It has been said that the Lord’s Prayer begins controversially, because some are offended by addressing God as “Father”. We’ll come back to that in a moment, because I want to suggest that there’s far more offence caused by “our”.
In the Lord’s Prayer we’re taught to pray, not as individuals, but as the church. When we say “our,” it’s not because we are claiming God to be our property, as if anyone could do that, but because of the astounding recognition that God, the one who created the universe and ﬂung the planets into their courses, the great God of heaven and earth, has willed to become our God. Before we reached out to God, God reached out to us and claimed us, promised to be our God, promised to make us God’s people. So, we can say that God, is ours not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of what God in Jesus Christ has done, we are privileged to say, ”Our Father.”
“Our” reminds us that we have a relationship with our friends, as well as with God. By saying “our Father”, not “my Father”, we cannot claim we can be Christians in isolation – we need other Christians around us, and in Jesus we’re challenged to relate to God in a personal way. When I say personal, I don’t mean private. We’re all in this together. And we aren’t the first to do this. We are the current manifestation of a two thousand year inheritance, which none of us paid for, earned, and regardless of whether we feel we deserve it or not.
I think there’s great comfort here. It’s comforting to know that even though we don’t always feel firm or confident in our faith, though we may not always do or say what we think we should, much less believe what we think we should, our relationship as friend of God isn’t based on what we’ve felt, done, or believed. We’re a friend of God because God chose us in Jesus through the church. We can relax, safe in the knowledge that this whole thing between us and God was God’s idea before it was ours. The journey with God is not a test to see if we can make the grade with God and be good enough to be friends with God. The journey begins with God in Christ calling us friends, inviting us to go because God wants us to be part of the journey. Friendship with God is the name of the journey rather than its destination.
There may be religions that come to you through quiet walks in the woods, or by sitting quietly in the library with a book, or rummaging around in the recesses of your psyche. Christianity is not one of them. Christianity is inherently communal, a matter of life in the Body, the church. Jesus did not call isolated individuals to follow him. He called a group of disciples. Think how you began the journey of following Jesus. Is this something you thought of yourself? Was it revealed to you by staring up into the sun, or walking in a field of clover? No. We’re here because of friendship with other Christians. Someone told us the story. Someone lived this faith in such a way that we wanted to know more. This is why “our” is important, and why “our” is quite a challenge!
And “our” comes with “Father”. In calling God Father we are speaking first and foremost about Jesus’ relationship to God, not our own. That is to say, God is called Father because we’ve come to know Jesus as the Son, and Jesus called God Father. The important thing isn’t that these two terms are of the male gender, for Christians have always believed that God is greater than any human conceptions of gender. What is important is that these names attempt to describe the family relationship that is part of God’s own life. We can’t say “Father” without remembering the Son; we can never know the Father unless the Son reveals the Father to us.
When we pray, ”Our Father,” we aren’t merely declaring that God created us. We’re saying that, in Jesus Christ, God has shown us what God looks like in a person. Some people say they have difficulty believing in Jesus, but that they gladly believe in God on the basis of the evidence of God they see in nature, looking at a snowﬂake or a robin and moving to realise that there must be a Creator. When we pray, ”Our Father,” though, it’s deeper than acknowledging a divine creative force. Only because Jesus is the Son, do we know God as ”Our Father.” Our knowledge of God begins, not with long walks in the woods, pondering the beauty of snowflakes, or meditating upon the stars. Our knowledge of God begins in what has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ, and from our knowledge of God as Father, we can be moved to a new understanding of what is going on in in snowflakes, the woods, and the stars. The one who has been revealed to us by Jesus as “Our Father” is also Creator.
What I mean is that God is not some great basket we can fill with any warm fuzzy thoughts we choose, some amorphous something that is the mystery left over after we have explained everything else in life by other means. God has a face, a name, a way of action. We see that face in Jesus, through whom we know God. If Jesus had not made us friends, we wouldn’t have known God; we wouldn’t have been in relationship with God. So we can call God, Abba, Father; not as a literal description, but a metaphor to refer to our relationship to God, a relationship that can also be explored with other metaphors like “mother” or “friend.”
We don’t call God “Father” because we have had certain positive experiences with our biological fathers and therefore project those experiences upon God. Rather, all human fathers are measured, judged, and fall short on the basis of our experiences of God as Father. When we pray to God as “Our Father”, we’re actually challenging the status quo of human relationships, just as calling the church our family challenges the limitations of the human family. So when we pray, ”Our Father,” we’re suggesting that our first family is is not our biological family, but those with whom we pray, “Our Father.”
Praying “Our Father”, then, teaches us to look beyond our families and see our home in God’s family, a family that has been evoked from all families, nations, races, and cultures, and which we call the church. That’s why we gather in church with folk who ought, by the world’s standards, to be perfect strangers, and yet we are all part of God’s family the body of Christ.
This why Jesus quite naturally wants to make us friends, for that is the way God is. God is a relationship, a constant reminder to us that the whole world is being moved toward friendship, relationship, that nothing, no beetle or bullfinch, no believer or nonbeliever exists in isolation from God. The God who created us is the God who came to us as Jesus of Nazareth.
We may not always, may not often, feel that we can know God, or begin to know how to pray to God, but those two words “Our Father” remind us that God has searched us and known us, God has helped us in our weakness, and that we are God’s friends, part of God’s family. So when we pray ‘our’, we’re asking God to help us to ensure that our life and our faith have room for others and their needs. When we pray ‘Father’, we’re asking God to help us to demonstrate this relationship to God in our daily life.
I’m going to lead into our time of silence, with a reflection:
Mother us, our Father,
that we may step unbowed
from safe within your haven
to face a hostile crowd.
Mother us, our Father,
and help to ease the pain
of taunts and tears and teasing
and make us love again.
Mother us, our Father,
with hands so deeply scarred,
that we may touch some other
whose suffering is hard.
Mother us, our Father,
that all our life be styled
on loving like a mother
and trusting like a child.