WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT GOD?
A SERMON BY PASTOR CHICO MARTIN
Lections: Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6: 35:41-51
I was born in 1952, not very long after the Second World War, and I was in fourth grade during the Cuban Missile Crisis; nuclear war seemed immanent, news updates were broadcast over the school PA system, and we had frequent air raid drills. My parents had rented an apartment in a complex nearby, and I could go out on the first floor porch and play. Another boy lived in the apartment overhead, and I remember us arguing about how big a hole an atomic bomb would make if it landed in the grass just off to the side of the building. These memories are connected in my mind to my first memories of praying. My mother taught me the Lord’s Prayer line by line, and I prayed going to sleep at night, afraid that the Russians would drop a bomb and kill my family while I slept.
There are all sorts of reasons and ways of praying in different places around the world. I have prayed differently in different times of my life, alone and with others in various settings, and I usually experience corporate prayer as most meaningful. Unless I have a disciplined rhythm carrying me across the day, I am easily distracted from personal prayers by baseball scores, the news, email, or mystery novels. For aesthetic reasons, I prefer ordered, scripted prayer to extemporaneous dialogue, which means I’m usually leafing through books as I pray. I admire the composition of good prayers, and I am thankful for their authors.
Today I want to turn our attention to the Collect printed in our bulletin. The Collect is one kind of prayer, which is commonly used in Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist liturgies. The Collect gathers the many voices of the congregation into one voice and offers up to God – through His Son – a specific request. In this manner, the Collect sets the tone for the service and calls the people to attention before the reading of the first lection.[i] Its strict form has four distinguishing characteristics: a single sentence, a single petition, an acknowledgment of the Lord’s mediation, and a concluding inscription of praise to God. The general outline of a Collect includes an invocation, a basis for petition, a petition, an aspiration (that is, a benefit hoped for), and a doxology.
Here is the 17th century version of today’s collect: Grant to us, Lord, we beseech Thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without Thee, may by Thee be enabled to live according to Thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. In this collect,
- We invoke God the Father
- We petition to be conformed to rightful living- by the action of the Spirit –
- We make this petition because we “cannot do any good thing” without depending on God
- We hope for the benefit of being enabled to live according to God’s will, and
- We petition the Father through the mediation of the Son.
By fitting our prayer into the form of the collect, our supplication is focused. With one voice we are picking up a refrain that has carried across the centuries a nugget of theological expression. This nugget has the sheen of gold: balanced, symmetrical movement.
The assignment of collects to particular days of the church year reinforces the structure of liturgical worship. From time to time over the centuries, this assignment of collects in the lectionary has been rearranged. There is agreement that the collects, “because of their depth and richness, work equally well in various places.”[ii] Let us look, then, at the way the collect for today works to set the tone for our Scripture readings.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives a list of admonitions gathered from various Old Testament passages: stop lying, speak truthfully, do not sin, set anger aside quickly, get rid of all bitterness, rage, brawling and slander, “along with every form of malice,” do not give “place to the the devil,” steal no longer, work so that there is something to share with those in need, guard the mouth, speak “that which is good to the use of edifying,” and “do not grieve the Holy Spirit…by whom you are sealed unto the day of redemption.” These admonitions are addressed to the new man in Christ, persons who have, by taking taken baptismal vows, put off the old man and become “members of one another.” Paul’s letter, therefore, can be read as if addressed to us. What are we to say? Can we live rightfully? Can we “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,” as God has forgiven us? Can we “follow God’s example…and walk in the way of love,” giving ourselves for others as God gave himself for us?
In different places and times, the Church has given different answers to these questions, depending on how it answers another question, “Where would we be without God?” The 17th-century version of today’s collect describes baptized Christians as “we, who cannot do any thing that is good without Thee,” and indeed, this is the reason for the prayer: to ask God to overturn the depravity of our nature that is a consequence of our fall in the Garden of Eden. The 17th-century collect petitions God for his help, because human beings were regarded as incapable of doing good without His aid: Without God, we would be evil and enslaved to sin.
The original English version of the Collect, from the 1549 prayer book, is also worded to emphasize our dependence on God:
GRAUNT to us Lorde we beseche thee, the spirite to thinke and doe alwayes suche thynges as be rightfull; that we, which cannot be without thee, may by thee be able to live accordyng to thy wyll; Through Jesus Christe our Lorde.
This version roots our dependence upon God in our existence, our very being, and identifies “rightfull” thinking and doing as enabled by God, so that we can live according to His will. Our depravity is not stressed so much as our powerlessness. The contemporary version, which is printed in our bulletin, restores the sense of this earlier version, which is consistent with what Jesus himself says, “…apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). (That is, Without God, we wouldn’t exist.)
The distinction made, in the Christian characterization of human nature, between depravity (Without God, we would be evil) and powerlessness (Without God, we wouldn’t exist) is one Methodists have been careful to maintain. This distinction is fundamental to John Wesley’s understanding of grace, and the Collect for today is a petition for grace. We might take issue with its theological substance, if we thought, as Augustine did, that our depravity is so complete as to make it impossible for us to choose good. For Augustine, and the theologians he has influenced, God’s grace “not only makes the choice of the good possible, it accomplishes that good.” Wesley believed that grace indeed makes the choice of the good possible, but he also believed “it does not force that response.” Wesley’s understanding goes back to the early Greek church and John Chrysostom, who said, “The expression “that the Father gives me” shows that it is no accident whether a person believes or not. It shows that belief is not the work of human reasoning but requires a revelation from on high and a man devout enough to receive the revelation.”[iii] The devoutness of a person is a positive response to the grace of God.
It is important to keep in mind what Wesley does not say: he does not say that God responds to our natural attempts to do good by coming to our assistance. Rather, God enables us to do good and leaves us free to make the choice to do good. As John Wesley says, “Although I have not an absolute power over my own mind, because of the corruption of my own nature; yet, through the grace of God assisting me, I have a power to choose and do good, as well as evil.”[iv]
Given what we have said, we would expect John’s Gospel reading for today to focus on the theme of grace – and our response to grace – and this is exactly what happens. Last week we considered what Jesus meant by the saying, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” The point we emphasized then was how unlike Jesus is from what we seek in the world; for what we seek in the world never satisfies us, leaving us to thirst again and again for what we do not have. In contrast, what Jesus can give us puts an end to all our desire, and we are moved, instead, by love.
This week, the crowd grumbles, because Jesus – a person some knew from when he was a child – claims to come down from heaven. Jesus repeats what he has said before: believe in me, and you shall have eternal life. This time, however, he explains how a person comes to believe in him. Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Jesus himself explains that God enables our faith. (Without God, we would have no faith.) Jesus also says how God draws a person to faith: through Scripture, that is, what is written in the Prophets, as well as what “everyone … has heard and learned,” meaning in the synagogues, where all the Jewish Scriptures were read and discussed. For us, this means in church, in our congregations and connection.
In conclusion, God draws us to faith through Scripture and the Church. Prayer is one expression of our positive response to God’s initiative. The Collect, in particular, focuses our address to God in a manner that befits His majesty and worship. Our freedom lies not in our autonomy, but in the conformance of our will and purposes to God’s; Christian freedom consists of “thinking according to God’s ways and purposes and in doing his will, assisted and guided by his revelation and his Spirit.” The essence of the good and rightful life is following the Way of Jesus Christ as his Spirit, which dwells within us, directs our will. In the Collect for today, we express our hope of being enabled to live according to God’s will, and our prayer “helps us to move from the mindset and spirit of the fallen world and evil age into the mindset and spirit of the kingdom of heaven and of God’s righteousness.”[v] Let us therefore, at all times and in all places, always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
[i] Marion J Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 1980, p. 164
[ii] Philip H Pfatteicher, Journey into the Heart of God, 2013, p.309.
[iii] John Chrysostom, in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, John 1-10, p. 228
[iv] Wesley 1872, vii 228-9, quoted in Marjorie Suchnocki, ”Wesleyan Grace,” in Oxford Handbook of Wesleyan Studies, p. 542. (Unclear, I think, is whether outside the body of Christ, we can exercise choice, and whether any good can be accomplished by human means.)