DIOCESE OF DURHAM ORDINATION RETREAT 2015
THE LORD’S PRAYER
THE LORD’S PRAYER
These seven addresses on the Lord’s Prayer and the two ordination sermons that follow are dedicated to the deacon and priest candidates with whom I shared an ordination retreat at Minsteracres in the summer of 2015.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name
Prayer begins and ends where all of life begins and ends, with God. ‘Our Father in heaven’ is not a formality. It is our recognition that we are wholly dependent on God and it is our duty and our joy to offer him our worship. Everything we have and do and are come from the source of life himself, the Eternal God to whom belong the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever. We know this of course, but by teaching us to pray like this, Jesus sets it in our hearts and wills, as well as in our minds.
In one way, the Lord's Prayer is typical of the kind of prayer a Jewish person of Jesus's day would have learned from childhood. ‘Heaven’ of course is not meant to refer to a place, but to the majesty of God and his sovereign rule over all things, a theme that runs all the way through this prayer. It puts us in our place at the very outset. He is God and we are not-God. We are his creatures. He holds sway over us. We owe him our loyalty, our allegiance. We are subject to his rule.
But in the Lord's Prayer, this implied distance between sovereign and subject is given a wholly new twist. We might expect it to be addressed in the Jewish way to El Shaddai the exalted One, or to Adonai, the Lord, or to Elohim, God. Yet Jesus teaches his disciples to pray to his Father, their Father, to address him in the very same way that he does. That makes the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer the most precious text in the New Testament. The memory of Jesus preserved so lovingly in the scriptures is that he called God Abba, the name by which a little child would talk to Daddy. Jesus teaches us that prayer not only can be but is as personal and as intimate as that. And if our prayers are only limited to the courtesies of public liturgy, we have not begun to take to heart the first lesson the Lord’s Prayer teaches us. Our personal prayer may not always be elegant. We may be hesitant and uncertain, blurting and stammering. We may not want to trust to words at all. Whether we speak or are silent, all that matters is that our prayer is responding to a Father's love. It belongs to a relationship.
This is the clue to understanding the first petition, Hallowed be your name. ‘Hallowing’ means recognising that something or someone is holy, and holiness in turn means setting apart for a sacred purpose. In a sense, we can speak of every intimate relationship as holy because there is always something sacred about the names of the people we love: recognising our duty to those we should honour is what the old word ‘piety’ means. So while the longing that God's name should be hallowed is a petition for the whole of creation (as the prayer goes on to say), its closeness to Abba suggests to me that here, Hallowing begins in our own hearts, in the inner room, the private place where in St Matthew Jesus commands us to pray this prayer.
In praying this way, we touch the very core of Christian identity. What is faith if it isn’t to acknowledge that God is holy? What is baptism if it isn’t initiation into the community of people who are subjects of the Holy One? And what is ministry if it isn’t publicly to bear witness to the character of God and to proclaim that his name is to be hallowed in heaven and earth? In particular, the deacon, priest and bishop are public signs, ‘walking sacraments’ as Austin Farrer once put it, of the reality of God in the world; and if signs of his love, his mercy and his truth, then of his holiness above all.
You may not have thought about ordination in quite this way before, though a moment’s reflection will make it seem obvious. And there are I think two immediate consequences for all of us who called to ministry in God’s church.
The first is to do with the priorities we set ourselves in ministry, or perhaps I ought to say, are set for us. When you are licensed to any office in the church, the Bishop says to you: ‘receive this ministry, or this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine’. I am always struck by that phrase ‘yours and mine’, a beautiful image of a true and profound participation in holy things. But I also think of it as something God himself is saying to a new minister, and has said to me several times in my life. ‘Both yours and mine’ – and mine before it is yours, for this is my ministry, my mission, my quest to establish my name in the world and invite humanity to return to me, gather up people to eat and drink at the banquet of my kingdom. This is God’s ministry that we are about in ordination, and that it is an immense strength and comfort to know that. And to play a part of God’s mission to establish his name in all the earth.
In the Hebrew Bible, there is a great deal of emphasis on this. In the enthronement Psalms, for instance, God is celebrated as the exalted Sovereign. Psalm 99 seems to underlie this first petition in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘The Lord is king, let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim: let the earth quake! Let the peoples praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!’ That refrain ‘holy is he!’ is typical of the ecstatic shouts of a people who are acclaiming their Lord and King. And in the laments like Psalm 79, the psalmist cries to Yahweh to deliver his people from their suffering and bring to an end the sacrilegious blasphemy of the foe which is to violate the holiness of his name. ‘How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.’
This is why, worship is fundamental to all every aspect of our ministry. Of course we recognise that it is at the heart of our personal Christian living, and I shall come back to that. Here, it’s the public worship of the church I am thinking about, the ‘liturgy’ which, in Greek, literally means our dutiful service, that which we are obligated to perform. In the liturgy, the church publicly identifies itself with this God whose name, in every service we lead, we proclaim as ‘hallowed’. Day after day and year after year, in the eucharist, in the offices of morning and evening prayer, at baptism, wedding and funeral, in blessing and lament, in the largest public arena and in the most intimate community where two or three are gathered together, this is the prayer we make: ‘hallowed be your name’. It is a pretty emphatic acknowledgment to make, if you think about it. And this is what we clergy are about.
I believe it is important to see the liturgy as doing something more than offering our praise and adoration to God for its own sake (and I don’t argue that this is the primary motive of all). The effect of public worship ought also to be that we ‘bear witness’ to a reality that many people deny and many more question. Bearing witness is not simply a matter of responding to those who ask a reason for the hope that is within us, as St Peter puts it. It is also – and especially – a feature of the common life of Christians as together we give to God the honour that he is due. You would be surprised how many conversations about faith follow cathedral services, even – no, maybe especially - choral evensong. Never underestimate the importance of what you are doing when you prepare and lead public worship. You are doing nothing less than bearing witness to the first commandment of the Ten, which is to have no other gods before our God; and the first of the Two, which is to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. All this is enfolded in this first and fundamental petition, ‘hallowed be your name’.
I have sometimes found this a comforting thought, to go with this ministry being ‘mine and yours’. We can’t be in any doubt about how little God’s name is hallowed in vast areas of ordinary life. I doubt if this is just an aspect of our secular society. Even a superficial reading of the Bible underlines the reality that in the world around us, people sit loose to God’s name, or if they invoke it, it is likely to be in a thoughtless, or worse still, offensive and sacrilegious way.
You don’t need me to remind you of the atrocious evil being perpetrated in the name of religion by Islamic jihadists. Islam worships the same God as Christians and Jews. Allahu akbar! they scream as they kill and maim and as often as not destroy themselves in the process. The three Abrahamic faiths are a close monotheistic family all acknowledging the one true God. Its holy book repeatedly calls Allah (the same word as the Hebrew Elohim, God to whom Jesus prayed as Father) ‘the Compassionate and Merciful’. It is in his name that crazy believers gun down sunbathers on the beach and blow up fellow worshippers at prayer. The task of good religion is to rescue and reclaim God’s name and God’s honour from this awfulness and re-hallow it. I don’t know if in modern western societies, leaders have the theological intelligence to understand what is really happening in this clash of civilisations that has religion at its core. They do not know where to turn. All the more important that we in public ministry help our society make sense of it so that our responses are driven not by panic, still less by vengefulness, but by wisdom. Upholding good religion is an aspect of ‘hallowed be thy name’.
How do we know when religion is good or bad? Wilfred Owen plays with this idea in one of his war poems, ‘The Last Laugh’.
‘O Jesus Christ! I’m hit,’ he said, and died.
Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed,
The bullets chirped – In vain, vain, vain!
Machine-guns chuckled – Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
And the Big Gun guffawed.
The guns have the last laugh, along with bayonets, shells and hissing gas. Owen leaves open the question whether death is drawing out of the soldier a crude blasphemy or a prayer of desperation, a version of Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I dare say we have all sometimes mistaken blasphemy for prayer, or prayer for blasphemy and sometimes it calls for a deep discernment to recognise what is going on in the lives of others. Nevertheless, it distresses us – or it ought to - when we hear the hallowed name of the Eternal One disparaged, and watch others’ behaviours and actions have the same corroding effect, even if God’s name is never mentioned. Public ministry is witness to what it is that makes God God. We are implicated in his holiness. We defend it wherever we are, and at all costs.
This brings me to a second point. It’s obvious, really. If we are implicated in declaring and championing the holiness of God’s name, then it is not only the behaviours and actions of other people who are under scrutiny, but our own. If the hallowing of God’s name in the world is the business we are about, then the hallowing of our own lives is the first call on us as Christians. ‘Be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.’ We as priests or deacons are called to live out our discipleship in ways that are highly visible and open for public examination. It is a bit disconcerting to begin to realise this on day one after your ordination when you catch sight of your clerical collar reflected in a shop-window (not that you were stopping to look, of course). You can’t ever say: my personal life is my business, and mine alone. Politicians, school teachers, bankers and business leaders know that public and personal interact all the time, and this is true of those who lead the church too. Personal life either confirms the things we pray and say and do as ministers, or it subverts them. What we are is as much the content of the sermon as what we preach.
What it means to hallow God’s name in personal living is something only we can work out for ourselves. Believe me, it is a lifetime’s work and it is never completed. But there is one thing I want to say. You remember the wartime strap line ‘Careless talk costs lives’. I think this is true of the ways in which we speak as clergy. I’m afraid I find it hard to listen to priests who swear by God’s name a score of times each day, who think that it is not only appropriate to invoke Jesus Christ as a way of reinforcing some outburst or exclamation but even take a pride in it. ‘Let your yes be yes, and your no be no’ says Jesus. Say what you mean and do not go beyond it. Don’t leave it open to be misconstrued, as Owen’s soldier does. Of course, our discourse should be plain and concrete all the time. It is something we should covet, the ability to speak directly and in a way that our hearers can connect with. This is an aspect of how Jesus was remembered; maybe it is what the texts mean when they say he ‘spoke with authority’. Please don’t invoke the divine name unless you mean it and are prepared to follow through the consequences. Remember the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain.
The setting of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew bears directly on this. Jesus introduces it as the counter-example of how not to pray. ‘Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.’ It isn’t that empty phrases don’t sound deeply pious. It’s simply that they don’t come from the right place. This is a stark warning for all religious people. ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So what is that right place for Jesus? He says: ‘Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.’ In other words, what we say and do publicly must act out what we say and do privately. That secret room is a metaphor of the heart. It is there that we call upon the name of the Lord, or not at all. I shall say a bit more about this in my ordination sermon to the priests.
I needed to give this aspect of my personal life a good deal of attention in the different places I have been called to minister in. Daily prayer is at the centre of all that we do in ministry. I’ll say more about the daily office itself later on, but this is the place to underline the basic point that if we are not hallowing God’s name each day for ourselves through the habit of prayer, we can hardly expect to play our part in hallowing it anywhere else. Consistency between our public and private worlds is a big part of every leadership role, and ministry in the church is no different. I had always struggled with the evangelical daily ‘quiet time’. Reading my Bible with my Scripture Union notes wasn’t the hard part. It was getting down to prayer. If only I had known that help was at hand! Some basic structure with given words to get me launched would have been a godsend. No-one ever suggested that the Lord’s Prayer might be at the heart of it. If only I had known Michael Ramsey’s famous saying about the times we don’t feel motivated to pray. ‘If you don’t want to pray, then you can at least want to want to. And one more regret: if only I had known how most other people find it hard too, and that we can support one another in a great fellowship of broken people struggling to find the words that will do justice to Jesus’ invitation to pray, and to love and hallow God’s name in our lives.
What we need to remind ourselves is that ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’, and speaking ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ is our life’s business as deacons, priests and bishops. It is the greatest privilege there is, to be set aside through ordination publicly to hallow God’s name before the world. It is also a very great joy, as I can testify after forty years. My prayer for all of you is that as you look back across the decades God spares you for this ministry, you can say the same. To know that we are hallowing God’s name and thereby bearing witness to the coming of his kingdom and the performance of his will is all the reward we should look for, because it is all the reward that we need.
Your kingdom come.
What is the Lord’s Prayer fundamentally about? It could be any of the themes in the first three petitions: the hallowing of God’s name, the doing of his will, the coming of his kingdom. In Hebrew poetry, there is a device called parallelism: you repeat the same idea in different words to underline a single point, and this is what I think is happening here. These petitions all mean the same thing, which is that God should be God in the world, in the community of faith and in our own lives. It can seem artificial to separate out these clauses too rigidly.
And yet, the fact that some ancient texts of Matthew include the familiar doxology ‘for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours now and forever’ tells us that in the form in which the earliest Christian churches prayed it, the Lord’s Prayer was seen as focusing on the kingdom. That concluding phrase ‘the kingdom, the power and the glory’ is what literary people call a hendiadys where nouns are piled up to perform the function of adjectives. ‘The way, the truth and the life’ should really be translated ‘the true and living way’ because it answers the question Thomas asks of Jesus, ‘how can we know the way?’ So the Lord’s Prayer should really be, ‘the holy and glorious kingdom’. This is what the prayer ascribes to God. As we saw in the last address, to bear witness to this is at the heart of our Christian living and our ministry.
So when we pray, your kingdom come, what is it that we are longing for? Or more specifically, because I believe we need to start there, what did Jesus himself mean by teaching us to pray in this way? That’s a question that has exercised New Testament scholars for the last century and a half. It is so simple to ask, and so hard to give an answer. On the eve of your ordination, I doubt that you want to be unduly troubled by the debates that have raged about what Jesus means by the ‘kingdom of heaven’ in St Matthew or the ‘kingdom of God’ in Mark and Luke. So let me confine myself sharing with you what I personally mean as I pray this prayer myself, and how it can enrich our prayer as ministers.
Jesus says at the outset of St Mark’s Gospel, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel.’ It’s a ringing declaration that must have electrified those who first heard him preach. In it, I hear Jesus announcing the end of days. The order of time has run its course. What Israel has looked forward to for centuries is now imminent. God’s rule is arriving, and soon will come the consummation of all things. In the apocalyptic milieu of first century Judah, we cannot doubt that this breaking-in of God’s world order was the hope and expectation by which those loyal to the covenant breathed and lived. It would be the catastrophic end of history. It would establish righteousness and peace: at last the world would be divine ordered as was God’s purpose in creation. I believe that Jesus and his first followers fully embraced this understanding. You can’t read the earliest New Testament letters or the first three gospels and those sayings about an imminent, catastrophic event that would take humanity by surprise in any other way. So while we shouldn’t assume that Matthew and Luke hold precisely the same understanding of the kingdom as Mark, they come out of the same future-orientated world. The kingdom is nearly here. That’s the great hope Jesus has come to set before us.
You realise that I am not speaking about anything we humans can achieve by ourselves. The kingdom of God is his act, not ours. The scriptures could not be clearer about this. Once grasp that truth and you’ll never again talk about building or extending God’s kingdom, or even growing it. Reflect on the personal pronouns. ‘Your kingdom come’; ‘yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory.’ The prayer recognises this fundamental truth about the kingdom that it is God’s work.. What is more, the verb in the Greek ‘come’ is in the aorist imperative. That means not ‘keep on coming’ but ‘come once for all’, in a decisive and world-changing way. We English have got into the habit of somehow thinking we can do it all ourselves. You would have thought that St Paul would have seen off that heresy in his Letter to the Romans, but it’s still alive and well in our churches. I’m enough of an Augustinian to protest that we must always let God be God, and work his sovereign will. If you want to meditate on a hymn that beautifully encapsulates Anglican Augustinianism, go to the 18th century evangelical William Cowper. He was what his biographer called a ‘stricken deer’, prone to deep depressions, despair, loss of faith. Yet he could rise above it and write like this:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
A hymn richer in theology it’s hard to find. I’ve often gone back to it when times have been hard. I especially recall a period in my first incumbency in the 1980s when I seemed to be overtaken by a sense of hopelessness. It came and went for over a year. As I look back I see how your first incumbency, your first post of sole responsibility, is a very testing time. Suddenly you are under everyone’s scrutiny, not just in church but in the parish – at least, if you are vicar of a market town in the far north of England. Everything you learned in your initial training, including your curacy, is tried and tested as never before. For all I know, I was suffering from some post-viral affliction. My own Pelagian instinct to get over it myself stopped me having it diagnosed as either an organic or a mental health problem. I don’t know to this day.
But I do know what kept me going. First, the support of a wonderful family who were as baffled as I by what was happening, but our love was never at risk. You will all find personal support in your intimate relationships which I urge you to cherish and nurture, especially in the early days of public ministry when we can be so intoxicated by the privilege of what we are doing that we may miss what is happening in the foreground of our lives. Second, the habit of saying the daily office with my colleagues was an anchor I shall always be grateful for. More on that later. But paradoxically, the third thing was a profound sense that while I it was hard to glimpse light and joy during this dark passage, I never lost the sense that God was there not only at the end of the ordeal, but during it. I clung on to hope like the drowning man and the straw. I believe it kept me safe because I was able to cry out, Your kingdom come! And mean it like I had never meant it before. Believe me, darkness is the best cure for Pelagian do-it-yourself-religion!
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Cowper doesn’t mention the Lord’s Prayer but his hymn echoes its very heart. It affirms that we live and move and have our being as subjects of a divine king who, though hidden from us at times, nevertheless can be trusted to deliver his promises and bring in his kingdom in his time and as he wills.
It’s been said that the Lord’s Prayer makes us stand at the end of the world and pray from that vantage point. So my first insight into praying the Lord’s Prayer is that it keeps hope alive. It directly addresses the longings and hungers of a weary world, and our own desires for God to complete his work and come among us in all his fullness. I want to pause at this point because it needs underlining. Where do we believe the church has most to give to our society at this point in our history? What is it that human beings long for, that we all crave in our deepest selves more than anything else? I think the answer is hope.
We all agree, I’m sure, that hope is in short supply at present. Perhaps it has been at a low ebb for a more than a few decades, and maybe in the west ever since the Great War shattered for ever the Darwinian illusion that societies and nations would inevitably evolve from primordial infancy into fully-fledged adulthood with all the benefits that technology would bring. There is a kind of despair around that our politicians and leaders are not willing to name, but which seems to have grasped hold of us as if to say: our world is broken beyond repair. We are not capable any more of making lasting inroads into climate change, or global terrorism, or our precarious economic systems, or world poverty, or human cruelty and abuse that seem ever more pervasive. The most we can do is to mitigate their effects and whisper to ourselves, après moi le deluge.
Well, I have news for you. The church is not about mitigation. It proclaims a gospel of transformation, the renewal of the whole of creation and within it, our own human life both in society and as individual men and women. This is a dimension of the kingdom of God, and it is what we ask for when we pray ‘your kingdom come’. And we need to keep that end in view. God is as interested in means as in ends, of course, but when we pray for the coming of the kingdom, the first thing we are doing is to raise our sights to what belongs to our ultimate hope. It is this great horizon that keeps hope alive. We preach each Advent about the last things, but perhaps we are not so good at sustaining that proclamation throughout the year. Yet it is Advent that sets the tone of the entire Christian year by requiring us to pay heed to hope and rekindle it anew. In a despairing world, it is what we need to bear witness to and what we long to hear. I am urging you to make hope a central theme in your ministry and be what Napoleon said in a beautiful phrase every leader should be, a ‘dealer in hope’.
Now, I expect you are wondering when I am going to speak about the kingdom as a present reality as opposed to simply a future expectation. And there is an important truth here. As he bursts into Galilee and announces that the time is fulfilled, Jesus seems to be saying that the inauguration of a new world is beginning. He has come to embody its values and aspirations, and to grow round him a community of followers who would embrace it too and live out before the world this new and radical way of being human. It’s set out in picture language in some of our best-loved parables: the sower, the treasure hidden in the field, the wheat and the tares, the grain of mustard seed, the leaven and many others. I imagine it is what Jesus means when he says that ‘the kingdom of God is among you’ (or within you, or in your midst – translators can’t quite agree on which it is).
What was his meaning when he spoke in this way and taught us to pray ‘your kingdom come’? Not, I think, that in the words and deeds of mortals, God’s immortal reign was somehow being established in the world in its final form. I read these texts as focusing on what it means to bear witness to what is promised, what is on its way, what will soon be here. I’ve used that phrase quite a lot already, but the more I live this vocation as a priest, the more convinced I am that it is a central mission and ministry idea in the New Testament.
I want to put it this way because to bear witness to something is to participate in its inner reality. When you visit the camps at Auschwitz or the holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, they tell you that you are not there simply to observe, still less to be a sightseer. You are there to bear witness – that is the phrase they insist on. What you see and learn about is something that happened in another time and another place. And yet that other time and place become your own time and place as you reflect on and take in the dreadful reality of those places and make their suffering your own. You become a part of the story yourself. And if you do that will the complete involvement of mind and heart and will, you cannot but tell your story in such a way that it draws others to ponder, think again, examine themselves and ask where they stand in relationship to it.
So it is with our hope and prayer for the coming of the kingdom. It belongs to the future: another time, another place. Yet as we embrace its summons, long for its appearing, above all as we pray for its coming, we make it ours and embrace all that it stands for in our own lives, whether as communities or as women and men. So we proclaim the kingdom in our words and actions and try as best we can to give it some visible form so that others don’t merely hear us speak about it as the hope by which we live and die, but touch its very life to the extent that we have received it for ourselves.
There is a direct summons to us as ministers here. Among the tasks of ministry is to create Christian communities on the foundation of this promised kingdom by bearing witness to it. What does it look like, this kingdom-orientated society? Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount which is his programme for living in ways that are directed by the hope and expectation of the kingdom. It begins with his blessing on the poor in spirit ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. In ministry, we shall always find that it is the poor, the voiceless, the disempowered, the hopeless, the victims who first hear and embrace the kingdom with joy. The gospels all notice this phenomenon, and so should we. John Dominic Crossan, a writer whom I don’t always agree with but is stimulating even when I disagree, coined the brilliant phrase ‘a kingdom of nobodies’. It is close to the heart of the New Testament, and close to the heart of Jesus of Nazareth himself.
And when we as clergy pray ‘your kingdom come’, I believe we reinforce our understanding of ourselves in two ways. The first is to pray that hope will be kept alive in our own hearts, that it will always sustain us personally for as long as we are called to ministry, for as long as we are alive. I’ve shared with you one of the ways in which hope came alive for me many years ago. The second is to pray that we may be good witnesses to hope in our public proclamation, the part we play in fashioning lively Christian communities, the way in which we teach others to pray as Jesus is teaching us. It is true. We are nobodies. But in the kingdom of heaven, nobodies become somebodies because God gives us back our dignity, remakes us in the image of Christ, sets us down to eat and drink at the banquet of his table. In our hope of the kingdom and our prayer for its coming, we are given all that we need to be good ministers of word and sacrament. Love bids us welcome.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
In a way, this third petition is not different from the two that went before. ‘Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done’ are woven seamlessly together. Each adds its own colour and texture to the others, its own layer of meaning. ‘On earth as it is in heaven’ belongs to all three.
‘Will you be diligent in prayer?’ is a question asked of all three orders of ministry at ordination. It’s presumed that clergy are there to pray; it’s part of our professional obligation. But you wouldn’t be human if you did not ask yourself many times what the point of prayer is and what different it makes. I have known some clergy who seem to have given up prayer altogether. For some, it is out of disappointment: prayer hasn’t delivered what they hoped for. For others, it is simply too much effort. For others again, prayer is regarded as a sort of displacement activity, eating energies that ought to be put into outward-facing engagement whether in politics, society or the church with concrete goals and outputs you can measure. The church has its activists like Martha and its contemplatives like Mary and the two can inhabit very different worlds within the church.
If the Lord’s Prayer is the pattern for all prayer, we might expect it to meet us at this point where we want to know what it’s for. So it does, I think, in this third petition, ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
I was ordained forty years ago last week. So many memories come flooding back, not least because I shall retire in under 100 days. In 1972 I attended my ACCM selection conference, as it used to be called, and heard the Dean of Ely introduce it as a time when we would together try to find out what the will of God was for us all. Then he paused and smiled as he said: ‘how portentous and grandiose that sounds! How can we mortals somehow presume to have grasped something as mysterious as “God’s will”?’ He went on, if I am remembering aright, to warn us in St Paul’s words against thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think in ‘knowing’ the eternal purpose of a sovereign God. For as St John says, the divine Spirit is like the wind, blowing where it wills, and we hear the sound of it, but we cannot know where it comes from or where it goes. I’ve never forgotten it. Out of such memories a lifetime’s ministry can be shaped.
And yet, ‘your will be done’ is not a blind prayer of submission to a hidden god whose inscrutable purposes are beyond human apprehension. Put it this way. Jesus expects us to pray intelligently, make some sense of the words he places on our lips. And I guess that this thought is uppermost in your own minds as you ask yourselves how on earth you came to be here at all, at this retreat, preparing to be ordained to the sacred ministry in a few days’ time. How do we know we are being obedient to God’s will, have accurately discerned his answer to our prayer ‘your will be done’ at least in as much as his will concerns our personal lives?
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer day by day, and especially this third petition ‘your will be done on earth as in heaven’, we remind ourselves that God is purposeful. He loves order, pattern, structure. Therefore, the cosmos reflects this as his creation as the stories in Genesis remind us in every line. When God finds satisfaction in seeing that each day’s work is ‘good’, it is because it fulfils its intent. ‘Have nothing in your house that is neither beautiful nor useful’ said Ruskin, and creation is both. In particular, the pinnacle of his achievement, humanity itself, participates in this ‘teleology’, this purposefulness. Each of us takes our place in a world that has direction, whose very existence is an expression of a wise and loving will. And when humanity is given dominion over the world, it is not to exploit it but to enable it to realise the shape and pattern God wants it to have. This is what it means to be made in the image of God: to share in his good governance of creation as its guardian, by honouring and caring for it so that it achieves his purpose.
So when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are aligning ourselves to the will that lies behind all of reality: ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. We are offering ourselves once again to the God who, like his Son, does all things well: first, to try to understand what his purpose is, and secondly, to do it. And this is an essential part of living purposefully rather than by our wits or our whims. One way of seeing the church is as a community that has recovered its purpose in a wayward, random world, finding God-meaning in events that would otherwise baffle and dismay us. The church is a people who are finding their way back to that Genesis vision of humanity at one with God, with the cosmos and with one another. This is an aspect of what Paul means when he talks in Corinthians about his ‘ministry of reconciliation’.
But there is no magic about this. Christianity offers a lens by which to discern what God is doing in the world and in our lives, but the mists of obscurity are always hovering around us: for now ‘we see through a glass darkly’. Understanding God’s will is often like seeing trees walking, like the man born blind, half way through his journey to full sight. This of course is where faith comes in: not for Christians the jihadist’s blind certainty that he or she is doing the sovereign will of Allah. There is always a ‘what if?’; ‘how can I trust this?’; always an uneasy conscience in being too definite about pronouncing on what God is or isn’t doing. Self-doubt is a necessary quality in all of us who are looked to as interpreters of God’s will.
You don’t believe me? Let’s remind ourselves of two crucial New Testament narratives. The first is the annunciation in St Luke when the angel comes to Mary and tells her that she has been chosen to give birth to the world’s Saviour. Perplexity runs right through the story until its resolution, and in that, Mary is at one with prophets like Jeremiah who could not contemplate the thought that God intended to do his strange work through them. ‘I am only a child!’ he protests. ‘How can this be?’ she exclaims. The annunciation is a particularly appropriate text for ordinands because it takes us through an entire spectrum of response from perplexity, consternation and doubt to acceptance, resolve and radiant joy in the Magnificat that she sings immediately afterwards.
You wouldn’t be human if your annunciations did not take you on a similar ride, and it can be a roller coaster. Every time I hear that passage read at Christmas carol services, I find myself holding my breath, like the creation does in Edwin Muir’s great poem about Mary and the angel. Will she say yes? will she do it? There is a beautiful moment of relief and closure when after all the agonising she makes her decision at last: ‘here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word’. ‘Your will be done.’ It is the vocational story par excellence. Her words will be almost exactly your words when the Bishop asks you at your ordination: ‘Do you believe that God is calling you to this ministry?’ ‘I do so believe.’
The second narrative we need to explore comes at the other end of the Gospel and it is Jesus in Gethsemane. The care with which the synoptic gospels all record this part of the passion story makes me think that it was regarded as particularly important. Jesus’s prayer is a direct echo of Lord’s Prayer: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done’. As he teaches us to pray, he prays himself, and we are spared none of the terrible agony he goes through; we become vividly aware that to pray in this way is infinitely costly because it opens the door to unknown suffering and pain that lie on the other side of this awful threshold.
This too is a key vocation text, because there can be a high price to be paid for daring to say, ‘your will be done’. It is costly if we don’t really mean it in our heart of hearts, because then our offering is fatally flawed and we are exposed as hypocrites, play-actors, at least to God and ourselves. It is costly if we do really mean it, because of how God will take us at our word.
And it is costly because like Jesus in Gethsemane, what we want and what God wants can quickly pull us apart. In earlier centuries, the crowds used to pull chosen men to their consecration as bishops because the vocation was too awesome for anyone to contemplate. Nolo episcopari they said, ‘I don’t want to take on this bishopping role’. Perhaps we should drag all of you kicking and screaming to your ordination. You are all, I suspect, offering yourselves gladly and wholeheartedly to the church for ordination, and yet isn’t there a part of you that has gone through Gethsemane, or may still be there in that garden? And even when we are ordained, the self-scrutiny that goes with ‘not my will but yours be done’ never goes away. It should never go away. This seeking of God’s will, this opening up of ourselves to his mysterious yet wonderful purposes is part of life for the ordained.
I have clear memories of all the times over forty years when different options in life and ministry were put before me and a decision needed to be make, sometimes quickly. How did I know on my ordination day that kneeling in front of the Bishop under the Norman Arch of St Andrew’s Headington on the morning of St Peter’s Day forty years ago was precisely where I should be, and nowhere else? Some people wobble at that breathtaking moment, or on their wedding day or, for all I know, the day they retire. If you wobble when you get into the Cathedral on Saturday or Sunday, believe me, you won’t have been the only one. For me, it was only once I had begun public ministry by taking my first services, preaching my first sermons (O those sermons! I have kept some of them as a warning to myself….), baptizing and conducting funerals that it began to hit me what a momentous step it had been. Thy will be done became a prayer of real importance as I learned to say it and mean it in those early days.
How do we ever know what it’s right to do or not to do? How did the Hebrew prophets know, or Paul or Joseph or Mary or Jesus himself? We don’t always recognize intimations from another world at the time, even if probably know it with hindsight, and tell a story about how we said either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what the angel said. A fine poem by Denise Levertov captures this exactly.
Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another in most lives? /
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, / enact them in sullen pride, / uncomprehending.
More often those moments /when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman, / are turned away from /
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair / and with relief. / Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them. / But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, / enact them in sullen pride, / uncomprehending.
More often those moments /when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman, / are turned away from /
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair / and with relief. / Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them. / But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
So the question for each of us must be: how can we re-tune our ears to listen better, anoint our eyes to see with greater insight, prepare our hearts to say ‘yes’ by recognising God’s time when it comes. That time may come Moses-like as earthquake, wind or fire though more often it is the still small voice that it was for Elijah, or the whisper of the angel of both agony and ecstasy who visited Joseph and Mary. It may come through the scriptures or in the eucharist; it may come through our prayers or our dreams, in the silence of remote places or by listening and talking to those who know us and love us.
So to pray ‘your will be done’ is to offer ourselves afresh each day, each hour to God. We are enfolded in that all-embracing ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. We commit ourselves anew to living purposefully and ministering purposefully in the name of a purposeful God. That divine purpose was never better put into words than by Mother Julian of Norwich when she said ‘love was his meaning’. But I want to end by insisting that while this petition no doubt begins with our own lives, it does not end there. Nothing less than earth and heaven are where God’s name is to be hallowed, his kingdom will come and his will be done.
What we don’t always glimpse in ministry is how far-reaching its effects can be. It is one thing for the Holy Father to issue an encyclical on climate change, or the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak to the world about Magna Carta, law and justice. But how do the sermons I preach, the eucharists I preside at, my daily acts of service, kindness or pastoral care contribute to the good capital to be invested in God’s coming kingdom, his will being done on earth as in heaven? Who can say is the only answer we can give. It’s good for us not to know too much about the part we play in the way our God chooses to work. This part of it is often inscrutable, and it is best kept as a mystery.
But we must not lose sight of how preaching, liturgy, mission and service have a global dimension. Vocation is to be called into this great collaborative project with God by which the salvation of the world, Christ’s finished work, becomes ours to bear witness to and proclaim to the human race. ‘Everything begins with mysticism and ends with politics’ said the French poet and thinker Charles Peguy. Or as Alan Ecclestone put it, ‘What matters for prayer is what we do next’. What you will do next is after your ordination is to go out on your first working day in the parish and begin to do the work of a deacon or a priest. That work includes doing and being, action and contemplation: both prayer and service are the opus dei, the work we do for God, the work he does in us. ‘Your will be done’ brings them both into alignment with the decisions we make about how our lives, our ministries are going to be shaped. There is no more important prayer any of us can offer on the eve of our ordination than this.
Give us today our daily bread.
There is a shift of emphasis at this point in the Lord’s Prayer. Up to now, the pronouns have all been in the second person: ‘hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done’. Only now does the prayer move into the first person: ‘give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses.’ That is an important point to notice because it is the exact opposite of the way in which we often tend to pray. Our instinct is to begin with ourselves and our needs, unconsciously place ourselves at the centre of our universe. It is understandable enough. But when Jesus says, ‘pray then in this way’, we should notice the order in which he puts things.
What comes first is God’s name, God’s kingdom and God’s will. ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ he says a little later in the Sermon on the Mount in an important passage I want to come back to presently.
And the prayer’s content shifts into a different gear as well – or seems to. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ From the grand sweep of space and time gathered up in the prayer for the coming of the kingdom, it suddenly focuses on the particular, the immediate, the ordinary. What could be more commonplace than ‘daily bread’? That question lies not only at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, but of the intuitions of every man, woman and child on the planet who has ever prayed. Religion is nothing if it does not have something to say about the everyday, because God is not God if the ordinary stuff of life is of no interest or concern to him.
But before we explore what this means in ordained ministry, we need to make sure we understand what the words actually mean. And here we hit on a difficulty. The word for ‘daily’ is most unusual, epiousios. It seems to refer to what is needed for the day’s ration, so it perhaps has a semi-soldierly quality about it. But the root meaning of the verb is linked to the idea of ‘what will follow’, so the emphasis is more on being given what is needed for the next day rather than this. A better translation is almost certainly, ‘give us today our bread for tomorrow.’ And if this is right, then it takes us straight back to what I said earlier about the kingdom of God, tomorrow’s event for which we pray and prepare on this day.
So the primary association that ‘bread’ carries is linked to the kingdom. And that straight away reminds us of the imagery Jesus often uses to speak about this wonderful event that is coming upon the world. He speaks about a banquet to which everyone is invited, a wedding feast where there is laughter and joy, about people streaming from east and west, north and south to sit down and eat at table, about a great celebration when the lost son returns home. And we in the church have our own banquet that looks forward to this messianic feast, indeed, anticipates it and begins to experience the reality here and now. The eucharist is an eschatological meal. Its bread is food for pilgrims destined for the heavenly city. ‘We eat the bread and drink the wine to show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.’ When you as priests preside at the altar, you are doing nothing less than imagining the coming kingdom in all its abundant richness, and gathering the people of God to imagine it with you. You are ministers not only of the present but of the world to come. And that is true not only when you preside at the Lord’s table but in everything else you do. In preaching and mission, pastoral care and practical service, you are eschatological in character, bearing witness, as I said before, to the new order that is coming upon the world. Recall the way I put it before: ‘standing at the end of the world to pray’. In a way, a priest always stands at the end of the world, because of what we represent as signs of God’s presence and purpose.
But I don’t think this is all there is to ‘daily bread’. The image not only looks forward but back as well, surely to the stories of the Hebrews’ desert wanderings where Yahweh fed his people with manna, or as the psalm says, provided a table in the wilderness by raining bread from heaven. The manna image is important because it was specifically said to be good for each day only (with a double portion on the day before the Sabbath). If it was kept over until the next day, it lost its wholesomeness. In St John, Jesus picks up this image and identifies himself with the ‘living bread which comes down from heaven’. In the wilderness stories, the Hebrews were provided with manna until they passed over into Canaan. So at once there is a future-orientated aspect to ‘daily bread’, rations for a people on the move.
This is where that later passage in the Sermon on the Mount brings us back to ‘daily bread’. Jesus says in words we all cherish: ‘Do not worry saying, What will we eat? or what will we drink? or what will we wear?...Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.’ The antidote to anxiety in the teaching of Jesus is trustful faith in a God who looks after us. And what reassures us in particular, is that God takes care of our future. To invest first of all in the kingdom of God and the priorities and values it lays upon us is at once to be pointed back towards a future that is not ours alone, but God’s. That stance of hopeful faith and faithful hope sees off any idea that we can or should be self-sufficient in life. To pray that the kingdom will come and God’s will be done is, as I said, to align ourselves to purposeful living in the service of a purposeful God. To know that he promises each day our ‘bread for tomorrow’ is the best and only reassurance we need.
How does this petition about ‘bread for tomorrow’ help us in our ministries as deacons, priests or bishops? Here are two reflections. First, it focuses our minds and hearts on our utter dependence on God. ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ Whom am I to tell you this when your own Christian experience has (I Hope) taught you? The ordinal says unambiguously: ‘You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.’ It links that statement with the enlargement of our hearts through prayer (a beautiful phrase), and the enlightening of our understanding of the scriptures; and above all, that we must ‘pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit’. In the liturgy, that is precisely what we do next, invoke the Spirit in the words of the Veni Creator, the Litany and the Ordination Prayer that follows.
Here is one aspect of the wisdom with which the church gives us the Lord’s Prayer offer at almost every conceivable occasion, and not least, in the daily offices of morning and evening prayer. Like the manna, ‘bread for tomorrow’ is a matter of each day’s concern. We need to relearn what dependence means every day. I don’t know about your mental, emotional and spiritual condition at this precise moment, on the eve of your ordination. In all liminal places, as we cross thresholds, our need for dependence is heightened. I’ve already told you something about how the momentous nature of my own ordination began to hit me not at the time, but afterwards. It still does, forty years later, as I approach the time part of me does not want to come when I have to lay down this privilege in the way I have been allowed to express it over my adult lifetime.
But when I look back to my two ordination retreats, I was aware of how helpless I felt. It was not a matter of hesitancy or doubt about my vocation, only that I was so aware of my own flaws and inadequacies. When Paul asks in 2 Corinthians, ‘who is sufficient for these things?’, the answer is: none of us, at least not by our native strength or ability. But think forward a few months into your diaconate or priesthood, not to say a decade or three into the more distant future, and habit sets in. The altar and the pulpit, the funeral visit and the combative PCC are not quite as fearsome as we once thought. Habits are like old slippers: comfortable, reassuring. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t grow in confidence as we gain experience. But if we forget for an hour in whose name we speak and act, in whose power we are called to minister, we are I think on the fatal road to autonomy, self-determination, self-sufficiency. Hubris is the enemy of the Gospel. And if we give into it, even if we put a heroic effort into ministry, we are destined to become tragic heroes and be brought down by the sin of pride. This was where I was most at risk during the dark year or so I told you about before. This is why it is good to revisit the experience of being ordained from time to time. Remind yourselves how precarious it can feel as the day draws near. Let your very fragility be God’s gift to you. Allow him to empower you in the strong name of the Holy Trinity, that name you have already prayed will be hallowed in your ministry and Christian life.
Secondly it requires us to think about the God-given resources for ministry in the church and how we gain access to them. It’s striking that while the manna poured out of heaven, the Hebrews still had to go out and collect it for themselves. That involved effort. You need to go into ministry clear about how you are not going to be self-sufficient. We clergy are required to say our prayers each morning and evening. I want to commend the daily office to you, not because it is all there is to prayer, but because it provides a scaffolding on which to construct our own dedicated habitus, our good rhythms of spiritual discipline and behaviour. Within it is enfolded a daily diet of psalmody and scripture that should refresh and nourish the soul, provide a structure within which both to be attentive to the word of God.
The eucharist, too, must have a central place in our rule of life, whether we are daily communicants or not. Our personal meditation, our contemplative prayer, regular retreat, study and reading that belong to the lifelong formation of our minds, our being accompanied on our journey by a wise spiritual guide or director – all this and a great deal else is offered to us by way of daily bread for tomorrow. I haven’t mentioned all the other ways in which the Spirit of God helps to populate our hinterland, so essential for a rounded ministry: personal intimacy and equally, personal solitude; a healthy approach to recreation (which is a great theological word for ‘leisure’ with all its possibilities in music, literature, the arts, sport and games, the natural world, all the gifts of common grace that delight the heart and mind.
Like manna, it is all there for the taking and it is the gift of God, but take it we must, just as we need to hold out our empty hands and take hold of the cup to receive his gifts of bread and wine in the eucharist. I am sure that your best intentions at your ordination are to do all these things. But I am also talking about the thousands of ‘tomorrows’ that stretch ahead of you as you embark on public ministry. These also you must think about in relation to the food you know you need to sustain you for a long and taxing journey. Help is at hand, and an abundance of gifts. But you need to want them for yourselves.
Please don’t put it off. To turn away from the gifts God holds out to us, his bread for tomorrow, is not only to deny ourselves what he wants to give. It colludes with our native Pelagian tendency to want to do it all by our own effort. That is to subvert the gospel itself. In a psalm that meditates on the story of the wilderness, there is a stern warning. ‘Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ I hope that will never be true of us here together.
Last Sunday I was on Holy Island to preach at a festival service. They were dedicating a new altar frontal in the Fishermen’s Aisle, a much-loved part of the church that focuses on how the life and livelihood of that island community is so much bound up with the sea. Against a beautiful blue marine background, the frontal showed the keys of the kingdom Christ gives to St Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel for St Peter’s Day tells of that defining encounter at the place called Caesarea Philippi in the far north or Galilee. It’s where the infant River Jordan rushes out from under a cliff. It has a pagan history because as there often is at the sources of rivers, there was a temple to the Greek god Pan there, hence its local name Banyas. I’ve often wondered why Jesus chose this particular place to bring his disciples on that occasion. Perhaps in order to exorcise the memory of paganism by getting the disciples to acknowledge him explicitly. Peter was the first to do this and confess him as the Messiah.
In that church on Sunday, I thought of my long involvement with North East England going back to my marrying into a Sunderland family over forty years ago. I came to learn how in terms of our northern Christian history, it all goes back to St Aidan who went to Lindisfarne in 635 and established his priory as the headquarters of Oswald’s great mission to convert Northumbria. That mission was brilliantly successful, and today’s church has a great deal to learn from the way Aidan and his successors set about it. But that’s not why I am mentioning it now. When I got up in the pulpit, I told the congregation of a hundred or so (yes – in that intimate village church) that it was my last ‘away match’ while still being at Durham, the last time I would preach as Dean away from the Cathedral. Where else could I possibly want to preach for the last time but on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the mother house of all northern Christians? So it was a moving occasion for me.
But I tell you all this because of something I noticed in the long chancel of Holy Island church as I sat there after communion. It was one of the diamond black hatchments you see in old churches, bearing the arms of long-dead noblemen and women in the parish. They each carried a Latin motto. I could only recognize one out of the three, but that one leapt off the ebony as I read it. In Te Speravi. It’s an abbreviation of the last line of the Te Deum: In Te Domine speravi: non confundar in aeternum. I have lived by that line at times, especially when they have been dark or difficult. ‘O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.’ What a gift, I thought, to see words that I have loved all my life there in that holy place just when I was reliving my ordination on St Peter’s Day.
Forty years ago my head was full of Peter’s career as a disciple, especially those denials of Jesus just when the Lord needed him most. How would I fare in my turn? – that was my question. If he asked me, Michael son of Ralph, do you love me? What would I reply – not at that moment under the Norman Arch, for like Peter I knew that I loved him and knew that Jesus knew as well. No, it was when I had been tried and tested in ministry twenty, forty, sixty years later. I think I longed that Jesus would do for me all my life as he did for Peter in the upper room, when he promised: ‘Simon, I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail’. I linked it with the Te Deum that as a chorister I had come to love. It’s a prayer for all who know we need bread for today and bread for tomorrow as we undertake God’s work, pray that his will may be done and witness to his wise and loving purpose for creation and for us: O Lord, in thee have I trusted. Let me never be confounded. Never, in this world or the next. Never.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
By now you know where I am going to start. We need to see this petition like all the others as belonging to the end of time and the coming of the kingdom before we focus down its scope to our Christian lives and ministries in the present.
You may wonder whether this is a little theoretical when these four ‘us’ petitions are so practical and life-changing now: give us today our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil. But as we have seen, daily bread is really our ‘ration for tomorrow’, and that helps us cast all our prayer and all our action in the light of the promised future God intends to bring into his world. The more I read the New Testament, the more convinced I am that it’s this God-given hope and promise that originates in the death and resurrection of Jesus that gives it such tremendous energy and direction. This is particularly true of the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. The Sermon on the Mount is not a code of ethics for Church of England gentlefolk. It is the radical manifesto of a coming kingdom that is unlike anything humanity can know or has experienced. When Jesus teaches us to pray, it’s the kingdom he wants us to focus on. And this is as true of this petition about forgiveness as it is about our daily bread. We ministers are the bearers of this expectant hope that so transforms perspectives. Every sermon, every eucharist, every prayer, every action, however much they respond to God’s work in the present, also point forward to his promise of the future.
In Matthew’s Gospel, ‘forgive us our debts’ is the one clause that is highlighted by the explanation Jesus gives immediately after he sets out the prayer. ‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ (Luke, by contrast, follows it with a parable about sharing bread with the friend who knocks on your door, a lesson about how to ask God to give us his good gifts and to be persistent in prayer than it is specific to any particular petition.) Why does the Sermon on the Mount single out the prayer for forgiveness like this?
The answer must be something like this. The kingdom of heaven, where God’s reign is finally achieved, is a fulfilled state of reconciliation. Alienation is banished. The fall is reversed, everything gathered up as God’s purpose is realised to bring the world back into its destined unity. Everything submits to his just and gentle rule: the principalities and powers whose capacity to tyrannise mortals the ancient world was so afraid of, the human race in all its extent and diversity, the entire created order. In such a state, outstanding debts of any kind have no place, because debts mean inequalities, the continuance of power and coercion in communities and individuals. You cannot go on owing or enforcing payment of a debt in a society in which everyone has equal value in God’s sight.
And this is as true of moral as it is of financial debt. How we handle our money is always a symbol of what matters most to us in life and relationships, as every stewardship advisor and charity fundraiser knows. How often Jesus emphasises this point in his parables! So in the light of the Sermon as a whole and the parables, this petition about forgiveness is about ultimate concern. Our entire lives should be orientated towards the perfect forgiveness and reconciliation that God promises on that day of final reckoning when debts are finally cancelled. This I think it is what Jesus means in this part of his prayer.
Later in the gospel, Matthew illustrates this in an important parable. The day of reckoning has come when the king is settling accounts with his slaves. One owes him a preposterous ten thousand talents. The slave cannot pay and begs for mercy, but the king releases him from the debt. In turn, he goes out and comes across another slave who owes him a paltry hundred denarii. Far from showing the same clemency as his master, he ignores his pleas, demands payment and when he cannot honour the debt, throws him into jail. It’s a direct commentary on the Lord’s Prayer: ‘you wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’
This story of painful reckoning illustrates what Jesus means when he adds the comment about our needing to forgive others if we are to claim God’s forgiveness. If we have truly embraced the hope of the kingdom and are living in the light of its promise, it makes no sense for us not already to be practising its central value of reconciliation. Not habitually to forgive others is a sure sign that we have not yet made this kingdom expectation our own. We are exposed as hollow men and women who parade our piety before others but who have yet to inhabit the reconciled life for ourselves. (And we should remind ourselves that Jesus introduces the Lord’s Prayer by urging us precisely not to be like the hypocrites.)
Here is where the final reckoning when debts are cancelled exercises its scrutiny on our values and behaviours across the whole of our living. Every Christian is baptised into this reconciliation hope that belongs to the resurrection life. But when you are in public ministry where so much of us is on public display, our inconsistencies are exposed without mercy. What does it mean for us to forgive sins, for the church to offer reconciliation to those who have committed unspeakable offences against God’s children? This is a painful challenge to all our churches in our dealings with those who abuse children, for instance, though this is just one example. I do not pretend to have the answers. I simply need to remind us all what Jesus says about the kingdom and how we can never stop wrestling with this question of how even in the worst of times, our central values need to reflect both the severity and the mercy of the gospel.
Let me come down to the minister’s ordinary life. Forgiveness comes into things in public ministry, believe me. When I was in my first week as a country vicar, a wonderful senior priest in a neighbouring parish gave me this advice: ‘Michael, put a line through your diary on the day after every PCC meeting. You may well have to spend that day apologising to any of your PCC members whom you’ve managed to offend during the meeting!’ That priest knew himself well. Perhaps a parish priest only needs a small vocabulary: the words you use most often outside the service will tend to be: please, thank you and sorry. That doesn’t change when you are a dean. But it is hard to say sorry. And when you look back over the years of ministry, as I am doing after forty years, believe me, the flaws, the mistakes, the compromises , the failures are uppermost, especially when it comes to motives. At my retreat, the verse of an old hymn kept coming to mind: those who fain would serve thee best are conscious most of wrong within. I expect that along with the thankfulness that you bring to your ordination will be that refrain as well. If it is, welcome it. Because the seeds of forgiveness lie in our being realistic with ourselves and seeing our debts and trespasses for what they are.
I have a vivid memory of leaving the parish where I had been the incumbent. A few days before we moved, and after public farewells had already been said, I was deeply aware of how I had wronged someone during my time as vicar. I tried to pretend to myself that this was simply part of the transition when regrets and lost opportunities are as natural as thankfulness. But this was different. It haunted me; it was vital that I do something about this, seek reconciliation before I went, though our estrangement made it very hard to ask for. I don’t think I ever glimpsed the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer more clearly than on that evening thirty years ago. I poured it all out and he listened intently. He didn’t say anything but when I had finished and dried my tears, he simply put his arms around me and held me in a long embrace. I said I needed to hear the words, ‘I forgive you’. He said them with great simplicity and grace. We parted as friends. ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Sin, trespass, debt: three words used in and around the Lord’s Prayer that stand for the same ugly truth about our flawed selves. I learned how important it is to take them to heart and deal with them.
It isn’t that reconciliation somehow cancels the effects of the damage we do to other people: it sometimes casts a long shadow that lasts a lifetime. But once go through the life-changing experience of being a penitent, a prodigal son whose prepared speeches are cut short by the father who simply holds him, and you know how powerful forgiveness is. This is why I want to point out how Jesus emphasises this vital petition and goes on to develop it in, for example, his teaching about not retaliating when evil doers harm us, or going the second mile when someone needs our help, or loving our enemy as well as our friend. It can be the hardest thing in the world. But it is as Jesus sums up his words about reconciliation that he tells us: ‘be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’. You and I will never be perfect humans, perfect Christians, perfect ministers in either our public roles or our private inner selves. But we know what we must strive for as part of seeking first God’s kingdom and never be content to compromise it.
Some of you are familiar with the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life which leaders in the public and voluntary sectors are required to sign up to nowadays. In helping our Cathedral staff and volunteers to understand our Values Statement, what they can expect of us and we of them in our lives and behaviours, I always quote Nolan. The Principles are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. Those are a good yardstick for public office holders in the church. And if you think about it, words like integrity, accountability, openness and honesty all seem to call for a deeply embedded quality of transparency about who and what we are. They imply, I think, that we shall not be afraid of saying sorry when we have made mistakes, wronged others, damaged the reputation of our institutions, acted out unworthy motives and dysfunctional patterns of behaviour. Leaders are often afraid of apologising because it makes them look weak, or so they fear. Sometimes our lawyers or insurers will stop us taking responsibility and acknowledging mistakes because of the liability we carry, something that has bedeviled the church’s transparency in the way it has dealt with historic safeguarding. But when we say we are sorry, dignity and respect are enhanced, not diminished. We show ourselves to be humane and self-aware in leadership when we acknowledge our own brokenness. It opens up a way towards gospel transformation in ourselves and in others that we should never turn away from.
What goes on when say sorry, or I theological language, when we repent of something that is wrong, and turn back to do what is right. Metanoia means ‘change of mind’. It is one of the most beautiful words I know. We think of it as part of our conversio, turning back to God, being forgiven, finding reconciliation. It’s at the very heart of what Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation, and there won’t be a day in public ministry when you don’t practise it. But it was through that life-changing encounter with the friend I had wronged that I learned two deep truths about reconciliation. I had thought it was largely about fear: the fear of offending, the fear of being found out, the fear of being judged. But what I learned was precisely the opposite. My penitence flowed not from fear at all, but from a desire to seek the truth and acknowledge it before it would be too late. In other words, reconciliation is based on the serious business of truth-seeking and truth-telling.
This is as true in our human relationships as it is before God. It sees off all those shallow apologies we make when we don’t take responsibility such as saying: ‘I’m sorry you feel hurt’ rather than ‘I’m sorry I hurt you.’ It sees off the trivial games we play with God when we number our peccadilloes but don’t probe deeply into the dark places of our own souls. Yet if the Sermon on the Mount is about anything at all, it’s about what goes on in the hidden places where only God knows and sees – Jesus says as much in his instruction about the Lord’s Prayer. In all of ministry, truth-seeking and truth-telling matters, but perhaps never more than when we are dealing with trespasses and sins – others’, or especially our own. And because in God’s economy, his truth and his love walk together hand in hand, we need to know how penitence flows out of love – God’s love for us, ours for him. In all our best relationships, we are ready to say sorry because when we love, there is no room for hypocrisy, the play acting that covers up and pretends. Think of the penitent woman in the gospels whose sins were forgiven because she ‘loved much’. So don’t waste time if you need to find reconciliation. Do it before Saturday or Sunday if it is weighing on your conscience. Confess your sins and be assured of God’s pardon, if this is what you need to do. Only you can know. We are here to help you if we can. But your new ministry deserves an unburdened start. Don’t take unfinished business with you. ‘Forgive us our trespasses.’
I learned something about this on the night before I was ordained. In my interview with the Bishop, he said to me very simply: ‘Michael, you will make mistakes in ministry. When, not if, that happens, trust in God’s mercy, pick yourself up, say you’re sorry, accept that you are forgiven, and travel on. Let life begin again. I have never forgotten those words and often relive that moment. I was grateful that my humanity had been recognised and that for all the long catalogue of sins, debts and trespasses yet to come, reconciliation would still be held out as both a promise and a reality. (As an aside, I hope you will always try to remember the acts of kindness that our fathers in God show us. Some will be large and costly; many will be small enough to be forgotten. Among them, perhaps, has been the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation on both sides – I could tell you a personal story about that too. I am glad to acknowledge my debt to them, just as other colleagues and friends, who begin to speak on the eve of my retirement in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, have been kind enough to say similar thankyous to me.)
It would have been so easy for Jesus to have omitted this mention of debts and debtors in his prayer. This is one example of how it stands out from most of the Jewish prayers and blessings with which on other counts it has so much in common. The immediate setting, contrasting how the play-actors pray, and how disciples are to pray, is part of this. But I see the whole Sermon on the Mount as being largely about what the Rule of St Benedict calls the conversion of life. ‘Conversion’ is not simply the initial, once-for-all baptismal event when you turn away from sin and resolve to be faithful to Christ. It’s what happens to us each day as we practise the deep searching of ourselves he calls for and tell the truth about what we find. This is why Jesus teaches us whenever we pray, to pray ‘like this’: ‘forgive us our debts, as we also forgive’. It’s a fundamental habit of ministry. It begins here.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Here is where the traditional English version of the Lord’s Prayer lets us down. ‘Lead us not into temptation’ is a familiar, well-loved petition that many of us pray daily in that form. But it won’t do here as a translation of the Greek, especially not when we have come to see how the Lord’s Prayer is so focused on God’s future and the advent of the kingdom. So although I am not for a moment suggesting that we tamper with the English, because the version in which most of our churches pray the Lord’s Prayer is a vital point of unity, we still owe it to ourselves and those we minister to that we understand what the Prayer is asking as it nears its climax.
Peirasmos in the original means trial, testing, ordeal. It’s important to remember this. That idea certainly includes temptation: it is the word St Luke uses to describe Jesus’s ordeals in the wilderness. But the scope is much wider than simply being enticed into sin. And as we shall see, this is not simply a technicality to do with the text. It matters for our prayer, living and ministry.
In the apocalyptic milieu that first John the Baptist and then Jesus entered in order to announce the kingdom of God, it was believed that the final consummation of all things, the world’s greatest crisis, would be ushered in by a time of great suffering. In both Matthew and Luke, as in St Mark, this is the theme of Jesus’ last sermon before his passion. It’s prompted by a question the disciples ask as they admire the huge blocks of ashlar that were going into the construction of Herod’s temple. ‘What wonderful stones and wonderful buildings!’ repeats St Mark. And Jesus replies: ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left standing upon another; all will be thrown down’. (It’s a text that makes all of us who work in cathedrals think hard. I have preached on it more than once, to the consternation of some who seem to think that even Durham Cathedral will somehow last for ever.)
The long discourse that follows sets out not only the destiny of the temple but the fate of the whole world. Jesus warns about false prophets, the desecration of the holy place, and most important for our theme, ‘great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now… And if those days had not been shortened, no-one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, those days will be cut short.’ All this will herald ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.’ Jesus ends by saying that because we cannot know the day or the time, we must be ready. The ‘little apocalypse’ we call it, but there is a case for saying that St Mark may have constructed his entire gospel around this sobering passage, so central to him is the theme that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’.
What we need to notice is how this sense of crisis carries over into the very next part of the gospel which is the passion narrative. We have already visited the garden of Gethsemane when we explored what it means to pray as Jesus did, ‘your will be done’. This is his day and his hour, the final crisis he must face before he goes to his death and on the third day delivers the world by being raised from the dead. What does he say to the sleepy disciples who cannot glimpse the awful ordeal he is going through? ‘Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Eis peirasmon! There is the word again. I think the meaning is something like this. I am experiencing the final test that belongs to the last days – my last days in which an old world is dying and a new is about to be born. Pray that as you accompany me through the birth pangs of a new world being delivered out of the agonies of the old, you will be spared the personal ordeal that could destroy you. Pray that your faith will not fail, and that you will not deny my name in the ordeals that lie ahead.
Why am I disturbing you with apocalyptic thoughts during your ordination retreat? Because if we are to follow Jesus and proclaim him so that others may come with us on this great journey of discipleship, we need to be true to his teaching. This is a matter not only of our own integrity but of is. The Jesus of the gospels is hardly a comfortable man to follow, but we don’t serve him when we falsify him by re-making him in our own image. But please don’t change your minds about becoming a deacon or a priest publicly bearing his name for all time. Instead, let me remind you that the ordeals of peirasmos that we pray to be brought safely through are all for the sake of a promise, a redemption and a glory that far outweighs them. Birth-pangs are indeed how the crisis is depicted, but as St John says, when the baby is born, the mother forgets them for joy that a child has come into the world.
I think we can agree that all this is a far cry from what most people have in mind when they pray, ‘lead us not into temptation’. And it is not that if we grasp the apocalyptic background of this prayer, it somehow makes peirasmos less relevant. The exact opposite is true. It invests our prayer for salvation with all the more urgency. For whether it is the last and final ordeal the world will face, or our last personal ordeals we may have to face as Jesus did on the threshold of death, or whether it is the big ordeals that seriously test and try our faith, our resolve to be faithful to Jesus, the time of trial is a life-and-death matter. It isn’t a mere matter of the little peccadilloes, the trivial seductions that tend to preoccupy us day after day. We can be over-scrupulous about them, especially during Lent, when they become a displacement activity for the much more probing questions our ordeals put to us about what kind of human being we really are? what kind of Christian? what kind of priest? And this is about how deep our formation has gone, our identity as men and women of God.
An ordained minister is a very public kind of Christian. We model discipleship for others, or not, as the case may be. That is part of the vocation, which is why the ordinal makes so much of the quality of our personal life, how intent we are in pursuing holiness. But the time of trial isn’t only about ethics and morality, indeed, peirasmos may not be especially interested in those things at all, except insofar as they are reliable indicators of what our forebears would have called the state of our souls. I think the core of it lies in what Jesus calls in the beatitude, ‘purity of heart’. ‘Happy are the pure in heart’ he says, ‘for they shall see God’. What this means is, I think, what Buddhists call being ‘single-pointed’, having wills and motives that direct our behaviour towards one thing only, the kingdom of God itself. If we want to see God (and what other aim in life is there but that?), we need to put away all the competing claims that pull on us, and give ourselves wholly to embracing the promise of the kingdom. The great 19th century theologian Kierkegaard said: ‘purity of heart is to will one thing’. One thing only should be our steadfast high intent. And if this is true for all who believe, how much more should it be true of us who wear our faith in front of others in this outward and visible way?
The thing about the time of trial is that it is not always external forces that are out to destroy us (though as I shall say in a moment, they can play a big part). The true enemy is our own ambivalent motives, our ambiguous intentions, our hesitancy in giving a straightforward answer to the question, do I really want this more than anything else in the world? It’s our own compromised wills, our flirting with other aims and goals that are the undertow that pulls us away from God. This week, I have no doubt that you want more than anything else to serve God in the ordained ministry. You will answer all the Bishop’s questions ex animo, for surely you were born for this moment, and you are walking on air. Thank God for the energy and enthusiasm that brought us to this point in life. It’s a gift to sustain you for many years.
But fast-forward two, three, four decades. How do you see yourself then? In my work of spiritual direction with parish clergy, I have encountered some who have become weary, or been damaged or disillusioned by what has happened to them in public ministry, or have fallen out of love with organized religion, and in a few cases have apparently outgrown the faith that brought them to ordination in the first place. It is hard to rekindle our initial experience, and I think we should probably not try. Vocation needs to be renegotiated at times, like a good marriage. Both you and your spouse have changed over many years, and you need to be married to the person she is now, and she you, not as you both were to begin with all those years ago. What mustn’t change is the singleness of heart, the sense of common purpose, because without it, a marriage will founder.
It’s the same with vocation. I believe we all need to renegotiate our attitude to our vocation: who we were then, who we are now, and how we now take our place in the life of the church as God’s people and God’s ministers. We probably need to do this every decade or so. We certainly need to do it when we approach the big transitions in life and ministry, like a change of role or our personal circumstances or both. And in a small way, the renewal of our vows of ministry every Maundy Thursday takes us back to the promises we made so willingly on our ordination days, and summons up to re-imagine and re-inhabit them in our ministries as they now are, and our vocations as God is forming and shaping them as the years pass.
I’ve mentioned that I’m now in my last hundred days of public stipendiary ministry. I choose the words carefully. Not my last hundred days of ministry, or public ministry, though I have yet to be shown what shape that may have in the next phase of my life. But while you are still in your first hundred days as newly ordained deacons and priests, the tumbril will have deposited me in some far-off place out of reach of Durham Diocese. Retirement is a big step, far bigger than I would have guessed at even a year ago. In some ways, these last months have reminded me of the months just before ordination. Then I was asking myself before God: what am I being called to? What resources will be there, what daily bread if you like, as rations to live by? What gifts and talents will be of most benefit to the church and to God? And most of all, and most unknowable of all, whatever will it be like, this ordained life I have looked forward to for so long, and been trained for all these years? And not only what will it be like objectively, what will the shape of the day be, what will be my duties and tasks, when and where will I find recreation, and how does my marriage fit into all this – but subjectively, what will it feel like? How shall I be up to all these new challenges? What do I believe I shall love about public ministry, and what am I anxious about? How will my personal spirituality be shaped in this new role?
Well, I have come back to those same questions late in life. I guess I know myself a little better than I did then, and I pray that I have got better at discerning how God’s providence is at work too. But so much is yet unknown and that’s a real vocational challenge that I have to face. No-one else can do it for me, though there is abundant help and support at hand. There is also, if I am honest, a whiff of peirasmos. I don’t doubt that the best outcome is promised, because our times are in God’s hands. It’s just not knowing what it will be.
Transitions are as much ordeals as they are normal human processes. We need to look after one another as we move across these life-changing thresholds. This is precisely one of the reasons we are here: to be cared for as we get ready for a great crossing and prepare ourselves for what may come, its ordeals as well as its joys. We can’t yet imagine all that it will turn out to be. We have to step out in great faith – and perhaps I now see how much greater it needed to be than I was conscious of forty years ago. So we are here on this retreat to cherish the vocation that has led us here and honour it in one another, so that the other side of this weekend’s threshold, we move gladly and hopefully and confidently into the future God is already preparing for us.
If there is one petition in the Lord’s Prayer that makes me tremble, it is this. ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial.’ In my more anxious moments, it makes me afraid. Will I be strong when the test comes – whatever it may be in life that goes to the heart of my humanity, my Christian faith, my vocation as a priest – and subjects it to the test? At times when something like it has happened – thankfully, very few, it has felt as though something apocalyptic was taking place. It can be frightening in its intensity, destabilising in the sense of loneliness that can accompany it. I vividly recall a crisis I went through years ago. Someone on the edge of church life set out to make life extremely difficult for me. I later understood why he taken the action of taking out an action against me. (I honestly believed that I had done him no wrong, at least willingly, though you always ask yourself whether you have unwittingly damaged someone. That may mitigate the gravity of your offence but it doesn’t excuse it.) So this was different from the events I talked about earlier when I knew I had wronged someone and needed to face up to it. Here, I was utterly helpless. I said to my wife over the phone, because she was away at the time, I’m not sure I am going to survive this. Will I get safely through this Gethsemane? Will my faith hold? Will my trust in this institution of the Church hold, because that was my only line of defence. That was going to be the test. It was true peirasmos.
I don’t want to alarm you: I hope you are all spared that. But as leaders you carry risk, and among the risks of public ministry is that there are those who will try to discredit you. If you don’t believe me, read the New Testament! So if you ever find yourself staring into the abyss, remember what I said about Peter when Jesus promised to pray for him that his faith would not fail. Paul says, in another text I have loved for decades, ‘we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ I believe that we can face anything and survive anything if only we hold on to God’s promise to sustain us by the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. It’s the story we read in the blood of the martyrs who have borne courageous witness to Christ down the centuries, and in our own age continue to inspire us with the sheer vitality of their faith. It’s living out what Kierkegaard calls ‘the faith by which we live and die’.
I am not promising that it will be easy. Neither does the gospel. But the great 14th century mystic Mother Julian of Norwich has said it in words that cannot be bettered. When she famously said, ‘all shall be well’, she meant this. ‘He said not Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased; but he said, Thou shalt not be overcome.’ This is very close to what the Lord’s Prayer means.
This is the faith of our Saviour as he went around doing good, speaking with authority, and teaching of the kingdom of God, and training his disciples, and setting his face to go to Jerusalem where he knew passion and death awaited him. Is it fanciful to say that in some form, this much is likely to be true for us as his servants and his ministers? But the end of that path was not crucifixion, for God raised him from the dead. And we live and serve as an Easter people with alleluia as our song. At ordination, in our days of testing, in all our days, we shall entrust ourselves to our faithful Creator and ask him to comfort and strengthen us by his life-giving Spirit, so that we may be faithful unto death, and so inherit the crown of life.
But rescue us from the evil one.
I wonder what we make of the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer as it is given us in the gospels. The last word in Luke’s version is ‘time of trial’, in Matthew’s, ‘evil’. (In neither do we find the familiar ending ‘yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory’, though some of the manuscripts include it.) What kind of prayer is it that stops so abruptly, leaving trial and evil hanging in the air?
I remember a preaching class at college. The speaker quoted the end of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells the parable of the houses built on rock and on sand. The final words of the Sermon are ‘great was its fall’. The very last words of the English Old Testament are Malachi’s, ‘lest I come and smite the earth with a curse’. St Mark’s Gospel ends ‘for they were afraid’. The point the lecturer was making was that sometimes, a stark conclusion that asks a question or sounds a warning note can make a sermon memorable and drive home its truth. Beware the happy ending. Avoid the habit of closure because the gospel is so open-ended, facing towards a resurrection life that we can’t yet know in its fullness. Preaching and prayer are not meant to make us more comfortable. They are for transacting God’s business of truth-seeking and truth-telling.
Aidan Kavanagh in his book about liturgy, Elements of Rite, says that the inside of a church should not remind us of the soft comforts of our own living rooms. Churches should be tough, bracing, challenging places where we are energised to do serious work, God’s work and ours, which is to save the human race and build up Christ’s body the church. To my mind, the Lord’s Prayer is the toughest, most bracing, most challenging text I know. When I pray it, it reminds me who and what I am in the service of the kingdom; it ‘puts me to doing, puts me to being’ as the Methodist covenant service has it. Its scope is all-embracing.
But the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer is not quite like those unforgiving endings I mentioned. There is a symmetry about how it begins and ends. It seems to return to the opening petition ‘hallowed be your name’. There we had the holiness that brings the blessing. Here we have the evil that brings the curse. We open ourselves to hallowing and pray that the world may reverence God’s name. We ask that the world and we may be delivered from all that is evil whose effect is to fuel the cancers that eat away and poison the human family. Indeed, the prayer rises to a climax here that prepares us for the doxology of praise that ends it. ‘Deliver us from evil’ is not a gasp of despair. It is a cry of anticipated victory, for the kingdom of glory that is coming brings with it the banishment of all that is destructive, hurtful and false in the world. And if ever there was a time to pray this fervently it is today, surrounded on all sides as we are by abundant evidence that our native human state cries out to be healed and redeemed.
I see it as a bit like Jesus’ last word from the cross in St John’s Gospel, ‘it is finished’. You could hear that as the last utterance of someone who dies with desperation on his lips and desolation in his heart. (That sombre way of portraying the cross would be much closer to St Matthew and St Mark than St John.) I have heard it read in that downbeat way on Good Friday and wanted to shout out, No! You have got it quite wrong. Think victory! Think enthronement! Think glory! This is what tetelestai means: triumphant accomplishment. Jesus has finished the work he came into the world to do. So here in the Lord’s Prayer, the only point of praying that we may be delivered from evil is that we believe not only that it lies within God’s power to save us, but also that he has promised us this very thing. And what is true of the final petition has been true all the way through, whether it is our daily bread, the forgiveness of our sins or being kept safe through our trials and ordeals. It is right to introduce the Lord’s Prayer in the liturgy by saying ‘let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us’.
Back to the text. Some say it is ‘deliver us from evil’, others ‘from the evil one’. The Greek can mean either. If I were to take a punt, it would be for ‘evil one’ simply because Jesus always prefers to speak in concrete personal ways rather than in abstractions. There is another lesson for preachers there. I doubt it makes the slightest difference to what this final petition means. You don’t need to personify evil to account for the disorder that is rampant across the world: we humans are perfectly good at doing this all by ourselves. Whether it is ‘evil’ or ‘evil one’, all that matters much more is that we take evil seriously. So I want to ask in this final address where evil features in the work of ministry and how we deal with it.
Like the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, this last petition calls us to an act of imagination whereby we need to stand at the end of the world and pray forwards into our own times, seeing the world from the perspective of the kingdom of heaven. It requires a real act of faith to do this, a real belief that it is worth praying to rid the world of evil because that is at the heart of a purposeful God’s will for creation, for human society and for each of us. I am not saying that it calls for a heroic effort. This kind of praying should be as natural as breathing. I am simply saying that one of the most important ways in which we take evil seriously and do something about it is to pray in the way Jesus teaches us. How we take this into our own prayer and self-understanding as ministers only each of us can answer for ourselves. But let me share something of my experience.
My mother is a Jewish refugee who managed to get out of Nazi Germany before it was too late. Other members of her family were sent to Auschwitz. This country received her, as it did thousands of other Jewish children who had nowhere else to turn. You can imagine that this colours my thinking about how the UK as a historically Christian nation ought to respond to the current crisis over migrants escaping tyrannical regimes to make a new life in Europe. But my point about this aspect of my personal history is that from an early age, I had no choice but to take evil seriously. My family has always been haunted by the capacity of human beings to inflict terrible cruelty on one another. Hannah Arendt, in a great book on the subject, coined the phrase ‘banality of evil’. By that she didn’t mean that evil is trivial – far from it; rather, that it is the denial of all that is wholesome and true and good in life, and that is where its absurdity lies, for who would not crave the flourishing of the human family?
Let me speak about another part of my own past that directly influenced the way I think about public ministry. I was ordained priest on Trinity Sunday 1976. A few days later, I presided at the eucharist for the first time in a side chapel of the church where I was a curate. It was a beautiful and moving occasion for me, my family and the handful of worshippers who were present: I had not chosen to make a great public ceremony out of it. The intimacy of that occasion felt like Maundy Thursday, and that taught me a lot about the spirit in which a priest goes to the altar and presides at God’s feast. But what influenced me even more was that on that very day, black protesters had been shot dead in the streets of a place I had never heard of, Soweto. For me, eucharist and priesthood (which I try never to call ‘mine’ because it is the church’s priesthood and God’s priesthood) have been implicated in the pain of that terrible day ever since. I knew that I must never sit loose to how real and close evil can be, how sensitised I need to become to the pain of the world. I was vividly reminded of it when I became Dean of Durham on St Cuthbert’s Day 2003, the very day that the allied forces invaded Iraq. We pray ‘deliver us from evil’ because evil is never far away.
How does the church respond to evil? How do we as clergy play our part in helping shape that response? You answer of course: by prayer, stupid, and by action. I take it for granted that all of us are called to both these things, and that includes making our stand for truth against the lie, the right against the wrong, integrity against falsehood, kindness and care instead of cruelty. We stand publicly for good against evil. And all these essential dyads mean that we shall give ourselves to understanding what it is we are up against, what God-given weapons to use against the malign principalities and powers I talked about in an earlier address.
And we need to see prayer as part of that armoury. Ephesians gives us a famous list of spiritual weapons with which to equip ourselves against an adversary that is not flesh and blood but ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’, ‘spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places’. And at the end of that list where he itemises the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, the breastplate of righteousness and so on, the author says: ‘pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert (the Gethsemane command again) and always persevere in prayer for all the saints.’ The colourful language about the principalities and powers doesn’t have to be taken literally. We can see for ourselves how countless collusions in politics, economics, nationalism, fundamentalist extremism, terrorism, avarice and self-interest wreak havoc among innocent victims all over the planet. These threats are all bigger than we are, and make it impossible for any individual to stand up to them on their own. Pope Francis’s encyclical about climate change points to a kind of transcendent assumption that consciously or unconsciously pulls us all into helping to drive, or at least lazily go along with, collective attitudes and behaviours that will, left to themselves, destroy us. Ephesians says: ‘pray in the Spirit’. Our defence against evil doesn’t end there. But I believe it needs to begin there.
I like to put it this way. At one level, the prayer to be delivered from evil draws us into alignment with how God sees it, and how his purpose is to eliminate it in the new heaven and new earth of the promised kingdom. So by praying the Lord’s Prayer publicly, the church, led by its ministers, associates itself with that expectation and promise. But prayer also creates an environment in which hope is giving birth to a positive cycle of goodness by which we resist evil. When Péguy said in that famous line I quoted before, ‘everything begins with prayer and ends in politics’, he meant precisely this. It’s impossible to separate prayer from action, or as I prefer to put it, separate prayer from work. It is the work of the priest to act against evil wherever we see it, not least within ourselves.
But this work begins in prayer. In the Rule of St Benedict, the divine office is called the opus dei, the work of God. I’ve already said that this is as much God’s work in us as it is our work for God. But I want to re-emphasise that second aspect. When we pray, ‘deliver us from evil’, I believe we are doing real work for God on behalf of the victims of evil everywhere. It is of course not unique to clergy. The whole church is called to this. But if we try to see it as a special vocation for public ministers to lead and animate in combating evil through the mental and spiritual effort it needs to pray with real seriousness, and we begin to see how vital it is to embrace it. And the more we give ourselves to it, the clearer our grasp of what it is we face when so much wickedness and injustice hold sway over the human race.
I want to end this last address on a note of hope, because as I’ve tried to say all along, hope runs through the Lord’s Prayer from beginning to end. Hope runs through all of prayer because it is always lit up by God’s love for his world and for each of us, because he is at work to deliver us from evil and heal the world of all that would destroy the goodness of his creation. Hope runs through all of ministry because it is God’s work that we are about, work that he gives to us to share in, and with it the privileged sense of being part of a wonderful divine project that is infinitely bigger than any of us. At the start, I quoted Napoleon: a leader is a ‘dealer in hope’. This is why we pray, ‘your kingdom come’, and face the future with confidence, because God is in the days and years that lie ahead. I quoted Cowper’s great hymn: ‘behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face’. We know that our times are his. Our world is his. Our ministries are his. Our entire lives are his. All things belong to him. And when the kingdom comes and our hopes our realised and consummated, all things will be returned to him, and God will be all in all.
Our Christian hope is what sustains each of us in ministry. There would be no point in it if we didn’t have hope for ourselves and for our world that we can impart to those whom God gives us to be ministers to. In the great opening chapter to the First Epistle of Peter, he writes: ‘blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.’ Some of you will have sung those words to the music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley. I never fail to be moved by that great upward surge in the music towards the word resurrection and the emphatic boldness of Jesus Christ from the dead. It’s likely that this letter is based on an early baptism liturgy with its emphasis on the Easter promise of transformation, new life, becoming God’s people who were no people, being brought out of darkness into his marvellous light.
I end this retreat with that passage because I believe we need to remind ourselves, as Peter reminds us, of the life-changing reality of Easter. Later on in his letter, the mood darkens. We are aliens and exiles in a world of evil. A fiery ordeal is promised, and we are not to think that when it comes, something strange is happening to us. A roaring lion is prowling around, the adversary, seeking whom he may devour. Like Jesus, his followers will face suffering that they do not deserve. Much of this letter is close in spirit to the Lord’s Prayer, not least the warning that ‘the end of all things is at hand’. But for Peter, this is a reason for hope, not fear. He ends on this note: that we must resist evil, steadfast in our faith, in solidarity with ‘our brothers and sisters in all the world who are undergoing the same kinds of suffering’. ‘Deliver us from the evil one.’ But here is how he ends. ‘After you have suffered for a little while the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you’. Restore, support, strengthen, establish. Take those words with you and live them.
So this is no life of ease or comfort. We shall be tested in ways we can’t imagine. Evil will do its best to grasp hold of us. But we can expect real fulfilment and joy in this privileged role we are called to. So hold on the Lord’s Prayer as your inspiration and your daily companion. Pray it often. Pray it deeply. Let it keep your hope alive. Let it challenge you to fresh adventures in the service of the kingdom that is coming. Let it stand for the offering of all that you are at this great point in your lives. ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’ – in the world and in our lives, on our ordination day and in all that lies beyond.
A SERMON AT THE ORDINATION OF DEACONS
‘One of his disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray”.’ I’ve been privileged to spend the last few days on retreat with these good men and women who are to be ordained today. We have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer, and how it speaks to us about public ministry in the church.
The Lord’s Prayer is the best known and best loved of all prayers. In two of the gospels Jesus gives it to us as the model prayer. Yesterday I spoke about St Matthew; today it’s the turn of St Luke. Jesus has been at prayer. When he has finished, a follower asks for instruction. Disciples are literally ‘learners’ who want to be taught. In early centuries, this was how they learned; they attached themselves to a wise master who could teach them. Sometimes they formed little communities of prayer in deserts and remote places, which is how monasteries began. Both John the Baptist and Jesus stood in a tradition of spiritual leaders who would teach followers how to practice their faith.
This work of helping people to live the spiritual life continues today in many different forms. Among the most visible is through the calling of Christian ministers. It is one way in which the church responds to what was asked of Jesus, ‘teach us to pray’, for it belongs to all times and all places. Anyone with an ounce of faith wants to learn how to pray because it’s the fundamental act of faith, basic to our relationship with God. When Jesus prays to the God he calls his Father, he shows us what faith is meant to be: not intellectual theory or wishful thinking or ‘morality tinged with emotion’. It is to enter into God’s tenderness towards us, and love him in return. It is something known and felt.
Let’s listen to the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer again. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ We don’t always recognise how radically new that way of addressing God would have sounded. It isn’t to ‘the Lord’ that Jesus teaches us to pray, or to ‘God Most High’ or ‘the Eternal One’. It is simply Father, or as Jesus would have spoken it in Aramaic, Abba. This is how a child would address ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’. Prayer is as personal and intimate as that. And this is what prayer embodies. It takes us back to the God of our forebears, the Lord who once spoke to us out of a burning bush and summoned us, as he did Moses in our first reading, to know him by his name, to hallow him in life, to serve and obey him. But let’s notice the difference. ‘Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God’. But Jesus teaches us not to be afraid but to pray out of trustfulness and a profoundly intimate love: ‘Our Father’.
When you are ordained as a deacon, you become a public minister of the gospel, a man or a woman called by the church to represent it to the world. Yes, every Christian is called to public witness and faith sharing: in baptism we are told never to be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. But when you become a member of the clergy, you cross a threshold from being simply yourself, an individual believing, praying Christian into becoming a public example of one. In public ministry it’s vital not to get so absorbed in our work and activity, the good and proper demands of ordained life, that we lose touch with our relationship with God and neglect to say ‘Our Father’. If we are not practitioners ourselves, we shall never help anyone else to learn. That’s why the first words of our gospel are so important. ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place.’ What he teaches others, he has just been doing himself. He has once again given himself to prayer, perhaps it’s not too much to say lost himself in prayer, for we know that his relationship with God was everything.
What we teach others we must have been doing ourselves. Not because in our roles as deacons, priests and bishops, people scrutinise us daily to discover whether we live and minister and pray out of those virtues of trust and love. It is because of the integrity of our calling itself. Believe me, how we set about our prayers, how we practise the presence of God as a lived spiritual experience, this is right at the heart of public ministry. And how we are with other people is inextricably linked to how we are with God. The Lord’s Prayer makes this explicit when it says: ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. To be intimate with God leads directly into our becoming intimate with the human family by serving it as Jesus came to serve and to give his life for us all. ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ This is the distinctive role of the deacon, called to a lifetime of self-giving love of the life in ordained ministry.
I was ordained exactly forty years ago last Monday. I hadn’t been a deacon very long when I found that people were looking to me to provide insider knowledge in answer to a range of hard questions. Why do human beings suffer? Why are there tsunamis and avalanches and earthquakes? Why do virtue and goodness go unrewarded while cruelty flourishes? Why do people go on killing and maiming one another? These questions are always with us. On Friday we kept silence in memory of the victims in Tunisia and Kuwait and France; on Tuesday we shall keep the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. It began to teach me how perplexing religion is to many people. But just as important, it helped me see that Christian ministry must always be close to the pain of the world, feel for the sufferings of human beings and respond in any way we can.
In public ministry, you will be expected to have something to say about all this. Even if you can’t solve the riddles of the universe that have baffled the wise since the dawn of time – and no-one will seriously think that you can – people have a right to expect you to help them in what is basic to faith. What is a church leader, a deacon, a priest, a bishop, for if it is not to do what Jesus did and teach people how to practise faith in a living way? ‘Teach us to pray.’ The first task of public ministry is to nurture good, wholesome religion, put it back at the heart of life, allow it to bless our communities, help people seek truth, glimpse the love, the joy and the peace that God wants for the human family. Above all, it reawakens hope. When we teach people to pray, we help them to live in the light of tomorrow when the kingdom of God comes. That gives a wholly new perspective, makes it possible for life to begin again.
It’s self-evident on an ordination day that religion is the central business of the clergy. To nurture men, women and children in the faith of Christ is what the ordination service insists lies at the heart of a deacon’s calling, and to clothe the words of faith with the actions of dedicated service of others. That sacred trust that is given to you today is not simply to represent the church before the world. It’s to represent nothing less than God himself, and the Son of God crucified and risen.
That is your duty and your joy day in, day out. As clergy, you do not need to be awkward or reticent about what you are about as the church’s minister in places where people are inarticulate about religion, or baffled by it, or plain sceptical. Whatever their beliefs, people expect you to be a man or woman of faith; many, and this may surprise you, will positively want to hear what you have to say about it. Some will even ask you to teach them to pray. Encourage it, especially among your own church. If no-one ever requests a conversation about faith, prayer and the spiritual life, ask yourself if you may be sending out the unconscious message that you don’t really welcome it when people get too interested in religion. If faith is at the heart of your ministry, and your habit of prayer is deep-seated, you can expect that people will want to hear more about it by drawing on your experience and your insights into the spiritual life.
All this is part of what it means to ‘bear witness’ in our public roles. So on the day of your ordination, may I urge you to keep the Lord’s Prayer close to your heart? Its longing for the kingdom to come and God’s will to be done articulates our universal human hunger for a future worth living for. It gives us words to live and to die by. It will keep your expectation alive and give you the confidence to kindle it in those you serve. It will give you a treasure of inestimable value to share with those to whom God sends you and whom you are called to build up in faith.
There is no higher privilege we can have than to be given the task by the church of imitating our Master and helping others to seek God and find him, and know him. Forty years on, I can say that there is nothing else I would rather have done with my life. I trust it will be the same for all of you today, and in the years that lie ahead.
5 July 2015
5 July 2015
4 July 2015