The Lord’s Prayer – More than Liturgical Ovaltine (Sermon on Matthew 6: 5-15)


If you don’t like the Lord’s Prayer then you are in the wrong place this evening!

Thomas Cranmer liked it so much that he included it twice in each of the services of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Holy Communion in the Prayer Book (1662). (Meaning you could say it in services at least 6 times a day). It was also the first prayer that the new Pope Francis used in his address to the world from the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square. So it has endorsement from both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

As we saw in our reading from Matthew 6 it was the prayer that Jesus himself taught us. In this passage Jesus suggested that when we pray we should be alone and we know from the Gospels that he liked to take himself off on his own to pray. Perhaps as a result of this practice the Lord’s prayer is the only real prayer which we have been left by Jesus.

It is therefore quite rightly the most famous and most used prayer in the Christian tradition and it is a prayer that has always been special to me.

One of my earliest memories is of saying the Lord’s Prayer in bed at night – I have never found it easy to get to sleep, my mind whirls with thoughts and worries – saying the prayer used to calm me down, it still does – it’s a kind of liturgical Ovaltine, with its familiar words and rhythms making it like a soothing lullaby, or a mug of hot chocolate.

I also liked the way that the prayer joined up different parts of my life – the prayer I said at home was the same as we said at school each morning in assembly and the same that we said just before communion at Eucharist services on Sundays. The prayer united these three areas of my life – home and school and Church – giving me a sense of continuity of identity and purpose in each. Everything linked together and made sense.

This continuity has now been lost by the adoption by the Church of England (but not most schools) of a “modern” translation which replaces “thy” with “your”, “trespasses” with “sins” and some changes of word order to no apparent purpose.

As is probably apparent, this has really annoyed me. Do people not know that Thy is the old single form of Your, that trespass is to venture where one should not, to transgress? I believe they do know these things.

If the idea is to remove archaisms and so make God seem more “modern”, then why do we still say “Hallowed” in both versions? Perhaps because people are allowed to know what “hallowed” means because they often refer to the football pitch at Old Trafford or Wembley in mock religious terms as the “hallowed turf”. But the reason that people know and appreciate the word “Hallowed” in the context of our national game is precisely because of its use in the main prayer of our national religion. This seems to have been lost on the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission.

The Commission clearly recognised that there was going to be a problem about which version was being used so they have included two slightly different introductory sentences in Common Worship: “As our Savour taught us, so we pray” means get ready to say the modern version. Meanwhile “Let us pray with confidence as our saviour taught us” means use the version we know from school – why one might ask would one ever want to pray without confidence?

Priests get confused – even Archbishops – Justin Welby on his pre-enthronment tour is reported to have got in a muddle as to which version he was using when praying impromptu in Chichester Cathedral; he had to apologise for mixing the versions up.

In fact there are three versions in current circulation and you can tell if you look at my “Praying the Lord’s prayer with confidence” crib sheet which version you are using from just the first three words.

If a priest says “Our Father which art in heaven, then we are using the 1662 version (as in this service), If he says “who art in heaven” then this is the version introduced as part of an effort to revise the book of Common Prayer 1928. The changes seen nowadays very minor and sensitive to Cranmer’s original but at the time this was seen as highly controversial and was defeated in the House of Commons and so never formally adopted by the church.

Put off by their defeat in Parliament the Church left the 1662 prayer book unchanged and instead looked at introducing new services in parallel and so we had Series One, Series Two and Series Three and then in 1980 the Alternative Service Book which introduced the “modern” version which is in use today and was codified in 2000 in Common Worship, giving us our third opening line – “Our Father in heaven.”

I attended a wedding last year where we had elements of all three versions mixed into one – which was quite odd but it was a Scottish wedding and perhaps this was the Scottish version…

In compiling my Lord’s Prayer handout I looked at these previous versions but also back to the origins of the prayer in the Gospel of Luke and the one we have just heard in Matthew looking to find which was the most authentic

To do this is rather shocking as you will see: first they do not agree with each other; second there is no mention of “trespasses” – rather it is “sins” or even “debts” which are to be forgiven – it turns out that the word “Trespasses” was introduced in the third century by one of the fathers of the early church, Origen of Alexandria, who suggested the Greek word paraptomata (meaning trespasses) in his version of the prayer as a better translation of the underlying thought. (Sins in Greek are harmatia which really means weaknesses and opheleimata strictly means financial obligations which is presumably not what was meant by Jesus but rather a translation of the Aramaic where the words for debt and transgression were the same.)

Meanwhile, at the end of the prayer, the doxology (“For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory, for ever and ever”) is also missing. This was a second century addition, appearing first at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in the earliest known Christian Liturgy, the Didache. (This didactic work is well worth reading and available as part of Early Christian Writings (Penguin) if you have never seen it)

So my traditional version of the paternoster turns out not to be very authentic but merely one of many editions developed over the centuries of this important prayer

Familiarity can lead one to read superficially and fail to look for meaning in a text – liturgical Ovaltine can be good for putting you to sleep but not for waking up your faith.

As I looked more closely at this prayer, I came to see how complex and disturbing it actually is.

Famously it includes all of the basic elements of prayer – Adoration, Confession Thanksgiving and Supplication (often summarised in the mnemonic ACTS), but it also incorporates the essential elements of the Christian life as exemplified in the monastic tradition with its vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Let us spend a moment to look at this together

Our father Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven

This is clearly adoration or praise for the creator but also acceptance and submission to the will of God, it reminds us of Jesus before his crucifixion – “not my will but thy will be done” (Luke 22: 42) – this is like the monastic vow of humility or obedience

Give us this day our daily bread

This can be seen as a thanksgiving for the food that we have (like a grace) but also a request for a simple life of living day by day and no more – a life of monastic poverty

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

A confession but also, loving thy neighbour as thyself – living a life obedient to Jesus’s great commandments of love

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

A prayer of supplication but also a request for a life of chastity and avoidance of temptation

So this apparently simple prayer contains some really big questions for the Christian to wrestle with every day

– Whom do I need to forgive? From whom do I need to seek forgiveness?

– What do I need to resist – am I master over myself or are my desires master over me?

– What do I need to live day by day – am I poor and humble in spirit?

– What is the will of God for me – am I obedient to it?

As such, whatever version we use, this is hardly liturgical Ovaltine but rather a concise checklist for living a life from a profoundly Christian perspective, full of monastic discipline.

Not just for praying in Church but for our places of work and our places of learning and, most of all, for our homes

Not just for Sunday but for everyday, and perhaps several times in one day


Sermon Given by Chris Hancock at Evensong, St Mary’s Headley, 30th June, 2013

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5 Responses to The Lord’s Prayer – More than Liturgical Ovaltine (Sermon on Matthew 6: 5-15)

  1. Glenys Sahay says:

    A wonderful sermon Chris, and I too would feel deprived if I could not finish each day without saying our Lord’s prayer. I do feel that to state catorgorically what Christ’s exact words were is an impossibility since it was saved only by word of mouth for the first thirty years or so before the gospels were written, and subsequently translated and retranslated, as well as being subjected to the errors of the many scribes who copied it. That does not prevent us from divining the meaning.
    I would like though to enlarge on;
    “Forgive us our tresspasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”
    The “as” should not be taken as “because”. We don’t bargain with God, and we are too human to be totally forgiving.
    Surely the “as” means “in the same way as” which gives a very different meaning, for it then implies that in order for us to forgive we must first learn by having forgiveness witheld in those areas where we are lacking. In this way our Father God gently guides and teaches us in the manner of a good father. What do you think?

  2. Glenys, I agree entirely. For me this is parallel to treating others as you would be treated in the next chapter (Matthew 7:12) and the Greek construction makes this clear (ὡς καὶ not ῖνὰ)

  3. Glenys says:

    Thanks, I could go along with that Glenys

  4. Sally says:

    A really good sermon Chris and great food for thought. I do not like the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer and say the traditional quietly to myself. What a wonderful ending “For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever Amen”. How stirring! How inspiring! How dubbed down is the modern version ” For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever”. Interestingly when attending other services away from our church, i.e. funerals and weddings, everyone seems to know the traditional version, even my atheist other half! I shall continue to say the traditional version – it’s perfect.

  5. Pingback: How shall we pray? The Lord’s Prayer in Luke (Proper 12C) | The Word on the Hill

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