Sermon: Lord, Teach Us to Pray
On Sunday, September 11 I preached on the topic of prayer at the Church of the New Jerusalem in Dawson Creek, BC. I spoke from notes and I didn’t have a manuscript; the following is a rough draft of some of the things we talked about. So, it may be a little rough around the edges, but hopefully it gets across the main ideas. (Note for those unfamiliar with New Church terminology: “the Writings” refers to the divinely-inspired theological works written by Emanuel Swedenborg).
Readings: Matthew 6:7-13; Matthew 26:36-44; Arcana Coelestia 2535
LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY
Throughout the world, probably throughout the entirety of human history, people have been praying. Even with all the diversity among religions in the world, almost every religion has some kind of prayer – an attempt to communicate with something greater, and to ask something of that higher power.
But the religions of the world vary in how they pray, what form of prayer they believe will be effective. Within the land of Judea, the Lord’s disciples saw many different forms of prayer, by both Jews and Gentiles; and they naturally wondered how they should pray. The gospel of Luke recounts a time that they saw the Lord praying, and came to ask Him about it: “And it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He had ceased, one of His disciples said to Him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). His response to them was to teach them what we now know as the Lord’s prayer.
In that gospel, the Lord said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in the heavens…” He told them to use the exact words of that prayer, and there’s evidence that the earliest Christians did pray the Lord’s Prayer regularly. And there is power in those very words. In fact, the book Arcana Coelestia says of this prayer, “In the contents of this Prayer there are more things than the universal heaven is capable of comprehending.” By praying the Lord’s Prayer, we open ourselves up to countless thoughts and affections from heaven.
But the occasion recorded in Luke was not the only time the Lord taught His disciples to pray this prayer. He taught the same prayer also as part of the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. And on that occasion, rather than telling His followers to say those exact words, He told them to pray “in this way” – that is, for all their prayers to be modelled on the Lord’s Prayer.
Like the disciples, we wonder how we ought to pray. Who do we pray to? What kinds of things should we pray for? How should we pray in a way that will really make a difference? The Lord provides us with His prayer as a model to answer these questions.
Our Father who art in the heavens:
We begin with the question of Who we should pray to. And we begin with the most important part of the prayer, which is contained in all the things that follow. We can think of the entire prayer as a column descending from highest to lowest, a picture of the Lord in His essence descending down into all levels of creation (see Arcana Coelestia 8864:4). The first thing in the prayer is “Our Father,” and in the original Greek text, this is actually, “Father of us” – Father is the first and most important thing.
Think of the relationship we’re invited to have with the God of the Universe – not as a distant, unknowable being, but as our own Father, in the relationship between a parent and child. “Our Father” is the Lord in His essence, which is His infinite Divine love.
Now, for those who think of a God as a Trinity of persons, it may seem like we are supposed to pray to “the Father” rather than “the Son.” Swedenborg recounts an experience with spirits who tried to argue just that (see True Christian Religion 112). But the Lord Himself made clear over and over again that it is impossible to approach the Father except through the Son, because the Father is in the Son as the Soul is in the Body. Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). When they asked Him to show them the Father, Jesus told His disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). “Our Father” is the Lord God Our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Hallowed be Thy name
A person’s name is an external thing that still contains within it an idea of who they are. For example, even the mention of the name of a friend brings to mind all that friend’s qualities. And so, our Father’s “name” represents all His qualities and all the ways He manifests Himself to us. And the way He manifests Himself is in His Divine Humanity, as the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s why when Jesus said, “Father, glorify Thy name,” a voice from heaven answered and said, “I have both glorified, and will glorify again” (John 12:28). The Father’s name, in the deepest sense, represents His Divine Human.
This is who we pray to: the Lord God Jesus Christ, in His essence of Divine Love (the Father) and all His qualities and manifestations (His name).
Thy kingdom come
We know come to the content of the prayer – what we pray for (although praying “hallowed be Thy name” is actually the beginning of this). Praying for the Lord’s kingdom means praying for spiritual things – for the Lord’s good and truth to descend into the world – since as the Lord said, His kingdom is not of this world. And in the most general terms, prayers that are answered are prayers for spiritual things. One of our lessons, taken from Arcana Colestia 2535, says, “If a person prays from love and faith, and for only heavenly and spiritual things, there then comes forth in the prayer something like a revelation… as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy.” More specifically, the prayer that the Lord’s kingdom come is a prayer that His New Church will descend more and more into the world – that is, that more and more people will be able to see that the Lord Jesus Christ is the one and only God, and that salvation comes from living according to the Ten Commandments.
Thy will be done
Following right after the prayer that the Lord’s kingdom come is this prayer that His will be done. This statement is essential in every prayer, as it says in Arcana Coelestia 8179:
For in prayer from the Divine it is always thought and believed that the Lord alone knows whether it is profitable or not; and therefore the suppliant submits the hearing to the Lord, and immediately after prays that the will of the Lord, and not his own, may be done, according to the Lord’s words in His own most grievous temptation at Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44).
This prayer that the Lord’s will be done makes a prayer spiritual. For example, we may pray, “Lord, I really want to get this job.” In itself, that is a natural prayer. But if we pray along with this, “Not my will, but Your will be done,” the prayer becomes spiritual – we are praying that we get the job if it is going to be the best thing for our spiritual welfare, and the best thing in the Lord’s providence. We acknowledge that He knows what is best for us, and that He will grant it.
As in heaven, so upon the earth
Although some English translations have this as, “on earth as it is in heaven,” the original Greek has heaven first. This continues the picture of the prayer as descending down from the Lord in a column – beginning with His essence (the Father) down through His kingdom (heaven and the church within people) into every level of human life.
Give us this day our daily bread
The Lord’s Prayer continues to model the kinds of things we ought to ask for in all our prayers. “Bread” represents goodness and love, and so by asking for bread we are asking that the Lord inspire us with love – another element in spiritual prayer. It’s also important to note that the prayer is to give us today our daily bread. We don’t ask for bread for a week or a month – we ask that the Lord give us as much as we need for today. It echoes the Lord’s command to the children of Israel to only gather as much manna as they needed for a day. When we pray that the Lord give us only what we need, the Lord can inspire us with a greater trust – so that we can be free from some of the worry about “what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall wear” (Matthew 6:31).
But forgive us our debts
Some translations have this as “forgive us our trespasses” – and immediately following this prayer in the sermon on the mount the Lord said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” – but in the prayer itself, it literally says, “Forgive us our debts.” The reality is, we all owe an unpayable debt to the Lord. He gives us life and the ability to act – and when we take that life and use it for evil, to trespass against others – we have stolen something from Him. We owe Him a debt. But the Lord forgives every debt. He doesn’t keep a tally sheet. But for that forgiveness to be effective, we have to repent of our sin, as the Lord calls us to do over and over again. “But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:23).
As we also forgive our debtors
For the Lord to flow in with forgiveness, we need to have a spirit of forgiveness ourselves. The image of debt here helps us see the ways that we can be unforgiving – when we keep track of all the ways people have wronged us, the way they “owe” us, when we keep a tally sheet of how we are better than them. The Lord asks us to throw that away. This doesn’t mean we let harmful people continue to do harm – but in our attitude toward them, we are not to hold anger or hatred against them. This part of the prayer also acts as a model showing us that true prayer must come from a spirit of charity, as said above in Arcana Coelestia 2535.
And lead us not into temptation
The Lord never actually does lead anyone into temptation, as is known in the Christian world from the epistle of James: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed.” (James 1:13-14) But it can appear that God leads us into temptation, and this part of the prayer is a prayer that the Lord protect us in temptations, as well as an acknowledgment that He does not tempt.
But deliver us from evil
We’ve seen several different things that we can ask the Lord for in prayer. We ask that His kingdom come – a prayer for the spiritual state not just of ourselves, but for everyone in the universe. We ask that He give us our daily bread – the good things that are necessary for our spiritual well-being. And now we descend to the lowest level, where evil spirits attack us; and the final thing we pray for is that the Lord protect us from evil. It is an acknowledgment that the Lord is present with us on all levels – from where He dwells “in the heavens” to the valley of the shadow of death, where he delivers us from evil.
In this part of the prayer there is an acknowledgment that we are in evil, and that of ourselves we are helpless to get out of it. And one of the essentials in true worship is humility – the acknowledgment that of ourselves we are nothing but evil, and that all goodness and truth comes from the Lord alone.
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The other side of the acknowledgment that we are powerless against evil is the acknowledgment that the Lord does have power. This final acknowledgment encapsulates the entire prayer, showing the Lord’s presence on every level of our lives. We acknowledge that the kingdom is His – all good and truth with angels and spirits and men. We acknowledge that the power is His – the power He has to act from Divine Love. And we acknowledge that the glory is His – the awe-inspiring wisdom and truth from Him, that we can only ever capture a glimpse of.
Two final questions
The Lord’s prayer gives us a model for true prayer. We pray for spiritual things, and from charity. We pray that the Lord’s will be done.
But there may still be a question: if we are praying that the Lord’s will be done, do our prayers really make a difference? Right before teaching His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord said, “Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8). If our Father knows what we need, does asking make any difference?
The answer is clearly yes. Because in the act of asking, we open ourselves up to receive the things that the Lord wants to give us. We open ourselves up to the answers to our prayers, which come as “something like a revelation as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy.”
And this raises one final question: do our prayers make any difference to anyone else, or only to ourselves, in opening us up? The Writings say little on this topic directly. But we are told that anyone who knows of the Lord’s second coming, and the New Heaven and the New Church, pray that the Lord come with light (Apocalypse Revealed 956).
The Writings do teach that we all exist in our spirits in the spiritual world, and that when we think of someone else with love, our spirits draw closer (see for example Arcana Coelestia 1277). And so perhaps this is the way that prayers do affect others. When we pray that the Lord’s will be done, we are not going to change the Lord’s will – but we can align ourselves with it and act as another vessel for it. If we know someone who is suffering, for example – the Lord is already flowing into that person with His love and wisdom. He is flowing in directly, and He is flowing in through countless angels and spirits. When we pray for that person that the Lord be with them and that the Lord’s will be done, we join that spiritual force that the Lord is able to flow through. We will not be the sole difference-maker – but we can say, “I want to be on that team” that the Lord is acting through.
In praying our prayers, we open ourselves up to be vessels of the Lord’s will, so that through us His kingdom can come more fully into this world. The Lord’s prayer provides a model for us to acknowledge the Lord’s power and ability, His love and wisdom, on every level of our lives.
“Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, as in heaven so upon the earth.”
Coleman’s Blog | The thoughts and reflections of a New Church (Swedenborgian) minister