A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 16, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 6:9-13, Isaiah 52:7-10, and Matthew 16:13-16
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I want to add one more scripture lesson today.  Matthew 16:13-16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Who would you say Jesus is?  I suppose most of us would check off the box that says, “The Christ.”  Probably the box that says, “Son of the Living God.”  But what else would you say?

I have this theory that says, if you say you’re a follower of Jesus, your sense of who Jesus is will impact how you do that following.  I think that makes sense.  If I thought of Jesus as a dogcatcher and I claimed to be a follower of him, I would probably spend time, energy, and money catching dogs.

Anglican theologian N.T. Wright claims – I think with validity – that one way of understanding who Jesus thought he was, is to look at the prayer he taught his disciples.  “The more I have studied Jesus in his historical setting,” Wright wrote, “the more it has become clear to me that this prayer sums up fully and accurately, albeit in a very condensed fashion, the way in which he read and responded to the signs of the times, the way in which he understood his own vocation and mission and invited his followers to share it.  This prayer, then, serves as a lens through which to see Jesus himself, and to discover something of what he was about.”[2]

So, that’s what I want to do this morning – look at this prayer we called “the Lord’s Prayer” to help us better understand how Jesus saw himself and his vocation.  And, if you don’t mind (or even if you do, I suppose), I’ll approach it line by line.

            Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.

The first occurrence in the Hebrew Scriptures that refers to God as a parent comes when God directs Moses to appear before Pharaoh.  God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh:  “Thus says the Lord:  Israel is my firstborn son.  I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’  But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son” (Ex 4:22-23).  God is referred to as a parent by God, with the parenthood implied because Israel is called God’s child.

The Exodus story is the defining story of Hebrew identity.  It had to have shaped how Jesus saw himself and his vocation.  Calling God ‘Father’ echoes back to this story.  Calling God ‘Father’ holds on to the hope of liberty that is the core of the Exodus story.  In calling God ‘Father,’ Jesus was understanding his vocation to be like Moses’, to be one of liberation.  When Jesus tells his disciples to call God ‘Father,’ he is telling them to get ready for the new Exodus.

We, too, need to learn what it means to call God ‘Father.’  It’s going to shake things up.  You can’t predict what God’s going to do next.  That’s why calling God ‘Father’ is a great act of faith, of holy boldness, of risk.

It’s not just saying, “Hi, dad.”  Calling God ‘Father’ is signing on for the kin-dom of God.  Which brings us to the next line.

            Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I mentioned last week that this line is a radical prayer.  Let’s start with the word King James’ crew translated as “kingdom.”  The Greek word is the same word used to describe Rome and the Roman occupation.  In reference to Rome, we use the word “empire.”

Imagine being a Jew in occupied Palestine – occupied by Rome, being subjugated by the Roman Empire.  And then Jesus calls for God’s empire to be established on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus saw his job, his vocation, to be the establishing of God’s empire, and that means overthrowing the principalities and powers of this world.

I know Pastor Brenda will get into this more deeply in the coming weeks.  For today, let me simply say that this line of the prayer points to Jesus’ understanding of his vocation as being part of God’s continuing work of liberation, first witnessed in the Exodus story.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come,” he was asking them, asking us to pray that he succeeds.

And, I think, praying this line is an RSVP to the invitation that we join with Jesus in this work.  Think of it like this:  “Jesus is the medical genius who discovered penicillin; we are doctors, ourselves being cured by this medicine, now applying it to those who need it.  Jesus is the musical genius who wrote the greatest oratorio of all time; we are the musicians, captivated by his composition ourselves, who now perform it before a world full of musak and cacophony.”[3]  We can only pray this prayer if we are prepared to become kin-dom bearers, healed healers, players in the divine orchestra.

            Give us this day our daily bread.

One of the images that comes up for me when I pray this line of the Lord’s Prayer is of Jesus in the desert being tempted by Satan.  “Hungry?” the tempter asks.  “Turn these stones into bread.”  Another image is of Jesus having dinner with a collection of people that, for one reason or another, raised the eyebrows of one judgmental group or another.  And I start thinking about all the parables that include food – wedding banquets and parties for prodigals.

Jesus’ eating and drinking, and his stories about eating and drinking, were signs of what we just prayed for.  “Thy kingdom come,” we prayed.  And there’s Jesus eating with people from all walks of life and telling stories of the “undeserving” being welcomed.  Jesus knew that a sign of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven would be when everyone has enough and no one has too much.  The picture goes back to the land flowing with milk and honey, the Psalmist imagining God preparing a table were friends and enemies can dine together, and Isaiah’s vision of God making a feast for all peoples.

Jesus understood his vocation to be the ushering in of the kin-dom of God.  As partners with Jesus in this vocation, we pray for and work for a world where no one is hungry and no one needs to worry about where tomorrow’s food will come from.  And so, when we gather around the communion table, we are enacting our prayer by welcoming everyone and making sure there’s enough for everyone.

            Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

One of the ways Jesus got into trouble was by announcing God’s forgiveness.  A man with paralysis is brought to him and Jesus says that his sins are forgiven.  “Only God can forgive sin,” the scandalized religious elites pronounce.  So Jesus heals the paralysis as a sign of the forgiveness this man has received.  Jesus’ “healings, parties, stories and symbols all said:  the forgiveness of sins is happening right under your noses.”[4]

As much as any other line in this prayer, when we pray this line we are breathing in what Jesus is doing and are becoming alive with this vocation.  This forgiveness business is the ministry of reconciliation.  This forgiveness business is the ministry of healing broken relationships and bringing shalom – peace and justice – to the world.

One of my favorite lines in a worship bulletin says, at the time of the Lord’s Prayer, “Debtors will wait for trespassers and sinners to catch up.”[5]  Debts and trespassing are property terms, so I hear hints of the Jubilee in this prayer.

The Jubilee year was supposed to come around every 50 years.  It was a year when all debts were forgiven.  Mortgages and personal loans were forgiven.  Indentured servants were freed.  Property was returned to the tribes to whom it was originally given.  The Jubilee is about making sure everyone has enough and no one has too much.

We pray this prayer to capture Jesus’ vision and enter his vocation of reconciliation, freedom, and justice.

            Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

This line leads me back to the desert with Jesus.  There, he faced temptations, and I believe those temptations were directly related to him coming to understand his vocation.  Would he be about satisfying his own desires or would he be about something deeper?  Would he be about fame and celebrity or would he be about something deeper?  Would he be about political power or would he be about something deeper?

Jesus concluded that he would be about something deeper.  “As Albert Schweitzer once put it, Jesus was called to throw himself on the wheel of world history so that, even though it crushed him, it might start to turn in the opposite direction.”[6]

Jesus shares this prayer with his disciples knowing what it’s like to struggle with temptation, knowing how important it is to be clear about and to stay faithful to one’s vocation.  That’s one of the gifts of this prayer.  It gives us a view of Jesus’ life and how he understood it, of Jesus’ vocation and how he understood it.  And, as we pray it, we start making that vocation our own.


[1] Primary source for this sermon:  N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996).

[2] N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 2.

[3] Ibid, 30.

[4] Ibid, 53.

[5] I don’t remember where I first read this line; it was long ago.

[6] Ibid, 69; Wright does not directly quote Schweitzer.