Recently, I officiated a wedding in which the couple decided to use both their own personal vows and so-called “traditional” vows such as found in the Book of Common Prayer. They wanted their promises not only to be deeply personal, but to be embedded in a whole history of promises made down through the centuries.
But they did not, of course, believe that the traditional words themselves guaranteed anything, as if they were some kind of magical incantation. Saying “I do” today doesn’t guarantee that “I will” tomorrow. The vows have to express not only our intentions as individuals, but our commitment to an ongoing relationship.
Something similar can be said about the many examples of prayer in the Bible. Jesus himself probably prayed the Psalms, and believers through the ages have followed suit. He also taught his disciples to pray what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.
But none of these are meant to be religious rituals performed for their own sake. How we pray expresses our relationship to God, and in turn continues to shape how we understand that relationship. We might call God our “Father,” for example, simply because it’s the formula we’ve been taught. But when Jesus taught his disciples to use that language, he was inviting them into his relationship with his Father. Praying those words is a way of trying that relationship on for size, of beginning to truly know God as our Father and ourselves as his children.
As suggested in the previous post, the essence of what we might learn from the prayer in Acts 4 can be summarized in three words: sovereignty, story, and strength. I argued that the themes of sovereignty and strength find their parallels in the Lord’s Prayer.
But what about story?
The words of the Acts 4 prayer suggest a people who see themselves as part of an ongoing story. The Master and Creator of the universe has been sovereign forever. His plans will not be thwarted. He has spoken through his prophets. His Messiah has triumphed despite the plans of earthly rulers. And just as God did mighty works through Jesus, he has commissioned the followers of Jesus to continue to do such works in his name. In Acts 4, story connects the recognition of God’s sovereignty and the prayer for strength: we are caught up in what God has ordained, and we need his empowerment to do what he wants us to do.
Is there a direct analog to “story” in the Lord’s Prayer? Perhaps not, at least not obviously so. But Matthew 6 comes at an early stage of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples had a long way to go in understanding what their Master was about, in having their imaginations transformed. Despite all that Jesus had taught them, even in the hours surrounding his arrest and crucifixion, they still didn’t get it.
The resurrection, however, changed everything. Though the crucifixion had ended the disciples’ previous hopes, the resurrection ushered them into a new story, a story Jesus helped them understand before his ascension back to the Father (cf. Luke 24:27, 44-47; Acts 1:1-3).
It’s not as if the disciples had no story when Jesus taught them the Lord’s Prayer. But think about it: what did it mean to them to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom before the crucifixion, as versus after the resurrection?
The story they thought they were living in had changed. Dramatically.
And that’s the story of which you and I as believers are now part.
There is continuity, then, between the Lord’s Prayer and the Acts 4 prayer. While the former expresses our general orientation toward prayer, the latter expresses how we pray when trouble looms. We pray in a way that helps us remember and rest in God’s sovereignty. We remind ourselves that we are part of the story of how God is working out his purposes in what seems to be a dangerous and chaotic world. And we pray for the strength to do his will no matter what.
Sovereignty. Story. Strength. May the Acts 4 prayer help keep you steady when you need it most.