Monday, July 3, 2017
This coming Sunday, we will pray a collect that reflects Jesus' summary of the law: "O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection..." I like the rhythmic balance of those words. As one who appreciates symmetry and order, I find that mirrored two-fold structure very satisfying. Unfortunately, something is missing...or at least easy to overlook.
This Sunday's reading from Romans (7:15-25a) takes all of that law-abiding optimism and throws it right in the toilet of the human condition: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." Summary of the law meet the power of sin. Paul stresses that he knows what he is supposed to do, which he defines as the law. That's his way of saying, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself." He knows what he is supposed to do, and he earnestly wants to do it. This reality has written for him a new law: "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand." Despite delighting in the law of the Lord in his "inmost self," which is to say his heart and mind and soul and strength, he sees on the outside his members, which is to say his hands and his feet and his tongue and his eyes, competing as if at war with that inner desire. His heart wants to do good, but his body is a slave to evil.
It almost feels like Paul's exposition on sin and the human condition have been chosen as a perfect pair for this collect in a way that makes the attentive worshipper feel pulled by two opposing minds. Jesus tells us what we are supposed to do, and Paul tells us that we can't do it even if we try. Welcome to life.
How does this get resolved? There's a powerful statement in the collect that is easy to ignore. It isn't as balanced or clever as the rest of the prayer, but it is actually the subject of the whole prayer: "Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit." That is the missing but essential piece. God has taught us what we are supposed to do (the law), and we earnestly desire to do it (faith), but we cannot do it by ourselves (sin), and we need God's help to make it happen (grace). This collect isn't a prayer for obedience; it's a prayer for grace.
Do you remember the parts of the collect? The part that really matters is the petition--the thing that we are actually asking for. In this case, the real petition in this collect is "Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit." The prayer is essentially complete with only that part. That's what we're asking for. The aspiration lets us see why we are asking for that grace: "that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection." But our prayerful focus is not on the completion but on the necessary equipment. We can't love God or our neighbor without God's help, and that's why we pray for the "grace of the Holy Spirit."
There is freedom in these words. There is freedom in this prayer. But we only find that freedom when we focus on the grace. Even if you're not focusing on the collect this week, don't lose sight of God's grace. We can't be the Christians that God is calling us to be without God's help. We can't make the kingdom come on our own. We can't be the Jesus Movement on our own. We can't even love God or one another on our own. We need God's help. And, as Paul writes, "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" We have hope, and that hope is Christ.