Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Third Sunday After Trinity

(Today we continue our series of comments on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

. beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of tthy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.

In the opening of this prayer, we ask God to accept three things: our money offerings, the bread and wine about to be consecrated, and last of all the prayers we are about to offer. These three form a triangular foundation for all that follows in the liturgy. It is established at this point that our worship, the Holy Eucharist, is truly a sacrifice which we offer in union with the perfect sacrifice Our Lord offered once for all on Calvary, which even now He, our “Great High Priest,” pleads in heaven.

After asking that our sacrifice be accepted, we then pray for the Church herself. This petition speaks of a “universal” Church and then provides us with a good working definition of what the universal Church truly is: “all those who confess thy holy Name.” It is well to be reminded that the Church, which Jesus Christ Himself founded long ago, is far bigger than anything we can see or experience. We might wrongly think of the Church as our own parish, or we might even think of our own denomination or tradition as “the Church.” Some time ago a visitor casually remarked that our parish serves people who have “left the Church.” That person's concept of the Church is, sad to say, no larger than the denomination to which he or she currently belongs. We might even think of the Church as a vast, powerful worldly institution, impressive in its earthly glory. But even if such a thing can serve as an outward and visible sign of the Church, it is no more than that. The Church is defined elsewhere in the Prayer Book as “the mystical Body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people,” meaning the whole Communion of Saints, those already in the bliss of heaven as well as those of us still trudging along in our earthly pilgrimage.

Our earthly Church, even when we think of it in international, trans-denominational terms, is but one small corner of the universal Church of the ages. The earthly or visible Church, for which we are praying here, is “a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ's ordinance.” This clearly implies that any earthly manifestation of the Church, which dilutes or corrupts the Word of God, or ceases to administer the sacraments as Christ appointed, simply ceases to be part of the universal Church. Therefore we must pray with fear and trembling that we and all Christians, or all those who call themselves Christians, may truly continue in the religion of Jesus Christ. Heresy and apostasy are no idle words. They represent a clear and constant danger to our souls.

(to be continued)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Second Sunday After Trinity

(Today we begin a series of comments on a central prayer of our liturgy, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church.)

Let us pray for the whole state of Christ's Church.

ALMIGHTY and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men; We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to accept our [alms and] oblations, and to freceive these our prayers which we offer unto thy Divine Majesty....

After the Priest has received the money offerings of the people and has prepared the bread and wine for consecration, he invites the people to join him in a somewhat long prayer for quite a number of things. But all these petitions add up to just one thing. This is a prayer in which we pray for the Church. In fact we are the Church, we are really praying for ourselves, as we are entitled to do. This sort of prayer is called supplication (as distinguished from intercession, in which we pray for others). The invitation to this prayer, “for the whole state of Christ's Church,” does not just mean the whole Church. “Whole state” means “healthy condition.” We are praying that the Church may remain in good spiritual health.

The opening clause of the prayer refers to “thy holy Apostle,” but which Apostle is meant? Surely this is St. Paul, because the prayer here is quoting I Timothy 2:1. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.” Our praying does not originate in us. We pray only because of the Spirit's prompting and Biblical teaching. And we continue in a tradition of liturgical prayer which derives from the New Testament itself.

The first petition asks God “mercifully to accept” our worship. Christian prayer is characterized by a mixture of humility and boldness. We dare not assume that God will automatically accept our offerings just because we offer them. Remember the sacrifice of Cain, which God rejected? It is God's prerogative to accept or reject our prayers in His sovereign pleasure. But we pray with courage and confidence, because He has encouraged us strongly so to do. The point of this petition is that worship is an offering, a sacrifice, and in this spirit we dare to pray.

The Puritans correctly defined prayer. Prayer is not begging in order to obtain, nor is it merely submission to a mysterious Divine will. Prayer, they stated, “is the offering up of our desires unto God for things conformable to His Will.” In other words, we take our desires and make them a sacrifice to God. Here we ask God to accept three things: our “alms” (the offerings necessary to sustain the church and advance God's kingdom), our “oblations” (the bread and wine soon to be consecrated), and our “prayers.”

(to be continued)