassed against God and neighbor, and a God who is angry. Yet the message is not about a God who is angry, but a God who seeks reconciliation and justice.

The Genesis passage shows Abraham negotiating with God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Suppose there are fifty righteous?” Abraham asks God, as God prepares to sweep away the entirety of both cities. God proclaims he will forgive the whole city for the sake of the 50. Like the persistent friend knocking at the door in today’s Gospel, Abraham keeps negotiating down, on behalf of all these people in Sodom and Gomorrah. “Ask and it will be given to you;” what Abraham seeks is mercy even for people who have sinned against God. So through prayer, Abraham enacts justice.

In Hosea, God uses Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute as a way of naming God’s own relationship with the people – that is, they are not God’s people. Yet by the end of the passage, God proclaims that the people will be children of the living God. We fail to be the community of unity and peace that God desires but yet the scriptures constantly remind us: God has hope for us. We are children of the living God. So again, the Lord’s Prayer invites us to see hope, especially if we are tempted to see none.

Think about this for a minute: the Lord of Life, Son of God, teaches us to pray. He offers words that can (and have been) translated down through the centuries, to generations of Christians in all the places of the world. In doing so, God gives us a means of hope, and a means of unity. I want to close this reflection by noting that because of God’s gift of this prayer, the sameness and roteness can also be a blessing. When I was a hospital chaplain, I used to lead a short Bible study with patients in the nursing home connected to the hospital. Many of them had dementia, but the Lord’s Prayer was their way back home, back to recollection and community and peace, at least for a small moment. May we, too, enjoy such moments in our life together.

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