We have all been brought up to think carefully when we are offered something at a ridiculous price, or even for free, on the grounds that eventually, someone has to pay a price somehow.
That is why I drew your attention last week to the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that can imply that God’s forgiveness is conditional on being ourselves willing to forgive others.
That sounds fair enough until you begin studying what Jesus had to say about it, particularly in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
The starving younger son, having wasted his father’s money in a short life of debauchery, returns home and on the way rehearses a plea for forgiveness for when they meet.
It is clear his father has been constantly on the lookout, watching to see if his wayward son will return.
Before the boy has had chance even to meet his father, the latter is running towards him with outstretched welcoming arms. No word of condemnation for his son’s behaviour, no waiting for the rehearsed confession and penitence, but the fatted calf is prepared for a banquet (much to the elder son’s disgust) of thanksgiving for the beloved son’s return.
Here, surely Jesus is saying that God’s love is un-conditional for that is why we have the Gospel (Good News), with its good news of the Cross as the means by which are able to approach the Father.
Many Christians, especially among fundamentalist believers, teach that God is so angry at humanity’s sins, that He must be pacified by the sacrifice of His only Son.
That might well be, but the whole tenor of the Old Testament prophets’ teaching regarding sacrifice is that God doesn’t want blood of creatures shed in order to pacify Him, but rather that penitence should show itself in good social works, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and welcoming “strangers” (immigrants).
I could not have been alone in asking my wife (or she of me), “Do you love me?” with an affirmative response, but suppose we press the matter further and ask “How much do you love me?”
The answer might be “very, very much”; we may be foolish enough to press further and enquire whether that love is “unconditional”.
That’s a difficult one and the truth is that no one loves “unconditionally” but God Who is love.
Peter, having failed Jesus by denying Him must have felt awkward when he met the Risen Lord (John 21, vv15-end), but Jesus’ question is a simple one “Do you love me?”
Peter splutters a bit and replies in the affirmative, “You know that I love you” and Jesus says “Feed my lambs and feed my sheep”. Rather than pronouncing absolution to the failed disciple, Jesus, asks the same question three times, and goes on to give him a job to do, to this failure trusting him with an even greater challenge.
God’s love is unconditional, for the Gospel is simply, “God loves you”, whoever or whatever you are and accepts us without conditions and this is where the Cross comes into the equation.
The Cross is not only a reminder of how cruel mankind (and womenkind) can be, but how loving God is, for this is no mere man hanging, spit-covered, thorn-crowned, but God Himself and it is to this Cross that we turn. Our relationship with God enables us to plead because of that one tremendous act of His self-offering.
It is difficult for us to grasp, but we are dealing with Divine mystery. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” and we turn to that definition in the Athanasian Creed that Jesus was (and is) “Perfect God and perfect man; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by taking of the manhood into God”.
“There was none other good enough to pay the price of sin” wrote Mrs. Alexander and she never wrote a truer word, for we are thinking of the sin (not sins) of the whole of humanity from the beginning of time, for which, paradoxically, God pays.
Read Matthew 6 to find the background to all the teaching:
My earliest acquaintance with “trespasses” was in relation to notices which told me not to “trespass” which I understood to mean going through gates or on land to which we were forbidden entry.
At 8 years old, I couldn’t understand where God came into the picture, because as a small obedient youngster I didn’t dare do so; I feared “prosecution” (whatever that meant.) but I understood it meant being reported to the frightening policeman.
Actually, “debts” is more accurate for when we do, say or think that which would be alien to the spirit of Love, we have incurred a “debt”, for which there must be some recompense.
When we offend in this way, unless we say “Sorry” (and mean it), putting right anything that has injured the other party (including God) then the darkness of such behaviour hangs around us.
There are certain problems regarding our response, for if we feel a sense of guilt, then this can darken our lives and is the instigator of much unhappiness with anyone with a conscience.
I have spoken previously regarding this factor in our personal lives which can lead in extreme cases to self-destruction and this has to be dealt with in some way.
The whole of the Christian Gospel is concerned with relationships, between God and ourselves and that with other people.
“Forgive us our debts”, then, but let’s consider this more.
The parable of the “unjust servant” (Matthew 18,vv23-35) is probably a compilation by Matthew in his Gospel of Jesus’ teaching on the subject and is interesting. Clearly there are two meanings in the Lord’s Prayer; 1. That we ask for forgiveness of God because we have already forgiven others “as we (have?) forgiven those who have offended us in some way”, but it can also mean 2. “Inasmuch as we have forgiven others”. In other words, Jesus says, that our forgiveness is conditional, in that we cannot expect God to forgive us if we have not a forgiving heart towards those who have offended us.
Yet, Jesus in other teaching implies that God’s forgiveness is readily there because of the Cross; yet we cannot expect to receive treatment from God that we are unwilling to offer others.
The heart of the Gospel teaching is reconciliation, the relationship we have with others; “at-one-ment”, which means making “At one” those who are opposed to each other. (We’ll talk about this next Sunday).
I look back over my own ministry, where the refusal to forgive someone who has offended, has divided families and friends bringing much unnecessary unhappiness. Beneath this refusal to forgive lurks that old and dangerous sin of “pride” which is serious and spiritually dangerous.
An appraisal of our own behaviour should be an essential part of our daily devotions and certainly prior to our confession in our worship. That is why a regular, honest self-examination of our actions and motives is basic to our Christian way of life, painful though it may be at times.
Originally, I spoke of the “Lord’s Prayer” as “The Pattern Prayer”, for I keep company with those who believe that Jesus didn’t expect this to be repeated several times a day, but it was a guide-llne as to how, and for what we should pray.
The disciples had asked “Teach us to pray” and it’s a very short lesson, giving us a series of headings indicating priorities and subjects, and if you have thought about it, the prayer is divided into two distinct sections, which we can simplify as “God’s priorities” and the other, ours.
Now we have reached that dividing line, for we cease thinking about God and His priorities, which if they were followed would enable a peaceful and ordered, loving Society to exist.
If God’s Name were to be revered and His commandments obeyed, then His Kingdom would come; these are priorities but now we turn to our basic needs, both physical and spiritual.
This is not a natural order, for left to ourselves we would probably pray for our (and others’) physical needs, forgetting that all is of no avail, unless we put God in the prime position as the source of all Being.
Thanksgiving does not always come naturally to us, for we tend to see only the little picture and not the whole of God’s sway, nor do we always pray for spiritual guidance.
Our daily dependence upon food is obvious, but that we are to do so daily is enfolded in the words, which properly understood, means “Give us this day, our bread for today”.
“Lord for tomorrow and its needs I do not pray” we used to sing in Sunday School, stressing that our daily existence depends upon God and our contact with Him needs to be a daily event in our spiritual lives.
“Be not anxious” says Jesus reminding us that our Father has a deep concern for our welfare, and day by day we need to recall and pray, giving thanks daily, for our practical needs.
We would be upset if our diet only included “daily bread”, for the request covers all manner of sustenance, but bread itself has its own significance.
The Early Christians took this also as meaning food for our spiritual needs. In order to fulfil that prayer, after the Sunday Eucharist, they were allowed to take away sufficient of the consecrated bread that they could communicate themselves during the next six days. A practise that didn’t survive much beyond the first century AD, but nevertheless is significant.
Included in all this should be our concern for those who work and sometimes struggle to provide for our physical needs, often living precariously with a hand-to-mouth existence.
During the war, we were very conscious of the risks that our brave sailors faced daily in order to provide fish for our tables; today, despite there being no fears of submarines, fishing is still an occupation that carries many dangers. Sailors and fishermen still need our prayers today.
All this is encompassed in that single prayer “Give us” but inherent with asking there must be he “thanking”.
How often do we say “Grace” before or after a meal? In our household as children, we were not allowed to get down from the table until we had done so, something very common pre-War, which has ceased to be heard in most households.
The value of a prayer is not to be considered by its length; Jesus had words to say about “vain repetitions”. By using the ”imagining” I suggested recently, you do not need to seek for flowery language. We are talking to a loving Father, who will enable our needs, so brevity is not less spiritual when we pray in Faith.
Using it as a guideline, following Jesus’ thinking as presented in the Gospels, the “pattern prayer” enables us to pray simply but trustfully, effectively. Next week we turn to “Forgive us”.
G. K. Chesterton (the famous author, but a firm Roman Catholic), once wrote, “It isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but simply that it hasn’t been tried!”
Looking around the world certainly, the Christian Faith seems not to have achieved desirable changes in our Society that bear all the marks of the failed systems that confronted Jesus 2,000 years ago.
In the USA, once boasting the highest percentage of church-goers (I didn’t say, necessarily, Christians), mass shootings and blatant racism flourishes and the gaps between rich and poor have widened. There, here and throughout the world, people are worshippers of Mammon, the God of money (the “love of which” according to St. Paul, “is the source of all evil”).
Note, Paul says “the love of”, for money is a neutral thing in itself, but rather the selfish ways by which it is gained, and how it is used, make it a source of much evil.
We pray “Thy Kingdom come” of which Jesus had a great deal to say, but never defined what, where and when it has, or is to come.
When we “love our neighbour as ourselves” then the Kingdom will come on earth, but it doesn’t and hasn’t because too many worship the God whom they see in their mirror, sin (self).
Yet, the Kingdom exists, and everyone who is baptised and commits to the Law of Love centred on Jesus is a member.
Every Kingdom has a manifesto, laying down its principles, and this is contained, not only in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chaps. 5 & 6), but in references to the same principles expounded, not only by Jesus but by the O.T. prophets and also contained in books like Deuteronomy. God is concerned for the welfare of the unfortunate, for widows, the homeless, the poor, the outcasts of Society and (not least), the refugees who are to be welcomed. (Luke 4, vv18-30)
The Gospel is a “Social Gospel”, for it is centred on our human relationships with each other and with God.
The “Kingdom” is within every Christian; Paul speaks of our “Possessing the Kingdom”. Jesus says “The Kingdom is within you” for it is in every soul who places God at the centre of their lives.
Victorian hymns proclaimed the idea that The Church (the “gathering together”) is growing, until all mankind acknowledges Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. So much for their optimism and hopes, sadly, not yet fulfilled.
The fact that now there are more practising Christians in Communist China than in the whole of Europe where numbers are declining, shows that through complacency and lack of Missionary zeal, we are failing Him whose Kingdom is of peace and love.
With all the man-made disasters and tragic events facing our world, this is where a positive solution lies; by our living the Gospel.
We pray “Thy Kingdom come, THY WILL be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The two phrases complement each other, for we pray that the Kingdom will only come if all the baptised seek to do God’s will as already it is obeyed in the heavenly realm.
It isn’t sufficient that we pray that the Kingdom shall come, for it won’t do so unless we seek to obey these final words of Jesus to His disciples, (Matthew 28, vv16-20):
“Go therefore and preach the Gospel to all nations, baptising them in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit;teaching them to do and observe all I have commanded”.
The solution to all the world’s problems can be found in the revolutionary teaching of Jesus, which if it were followed could transform human relationships. How sad it is that we don’t do so?.
Deprived of a Diocesan Training Grant for my 3-yr. College Course (I hadn’t been recognised as “one of theirs”), having to find funds to pay my way for 2 of the 3 years, I resorted to making vestments and robes for my fellow students using a s.h. sewing machine (£5), accustoming me to using paper patterns to get the right shapes.
This explains the origin of the Lord’s Prayer, which is often called “The Pattern Prayer” that Jesus taught (in reply to a question from the disciples).
He said “When you pray say:
“Our Father”: Jesus throughout His ministry, even as He dies on the Cross, refers to God as “Father”, but here He includes us, by the beginning words “Our Father”, implying that God is OUR Father as well as His. Paul describes it as “adoption” (Romans 8, vvv12-17) ,
By so doing we accept that every human being we meet should be our spiritual brother or sister, members of the Family of God.
This one 3-letter word points a new way to human relationships, for if we are all “brothers and sisters”, something we reaffirm every time we speak those words, then we should treat everyone with respect.
When we pray “Our Father” we are saying that we who once were, because of our sins, “enemies” of God, are now reconciled to Him by the Cross and made friends, even children of God, so we pray as the Divine’s beloved children.
Jesus refers constantly to “The Father”, which underlines His relationship with the Divine Creator,
Jesus is not giving us a single prayer (that I feel we repeat far too often in our services), but a “pattern” of what good prayer should be, and its priorities.
Like the patterns from which I was able to cut vestments of all shades and styles for fellow students and clergy, if we followed the basic seven (yes, seven) themes of this prayer, our lives and the lives of every human being could be transformed.
The frightening behaviour of those who would harm complete strangers, sometimes with apparent impunity and certainly without cause, indicates that our social problems are linked to our failure to live by and teach the tenets of Christianity.
The problem is nothing to do with police numbers, or calling in the army to do the work of our depleted police force, but the remedy is a change within each one of us.
As Dorothy Sayers in her book, ”Creed or Chaos” says: “If I do not believe in the fatherhood of God, why should I believe in the brotherhood of man?”
By this we are not questioning or discussing the sexuality of God, but demonstrating the caring, forgiving Being who by His sheer Immensity and the nature of the Godhead and the Incarnation itself, has shown this “Caring”, that appears even in the Old Testament where so much blood is shed apparently at the command of Him who is supposed to be “Love”. God by His very nature is mystery.
We find this “Caring” nature of the Divine, right through the bloody chapters of inter-tribal wars described in the historical books of the Old Testament, coming to fruition in the prophet Hosea’s realisation that God is a caring, intimate being who “taught Ephraim to walk, took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them,I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love” (Hosea 11, vv1-4).
Society does not need more police or the army, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which sadly as a Church, since the end of the last war we have failed to proclaim adequately, but is inherent in the first two words of the “Pattern Prayer”. Think thereon.