Every Sunday one short prayer, which in English begins “Our Father in heaven,” is said by worshipers in churches of almost every kind around the world. In many orders of worship, this prayer is part of the devotional beginning of the service and in others it is recited as the conclusion to the long prayer of praise and intercession. In most published orders for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, this prayer is the concluding portion of the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, providing a way for all of the worshiping congregation to join in this prayer at the climax of Christian worship.
In some progressive churches, however, this prayer is either omitted or modified. The problem is the way it begins, with the title that Jesus used as his ordinary way of addressing God: Our Father in heaven…” In a world when so many people have experienced abuse by their fathers, the objection goes, how can we ask them to use this title for God? They answer their own question by abandoning the prayer completely or by altering the address—“God our parent,” “Holy One,” or “Eternal Friend.”
Another course of action is implied in John Dominic Crossan’s book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. While he says very little about the liturgical use of this brief prayer from the lips of Jesus, he does provide a way to understand it so that its metaphoric language is redeemed and Progressive Christians can restore it to their public services of praise.
Early in the book, Crossan states his central claim: “What if the Lord’s Prayer is neither a Jewish prayer for Jews nor yet a Christian prayer for Christians? What if it is—as this book suggests—a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is—as this book suggests—a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?” (p. 2).
Near the end of the book (pp. 181-2), he summarizes the themes that he has explored in considerable detail.
1. God the Father is to be understood as God the Householder of the World whose justice and righteousness mean that “it is only just and right that all who dwell together—in household or Household—have enough.”
2. Made in the image of God, “we are to collaborate with God as appointed stewards of a world that we must maintain in justice and equity.”
3. When Jesus is called the “Son” of God, the meaning is that he is “the Heir of God, the divine Householder of the World.”
4. “Christians are called to collaborate with Christ as the Heir of God.” We are to participate in the kingdom of God understood as eschaton, as “the Great Divine Cleanup of the World.”
5. The Abba prayer “is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world.”
In their worship and theology, progressive Christians have to decide whether to interpret God according to our human experience or to shape our human life according to our spiritual and theological experience. When Jesus prayed “Our Father,” was he praying to a glorified form of Joseph the carpenter? Is “Our Father in heaven” to be understood as my earthly father, or anybody’s earthly father, made into the standard of parental love?”
It ought to work the other way. In our prayers and systematic thought we come to understand what fatherliness really is. Even when our own life experience has been troubled or deficient, we can find some resolution in the one Father whose love is never tough but always gentle, who always reaches down, takes us by the hand, and helps us walk.
Most progressive Christians seem able to refer to the church as a family despite the fact that many families have been abusive, and we can gather at the table to eat together in Christ’s name even though some people go hungry or find their own little tables to be scenes of diminishment and despair. Progressive Christians can use Christ’s family and Christ’s table as examples for transformation of our own broken or diminished experience.
So too, if I understand Crossan, we can continue to crown our services of worship with the revolutionary prayer from the lips of Jesus, saying, “Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come…”