O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.♦
When it comes time for the Collect, the prayer offered for a specific Sunday or feast day, worshippers may skip through this part of the liturgy so they can focus on, what for many, is the primary purpose of being in church—to participate in the Holy Communion.
The collect speaks importantly to us about the Christians’ roles as disciples of our Lord Jesus. First, in this prayer, we recognize that all our strength comes from God. Certainly, good nutrition and exercise make a difference, but the mere fact that we are alive is a gift from God. Therefore, if we are given this gift, we should willingly trust that God wants us to live and to live as though this gift truly matters.
Remember the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” In that most sung and famous of Christian hymns. we learn that we are “weak, but he (Jesus) is strong.” Many can hear the melody in their heads as the words are said:
Jesus loves me, this I know/ for the Bible tells me so. / Little ones to him belong, / they are weak, but he is strong./
Those words may raise nostalgic memories, but the message is more than a cute rhyme. The message is that Christians obtain moral and emotional fortitude from God through Christ.
When I was a child, I didn’t know there are more verses to that old hymn. When I looked it up on the Internet, I found that “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” first appeared in 1860 as part of a novel and in 1862 the music was written for the words. In the book, the words were spoken to comfort a dying child.
The poem’s verses reflect on human weakness. Of course, this speaks to the weakness of children, but the message is for everyone. One of the additional verses is this, and it is one, for some reason I don’t know, I remember from childhood:
Jesus loves me when I’m good, / When I do the things I should, /Jesus loves me when I’m bad, /Though it makes Him very sad.
Because of my uncertainty in childhood whether I was right or wrong, I suppose I was touched by that verse. This verse of a children’s hymn sums up the Gospel and our condition of life; in our weakness, we can do nothing good without God.
Well then, I ask, “What is “good”?
Good can be defined and used in many ways: He is a good student, she is a good athlete, they are good singers, and so forth. But that is not the good the Collect or that old hymn speaks to. The good the Collect reminds us of is a goodness that reflects Godliness (a term rarely used these days); remember, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”? But Godliness is more than bathing and good grooming. Godliness is a reflection or an aura of which we see God at work in the world.
Then I ask myself, again and after accepting that definition as valid, “What is bad?” Like goods, there are many bads, probably more than there are goods. Here, for example, are a few bads: bad words, bad food, bad people, and bad books—you get the idea.
My list of goods and bads is entirely subjective and may be only good or bad in a culture or context other than ours.
However, in the Christian context, the bad that we do is the lack of hospitality, the inability to see God in others, our unwillingness to see Christ at work in people’s lives. The bad in the Christian context includes failing to see ourselves as worthy of God’s love. Thus, we may reason, if we are not worthy, no one is… That’s bad thinking!
Alright, we now know we are weak, and without God, we can do nothing good, actually “good,” without God. Even recognizing that as truth doesn’t make any difference for many. Our struggle to be “good” often is futile. What then is the rest of this story? Are we condemned to be “bad” people who have no hope? Not according the ancient Collect for the Sixt Sunday after the Epiphany.
Recall in the prayer, the Church asks God to “give us the help of your grace…” You may, and have every right, to ask, “What is grace?” Let’s think about that word for a few seconds. In our Catechism (An Outline of Faith), at the back of The Book of Common Prayer, we are instructed, “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace, God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”
Have you felt that forgiveness, that enlightenment, that stirring? If not, why not? All it takes is to be willing to allow God’s grace to work in you. For example, if you are not prepared to forgive, can it possibly be because you don’t believe you are forgiven? What is the use of claiming to live a Christian life if you have not opened your own heart to forgiveness so that you may forgive others? I know most of these questions are rhetorical, and I don’t expect an answer, but they are important issues for everyone to consider.
As a part of the liturgy, we will recite the prayer Jesus taught us. In that prayer, we will ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Do we mean it!!? Do the words of the liturgy hold meaning for you? For our experience here in old and sacred church buildings to have any purpose at all the words we read, utter, and recite must have a meaning. Otherwise, all that we do is futile.
As we live our daily lives, too often we hurt people by harsh words or worse, and malicious gossip. Or, we are hurt by words and gossip. Forgiveness in these circumstances is essential. Otherwise, we cannot fully experience the grace that God so freely gives. Recall the words of the Catechism again, “Grace is God’s favor towards us…” If God favors us, we must also be willing to support others with gracious words and deeds.
Now, as we go deeper into the Collect, we are instructed by the words of the prayer that “in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed…” In keeping God’s commandments, we please God. However, we do more than pleasing God; we make life bearable and civilized for ourselves and others.
“What,” you may be thinking, “are you talking about?”
This is what I am talking about: The commandments of God are simple, “Love God with all that’s in you and then love others as you love yourself.” This is a simple concept using simple words. There’s no deep theology here, no profound philosophy to stumble over, just simple words to describe a simple idea; unconditional love.
Thus, remember that whatever is done it must be God’s people acting not only by “will” but also by “deed.” In those words, will, and action we find the full meaning of the collect for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany. Most of all, however, the words of that old Sunday school hymn learned in childhood are right. Jesus loves us in our weakness, in our goodness, and in our badness. Since God’s love is not conditional, our love must be unconditional as well. By doing so, it can be accepted that all people who fall short of the “glory of God.” In that truth then the world can know what grace is and what it means.
♦Collect for the Sixth Sunday in Epiphany,, The Book of Common Prayer.
Suffer the Children, Fritz von Uhde, 1884.http://www.jesus story.net/painting_jesus_children.htm
Other photos from open sources, wikipedia.