The collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter portrays a logic unique to the gospel. It is an expression of how grace works. It defines that which makes Christianity distinct among religions and philosophies throughout human history. This is the preacher's chance to give the congregation a reason to go to church instead of the coffee shop, the yoga studio, the soccer field, the grocery store, the back yard, the golf course, or anywhere else people go on Sunday mornings. In fact, this is the only reason to bother going to church at all. We've got a week to look forward to preaching grace, and, for me, that starts with the collect.
Here's the prayer that the presider will use to collect all of the thoughts and prayers of the congregation this Sunday, but I wonder whether any of the clergy are paying careful enough attention to what it says:
Let's break that down into three counter-intuitive steps:O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- God gives good things to those who love him.
- We ask God to give us love for him.
- So that, having been given this love, we may receive those good things.
The first part makes sense in the human, worldly way of things. There is a being greater than I, and that being will reward those who love him/her/it. Our love of that entity is expressed in many ways: going to church, saying our prayers, being nice to strangers, trying to be a good parent, sending our mothers flowers on Mothers Day. We get that part. The world is built upon rewarding those who've earned it.
But then all the worldly logic unravels. "Pour into our hearts such love toward you." We know that love of God is the thing we must possess to receive those heavenly rewards, but, when it comes time to find them, we look not within ourselves for that crucial ingredient. We look to God. We ask him to give us that thing by which our worthiness is evaluated. God has prepared immeasurably good things for those who love him, so we ask God to make us love him. In effect, it explodes the logic of the first premise. It is, therefore, a confessional statement. We know that we must love you, and we know that that love cannot be found within us, so please pour it into our hearts!
The third part--a restatement of the first--is a completion of the deal. It's the collect's way of saying, "Yes, I know this sounds crazy; that's on purpose." Once we have received the love that you've given us, we will be able to love you enough to receive the gifts you promise to those who love you. Wait, what? Yes. Crazy.
God's rewards are granted not for something we've done but for something God himself has given us. Imagine the judge at the County Fair handing you the apple pie she baked and then telling you that you won. It's her pie. You didn't bake anything. But you still get the blue ribbon? In what bizzaro world does that happen?
In God's kingdom. In the gospel. In the universe-altering story of Jesus. We must love God, but we can't love God unless God gives us the love we're looking for. What is our role in the equation? Not much, really. And that's the good news of the gospel.