Why we should stop caring about flags. Matthew 6.

My Pastor at Village, Lucas came up with the hashtag #inBelfastasitisinHeaven a while ago that he uses often uses on twitter.

That prayer is as much needed today in Belfast as it has in a long time.

He of course is borrowing from the Lord’s Prayer. A prayer that is echoed by thousands of people every Sunday in churches all across Northern Ireland. Yesterday you may well have said it. We’re taught it from an early age and it becomes so engrained that we can recite it in our sleep.

Which is partly why I have a problem with it.

Not the prayer itself but how we have become so over familiar with it that I suspect we have forgotten or indeed never truly understood the power it has.

In case you don’t know it here it is.

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Reading through it seems like a lovely prayer that we can use if we can’t think of our own words and need a little prompting. It seems to cover everything that Christians think are important. God, Heaven, forgiveness and sins. Pray for these things and we will be fine.

But it’s not an easy prayer to pray and mean.

Sure God send down some Heaven for us to enjoy. But actually contribute to that ourselves, that’s messy.

It’s easy to pray for forgiveness so we can feel safe again. But offer that same forgiveness to someone who has hurt us. That means being vulnerable.

Asking God to provide for us even when our bank balance is in the red and rent comes out tomorrow.

Praying that God will stop you wanting to sin is an honourable enough thing to pray for I guess, but what happens when temptation comes and we don’t feel God near?

A prayer that we chant and mumble our way through when we’re prompted to loses its power and challenge today.

It’s interesting that this prayer is set inbetween a passage where Jesus warns about the dangers of praying so we sound elegant and we are sure others can see us, a passage about giving to the poor without broadcasting it to everyone and another passage where  Jesus warns,

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

Have we fallen into the same trap that Jesus talks about when we pray the Lord’s prayer every Sunday while not fully engaging in it? Jesus seems to saying, when you engage in spiritual disciplines so that other people can see how ‘Godly’ you are then you are missing out on the real reward.

On a side note I should remark that I am not saying praying the Lord’s Prayer together with other Christians or certainly not that reciting liturgy with others is bad. Simply are we doing it because it’s that point of the service or because we want God to remind us of the importance of certain characteristics that He wants us to display? Ironically when we engage in prayer and fasting in the way Jesus instructs we will see a change in ourselves that those who pray to show off will never have.

But back to the prayer. Jesus repeatedly states that if we do those things in secret that previously we had done for public adoration, God would reward us. What this is He doesn’t go into but from what Jesus had prayed we can gain a glimpse of how this might work out.

When Jesus prays for Heaven on Earth he is praying exactly for this. That we would become people who exhibit the characteristics that will be fully formed in us in the future. Characteristics that are not inducive to people that are praying or fasting for attention. Or when we pray for forgiveness and we offer forgiveness freely to others we are beginning to dwell in Heaven even though we are on Earth. Our reward is that we start to experience in part what God will do in full when He renews the Earth with Heaven.

We will start to see God rather than stressing out on getting others to see us as God.

Our prayer to God for His kingdom to be established on Earth is one where we are active. Where how we treat others and how we forgive others is actively bringing that kingdom into the reality of our lives. You forgiving someone who has mistreated you may well be the only glimpse of God’s kingdom that they may see. Or even that you might see. When we live in this reality our reward is clearly not just ours, but everyone’s.

Which brings us back to Belfast and flags.

In the next few verses Jesus talks about storing up treasures in Heaven that will not be destroyed by moths or vermin or broken into by thieves and stolen.

These treasures are our rewards. The rewards where we can experience a new way of thinking and of living with God and others. A flag is not our reward. It can be destroyed and it can be removed from a building so we should stop putting our trust in it. We should stop giving it the importance it certainly doesn’t deserve. The issue of flags in Belfast we are told is just a symbol of our ‘Britishness’ being slowly stripped away.

But when we fail to forgive someone from a different background from us for things that we have moved on from we are stripping God’s kingdom away.

Or when we stand in front of thousands and claim that God is on our side, we have forgotten that Jesus came to remove sides and we are stripping Heaven away.

At the end of the passage Jesus says,

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

You can serve a flag but you can’t serve God. You can serve Britishness or you can serve God. Or you can serve God and love people.

This can be our reward and this can be what we put our trust in. Heaven on Earth.

Or as Lucas has reminded us,

As in Belfast as it is in Heaven.

A prayer we need to echo today more than ever,

because I’m almost pretty positive there will be no flags in Heaven.

If you want to get involved in bringing God’s kingdom to Belfast during this time begin here.

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