"Please join me as we pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples..."
I've said that phrase more times than I can count. Having recently celebrated the 18th anniversary of my ordination, and having served as a solo pastor for 15 of those 18 years, I know I've uttered some variation of that phrase at least 780 times. I've preached sermon series on the Lord's Prayer, and revisited it when it shows up in the lectionary, which is regularly.
What does it mean, though, to ask that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
Religious leaders and theologians are hotly debating variations on this theme as we argue about whether the government in America is supposed to be guided by Biblical values like caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger among us. Some say that those commandments are only for individuals or churches, while others say that God desires a just society, for all people, and that means that our nation's laws and statutes must follow suit.
I look to the Bible every day to inform my life, my choices, and my understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And so I turn to the Bible as I think about our call as individuals, churches, and, yes, communities and countries to create structures that reflect God's will.
"Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
That's what we pray, for God's Kingdom to be established here, on earth, in the flesh, now, and for it to reflect God's divine will, which we know through the Biblical witness.
First, we're asking for something to happen here on earth, in our lives, in the way we live. It was not a mistake, or a brief experiment, for the Word of God to be flesh and to dwell among us. God intends us, in the flesh, to live abundant lives, and Jesus' incarnation is the number one proof of this desire. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray about God's will being done on earth, he meant this earth, not the earth to come, not the new heaven and new earth longed for in Revelation, but this earth that God created and called very good.
Second, we know what God's will is, through the entire arc of the Biblical witness. God calls a people out of slavery, delivers them through the wilderness, and gives them laws to structure their government in such a way that there will be no poor people among them. Jesus' first sermon shows him claiming his part in that overarching story, putting the world on notice that he has come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, grant sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. If this is not a distillation of God's will, what is?
Third, the early followers of Jesus sought to embody Jesus' message and God's will through a community where all people were equal, where widows and orphans were indeed cared for, where strangers were welcomed in, and where no one had need. Did it last? No. Persecution, division, and greed all came into play, and because we're human, because we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the body of Christ was swallowed by the empire of Rome.
Does this mean that God's call to form a just nation with laws that protect is no longer valid? Does this mean that when we pray for God's will to be done on earth that we're really only talking about our individual lives?
I am simply unable to understand the Bible in that way. God calls a people to follow, Jesus establishes the church, a community, the body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit moves through the assembled faithful.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. This how we pray. Is it how we act?