Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Seventh Sunday After Trinity

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

And to all thy People give thy heavenly grace; and especially to this congregation here present; that with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.

We come now to the paragraph in which we pray for “all thy people” and “this congregation here present.” Here we begin to pray most explicitly for ourselves, but notice exactly what needs we mention: grace, holiness and righteousness. We deliberately refrain from praying for health, wealth and success. The Church's liturgy never allows us to sink into a “Gimme” style of praying, in which we presume to judge for ourselves what our greatest needs really are and then demand imperiously that God quickly oblige our requests. According to the Biblical Gospel, our greatest needs are nothing but grace, holiness, and righteousness.

Grace is an attribute of God. Grace is His loving-kindness, unearned, undeserved, unexpected, unexplained. By grace, God acts on our behalf, to extricate us from the hopeless predicament of our sinfulness. However we might define our problem as humans, it is at bottom a situation of our own making, resulting from our disobedience and ingratitude toward our Creator. The Biblical name is sin, and the only cure is grace. We might prefer to think of our fundamental problem as some harmless little defect of character, which we can try to cure through some humanistic program of ethical culture.

There is a story of a man who made a list of all his character defects and then decided to work on them one at a time until they all went away! He seemed to make a little progress until he came to the sin of pride. No matter how hard he tried, we could not erase his pride! The more he thought about his ethical progress, the more proud of himself he became! If our spiritual sickness were so superficial, then we could have no need of grace and God would be out of business.

Grace is God's love, but also His power. Only a truly sovereign God could take desperate sinners and make them into saints. It is also His special intervention. Grace is God's surprise, since such a miracle does not just casually happen in the ordinary course of events.

St Paul records a quotation from the lips of our Lord, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Here we are taught that grace is all we need. It is the power of God, put on display in the weakness of the baby Jesus and the dead man on the Cross.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Sixth Sunday After Trinity

(We continue our comments on the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ's Church, the long prayer found on page 74 in the Prayer Book.)

The third paragraph clearly states what the total ministry of the Church is, as well as the special ministry of the clergy: to “set forth God's true and lively Word,” the Biblical Gospel, and to “rightly and duly administer” the sacraments of Jesus Christ.

That phrase “rightly and duly” means many things. Among these meanings is that the sacraments must only be administered by the Apostolic ministry created and commissioned by the Lord of the Church Himself. The sacraments cannot be “rightly and duly” administered by a ministry which is self-appointed, or by some novel ministry, such as priestesses, created by a heretical church.

These two functions, Word and Sacrament, expresses clearly what the Church does. Any activity of the Church must be measured by that yard-stick. Frequently we have seen the Church quite involved in all kinds of things which have little to do with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and which are anything but channels of God's grace. The current fascination with global warming (now called climate change) is just one of many examples.

But more profoundly, those two functions state precisely what the Church is in her essential being. As the Articles of Religion tell us, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (BCP p. 606). So in this petition, we are praying that we, as the Church, may prove faithful in our Divinely given functions and ministry. We may state this more bluntly: it is necessary to pray simply that the Church continue to be the Church.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Fifth Sunday After Trinity

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

Last week, as we commented on the petition for “all Christian rulers,” that this refers to all who are permitted by God to rule over Christian people, and that it is indeed their duty to punish wickedness and vice, if Christian people are to live in this fallen world with any degree of safety and security. Some priests take it upon themselves to amend this clause, substituting such words as “correcting” or “restraining” for “punishing.” But the realism of the Prayer Book knows that whereas persons may be corrected or restrained, wickedness and vice as such can only be punished or rewarded. And if the Scriptures are telling us the truth, it is the God-appointed duty of the civil magistrate to maintain God's true religion and virtue (Romans 13:1—7, I Peter 2:13—17).

If this paragraph seems hopelessly divorced from the sad secular realities of our time, it ought at least to remind us of how far our world has fallen from the order which God intended. Let us pray all the more fervently!

Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and other Ministers, that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth thy true and lively Word; and rightly and duly admiister thy holy Sacraments.

As we come to the third and fourth paragraphs, we need to emphasize again that this prayer is the Christian community's supplication for itself and its own needs rather than a general intercession for the needs of the world. Intercession for others (which we do in the various prayers be-tween the Creed and the Sermon) is one of our most important ministries; but in particular prayer we are doing something else. So as the Church prays for the itself, we naturally pray for “all estates of men in thy holy Church” (BCP p. 156), praying earnestly for all members according to their particular Order, that is, those in the sacred ministries of Bishop, Priest and Deacon; for those who serve in the liturgical ministries of readers and acolytes; for singers, organists, ushers, sacristans, and for other special ministries too numerous to mention. The English Prayer Book of 1662 here mentions “Bishops and Curates,” but our American Prayer Book wisely and generously uses a less specific term “other ministers.” This permits us to think of and pray for the many, many forms of service which sustain the church and advance the Faith.

(To be continued)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Fourth Sunday After Trinity

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

We concluded last week's comments by observing that heresy and apostasy are genuine spiritual dangers for Christians and for the Church itself. So how is that danger to be avoided? The Inquisition and religious wars have proved ineffectual, as will law-suits and internet battles. In this great prayer we pray for two remedies. First, “to agree in the truth of thy holy Word,” and secondly, “to live in unity and godly love.” The true Church will always be recognized by its adherence and obedience to the Scriptures. But it must also be discernible through a corporate life where bitterness, acrimony and finger-pointing are treated as sins. Christians are marked—not only by the purity of their faith in Christ, but by the power of their love for all mankind.

We beseech thee also, so to direct and dispose th hearts of all Christian Rulers, that they may truly and impartially administer justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue.

The second paragraph contains only one petition, for “all Christian rulers.” Since this is a Prayer for the the Church and not for the generality of mankind, this petition might seem somewhat out of place. This petition harks back to another age, in which the king or queen was the “supreme governor” of the Church of England and the Defender of the Faith. Occasionally we hear a snide remark about that phrase “Christian rulers” since it truly seems that very few in civil authority today can be seriously described as Christians. In a decadent age like our own, in which some regard it as illegal for a judge to hang the Ten Commandments on the walls of his courtroom, is it somewhat unreal to pray for “the punishment of wickedness and vice” and “the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue?” The literary vandals who attempted to revise our Prayer Book ruthlessly removed this whole petition.

But they were quite wrong. When we speak of “Christian rulers,” we are not presuming to declare that any king, prime minister or president is personally a believer in Jesus Christ. A “Christian ruler” as we must interpret the Prayer Book today, is any civil ruler, be he Buddhist or Hindu, who has the authority to rule over Christian people. The petition is offered for the safety and wellbeing of the Christian community. In a century of atheistic tyrants, when the persecution of the Church and of believers is on the rise, we do well to pray that the God of nations will miraculously direct and dispose their hearts. Wickedness and vice must indeed be punished, if Christian people are to live with any degree of safety and security in this world.

(to be continued)