Sunday, March 08, 2015

Against the Grain: The Lord's Prayer, part IV

Galatians 1:3-10
Matthew 6:24-34

“Religion is meant to be bread for daily use, not cake for special occasions.”  Unknown
“Give us enough bread day-by-day.”  Didache 8:2

Continuing our series in examining The Lord’s Prayer and its basic components, let us consider what we are to ask for when we pray for “our daily bread”.  We must always bear in mind when Jesus was teaching His disciples to “pray in this way”, and at their request as it is written in Luke 11, it seems unlikely our Lord would be challenging His followers to simply memorize the Prayer. 

I am more and more convinced we are to internalize this prayer so it becomes the fundamental expression of our inmost desire; that of faithfully representing Christ in the world with every breath – and - the means to do so … and not just on such “special occasions” as we deem it necessary or when things start going badly for us.

The first thing we must do is distinguish between the “bread” we truly need and the “cake” we probably desire more.  Which “master” will we serve?  My first thought was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “cheap grace” in which he observes: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession ...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap grace is, as John Wesley once observed, “a form of religion but having no real power”.  In the Scriptures it is written in 2 Timothy 3:5 as “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power”; just going through the motionsThere are other similar biblical references such as Jesus’ analogy of “white washed tombs which, on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of bones of the dead and all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27). 

In other words, cake is much more appealing to the eye and the palate than plain ol’ bread; and while there might be limited nutritional value to the cake, we know our bodies cannot function as well absent a balanced diet.  It should also be noted that some of the worst cakes I have tasted have been disguised by beautiful icing!

Comparing religion to bread, however, seems distasteful because we live in a generation that is doing its level best to distance itself from religion altogether; not only the form of religion but also consequently the substance.  And I would suggest while there can be a form of religion without substance, there can be no substance in religion without some form. 

My guess is, however, many have no idea what the substance of religion really is; all they know is they don’t want to be bothered with attending worship on Sunday, they want the “icing” that has become grace, and they want church folk to mind their own business.  They would much rather sleep in, live life on their own terms, post a religious ditty on Facebook from time to time, and pat themselves on the back for their spiritual “awesomeness” and witness.

Even Christians are developing a distaste for religion, but my guess is few of us have really drilled down deep enough to understand the foundation and the substance of religion – and religious expression.  It involves much more than “getting saved”, much more than merely attending worship services once in a while or watching a service on TV, and much more than dropping a few nickels in the collection plate when we think we can spare it.

Bonhoeffer says grace comes from proper religious expression, specifically from the Christian religion and the necessary discipline.  There is grace, more mercy than we can fathom but we have somehow managed to convince ourselves that since Jesus “paid the price”, there is nothing left for us to do but to enjoy the “cake”.

But we must ask: why would Jesus teach us to pray “like this” and specifically ask for “daily bread”?  It is not an incidental part of the prayer.  And why would the apostles later encourage disciples to pray like this “three times daily” (Didache 8:3)? 

Jesus declares “I am the bread of life … the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:48, 51).  So the bread we are to seek, the bread we should desire is Jesus Himself.  Yet we must also bear in mind that when we seek Jesus, when we desire Jesus, we must seek and desire much more than a person as if Jesus were an alternate, and more user-friendly, “god”; we are seeking after the personification of The Most High God, our Creator, the very foundation and form and power of our existence.  And we experience this personification in The Word – the whole, holy, and entire Word - “which became flesh” in the person of Jesus; that Word which can and must become flesh (incarnate) in our own faithfulness.

It is too common, however, that we get stuck on the Name itself but look no further; that is, we deliberately distance ourselves from the Church, which is biblically defined as the Body of Christ, and the corresponding discipline, the fellowship, and the Sacraments – all intended to build up the Church, not weaken it.  We have been traditionally taught to reach out to and call for “Jesus”, but we've not been taught what we are really asking for.  It has become much easier to simply offer “cake” – that is, the “form of religion” but withholding the power and denying the substance.

As a consequence of our own carelessness and complacency, we have become so deeply engrained with a “wicked and adulterous generation that looks for signs” (Matthew 16:4), tangible things which can be proved, that we have forgotten that we “cannot live on bread alone (“signs”), but on every word that comes from the mouth of The Lord” (Matthew 4:4), even those “words” we often do not understand because they do not seem culturally compatible. 

Jesus is much more than a mere man; He is that Word which existed before the foundation of all creation!  Jesus is not a new word; He is The Word who became mortal for our sake – not only at the Cross but with every lesson taught, every sickness healed, and every prayer uttered.

Much more than a man, then, there is an Eternal element to Messiah we must learn to strive for, to become hungry for, to greedily reach for; the “word that will not pass away [though] heaven and earth will pass away” (Mark 13:31).  Since we know Heaven will never “pass away”, we should then appreciate the depth of Jesus’ persona as “the Word” and the proclamation He makes as to the enduring nature of the “bread” we are to seek after, the ‘bread’ we truly need.

This is why discipleship cannot be separated from sanctification, and the Sacraments of the Church cannot be separated from discipleship.  We cannot be simply “saved” and then go about our business as if nothing had happened, as if nothing is being asked of us, as if the “father of lies” is our master. 

We cannot “have our cake and eat it, too” (that is, to cherry pick the best of both worlds and believe them to be compatible), and then expect to be received upon the Day of The Lord – because the choices we make each and every day are our enduring and continuing responses to The Lord’s Mercy.

We must go “against the grain” of the social context we live in if we are to be “set apart” for service to The Lord.  The only way we can expect to have the strength, the resolve, the vision, the discipline, even a reason for being “set apart” is to ask for our “daily bread” from Heaven – AND truly desire it! 

The enduring Promise is that we will get exactly what we ask for … in this world and in the world to come.  Let us be sure we seek and ask for the right thing!  Amen.

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