Sermon Series on the Book of Common Prayer (U.S. 1928) Holy Communion Service
by Fr. Greg Miller (2017)
(In order of the Liturgy: scroll down for the most recent sermons)
The Collect for Purity
Where did our Prayer Book worship services come from? The Christian Church began to grow after Pentecost in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, and gradually spread throughout the entire empire and beyond as a result of apostolic missionaries and other believers sharing their faith. The earliest Christians were Jews, so their worship services naturally followed the structure Jewish worship that included prayers, psalms, and Scripture readings. We call structured worship services liturgies. The word liturgy means literally “the work of the people,” referring to our active participation in approaching God through prayer and sacrament so that He can bestow His grace upon us. Thus, liturgical worship is active, not passive; and because it is interaction with God, we approach worship in a humble and deeply reverent attitude, fully aware that our finite brains cannot comprehend the mystery of the infinite God.
All the earliest Christian liturgies contained similar types of prayers. Sixteenth century English Archbishop Thomas Cranmer used these ancient sources along with contemporary suggestions when he translated the Holy Communion service into English in 1548, and that translation became part of the original English language Book of Common Prayer of 1549. Cranmer had no desire to completely break with ancient Church liturgies in his translation; but he did wish to (1) simplify the complicated medieval liturgical developments in the western church, (2) emphasize that our salvation was accomplished by Christ alone, and (3) show that Christ’s saving grace must be received in penitent faith and lived out in godly lives that are filled with good works.
The chief worship service in the Book of Common Prayer begins on page 67 with what is called the “Collect for Purity.” A collect is a short prayer; and the Collect for Purity is particularly significant in that it sets the tone for worship throughout the Communion liturgy. It begins with addressing our Creator and Redeemer as “Almighty God.” Because He is all-powerful, He has the ability to Judge us as part of His creation: this reminds us of the truth expressed in Psalm 100 verse 3: “Know that the Lord, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” The Creator sets the rules for His creation, and His creatures are responsible to Him for their behavior. Heavenly worship includes the saying: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts.” God’s holiness refers to His purity and perfection; and only those who are holy can worship before Him. This presents a problem for us, just as it did for the Prophet Isaiah, who was overwhelmed by the realization of his sinfulness when he appeared in God’s heavenly throne room. Sinners need to be cleansed when they enter into God’s holy presence, lest the purity of His eternal light destroy them. So the Collect for Purity shows our need, and then further describes it in the following phrases about God: “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Thus, God is not only omnipotent, but He is also omnipresent and omniscient: He sees all, and He knows all, so that no human sin is secret from Him.
Hebrews 4:13 tells us that “there is no creature hidden from God’s sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” When the Prophet Samuel was tempted to suppose that Jesse’s eldest son was to be Israel’s next King, God corrected the prophet with the following words: “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Indeed all hearts are open unto God; and Psalm 19:12 further reveals that God knows our hearts even better than we know them ourselves: “Who can understand his errors?” wrote the psalmist before he asked God to “Cleanse me from secret faults.”
Second Chronicles 16:9 tells us that “…the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.”
Similarly, Psalm 33:13-14 declares, “The Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men. From the place of His dwelling He looks on all the inhabitants of the earth.” Moses observed in Psalm 90, verse 8, “You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance.” So even the cleverest criminal who doesn’t get caught by the law in this world will finally have to face justice before God’s throne.
Since we have all sinned by failing to love God with our whole heart, and not loving our neighbor as ourselves, we need forgiveness if we are going to be able to worship God and receive His saving grace. So the Collect for Purity cuts to the chase and asks Almighty God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit.” A classic prayer for cleansing from sin is King David’s Psalm 51, where he was convicted of deceit, adultery, and murder, and prayed to God, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin… purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart- these, O God, You will not despise.” The Holy Spirit is the one who prompts us to such honest confession of our sin, for conviction of sin is one of His essential ministries that brings us back to God (John 16:8; Romans 8:1-2; 12-14).
The Collect for Purity goes to state that cleansing from sin is necessary so that we may perfectly love God, and worthily magnify His holy Name. God’s greatest commandment is that we love Him with all of our being (Matthew 22:35-38); and every time we fail to think on Him in love, and neglect to do what He commands with joy, we sin against Him. But when we are cleansed from that sin through confessing our lack of love with a broken and contrite heart, the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence enables us to love God in our thoughts, in our words, and in our actions. Our lives can then become one continuous act of worship, regardless of where we are physically.
Of course, all cleansing of sin is possible only through the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. First John 1:7-10 states:
…if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
Once we are cleansed through contrition, confession, and receiving absolution, we are prepared to act on that genuine penitence by loving obedience to God’s revealed will. We worthily magnify God’s holy Name when we reflect His holy ways in our lives. Instead of lying, we tell the truth; instead of hoarding for ourselves, we give to others in need; instead of living just for our own pleasures, we sacrifice for the good of others. Saint Paul summed up the lifestyle of the penitent believer in First Corinthians 10:31: “…whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” We glorify God when we reflect His ways to the world around us, just as the moon glorifies the sun by reflecting its light in the night sky.
The Collect for Purity ends with “though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Ending prayers in Jesus’ Name is far more than just a literary flourish: if He had not died for our sins, we would not be forgiven; if not for His resurrection, we would have no eternal hope; if He had not ascended, we would have no High Priest at God’s right hand to intercede day and night for us. Hebrews 4:14-16 assures us:
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
With His own life-giving blood Christ “offered Himself without spot to God,” which cleanses our conscience from dead works so that we may serve the living God (Hebrews 9:11-14).
Thus, the Collect for Purity sets for the rationale and tone for Christian worship. We are able to do the active work of worship in approaching God only if we acknowledge the greatness of our Creator God, who sees and knows all things. When we humbly acknowledge that He fully understands our sinful hearts, we can let go of all pretension and rationalization, and throw ourselves at His merciful feet for cleansing through the shed blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. And once cleansed, we can embrace in love the wonderful lordship of Jesus over our lives; so that empowered by His Holy Spirit, we may glorify Him in all that we think, say, and do. Amen!
God’s Law in the Liturgy
The Traditional Book of Common Prayer Communion Service begins with the Collect for Purity, a prayer that takes us into the holy presence of the holy God, who sees into the deep recesses of our hearts. We ask God to cleanse our sinful hearts so that we may love God and rightly worship Him. Proper worship is, after all, the outward expression of in inward love for God, who created us, and then redeemed us through the shed blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The liturgy then turns to the Ten Commandments: we either hear the Commandments and respond with a short prayer following each commandment, or else we hear the Summary of the Commandments. These Commandments- or the summary thereof- reflect the heart of God’s Law for all humanity: we were created to exist in a loving fellowship with God and with each other; and sin is any lack of love. Because none of us has fully loved God or others, a grave impediment exists in our ability to worship God.
The Ten Commandments (also know as the Decalogue), were added to the Second Prayer Book of the Church of England in 1552 by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was following the reformation practice of some of the Lutherans in Europe. The additions of “’incline our hearts to keep this law’ and ‘write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee’ were based on medieval custom and tradition, in which additional petitions were frequently added to the Kyrie eleison for different feasts and occasions: the ancient Sarum Use [liturgy] in England was filled with such liturgical embellishments” [2011 by The Right Reverend Chandler Holder Jones, SSC].
Bishop Chad wrote the following in 2011 about the theological purpose of including the Ten Commandments in the Communion Service:
The Commandments are included to confront us immediately with the fundamental truth that God demands our entire obedience to His holy and righteous will, in love, adoration, and service of Him for His own sake as Lord of all, and in love of our neighbour for the love of God. Submission to the Law of God, in Christ by the Holy Ghost, is the necessary condition for the fulfilment of our true selves as children of God made in His Image and Likeness. Our continual breaking of the Law severs that communion with God and our neighbour for which we were created, redeemed and sanctified. We beg God to enter us, therefore, into that one and only obedience and sacrifice by which we alone are enabled truly and rightly to keep the Commandments, the perfect filial love and obedience of Jesus Christ, whose perfect love of the Father is the fulfilment and completion of the Law. We plead the merits and sacrifice of Our Lord, through whom we now can and must obey God’s holy will. No communion with God or our neighbour is possible until we are prepared and ready to accept God’s demand placed upon us and to acknowledge and confess our sin, to ask for God’s mercy and to beg His grace to incline our hearts to keep His Commandments.
The rite of the Holy Eucharist is a rehearsal for judgement day, and a vivid presentation of the entire history of salvation . . . In the beginning, Original Sin occurred when man disobeyed God by transgressing His will; so too now, we are personally and corporately guilty of disobeying God and transgressing His Commandments – and therefore we acknowledge at the beginning of the Liturgy that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, pleading for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and for His grace to live holier and better lives. We have been given the Law of God, and we have not kept it – our confession of this fact at the beginning of the Mass places us in the right spiritual disposition to worship the Blessed Trinity and to receive the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, the true Body and Blood of Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. At the outset, we admit our sins and failings, recognising with Saint Paul that the Law of God is a ‘schoolmaster that brings us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith’ (Galatians 3.24). The Law shows us that we are all sinners in need of a Saviour and Redeemer. The Law cannot of itself save – its purpose is to reveal to us our sinful nature and demonstrate that we must receive remission of sins from Jesus Christ as grace and gift. Only through Christ’s Atonement and only by our incorporation into Christ’s Body can we love and obey God in Christ by the power of His Spirit. The Ten Commandments instantly point us to Christ – and thus we say ‘Lord, have mercy upon us.’ The whole Liturgy of the Eucharist sacramentally applies the Person and Work of Jesus Christ to us.
Having heard Bishop Chad’s excellent observations about the place of the God’s moral Law in the liturgy, let us reflect on the place of God’s Ten Commandments in a culture that has largely rejected any idea that there are absolute standards of right and wrong behavior. When God’s standards for human behavior are forsaken, everyone can decide what makes for personal happiness. When we break God’s rules related to our design, there are negative consequences. When we try to live outside of the general parameters for which our Creator wired us, our lives become short-circuited. And so that’s why God gave us the Ten Commandments: not because He is a cosmic killjoy who wants to keep us from enjoying ourselves, but rather because He really does love us, and knows better than we do about what makes for our ultimate happiness.
Jesus said the following about the Law in the Sermon on the Mount beginning in verses 17-19 of Matthew chapter 5:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus then explained that we break the God’s Law if our inner desires are unholy, even if we don’t necessarily act on those sinful desires. This, of course, puts us all in the hopeless state of being unable to save ourselves; which is exactly where we need to be if we are going to repent and receive the salvation that Christ alone provided for us when He died for our sins upon His Cross.
Many people erroneously think that the New Covenant replaced the Old Covenant. True, the ceremonial parts of God’s Law became obsolete when our Lord fulfilled His role as the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. But the moral part of loving God was never replaced: instead, it was relocated. As it is written in Jeremiah 31:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah . . . I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” [vs. 31, 33-34]
The Communion liturgy perfectly expresses the relocation of God’s moral Law from outward stones into the human heart. No longer is God’s Law something we have to do to earn salvation, because none of us can undo the guilt of our past sins. Instead, Jesus kept the Law for us, and bore our sins in His body on the Cross, so that we might rise with Him to a newness of life reflective of the New Covenant. That New Covenant is God’s Holy Law written on our minds and hearts: this means that we now desire to live holy and righteous lives because we want to please our heavenly Father, whose beloved Son was sacrificed for us. This is why the first nine commandments in the Communion liturgy are followed by, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law;” and then the final commandment is followed by the petition, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.”
The 10 Commandments still apply to us today. We still suffer from the idolatry of loving aspects of the creation more than our Creator. Profanity abusing God’s Holy Name is still epidemic. God knows we all need to set apart a day each week to focus on worshipping God and being equipped through His Word, Sacrament, and the encouragement of other believers to keep on fighting the good fight. We still need to honor parents, replace murderous hatred with love for our neighbors, maintain marital fidelity, avoid the many forms of theft and covetousness, and speak the truth in love rather than tell falsehoods. Holy lives that are pleasing to God should be the heartfelt desire of each of His children: may our desire to love Him spring from hearts filled with gratitude for His saving love in Christ. Amen.
“Have Mercy upon Us”
Both ancient Judaism and Christianity approached worshiping God with an attitude of reverence and holy mystery. They understood that entering into the presence of the Almighty God who is the Creator of all things visible and invisible must be done with a sense of reverential awe. After all, God is our Creator; and we as His creatures are responsible to Him for everything we think and everything we do.
The Traditional Book of Common Prayer Communion Service begins with the Collect for Purity, a prayer that takes us into the presence of the holy God with the somber observation that God sees into the deep recesses of our hearts. We therefore ask God to cleanse our sinful hearts so that we may love and rightly worship Him. The liturgy then turns to God’s revealed Law: we either hear God’s Ten Commandments, or else the Summary of those Commandments which state that we love Him with all our being, and that we love others unselfishly. Since we were created to exist in a loving fellowship with God and with each other, sin is any lack of love. Because none of us has fully loved God or others, a grave impediment exists in our ability to worship God. So we respond to God’s commandments or else the Summary of His Law with a prayer: “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Why do we pray for God’s mercy? What indeed is mercy?
Mercy is clemency shown to the guilty that keeps them from receiving the full penalty of the law that they have transgressed. Note that mercy is shown in a legal sense only after someone is found guilty, so mercy is not getting the punishment one deserves for a crime committed. Mercy generally is understood to spring from a compassionate understanding on the judge’s part that pities the helpless state of the guilty one who faces impending doom. God is merciful because He is full of compassion for those who are guilty of sin and condemned to suffer the resulting death penalty: God’s merciful nature moves Him to provide for their forgiveness and pardon. But besides being merciful, God is also righteous: once His laws are transgressed, He can’t just wink at the sinner and pretend that nothing wrong happened. A just God must punish all sinful rebellion against Him in order for Him to provide a peaceful universe in which righteousness prevails. So in order for God to maintain the balance between His righteousness and mercy, God sent His eternal Son into the world as the Savior Jesus Christ. Christ died for the sins of the whole world; or as Saint Paul put it in Second Corinthians 5:21, God made Jesus “. . . who committed no sin to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Only those who are “in Christ” through the penitent faith spoken of at Holy Baptism experience the merciful forgiveness and pardon God offers to all sinners. This quality of mercy manifestly demonstrates that sinners cannot save themselves; for no amount of good works can erase the guilt of the past sins which we have committed. This is why Paul wrote in Titus 3:5, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us . . .”
We can cooperate with God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ by repenting and believing this Good News; but guilty sinners do not merit or deserve this merciful gift of salvation, nor can we in any sense earn it- only Jesus could do that for us in His compassionate death for our sins, and in His resurrection gift of eternal life to all penitent believers.
Mercy before the time of Christ was based upon the future saving work which He would accomplish. On Mount Sinai, God proclaimed to Moses,
“. . . the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” So Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. Then he said, “If now I have found grace in Your sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray, go among us, even though we are a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” [Exodus 34:6-9]
This intriguing exchange shows the juxtaposition between God’s mercy and justice: He is merciful, yet by no means clearing the guilty. So the entire sacrificial system was set up with animal sacrifices which- as the author of Hebrews wrote- could never take away human sin. But what those animal sacrifices could do is point to the future Lamb of God- Jesus Christ- who indeed through His shed blood could take away the sins of the world- past, present, and future.
This takes us to the timeless nature of Holy Communion. The Eucharist effectively remembers and makes present to the worshippers the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory of our Savior. Drawing on Bishop Chad’s writing, Communion is not merely a representation of Christ’s sacrifice for us, but it is a sacramental re-presentation of His sacrifice which was once offered in space and time. In the Eucharist, Christ offers Himself to His Father by exercising His Heavenly High Priesthood sacramentally on earth. The Celebrant and Consecrator of every Eucharist is really Our Lord. The One who offers, and who is offered, is Jesus Christ: the same glorified Body and Blood which He presents to the Father in Heaven are the glorified Body and Blood which he presents to the Father in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist. Wherever the True Body and Blood of Christ are present, there His Sacrifice is to be found in all of its redemptive power. Jesus completed His saving work in space and time as the only sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The Eucharist achieves reconciliation with God because it makes Christ’s propitiatory Sacrifice sacramentally present transcending space and time: it does not repeat the cross, but rather re-presents Christ’s completed Sacrifice. Thus, God’s saving mercy is in Holy Communion is given to the faithful- His spiritual grace through physical means.
How we approach this Holy Sacrifice is critical if we are to receive the risen life of Christ rather than condemnation. The prayer of Humble Access sums it up perfectly:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…
The Eucharist is not something we “take”- as if by our own effort- but rather it is God’s gracious gift that we receive from Him. It is received in the same attitude of King David’s great confession of Psalm 51:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart- these, O God, You will not despise.
Or again, our attitude in Holy Communion should be that of Psalm 103:
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. . . He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him . . .
God’s mercy is a time-limited offer that needs to be received in this life if we are to benefit from it for eternity. So we cry out in harmony with the sinners who came to Jesus in the Gospel accounts, “Lord, have mercy on us.” And we remember that this is a gift to be shown unto all who have offended us as well, as Jesus taught in Luke 6:36, “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” James put it this way in his Epistle [2:13]: “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” It would be hypocritical of us to ask for God’s merciful forgiveness, and then turn around and refuse to be merciful to others. This grace to be merciful to others is also the gift of God, given unto those who diligently and humbly ask for it.
So let us pray, “Lord, have mercy upon us” with deepest gratitude for His undeserved compassion. As Saint Paul wrote in Romans chapter 11:
For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! . . . For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
Prayer, Scripture, & Tradition
Traditional Anglican Christians enter into the worship of Almighty God with an attitude of reverence and holy mystery. We begin our Communion service by asking God to cleanse our sinful hearts so that we may love and rightly worship Him. Then we acknowledge that none us us have loved Him with all our being, or always loved others unselfishly; and so we pray, “Lord, have mercy upon us,” beseeching Him to forgive us, and to strengthen us to love as we should in response to His saving love.
After praying for God’s mercy, the Communion service moves to a Collect- which is a short prayer- and then a series of Scripture Readings from the Bible that change throughout the Church Year. The Collects for each Sunday briefly touch on some theme of that Sunday and its Bible readings, which reminds us that every time we focus on Scripture, we need to depend upon God’s Holy Spirit to help us rightly understand what is being read. Praying the Collect for the day is like asking for the help of a teacher to help us fully understand that which we might otherwise might miss: we need the Holy Spirit’s guidance to open our minds and hearts to understand God’s sacred truths.
What is truth? Truth is actually a simple idea: truth accurately describes what exists. If I were to say to you that I am speaking in Latin, it would be a lie; whereas if I say that I am speaking in American-English, that is the truth. Truth describes accurately what is.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Because Jesus always told the truth when He talked about His heavenly Father, He was the physical expression of God’s Truth. Jesus also taught that God’s written Word is the Truth: He prayed for His followers in John 17:17, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” The word “sanctify” means set apart for God’s use: Jesus wanted His followers to be set apart from sin to live godly lives by living according to the guidance of God’s written word.
This presents Christians with a big problem: with Jesus now ascended into heaven, how can we now know for certain what is the right interpretation and understanding of Holy Scripture? Saint Vincent of Lerins- who died around the year 445- discussed this very problem in what is known as “The Vincentian Canon” [from Chapter 4 of his Commonitory of AD 434]. Even by that early time in Church history, a number of unorthodox teachers had begun spreading around ideas that were different than the teachings of our Lord’s Apostles. These false teachings are called heresies. So Saint Vincent came up with a way of telling the difference between the true faith that Jesus taught, and the lies that the false teachers taught.
Saint Vincent wrote that we should understand the God’s written Word in the same way that Christians have believed it from the time of Jesus. That traditional understanding is called “Catholic”, meaning the universal or general understanding of the people who had followed Jesus from the time of the Apostles. Holy Scripture was written and initially received by the Christian community, whose understanding of Holy Scripture is part of Church Tradition. The Bible cannot be rightly understood without looking at what the early Church believed, because different individuals since then have come up with conflicting interpretations. In order to find out who is right and who is wrong in their interpretation of the Bible, there must be one rule for correct interpretation.
Next, Saint Vincent wrote about the rule for properly understanding the Catholic Faith: you have to stick to Bible interpretations that have been taught by the Apostles as understood in all the earliest Christian communities. This involves following three steps:
Number one, stick to universality. In other words, look at how the apostolic teachings were understood wherever the first churches were established. Number two, stick to antiquity: that is, study the writings of the earliest Christian leaders (called the “Apostolic Fathers”), and hold to what they all agreed upon in their teachings. Number three, stick to what the earliest Christians generally agreed upon in the Church’s early Councils, where major truths about the Christian faith were affirmed.
Using these three steps- called the “Vincentian Canon”- helps us tell the difference between the right and the wrong interpretation of the Bible. Using universality, we reject all teachings that were taught by only a small number of people. Using antiquity, we reject teachings that introduce new ideas that were not believed or followed by the Apostles or the Apostolic Fathers. Jude wrote in his Epistle to fight for the faith that was “once for all delivered to the saints.” We believe that Jesus, His Apostles, and the Early Church knew what they were doing and teaching, which is why we only have male priests and bishops, and why we stick to monogamous heterosexual marriage. Using general consent, we reject any teachings that are contrary to the doctrines of the early Ecumenical Church Councils.
Holy Scripture is the most important part of Church Tradition. Christians today should accept only those interpretations which the Church Fathers “openly, frequently, and persistently” held in common, as well as the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church. Without applying the universality, antiquity, and general consent rule of the Vincentian Canon, Bible interpretation disintegrates into the anarchy of individualism, wherein everyone believes what is right in his own mind. No individual or small group of people has the wisdom to interpret Scripture: that’s what’s led to the sad divisions of Christianity. Traditional Anglicans are neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant: we are part of the ancient One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
So when we listen to Holy Scripture, we do so with humble hearts that remember St. Peter’s admonition: “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). No orthodox deacon, priest, or bishop would seek to impose some new or novel idea about the meaning of God’s Word. We take very seriously the fact that the Church is Apostolic, meaning that it continues faithfully in the teaching and ministry of Christ and His Apostles. Faithful ministers simply pass on the unadulterated faith that was once for all delivered to the Church.
Why did the ancient Church liturgies contain Scripture readings? Because that was the practice in the Jewish synagogues at the time of the Church’s beginning, and our Lord and His Apostles continued that tradition. In the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service, there is provision each week for an Epistle and a Gospel Reading. Some churches, in following the pre-Reformation pattern, also include a First Lesson and a Psalm. We stand up for the reading of the Holy Gospel because it proclaims the story and teachings of Jesus, whose saving work through His cross and resurrection provides for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the eternal life of all who repent and believe.
Any careful reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was a man who taught and lived by Holy Scripture. He quoted it frequently, corrected those who misunderstood its meaning, and affirmed that it was God’s truth that could not be broken. The Apostles followed His example, proclaiming Scripture and encouraging Christians to let God’s Word dwell in us richly. As Psalm 1 states of the godly man, “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” The written Word of God brings comfort and guidance to all aspects of life, teaching us godly belief and behavior in an evil world. As Saint Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Are you meditating in God’s Word day and night? Do you allow the Holy Spirit to use God’s written Word to shape your world view? If there’s one thing that the devil would like more than anything else, it would be to keep God’s truths out of our brains and hearts. Don’t give him that satisfaction! Be more than just a Sunday Christian: get out of those secular pursuits and computerized distractions long enough each day to let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, and then just see what a difference it will make in your life and witness for Jesus Christ! But above all, read the Bible prayerfully, and let your prayers be guided by the Bible. And remember how Jesus responded to the enthusiastic women who cried out to Him, “’Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!’ But He said, ‘More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 11:27-28). Amen.
Why What We Believe is Vital
Saint Paul taught the first Christians about the vital importance of learning God’s truth from orthodox teachers, so that believers would not be fooled by the deceit of false teachers. Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter four that the risen Christ…
“. . . gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men…” (vs. 11-14).
Saint Paul likened false doctrine to the changeable wind, blowing this way and that way, so that you never know exactly where you will be blown. Instead, Paul wanted believers to hold to the faith once delivered to the Church by Christ, which is why the Church needs faithful bishops, pastors, and teachers who will faithfully pass on the apostolic teaching recorded in Holy Scripture.
The traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s Holy Communion liturgy does an exemplary job of passing on biblical apostolic teaching. Christians begin the service with an attitude of reverence and holy mystery by asking God to cleanse our sinful hearts so that we may love and rightly worship Him. Then we acknowledge that none us us have loved Him with all our being, or always loved others unselfishly; and so we pray, “Lord, have mercy upon us,” beseeching Him to forgive us, and to strengthen us to love as we should in response to His saving love. We then prayerfully listen to the proclamation of God’s written Word, culminating in hearing a portion of the saving Gospel.
Then we remain standing to recite the Nicene Creed. This is one area in which historical churches- such as traditional Anglicans- differ from many Protestant churches. Although Protestant churches generally have statements of faith, they don’t tend to recite them in a church service. In fact, in some cases they oppose credal statements altogether, as evidenced in the lyrics written by Eliza Edmunds Hewitt published in 1891:
My faith has found a resting place, not in device or creed;
I trust the ever living One, His wounds for me shall plead.
I need no other argument, I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.
Where as Eliza’s desire to have a simple, childlike faith in the death of Christ for our sins is commendable, her desire to dispense with credal statements is naive and unrealistic. This is because many people look at the very same biblical passages, yet come to vastly different conclusions as to what the Bible teaches: it’s those fickle “winds of doctrine.”
The challenge for the early Church was this: once Jesus had ascended into heaven, how could Christians know for certain what is the correct interpretation and understanding of Holy Scripture? Saint Vincent of Lerins discussed this very problem in AD 434. Even by that early date in church history, a number of teachers had begun spreading ideas around that contradicted the teachings of our Lord’s Apostles. These false teachings are called heresies. St. Vincent described the problem:
…someone will ask, “Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church?” The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same [biblical] writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men…
So Saint Vincent wrote about the rule for properly understanding the Catholic Faith: you have to stick to Bible interpretations that have been taught by the Apostles as understood in all the earliest Christian communities. This involves following three steps: number one, stick to universality. In other words, look at how the apostolic teachings were understood wherever the first churches were established. Number two, stick to antiquity: that is, study the writings of the earliest Christian leaders (called the “Apostolic Fathers”), and hold to what they all agreed upon in their teachings. Number three, stick to what the earliest Christians generally agreed upon in the Church’s early Councils, where major truths about the Christian faith were affirmed.
Using these three steps, we can tell the difference between the right and the wrong interpretation of the Bible. Using universality, we reject all teachings that were taught by only a small number of people. Using antiquity, we reject teachings that introduce new ideas that were not believed or followed by the Apostles or the Apostolic Fathers. Using general consent, we reject any teachings that are contrary to the doctrines of the early Ecumenical Church Councils.
The first seven Ecumenical Church Councils were held between the years of AD 325 and 787. These Councils sought to proclaim the Christian faith and to preserve Church unity in the face of a variety of heresies that had cropped up and were distorting biblical teaching. Before AD 325, a priest named Arius had taught that the Son of God was created by God the Father, and therefore was not fully divine. This contradicted biblical teaching; and if true, would have made Jesus unable to be the sinless Lamb of God who could bear our sins, and give penitent sinners His righteousness. Without our Lord’s full deity, He would have been neither sinless, nor able to die for the sins of the whole world. So a universal Church Council was held in Nicaea in 325 that reaffirmed the biblical teaching that Jesus is fully divine.
But soon afterwards, two other major heresies emerged. One theologian denied that Jesus was fully human, which would have made it impossible for Jesus to die in the place of us humans for our sins. Another bishop denied that the Holy Spirit was God. So in AD 381, another general council was assembled at Constantinople that reaffirmed Christ’s full humanity and the Holy Spirit’s deity. Out of that council came what is now commonly called the Nicene Creed, which has remained the most important creed of orthodox Christianity, and the clearest expression of the biblical Christian faith that is taught in the Holy Scriptures. The Nicene Creed proclaims the very truths upon which our salvation and eternal life depend, neither over-defining nor under-defining the main beliefs of our Christian faith.
Eliza Hewitt, who in the late 19th century belittled the need for a creed, went on to write, “My heart is leaning on the Word, the living Word of God; salvation by my Savior’s Name, salvation through His blood.” True enough, Eliza; but just exactly who is that “living Word of God” upon whom you are depending? This is where those “winds of doctrine” that Saint Paul warned us about have blown all over the place, with some denying Christ’s deity, and others His humanity. No individual reformer, or group or regional theologians, has the competence to make such determinations that are vital for our salvation. Orthodox biblical interpretations must reflect accurately “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all” (St. Vincent of Lerens). The Apostolic faith of the Holy Catholic Church is defined only by that which was universally accepted throughout the ancient Apostolic Church, which may be known by the definitions of the orthodox General Councils “…and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, [orthodox] bishops and doctors alike” (St. Vincent of Lerens). The Vincentian Canon is the only rule that can provide a fixed means of “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Without this rule, Bible interpretation disintegrates into the anarchy of individualism, wherein everyone believes what is right in his own mind.
The Nicene Creed is reflective of truly Catholic Faith once delivered to the saints. It is the only universally authoritative Creed of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. This is not to say that one cannot be a genuine believer in churches who don’t use this Creed, but it is difficult to advocate for the unity of Christ’s Church while promoting a later statement of faith that includes beliefs that are not substantiated by the principles of universality, antiquity, and general consent. It is not a good witness to confuse unbelievers with later statements of faith that have divided Christianity, which is what many later Protestant and Roman Catholic statements have done. The Nicene Creed beautifully testifies to the saving Gospel as understood by the collective wisdom of the ancient church: it is a vital proclamation of biblical orthodoxy, and stands strong throughout history against the changing winds of heretical doctrine. Amen.
The Gospel Proclaimed
In our series through the Communion service of the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer, we have come to the place right after we recite the Nicene Creed, when the sermon is preached. A good sermon is the proclamation of God’s message to us based upon Bible. Today’s message about the events surrounding Palm Sunday will serve as an illustration of what such a sermon should contain.
The Palm Sunday story is the dramatic clash between two opposing views of the role of the prophesied Messiah– also known as the “Christ”. The Messiah was a Savior who would be a descendent of King David, as Jesus indeed was. But there were two pictures of Messiah painted in the Old Testament. In the one, the Messiah is the David-like warrior who would conquer Israel’s enemies; but the other picture was that of a Suffering Servant who would remove Israel’s sins. It was Israel’s sinful rebellion against God that had caused the nation to collapse, so that sin-barrier had to be removed if Israel was again to be the recipient of God’s favor.
However, Jesus early on in His ministry discovered that much of Israel had no interest in a Suffering Servant Messiah who would remove their sins. In the minds of many ordinary Israelites, they were God’s people, the Romans were the unbelieving infidels, and all that was needed was that David-like warrior Messiah to arise and kick out the Romans, and to reestablish the glory of David and Solomon’s kingdom. And for the religious leadership who had established a pragmatic working relationship with the Romans, Jesus was upsetting the status quo by challenging their religious authority, and potentially upsetting the fragile power-sharing agreement. Hardly anybody was interesting in our Lord’s disturbing words and activities that were politically incorrect, no matter whose side you were on.
Things came to a tipping point with our Lord’s miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead, which was witnessed by many people, including some of the religious leadership. We read the subsequent discussion that took place back at Jerusalem in John chapter 10:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish”… Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death. (vs. 47-50,53)
But the religious leadership could not act against Jesus as long as He remained popular with the common people, most of whom hoped that He might be that warrior Messiah who would miraculously drive out Rome.
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem soon after highlighted the religious leadership’s frustration, as we read from John chapter 12:
The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The King of Israel!”… Therefore the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign. The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world has gone after Him!” (vs. 12-13,17-19)
Our Lord wasn’t fooled by the adulation of the people: they would only continue to support Him with their messianic cries if He continued to perform the right kind of miracles. For most, that meant raising an army and driving out the Romans. But of course Jesus did no such thing. Our Lord had no desire to build an outward kingdom of souls who were unprepared for Judgment Day, but His goal was a kingdom where God ruled in the hearts of men. Jesus called people to repent of sin, experience God’s forgiveness, and then walk in the righteous ways of God, who calls upon all people everywhere to serve Him in loving faith. Of what value is it to gain the whole world for a short time, but then lose one’s soul to everlasting damnation? Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost in sin; but sadly, too many are unwilling to recognize their wretched spiritual condition as they pretend, “I’m good- there’s nothing wrong with me!”
Of course, we know the sequel to the Palm Sunday story. By the end of the week, some of those who had been all fired-up about our Lord’s potential to be the warrior Messiah were bitterly disappointed when Jesus refused to fulfill their expectations. Seeing the shift in public opinion, the religious leadership made its move on Maundy Thursday evening by having Jesus arrested, and threatening the Roman Governor with adverse political consequences if he didn’t order the execution of an innocent man. The rest, as they say, is history: in spite of all His enemies’ efforts, Jesus did exactly what He was supposed to do as the Suffering Servant Messiah. He died for our sins, and rose again to bring eternal life to all who repent and believe. Later, He will come again in glory as the conquering Messiah to judge both the living and the dead. As the Church, it is our mission to get this good news out to the lost, so that those who choose to repent and believe will not perish, but have everlasting life through Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world. And in that Gospel ministry, our Lord provides the Holy Spirit to empower our witness and convict sinners of their need for a Savior.
And those are the required elements in a sermon that proclaims the traditional orthodox Christian faith. Instead of being a rambling rant on personal opinions, a sermon should take a biblically-based theme- in this case, the Palm Sunday events- and faithfully explain what’s going on, and how that theme relates to us today. In this case, the sermon explained that Jesus was rejected by so many of the Israelites as their Messiah because He was not the type of Messiah they wanted- if they wanted one at all. It also explained that we- as the Church of the risen Lord Jesus Christ- are here to get that Good News out to those lost in sin, thus continuing our Lord’s redemptive work as He commanded in His Great Commission.
Good sermons don’t depend upon the eloquence or brilliance of the preacher. Instead, good sermons are faithful to proclaim the apostolic faith that was delivered complete and intact by Christ to His Apostles. We are an apostolic church, not an innovative one that makes changes to the traditional understanding of biblical truth. The last thing we need is preachers who have brilliant ideas of their own that distort and supplant the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Instead, we need preachers who will preach the Word according to the historical traditions of the ancient apostolic Church, depending not upon our own wisdom, but rather upon the promise of Isaiah chapter 55, verses 10 and 11:
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, so that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth: it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
The Offertory- More that just Money
In our series through the Communion service of the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer, we have come to the place right after the sermon, where the offerings of the people are given, received, and presented. At the same time, the bread and wine that will be used for the Holy Communion is offered and prepared on the altar. For the directions about the Offertory, let us turn in the Book of Common Prayer to page 71, where we will read the fine print at the bottom on the page. These directions in the service are called “rubrics” because they were originally printed in red, not black.
The rubric at the bottom of page 71 reads: “Then followeth the Sermon. After which, the Priest, when there is a Communion, shall return to the Holy Table, and begin the Offertory, saying one or more of these Sentences following, as he thinketh most convenient.”
There used to be different Offertory sentences for each Sunday of the Church Year in the old Latin service before it was translated into English during the Reformation. In the first 1549 English Prayer Book, Archbishop Cranmer replaced the separate Offertory sentences with just one to be used every Sunday, taken from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” In subsequent additions of the Prayer Book, more Offertory sentences were added such as those found on pages 72 & 73 of our Prayer Book. Priests in the Anglican Provence of America also have the option of using the Sunday-specific Offertory sentences dating back prior to the Reformation.
Then on page 73, the second rubric at the bottom of the page reads: “The Deacons, Church-wardens, or other fit persons appointed for that purpose, shall receive the Alms for the Poor, and other Offerings of the People, in a decent Basin to be provided by the Parish; and reverently bring it to the Priest, who shall humbly present and place it upon the Holy Table.” Although priests seldom leave the offerings on the altar, I still touch the receiving basin to the altar during the presentation because of this rubric.
The third rubric at the bottom of page 73 reads: “And the Priest shall then offer, and shall place upon the Holy Table, the Bread and the Wine.” The money, the bread, and the wine all represent what we give back to God for His use out of that with which He has blessed us. Saint James wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father…” (1:17). When King David was presenting a huge collection to be used later for building Solomon’s magnificent temple, The king prayed the following before the assembled congregation: “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from You, and of Your own we have given You.” [1 Chronicles 29:14]
Think of that: all things are created by God; and so whenever we offer a gift to Him, we are in fact returning unto Him a small portion of what He first has given us. The Offertory, then, is a matter of good stewardship. Everything we are, everything we possess, and all our faculties of mind and body are the gift of God. Since He is our Creator as well as our Redeemer, we should be grateful for our existence, and above all for the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, who died to redeem us from the condemnation of sin, and bring us through His resurrection unto an everlasting life of purpose, joy, love, and peace.
The money part of the offertory is a good thing to help maintain the existence of the local church as a mission outreach for Christ, and to help its many forms of outreach. The tithe has been used in the church over the centuries as a standard for giving based upon Old Testament precedent: it is something Christians should try to emulate, but not as a legalistic requirement. Saint Paul wrote in Second Corinthians 9, verses 6 & 7: “… He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Giving should be between the grateful Christian and his Savior; and that gratitude may lead to giving even more than a tithe. Remember how Jesus praised the poor widow who sacrificially gave in the temple: in heaven’s sight, “…this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood” (Mark 12:43-44). Material offerings are a matter of prayerful stewardship wherein we ask God for the wisdom to give where He directs according to changing needs.
But in addition to sharing our material blessings for the good of God’s Kingdom, there is the even greater challenge of giving of one’s time and abilities. We are all busy people, so it takes minimal effort to write a check or otherwise give money to further the work of Christ’s Kingdom. But in addition to our monetary resources, God has also blessed us with physical abilities and spiritual gifts: these, too, can be employed in the service of blessing others instead of just pursuing personal pleasures. In fact, when we have little money to give, our physical abilities and spiritual gifts become our primary way of offering ourselves unto God.
While the monetary offerings are being collected, worshippers should offer themselves spiritually as living sacrifices to God. The Eucharist means “thanksgiving”: while the eucharistic elements are being prepared, instead of chatting with our neighbor or letting our minds wander or review what we’re going to do after the service, we can take the opportunity to offer ourselves to God in prayer in grateful response to our Lord’s great Sacrifice for us.
How exactly we offer the use of our time and talents for the Lord’s work is a matter for prayerful consideration, but I do have a suggestion. Just as we consider the biblical standard of tithing our money for the Lord’s work, why not consider a tithe of our free time each week? Instead of just engaging in our usual pastimes, why not ask God for the wisdom of how we can offer at least a tenth of our free time for Christian outreach?
There are lots of different possibilities for offering ourselves to God. One of our church family a while back decided to volunteer at our local ABCCM branch that helps distribute offerings of the faithful to those in need in our community. We can volunteer with yard or house work if we are physically able. We can pick up the phone and encourage someone who is going through tough times by telling them we are praying for them, and maybe sharing some encouraging Scripture passage. We can send a note or an email with some Christ-centered encouragement, whether or not the recipient is going through difficulties. We can visit others, and maybe share some food. And we should always use some of our free time to pray for others in the church family, and also in the community, and in the world. These are just a few ideas about offering ourselves as living sacrifices- there are many more, and can often include the use of our unique talents and abilities. And here’s a well-known fact: the tougher times are for ourselves, the more important it is for us to get the focus off our own woes by reaching out and being a blessing to others.
I’ll close with a principle of giving that- in its biblical context- had to do with tithing of physical possessions. However, the principle applies to all those ways in which we can offer ourselves for the Lord’s service. Through His Prophet Malachi, God said the following:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings… Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” [Malachi 3:8,10]
That is similar to what our Lord promised in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” Amen.
Prayer for Christ’s Church- Part 1
We are the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is the Body of all baptized people, of which Jesus Christ is the Head. The Church is described in the ancient Creeds as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. The Church is One, because it is one Body under one Head; it is Holy; because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, and sets apart its members for holy use; it is Catholic because it is universal, proclaiming the Gospel to all people throughout the world; and it is Apostolic because it abides by what Christ and His Apostles taught and practiced. Saint Paul taught that the Church is like a physical body: for the Church to be healthy and a shining light for Jesus Christ, all the members that make it up must also be spiritually healthy as well. How do we maintain that spiritual health and vitality? As individuals, by attending daily to our prayers, reflecting upon God’s written Word, and doing our daily activities in a spirit of humility, love, forgiveness, and testifying to our Christian Faith. But we are also responsible for maintaining the spiritual health and vitality of Christ’s Church by worshiping God with His people on Sunday, praying for and encouraging our fellow believers, and working together and giving for the sake of the Church’s Gospel mission.
Prayer is a vital part of both the individual Christian’s as well as the gathered Church’s spiritual health. Jesus modeled both daily prayer and the habit of weekly worship in the synagogue. He also taught His disciples how to pray, using the Lord’s Prayer as the model for how we should pray to our Heavenly Father. The New Testament contains many other examples of the Apostles and the early Church in prayer; and these examples have been used by the Church throughout the ages for its worship liturgies.
Prayers can be of four primary types: confession of sin, adoration of God for who He is, thanksgiving to God for his activities, and supplication to God to provide for our needs. All these are essential to a well-rounded prayer life, but our supplications often weigh more heavily upon us in the midst of life’s many difficulties. God is well aware of our needs even before we ask of Him; but ask we must if we are to remain humbly dependent upon Him as the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Dependence upon God drives us to seek His presence, and in His presence alone is deep and abiding peace, joy, and fulfillment to be found.
The Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church in the traditional Book of Common Prayer is an example of a prayer of supplication. It is found on page 74 of our 1928 American edition if you wish to follow along. Much of this prayer is unchanged from the original 1549 English version, although there are differences that I will point out.
The Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church begins by addressing God as “almighty and everliving”. God is all-powerful and eternal, which means He has the ability to answer our prayers according to His wise and perfect will.
The prayer then refers to God’s “holy Apostle” who “taught us to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men.” This is a reference to the second chapter of Saint Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, where verse one reads, “…I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men.”
The Prayer for Christ’s Church then continues: “We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to accept our [alms and] oblations, and to receive these our prayers, which we offer unto thy Divine Majesty.” These words of humility- asking our exalted and majestic God to receive our prayers- sets the right tone for prayer. We are sinners, God is holy: if we come before Him with an attitude of entitlement, presuming that He owes us and that we deserve to receive whatever we want, we can expect nothing in return. Psalm 66:18 warns, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” Cain’s sacrifice was rejected by God because he harbored iniquity in his heart. Our prayers are answered only when we humbly acknowledge that those answers come as God’s gracious gifts to His obedient children. As Saint James taught, we won’t receive if we don’t ask; but neither will we receive if we ask with self-centered motives that fail to honor God (James 4:1-10).
The next petitions in the Prayer for Christ’s Church is for the Church Catholic:
…beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.
The loving unity of Christ’s people must be based upon His apostolic teaching and example, which is why learning about how the earliest Christians practiced their faith which they had received from the Apostles is so vital to the godly unity of Christ’s Church. We honor heterosexual monogamy in marriage because Jesus and the Apostles taught it; and likewise we observe only male ordinations because that was the Lord’s example and the practice of the ancient Church- in spite of what some have said to the contrary. The Church cannot be united as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic unless the truth of God’s holy Word is humbly received, historically understood in light of apostolic teaching and example, and lovingly followed after the example of Christ.
The Prayer for Christ’s Church then turns to praying for the state:
We beseech thee also, so to direct and dispose the 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 original English version of this section included the king, his privy council, and his appointed authorities; but of course, the American Revolution required a change in the wording. Back when written, it was assumed that all rulers in Europe were Christian; but since that is no longer the case, I pray for the good governance of “other” rulers as well.
The New Testament was written when the Roman state and its delegated local authorities- such as the King Herods and the Jewish Sanhedrin- were ungodly and un-Christian. Nevertheless, Christ’s teaching and example in paying taxes, and the Apostolic witness both clearly teach that Christians should obey the state authorities unless those authorities tell you to do something that is opposed to our most holy faith. Thus, the early Christians obeyed the non-Christian state unless the authorities commanded them to deny Christ, and/or offer sacrifices to the Roman false-gods.
Next, the Prayer for Christ’s Church includes a petition for those who are called to Christian ministry:
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 administer thy holy Sacraments.
The private lifestyle, teaching, and public ministry of the clergy must be exemplary for the good witness of the Church to unbelievers, as well as to the proper equipping of believers to do the work of the ministry. Saint Paul warned young Bishop Timothy, “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily” (1 Timothy 5:22). Instead, Paul wrote that a bishop:
“…must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence…, not a novice… Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7).
In addition to those lifestyle qualifications, Christian ministers must faithfully proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, so that the Church will follow in this mission task. Saint Timothy was well-versed in Scripture from his youth, and it is the Scriptures that make us wise unto salvation and equip us for every good work. Therefore Saint Paul’s last letter exhorted Timothy to faithfully preach God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:14-17; 4:2).
Next time, we will look at the remainder of this prayer of supplication that so accurately reflects important needs for the people of God. But remember that even though gaps of time pass between church homilies, there should be no gaps in our prayer lives. Saint Paul exhorted the Church to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and Jesus likewise taught as recorded in Luke chapter 18 “…that men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8). The implication is clear: if we don’t pray, we do lose heart and become discouraged. So let us continually humble ourselves before God in prayer; and remember that all good liturgical prayers are based upon the truths of Sacred Scripture. Wise are those who study God’s Word prayerfully, so they can learn to pray according to Scriptural truth. Amen.
Prayer for Christ’s Church- Part 2
Today, we will finish exploring the rich content of the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church from the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This is a prayer of supplication, wherein we ask God to provide for our needs in this mortal life. Asking for what God already knows we need shows our complete dependence upon Him as our Creator and the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Dependent prayer drives us to seek God’s presence, wherein is found our deep and abiding peace, joy, and fulfillment. No wonder Jesus taught and modeled the vital importance of a life of continuous prayer.
The Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church begins on page 74 of our 1928 American edition if you wish to follow along. Last time, we covered the beginning of the prayer; today, we will begin with the fourth paragraph that reads:
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.
The overall request in this part of the prayer for God’s people is that we would be given God’s heavenly grace. What is grace? Grace can be defined as an undeserved and unmerited gift which is given out of the free desire and good will of the giver. In the New Testament, the word grace is primarily used in reference to God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Therefore everything that God gives us related to our salvation is part of His grace, including the Holy Spirit’s work to convict us our sin and reveal our need for a Savior, God’s saving work accomplished through Christ’s death and resurrection, and all the subsequent blessings enjoyed by the redeemed- the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, sacramental grace, the fellowship of the Church, and the hope of the resurrection. The gift of saving grace could not be earned, and its need is essential for our ongoing life: without the grace of God in Christ, we would all certainly perish [cf. John 1:14-17; 3:16-18]. No wonder the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church includes the petition, “And to all thy People give thy heavenly grace.” But then the prayer adds that we should use God’s grace so “that, with meek heart and due reverence,” we “may hear, and receive” God’s “holy Word; truly serving” Him “in holiness and righteousness all the days of” our lives.
God’s saving grace as described in the Holy Scriptures must be received “with meek heart and due reverence.” No arguments about how God can’t really expect us to respond by taking up our cross and following Jesus. No additions, subtractions, or modifications to make the New Testament teachings compatible with current social norms. Hearing and receiving God’s Holy Word with a meek heart and due reverence is the same as humbly listening to and accepting the teaching of the Lord Jesus as if He were present right here with us. The written Word of God is the Church’s ongoing proclamation of the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.
But after humbly hearing and receiving the Word of God, we then ask God for the strength to lovingly and obediently serve Him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives. Our Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount:
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” [Matthew 7:21-23]
Instead of ignoring God’s holy law, we are called to pure lives that are righteous; that is, characterized by what God’s Word tells us is right. Thus, we need to give heed to the New Testament lists of right and wrong behavior, such as in Galatians chapter 5:
Now the works of the flesh are evident… : adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you… that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. [cf. vs. 19-25]
After praying for the ongoing everyday needs of the Church to live in God’s grace and to follow Christ’s ways, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church moves on in the next paragraph to those who have special needs of any kind:
And we most humbly beseech thee, of thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succour all those who, in this transitory life, are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.
The English word “succour” means to “to run to the rescue” or “to bring aid” to those in need. Life is transitory, but God is not: our Good Shepherd is unchangingly faithful to His flock, promising to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) in our trials, and assuring us that He is causing all things to work out ultimately for our good (Romans 8:28). Yes, the suffering of the cross is agonizing; but it is also temporary, and followed by the eternal joy of the resurrection. We therefore pray for one another, and cast our every care upon our Savior, who is our Good Shepherd and Great Physician.
Of course, believers are eventually forever released from the sufferings of this present life; and Revelation 22:3 tells us that in heaven, “…there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.” Based on that promise, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church goes on to pray:
And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
Although later more Protestant versions of the Book of Common Prayer omitted this part because they did not like praying for God’s deceased Saints, the original 1549 English Book of Common Prayer had a much longer reference to the saints in heaven:
And here we do give unto thee most high praise, and hearty thanks, for the wonderful grace and virtue, declared in all thy saints, from the beginning of the world: And chiefly in the glorious and most blessed virgin Mary, mother of thy son Jesus Christ our Lord and God, and in the holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Martyrs, whose examples… and steadfastness in thy faith, and keeping thy holy commandments, grant us to follow. We commend unto thy mercy… all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us, with the sign of faith, and now do rest in the sleep of peace: Grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that, at the day of the general resurrection, we and all they which be of the mystical body of thy son, may altogether be set on his right hand, and hear that his most joyful voice: Come unto me, O ye that be blessed of my father, and possess the kingdom, which is prepared for you from the beginning of the world: Grant this, O father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only mediator and advocate.
Our 1928 version’s petition “for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples” is reminiscent of the original 1549 words, “Grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace” and “whose examples… and steadfastness in thy faith, and keeping thy holy commandments, grant us to follow.” Note that we are only asking God here to do something that He has already told us He wants to do according to Revelation 22:3, where His people shall continuously serve Him in eternal blessedness. And the possibilities of that continual growth in God’s love and service are endless, because God is infinite. I personally love this concluding part of the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church because there is in fact only One Church, composed of the saints of earth and the saints above, over which the risen and glorified Christ is Head. It reminds us of what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the communion of saints”; that is, the fellowship of all God’s people who are united by God’s Holy Spirit. Do you miss your loved-ones in Christ? I do too; and this prayer comforts us with the reality that we shall soon by reunited forever in God’s heavenly Kingdom. Until that time, may we be faithful in our prayers for all the saints; that our loving witness would shine forth to unbelievers, so that they may repent and receive this saving Gospel as well. Amen.
Invitation to Confession
Today, we look at the Invitation to the Confession of Sins in the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer, found on page 75. Why have such a confession? In Saint Paul’s instruction on the Lord’s Supper in First Corinthians chapter 11, verses 27 to 32:
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
We could spend a lot of time pondering the full meaning of this passage; but suffice it to summarize that the Apostle Paul warned Christians to examine themselves carefully before taking Holy Communion so as not to incur God’s judgment by participating in the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner.” The unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper means harboring sinful attitudes- such as an unforgiving spirit- or not humbly and openly acknowledging before God the many ways in which we have sinned against Him. We sin against God by failing to love Him with our whole being, and failing to love others as we do ourselves. Since none of us always loves God and others as we should, we can understand Paul’s declaration of Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
There are several confessions of sin in Holy Scripture. In Psalm 19, verses 12 & 13 we read: “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.” Two kinds of sin are described here. First, there are our “secret faults” which most others do not see and to which we may be blind ourselves. These may be insensitivities that don’t measure up to the standard of Christian love we find in First Corinthians 13, which tells us:
Love is patient and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [vs. 4-7]
Then there are those presumptuous sins, things we do that God tells us through our conscience are wrong, but we do them anyway. David’s multiple sins surrounding the Bathsheba affair are examples of presumptuous sins.
It’s one thing to admit that we have sinned, but how we respond to that reality makes all the difference in eternity. One option is to say, “I’m sorry I got caught,” and throw a personal pity-party that usually involves blaming someone else for what we’ve done.
God is not fooled by our rationalizations. Adam tried that way back in Eden when he tried to shift the blame for his presumptuous sinning by telling God, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Nice one Adam! It’s Eve’s fault for giving him the fruit, and God’s fault for bringing her into his life. God didn’t even bother to answer such a lame excuse.
God will in fact only honor a confession of sin that accepts full responsibility for all secret faults and presumptuous sins that we have committed. An example of such an honest confession is found in Psalm 32:5: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.” No point in trying to cover up or rationalize our sins from our Creator who sees into the depths of our hearts and minds.
What is required in a genuine confession of sins that God will honor is a penitent heart; that is, an attitude that grieves over one’s sin because it offends the God who created us, and then sacrificed so much through the death of His beloved Son to rescue us from hell. Nothing but repentance that (1) grieves over sin, and (2) desires to stop sinning and start loving God will be received favorably by God. John the Baptist’s message in preparation for the imminent coming of Jesus was, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2); and guess what our Lord started preaching at the beginning of His public ministry? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Understanding how vital penitential confession was to our Lord Jesus Christ, let us ponder afresh the familiar words of the Invitation to Confession on page 75 of the Book of Common Prayer:
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.
Here repentance, or having a truly penitent heart is emphasized. Since graciously Jesus died to forgive us undeserving sinners, we must be willing to forgive all those for whom Christ died, and so be in love and charity with our neighbors. Wanting God to forgive us while being unwilling to forgive others is sheer hypocrisy. Furthermore, we must “intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways.” Yes, Jesus forgave penitent sinners; but then He told them to go and sin no more. God has given us in the Bible commands and examples of how to serve God and others, and expects us to increase in pure and righteous lifestyles.
To all who are willing to believe, repent, and follow Jesus, the Sacrament of participating in the risen life of Christ is open.
Next time we will look at the confessional prayer itself, which builds on this sermon. Let us end this message with the expanded exhortation to confess our sins found on page 85 in the Prayer Book, which is to be read three times each year:
Dearly beloved in the Lord, ye who mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. Judge therefore yourselves, brethren, that ye be not judged of the Lord; repent you truly for your sins past; have a lively and steadfast faith in Christ our Saviour; amend your lives, and be in perfect charity with all men; so shall ye be meet partakers of those holy mysteries. And above all things ye must give most humble and hearty thanks to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ, both God and man; who did humble himself, even to the death upon the Cross, for us, miserable sinners, who lay in darkness and the shadow of death; that he might make us the children of God, and exalt us to everlasting life. And to the end that we should always remember the exceeding great love of our Master, and only Saviour, Jesus Christ, thus dying for us, and the innumerable benefits which by his precious blood-shedding he hath obtained for us; he hath instituted and ordained holy mysteries, as pledges of his love, and for a continual remembrance of his death, to our great and endless comfort. To him therefore, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, let us give (as we are most bounden) continual thanks; submitting ourselves wholly to his holy will and pleasure, and studying to serve him in true holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. Amen.
The Confession of Sins
Last Sunday, we discussed the importance of confessing our sins unto God as we reviewed the 1928 Prayer Book’s invitation to confessing our sins. I rather suspect that discussing our sins is never a popular one, although many folks seem to be perfectly happy to discuss the sins of others. However, the Prayer Book confession requires us to have an honest- if perhaps somewhat uncomfortable- look into our own hearts.
The fact of human sinfulness is undeniable, given our track record of historical events. Nor should it be surprising, since we have all been infected with sin from our original progenitors. This is why God said of us through His Prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (17:9). The original sin of Adam and Eve was disobedience to God’s command when they failed to love God more than they loved their desire for the knowledge of good and evil. God’s greatest command is that we love Him with all our being; for only by loving Him above all else can we be empowered by His love to love others unselfishly. God is the only source of pure love; therefore we must be in a loving relationship with Him in order to love others self-sacrificially, impartially, and without thought of self-interest or personal gain.
Why does the traditional Anglican Book of Common Prayer have such a confession of sins in the Holy Communion service? In Saint Paul’s instruction on the Lord’s Supper in First Corinthians chapter 11, verses 27 to 32:
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
The unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper means harboring unconfessed sins in our souls. There are basically two categories of sin: there are sins that are hidden from others, and sometimes even from ourselves; and then there are flagrant sins that we know are wrong, yet we do them anyway. Hidden sins often include attitude problems and insensitivities; whereas flagrant sins are the obvious ones such as listed in the Ten Commandments- loving people or possessions more than God, dishonoring parents, hateful acts, sexual sins, theft, lying, and greedy behavior.
Both hidden and flagrant sins may be subcategorized as sins of commission and sins of omission. Besides doing what we should not do, neglecting to do what we should do also reveals a sinful lack of love- such as not worshipping God, neglecting our prayers and Bible readings, and failing to help out our neighbors in need.
The standard of Christian love for others is found in First Corinthians 13, verses 4-7:
Love is patient and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
So with this understanding of the nature of sin, we also need to remember what sin does to our lives. In a word, sin make us miserable. Sin blocks us from fellowship with our Holy God, and we were created for living in a loving relationship with Him. There’s no way we can truly enjoy a fulfilling life with sin causing a barrier between ourselves and God. We can deny our need for a loving relationship with God and pretend we don’t need Him; but ultimately, reality will catch up with us. We can no more live apart from a loving relationship with God than a plant can live for long uprooted from the soil.
Modern theological liberalism does not deal with sin in a biblical way. Theological liberals want to downplay the seriousness of sin because they have endorsed lifestyles that are clearly against what the practice of the first Christians. This is especially true in the area of sexuality, where Jesus and His Apostles reiterated the biblical teaching that the only place for sexual behavior is in heterosexual, monogamous, and permanent marriage.
Prior to the Reformation, private confession to a spiritual leader was common. The biblical idea behind private confession is found in James chapter 4:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.[vs. 14-16a]
Many Protestants objected to the Roman Catholic emphasis on confession through a priest because of the perceived connection of such confession to other medieval Roman Catholic dogmas. Nevertheless, the biblical warrant is there; and there are many times that sound biblically-based guidance is essential to help us cope with an area of sin. In the Anglican tradition, there is no requirement for private confession, since confession of sin is built into the liturgy; however, private confession may be desirable depending on individual circumstances. A common Anglican understanding regarding private confession is that everyone may use private confession, no one is forced to do so, but many people should at times participate in this act of spiritual clarification and direction.
The clearest biblical example of a penitential prayer is found in King David’s personal confession of Psalm 51. Following are some excerpts:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight… Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart- these, O God, You will not despise. [vs. 1-4; 9-12; 17]
In this prayer, David accepted full blame for his sins, expressed grief for offending the God he loved, and voiced understanding that only a truly humbled heart could lead to forgiveness and restored fellowship with God. These same penitential attitudes are found the the Prayer Book Confession of Sins on page 75:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; For thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, Forgive us all that is past; And grant that we may ever hereafter Serve and please thee In newness of life, To the honour and glory of thy Name; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Just as in Psalm 51, this Prayer Book confessional prayer acknowledges God as the righteous and holy Judge. Although God has every right to be angry about our sins, yet we can appeal to His mercy because of the saving love He has demonstrated to us through the cross of Jesus His Son. But if we desire to be forgiven, we need to “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” and be “heartily sorry” and grieved by them. Those who truly love God and want to please their heavenly Father would find the burden of guilt for sins intolerable; but God, who is rich in mercy, wants to lift that burden from us through His promised forgiveness in Christ. And being forgiven, we now want to please God and walk in newness of life, strengthened by the Holy Spirit to love God and others as we should. Amen.
The Absolution of Sins
The Bible defines sin as lawlessness, or rebellion against the commands of God. God commands us to love Him; and to love our neighbors with the same self-sacrificial attitude with which Jesus loved us when He died on His cross for our sins. Sin is therefore any lack of love on our part toward God or our neighbor. We all sin; for none of us has always loved God with our whole heart, nor have we always loved others as Jesus did. The tragedy of sin is that it separates us from the fulfilling joy and peace that comes when we are in loving fellowship with God and one another.
Whenever we face temptation, we have the ability to make the choice to draw near to God in prayer. Furthermore, we have the choice to avoid those places, events, or situations in which we find ourselves especially tempted to sin. For example, if we are prone to intoxication, we should live in an alcohol-free home, and avoid settings where we are tempted to drink. First Corinthians 10:13 assures us that “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” The bottom line is, there is always a way of escape; so that if we do sin, it’s our own fault, and no one else’s.
But- what happens to us when we fail to love God and others as we should? This is where today’s Gospel story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15 comes in. We see three prominent characters in the story- two very bad, and one very good. The younger son is so self-absorbed with wanting his personal lusts fulfilled that he demanded his father’s inheritance early so he could squander it in ways that dishonored the father who had earned it in the first place. Then there’s the older brother who lacks compassion and forgiveness, and only wants to see the guilty brother suffer for his sins. Finally, there is the father, who allows his sons to make terrible choices, but then models patience, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion to his children so that they have the opportunity to repent, to be reconciled with God and others, and to experience the joy of salvation.
In the context of Luke chapter 15, tax collectors and other known sinners had come to hear Jesus preach; but the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes accused Jesus of condoning sinful lifestyles by hanging out with known habitual sinners. Jesus did not condone sinning, but He did fulfill His redemptive mission of calling sinners to repent and be saved from the misery of their sins. So Jesus answered the complaint with three successive parables: one about rescuing a lost sheep, another about recovering a lost coin, and the third about the return of a lost prodigal son. All three were focused on redemption: the lost sheep parable ends with, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance”; and the lost coin parable ends with, “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”.
Jesus taught that God’s heart desire to see sinners repent and be saved: the point of all three parables was finding that which was lost, as Jesus said at the house of the penitent Zacchaeus in Luke 19:10: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Without God reaching out to sinners, there’s no opportunity for repentance.
Let’s now consider the Church’s biblical teaching on the three characteristics of genuine repentance. First, the true penitent experiences contrition in his heart, as David wrote in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart- these, O God, You will not despise.” Contrition is more than being sorry I got caught- any criminal feels that way. Instead, godly contrition is the crushing internal sorrow that we have offended the God who so loves us that He sent His only beloved Son to die for our sins. Contrition is the sorrow for having offended God and others, and bitterly regrets that we have done so. Contrition is the gift of the Holy Spirit who convicts us that we indeed have sinned, thus opening the path for healing.
Second, the true penitent confesses his sin to God with his mouth. This can be done on our own, individually with a priest, and corporately in worship. After such a heartfelt confession comes the need for absolution. To “absolve” means to “release” the penitent from the burden of past sins. Jesus told Saint Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Similarly in John 20:23, Jesus told all of His faithful disciples after His resurrection, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What is this apostolic forgiving or retaining of sins?
In Second Corinthians chapter two, Saint Paul wrote about how he absolved a penitent sinner who had been previously excommunicated:
“…you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him… Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ…” [vs. 7,8,10]
The act of absolution both declares forgiveness, and also confers God’s forgiveness. Eastern Orthodoxy has always taught that- based on Christ’s words- the Church as a whole possesses the power to forgive the sins of true penitents, but the priest represents the Church. An Eastern form of absolution is as follows: “My child, may our Lord and God- Christ Jesus- by the mercy of His love absolve thee from thy sins; and I, His unworthy priest, in virtue of the authority committed to me, absolve thee and declare thee absolved of thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.”
There are many times that sound biblically-based guidance is essential to help us deal with an area of sin. In the Anglican tradition, there is no requirement for private confession, since confession of sin is built into the liturgy; however, private confession is available. A common Anglican understanding regarding private confession is that everyone may use private confession, no one is forced to do so, but many people should at times participate in this act of spiritual clarification and direction. We entrust physical surgery to those skilled in medicine; and for the same reason, the ancient Church has entrusted spiritual guidance to priests who are schooled in biblical and pastoral theology. Arguing that you don’t want your priest to know about your sins is like refusing to tell your doctor about your physical ailments. They can’t help you unless you ask.
In confession, we do not confess to the priest, but rather to God in the presence of the priest as Christ’s representative. Sacramental absolution is given generally following the confessional prayers in the Prayer Book services. The priest or bishop often makes the sign of the cross over the congregation, and those receiving the absolution may make the sign of the cross as well. At the visitation of the sick, which is by nature one of private confession, the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer used the following words: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath left power to his Church to absolve all sinners, which truly repent and believe in him: of his great mercy forgive thee thine offences: and by his authority committed to me, I absolve thee from all thy sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” Sacramental healing comes through the words of absolution pronounced by a priest standing in the stead of Christ.
Finally, the true penitent experiences a change of behavior in his lifestyle, as John the Baptist taught in Matthew 3:8: “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This may involve making restitution for past sins, and always involves making an effort in God’s strength to change evil habits into godly ones. Again, godly counsel is helpful for making the transition from unloving to loving ways. In summary, true repentance that is acceptable in God’s sight requires the sorrow of godly contrition in the heart, confession of the sin with the mouth, and amendment of behavior with the goal of becoming more like our Savior Jesus Christ.
As Christians, we should earnestly desire to see lost sinners repent and be saved. Christ died for the sins of the whole world; and therefore the whole world is given the promise, “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1b, 2). Let us therefore pray daily for holiness in our personal lives, holiness in our church fellowship, and that the Holy Spirit would give us the God’s patience, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion to reach out to sinners so that they may repent, be reconciled to God, and to experience the joy of His salvation. Amen.
The Prayer of Consecration
Every year in the time of Christ, faithful Jews celebrated their ancestors’ Passover deliverance from God’s destroying angel in ancient Egypt. Only those who had sacrificed an unblemished male lamb and put its blood around the doors of their homes were “passed over” from the death of their firstborn. The Passover history is essential to understanding the core meaning of the Lord’s Supper. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke- along with Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians- record how Jesus took bread and wine, gave thanks, and described them as His Body and Blood given and shed for the remission of sins. This vividly fulfilled John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” Clearly, this Passover imagery was on Saint Paul’s mind when he wrote in First Corinthians, “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1:7b-8).”
Saint John’s Gospel- which was written years after the other three- avoids a redundant description of Christ’s Holy Communion institution, but instead adds the “Bread of Life Discourse” (John 6:22-59) in which Jesus used language similar to what He said at the Last Supper Passover meal:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world… Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (vs. 51, 53-56).
This language is reminiscent once again of the Passover: not only did the lamb’s blood cause God’s destroying angel to pass over the homes of the faithful, but the lamb was then roasted and consumed in order to strengthen the faithful for their imminent exodus from Egyptian servitude. Holy Communion is therefore both a Passover and a feeding; it is both forgiveness and spiritual sustenance that strengthens us to forsake the servitude of sins and to follow Christ on our pilgrimage to the heavenly promised-land.
Of course, such vivid language that reminded His listeners of cannibalism evoked a strong reaction: “The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52). Jesus explained later to His disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (v. 63). Our Lord was referring to His spiritual body and blood; however, a lot of people have missed that over the years, and so Christians have come up with diverse views of what takes place at Holy Communion.
Some groups- such as Quakers and the Salvation Army- taught that Holy Communion was misunderstood by early Christians, and wasn’t intended to be repeated as a religious rite or ceremony. That’s pretty hard to square with Christ’s words of “do this in remembrance of me,” as well as with the universal practice of the first Christians. Then there’s the Protestant symbolic or memorialist view, in which Christ in only present in the minds and hearts of the communicants. This view undervalues how God works through the material world to impart spiritual strength to us humans, who are both physical and spiritual creatures. In fact, it is our spiritual nature- our thoughts, dreams, emotions, and personalities- that really make us who we are. Our spiritual being is how we truly interact with others, as anyone who has been around a dead body can attest. You can have communion and fellowship with a live person, but not with a corpse. That is the significance of God’s creation of Adam as described in Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” The “breath of life” describes our spiritual being.
So because of this spiritual reality, traditional Christianity has always held that Christ is really spiritually present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In the western Church, some people tried to use Greek philosophical ideas as a way of explaining how Jesus was actually present in the Communion bread and wine. As time went on, western church theologians came up with a number of other theories in attempting to explain how bread and wine could also be Christ’s body and blood.
Because Anglicans have lived in the context of western Christianity with its tendency to engage in speculating about Holy Mysteries, there is a wide range of opinions among Anglicans regarding the meaning of Holy Communion. The Eastern Orthodox Churches and many Anglicans accept that the sacrament of the communion bread and the wine are really and spiritually changed into the body and the blood of Christ, but how that change takes place is a holy mystery that is beyond human understanding or explanation.
An old Anglican poem embraces simple faith over detailed explanations of the Mystery of Holy Communion: “He was the Word that spake it; He took the bread and brake it; and what that Word did make it; I do believe and take it.” Holy Communion remains a Holy Mystery of God’s infinite love to be accepted by faith, not dissected by the human inrtellect.
With this background in mind, we turn to the traditional English Book of Common Prayer’s Prayer of Consecration. To consecrate means to set apart for sacred use. The prayer begins with a very specific affirmation that Christ has once-for-all accomplished His saving work on the cross, as we read on page 80:
All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.
This language is drawn directly from the Epistle to the Hebrews in order to emphasize that Holy Communion is not some kind of an ongoing participation in Christ’s sufferings. The memory of “his precious death and sacrifice” is ongoing, but not the sacrifice itself, as Hebrews 9 (vs. 11-12, 24-26) declares:
“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption… For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another- He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
So the priest at the altar on earth represents the risen and victorious Christ in heaven. Holy Communion is a celebration of Christ’s accomplished work of salvation: His sacrifice is complete, and is never repeated; but the memorial of it is the ongoing means of our forgiveness and spiritual sustenance until we enter into our heavenly rest. Because of our daily need for forgiveness and spiritual sustenance, the Eucharist is the chief worship service for Christians.
The Prayer of Consecration then continues with the familiar words of Holy Scripture that recount how Christ took bread and wine, gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave the bread and wine to his disciples as His Body and Blood of the New Covenant, which is a Covenant of forgiveness that brings us into an intimate relationship with God (Jeremiah 31:31-34). And so we follow that pattern at each Eucharist: we take bread and wine and offer ourselves with it on the altar; we consecrate ourselves to God with thanksgiving at the Consecration; we give ourselves to be broken to do God’s will as the Bread is broken for us; and we give our lives to Christ as He gives Himself for us in this blessed Sacrament. Amen!
We have arrived at the prayer called “The Oblation” in our series on the Communion Service of the historic Book of Common Prayer. What exactly is an “oblation”? An “oblation” is a solemn offering given to God. In Genesis chapter four, we read about how Adam and Eve’s two sons- Cain and Abel- brought the very first offerings to God:
Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” (vs. 2b-7)
The problem was not the type of offering that Cain offered: much later, God would require offerings of the first-fruits of the harvest be made unto Him by the Israelites. No, the problem was what the Lord saw in Cain’s heart- sin of some sort, as we can deduce from God’s admonition to Cain: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” God offered Cain the hope of acceptance if he repented, but Cain gave into jealous anger and murdered his brother instead. God accepts the offerings of those who honor Him.
Why did God require His people to make offerings unto Him? It’s not as if an eternally all-powerful spiritual being needed physical stuff, as Saint Paul preached unto the Athenians as recorded in Acts 17: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” God made the same point in Psalm 50:7-15:
“Hear, O My people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will testify against you; I am God, your God! I will not rebuke you for your sacrifices or your burnt offerings, which are continually before Me. I will not take a bull from your house, nor goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.”
Clearly, God doesn’t need anything from us; but nevertheless, He has commanded us to make offerings- or oblations- unto Him for one important reason: we need to remember always that God is is to be honored as the Giver or every good and perfect gift.
God does not need us, but we certainly need Him; and when we forget that fact and try to live independently from Him, our self-sufficient pride gets us into serious trouble. The ancient Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar learned that the hard way, as we read in Daniel chapter 4 (vs. 30-32). One day King Nebuchadnezzar boasted to himself:
“Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”
And so Nebuchadnezzar was driven insane; and when God restored his sanity, the humbled King sent out a letter throughout his empire with this observation: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down” (v.37).
So our offerings are God’s way of continuously reminding us sinners of the need for acknowledging to God that all we need- including our salvation- is the gift of God. At Holy Communion, we celebrate Christ’s accomplished work of salvation: His sacrifice is complete, and His Body and Blood of the New Covenant- which is the Covenant of forgiveness- brings us into an intimate relationship with our God (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Communion is the memorial of our forgiveness, and provides forgiveness and spiritual sustenance until we enter into our heavenly rest. Because we daily need forgiveness and spiritual sustenance, the Eucharist is the chief worship service for Christians.
We also have an offering to make at Holy Communion: we take bread and wine and offer ourselves with it on the altar; we consecrate ourselves to God with thanksgiving at the Consecration; we give ourselves to be broken to do God’s will as the Bread is broken for us; and we give our lives to Christ as He gives Himself for us in this blessed Sacrament. With that is mind, let us review the Prayer of Oblation that begins on page 80 of the Book of Common Prayer:
Wherefore O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of thy dearly beloved Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here before thy Divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.
The bread and wine we offer on the altar are God’s holy gifts that we return to Him so that He can bless us anew with Christ’s presence. How could there be bread, if God did not make the grain grow? How could there be wine without God’s life given to the grapevine? This should reminds us of David’s thanksgiving prayer in response to the people’s offerings given to build the future Temple of Solomon reflects the truth about all our oblations to God:
“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from You, and of Your own we have given You… O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have prepared to build You a house for Your holy name is from Your hand, and is all Your own” (1 Chronicles 29:14,16).
So we give back to God as a holy offering, or oblation, that with which He has already blessed us. We do it because He commanded it; and we’re so grateful for His saving love in Christ that we desire to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We certainly celebrate the memorial of His Passover sacrifice on the Cross through which our sins are forgiven, but we don’t stop there. We also gratefully remember Christ’s “mighty resurrection and glorious ascension.” After all, being forgiven but remaining dead is of no advantage at all; but being forgiven and raised to new life in Christ gives us eternal hope and purpose. And although we do not yet have our future resurrection bodies, we do have the indwelling Holy Spirit who is the promise of our inheritance to come. While we wait, we can serve God through the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the ongoing ministry of Christ, who has ascended to God’s right hand and ever lives to make intercession for us.
So we render unto God “most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us” by our Lord’s mortal life, His atoning death, His life-giving resurrection, and His ascension into heaven as our Great High Priest who is our Advocate with God the Father. We have nothing physically to give to God as an oblation other than to give back to Him a portion of that which He has given unto us. But we do have the choice each day to give our hearts to Jesus so that the living sacrifice of our time, treasure, and talents will be pleasing unto Him. May we thus rededicate ourselves as a holy offering to God at each sacramental memorial of Christ’s saving love. Amen.
We have arrived at the prayer called “The Invocation” in our series on the Communion Service of the historic Book of Common Prayer. Let us look at the Prayer of Invocation on page 81 of the Prayer Book, and find out what we are asking from God at this point in the Holy Communion Service:
And we most humbly beseech thee, O merciful Father, to hear us; and, of thy almighty goodness, vouchsafe to bless and sanctify, with thy Word and Holy Spirit, these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine; that we, receiving them according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.
This kind of invocation prayer goes way back in church history. To “invoke” means to call upon God for His gracious assistance. In the prayer of Invocation, we humbly ask God to “vouchsafe” His blessing on the Communion bread and wine. The word “vouchsafe” comes from Middle English and was used frequently by Shakespeare. To “vouchsafe” means to give something you have to someone as a personal favor, who otherwise could not obtain what you’re giving them. Vouchsafing therefore is the willing provision of the benefactor to one in need. And what do we humbly invoke God to vouchsafe unto us in the Invocation prayer? That He would “bless and sanctify”- with His Word and Holy Spirit- His physical gifts and creatures of bread and wine.
The word “bless” means different things, depending upon the context. If we “bless the Lord,” it means to honor and speak well of Him. When we ask for God to bless us, we desire His divine care to help us in our everyday needs. And when we ask God to bless the eucharistic bread and wine, we are humbly requesting Him to hallow or consecrate the elements for special use. That is why the Invocation prayer links “bless” with “sanctify,” a word that means to set apart or make holy for a special spiritual use.
How are we asking God to bless and sanctify the bread and wine? With His Word and Holy Spirit. God’s “Word” in this case are the words that Jesus spoke regarding the bread and wine at His institution of the Lord’s Supper: “this is My body… this is My blood.” Jesus explained to His disciples about His startling teaching regarding eating His flesh and drinking His blood, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Our Lord was referring to His spiritual body and blood given for the life of the world, for it is our spiritual selves that is the life of who we really are. It is our spiritual nature- our thoughts, dreams, emotions, and personalities- that make us who we are. When God created Adam, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The “breath of life” describes our spiritual being that was made in the Image of God, for God is pure Spirit. But our spiritual being is joined to our physical bodies, as Christ’s true Body and Blood are mystically present in the bread and wine.
So because of this spiritual reality, traditional Christianity has always held that Christ is really spiritually present in the physical bread and wine of Holy Communion. The Holy Spirit, in harmony with the Word that Christ has spoken regarding His body and blood, actually changes the communion bread and the wine into the spiritual body and the blood of Christ. The focus is not on the physical flesh of the crucified Christ, but on the glorified risen Christ who gives His living and risen spiritual Body and Blood for our forgiveness, healing, and spiritual sustenance on our Christian pilgrimage. Traditional Anglicans don’t try to explain exactly how and when this Holy transforming Mystery takes place: that is beyond our human understanding; but we believe that the process is completed once we invoke the Holy Spirit. That’s why from that point on in the service, no longer do we refer to just bread and wine, but now “we, receiving them according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.” From this point on, the bread and wine are one with the life-giving spiritual flesh and blood of the risen and glorified Christ. The penitent faithful physically receive Christ, the life of the world.
The historical Greek term for the Invocation of the Holy Spirit is the “epiclesis” which means the “calling down from on high.” We find an Invocation first mentioned in AD 300s. Here is part of that ancient form in what is called the Liturgy of St. James:
Have mercy on us, O God, in accordance with Thy great mercy, and send forth upon these holy gifts, here set forth, Thine all-holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life… Thy same all-holy Spirit, Lord, send down on us and on these gifts here set forth, that having come by his holy, good and glorious presence, He may sanctify this bread and make it the holy Body of Christ, Amen.
Our Book of Common Prayer Invocation is obviously different, but contains the same idea: once the bread and wine are blessed and sanctified with Christ’s Word and the Holy Spirit, those who receive them according to our Lord’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, are partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood. How this happens is a divine Mystery; that it happens is of inestimable comfort to the faithful who are thus given the outward sign of God’s inward sustaining grace.
Although present in the original 1549 English Prayer Book, the Invocation was dropped from the 1552 revision because of pressure from the more Protestant faction in the Church of England. To them, the Invocation reminded them too much of the old Roman
Catholic service and its Medieval doctrine of Transubstantiation. Transubstantiation was a scholastic development that focussed on Christ’s crucified body and the precise physical nature of the Sacrament: it’s the kind of speculative theology that happens when people try to explain the inexplicable, and to make understandable what should be left in the realm of Holy Mystery.
Unfortunately, the Protestant faction in the Church of England failed to realize that the very ancient belief in the Real Spiritual Presence of Christ in Holy Communion bread and wine long predated the Roman Catholic view on Transubstantiation. Therefore the Church of England’s 1552 Prayer Book deleted it, and it remained out of subsequent Church of England Prayer Books. Fortunately for us, however, the Scottish branch of the Anglican church based its Prayer Book on the original 1549 book; and we in America inherited our Book of Common Prayer based upon the Scottish version. We are therefore blessed to have the Invocation present in our liturgy as one of our many historical connections to Christ’s ancient One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Let us never forget the essential role of the Holy Spirit in our Christian lives. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He promised to send the Holy Spirit from the Father to be another Helper just like Himself: to convict, teach, guide, and direct believers to glorify Jesus Christ in every facet of our lives. As Jesus said of the Holy Spirit in John 16:14: “He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.” The Holy Spirit makes possible our saving faith and proclamation in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head of His Church. So we close with these words of exhortation from the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
“…if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors- not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs- heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.” (vs. 11-17)
Strengthened by Christ’s presence within us, let us proclaim in our lives this Good News of our salvation as His light in the darkness of this world. Amen!
Our Sacrifice of Praise & Thanksgiving
In our series on the Communion Service of the historic Book of Common Prayer, we have arrived at the final prayer of a sequence of four prayers which are located at the heart of the service. The first is the Prayer of Consecration, in which we recall the words of Jesus at His last Passover meal, when He said of the bread and wine: “this is my body…this is my blood.” The second is the Oblation Prayer, in which we give back to God as a holy offering the bread and wine so that He can bless us anew with Christ’s spiritual presence. The third is the Invocation Prayer, in which we humbly ask to “bless and sanctify” with His Word and Holy Spirit the physical bread and wine to be the mystical Body and Blood of the glorified Christ, given by God for the remission of our sins and the strengthening of our Christian witness. Now we come to the fourth and last prayer in this consecration sequence, which focuses on our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Let us look at it on page 81 of the Prayer Book.
And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness, mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; most humbly beseeching thee to grant that, by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.
We hear two petitions at the beginning of this prayer. First, we ask God’s “fatherly goodness, mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” Every time we approach God in prayer, it is vital to remember God’s “fatherly goodness”. If we don’t believe that He is intrinsically good, then we won’t trust Him when facing all the trials of this mortal life. Trusting God requires not blaming Him for the existence of evil in this world. Evil exists because God gave us the ability to love Him and to love others. Being able to love requires the choice to love or not to love: evil exists because men and some angels made the tragic choice not to love; however, it is in the face of evil that God’s goodness becomes most manifest. He is able to cause all things- whether tragic or otherwise- to work together for the ultimate good of those who trust and love Him. And because God is good, He is merciful unto humble and penitent sinners, and is therefore disposed to “mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” God’s sacrifice was made in the death of His beloved Son for the remission of our sins; our sacrifice is the response of grateful hearts that give God highest praise and thanks for accomplishing what we could not do for ourselves: saving us from perishing because of our sins. Therefore the second petition we ask of God at the beginning of this prayer is that, “by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.” We are saved 100% by Christ’s work on His Cross, and only through faith in His shed blood. As St. Paul wrote to Titus, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (3:5). Through faith in Christ shed blood alone we “obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.”
The prayer of “Our Sacrifice of Praise & Thanksgiving” continues with the following words:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
In this part of the prayer, we offer ourselves completely to God as “a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” out of gratitude for His redemptive love in Christ. Like the vast majority of the Prayer Book, this language is drawn straight from the Bible. In this case, from the beginning of Romans chapter 12, where St. Paul wrote:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Don’t forget the second part of Paul’s exhortation: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Influenced by the Evil One, the world’s priorities seek to draw you away from following Christ: instead, we need to cling to God’s Word, and follow it. Doing that involves being living sacrifices: we have to give up things for the sake of doing what God commands; but with such sacrifices comes the blessing of an inner joy and peace that this world cannot give. For example, if you’re not sacrificing some free time each day for focussed prayer and good works, you have not yet become a living sacrifice. We need to give up our focus on worldly things.
The prayer of “Our Sacrifice of Praise & Thanksgiving” concludes with these words:
And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences, through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end. Amen.
Our unworthiness to offer ourselves unto God as living sacrifices is because Christians are saved sinners. And unfortunately, we never reach sinless perfection in this mortal life because of our tendency to stray from God’s ways like lost sheep. If we always kept our focus on Christ, we would not sink into sin; but we sometimes forget to walk with Jesus, which requires us to be pardoned daily for our lack of love for God and others.
But in spite of our own unworthiness, we trust in God’s merciful goodness; and we confess our sins, asking Him to pardon our offenses, and offering ourselves again to be living sacrifices as pure witnesses for Jesus unto. We don’t merit God’s grace: saving grace is a precious gift- a pearl of great price that we need to learn to treasure more than all of our fleshly pursuits and other ambitions. Once we truly learn to rightly value who Jesus is and what He has done for us, our lives become the living doxology at the end of this prayer: “through Jesus Christ our Lord; by whom, and with whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, all honour and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end. Amen.” At this time, the Priest elevates the consecrated bread and wine as the spiritual Body and Blood of Christ, reminding us that we need to honor God above all else in our lives because of His saving love given to us in Jesus.
From the very first Book of Common Prayer and down to this revision, this prayer has been said in the Anglican tradition by the priest alone on behalf of the people. All of the prayers in the Prayer Book that the priest prays aloud solo are also prayed silently by the people. However, over the years, certain prayers have become by custom prayers that all the people pray verbally- the Prayer of Humble Access and post-Communion Prayer of Thanksgiving are two examples of prayers that the rubric assigns to the priest, but most Anglicans pray those prayers out loud along with the priest. My predecessor invited the congregation to join him in the “Our Sacrifice of Praise & Thanksgiving” prayer, which is unusual because it’s part of a sequence of four prayers that have been traditionally said by the priest alone. The argument for verbally joining with the priest at that point is that if we are offering ourselves as living sacrifices, we should do so completely- with our heart, mind, and voice. So does this local tradition bother me? No, not really; but our bishops do not like that innovation, and out of deference to them, I have never verbally invited the congregation to join me at that point. On the other hand, I’ve never told you that you shouldn’t. I just ask you that you honor the bishop’s wishes whenever he visits; and realize that when you visit other Anglican churches, it will be most likely be said by the priest alone.
What is essential is that we all fervently pray- whether silently or verbally- to present ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, in each Communion Service, and in every new day. Above all, remember Saint Paul’s accompanying exhortation: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer & the Liturgy
We have come to the Lord’s Prayer in our series on the Communion Service of the historic Book of Common Prayer. There are many prayers in the Bible, but the Lord’s Prayer is unique in that Jesus gave it to His disciples in response to their direct request, “Lord teach us how to pray.” They had been impressed by observing Jesus at frequent prayer, and wanted to understand His secret for a rich prayer life. So the Lord’s Prayer is a model and template for the attitude of all godly prayer.
By beginning with “Our Father in heaven,” Jesus described the relationship between believers and God. He is the Father, we are the children: the analogy implies one of loving authority in a healthy family relationship. However, by adding “in heaven” as the location of this Father, we are reminded of the divinity of our heavenly Father, who- by implication- sees everything, knows everything, and is therefore in a position to act for our best welfare in His loving paternal role. Godly prayer requires submission and humility to our divine Father. Furthermore, Jesus added, “hallowed be thy Name,” which could also be translated, “may your Name be revered.” We “hallow” God’s Name by treating it reverently, because His Name represents all that He is. That certainly includes the command not to take His Name in vain by using it lightly or inappropriately, but it goes far beyond that. If we are God’s children, then our attitudes and actions reflect upon our heavenly Father in the sight of others. Revering God’s Name involves seeking His cleansing from sin through prayer and Sacrament, forsaking temporal or worldly pursuits that diminish or inhibit our fellowship with Him, and living holy lives that reflect God’s holiness. “Hallowed be thy Name” is at once an acknowledgement of God’s holy perfection as well as the cry of the longing heart to live in the presence of the God who alone can fill our thirsty souls. “Hallowed be thy Name” is an expression of love as well as a desire for fellowship with a Father who is so holy and pure that we are amazed that He loves us sinners. But we know He does love us, because He wants us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.” Only if we do so hallow Him in our hearts and lives will the following petition make sense: “Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom is wherever He rules, and those who hallow Him in their hearts proclaim His saving light to this sinful earth. God’s will is the salvation of the lost, which is the kingdom mission of His children.
The next section of the Lord’s Prayer includes the petition, “give us this day our daily bread,” which refers to everything we need in life. Bread is the main food stable in many cultures, and so it connotes general sustenance. That’s why the Catechism states, “And I pray unto God, that he will send us all things that are needful both for our souls and bodies.” What we need is not always what we want: in Matthew 6:33, Jesus exhorted us to seek first God’s rule and presence over our lives, and then He will provide what is needful.
Then the Lord’s Prayer forces us to confront our sins through the petition, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” In Matthew chapter 6, this is the only petition that is given additional commentary by our Lord: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (vs. 14-15). It is hypocritical to ask God for forgiveness if we hold grudges and refuse to forgive others. The Cross of Christ is jarring revelation of God’s heart: He demands we repent and forgive others if we expect to benefit from His forgiveness. We can’t witness to God’s forgiveness if we don’t forgive.
The final petition, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” should humble us to realize that without God’s protection, we are vulnerable to all manner of physical and spiritual assaults. God may allow our testing so that we can grow in trusting Him, but He will never entice us to sin. We need to understand this petition as being parallel to Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17:15, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.”
The praise ending of “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen” is not in the oldest versions of the Lord’s Prayer, but it wonderfully states the goal of each devout Christian life. “Thine is the Kingdom” expresses the heartfelt desire of each believer to have God be the King of our lives, for only by submitting to His rule can we experience His blessing, true inner peace, and overcoming joy. “Thine is the power” is a confession of trusting faith that affirms our belief that God is causing all things to work together for the good of those who love Him. And “Thine is the glory, forever,” reminds us of what Saint Paul wrote in First Corinthians 10:31: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” To glorify God is to magnify, praise, honor Him by reflecting who He is in all we think, say and do. God’s grace shown unto sinful man in Christ is the greatest display of His glory: in gratitude for our salvation, we should desire to bring God glory, who has so mercifully saved us and brought us into a relationship with Him as His children. Therefore we say, “Amen- so be it!” to desire for His kingdom, power, and glory to be forever manifest in our lives.
At the beginning of this sermon, I noted that the Lord’s Prayer is a model and template for how Jesus taught us to pray. Following that example, the historic Book of Common Prayer only contains prayers that are addressed to God, and that reflect biblical truth. Although the Prayer Book includes many ancient aspects of Christian worship that predate the Reformation, the Prayer Book excludes pre-Reformation intercessory prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary and to the Saints who have died and are with the Lord. Why is that?
Intercessory prayers to saints who have finished their earthly pilgrimage had begun to develop in the years following the immediate successors of the Apostles, and became extremely popular in the western church in the middle ages. Although such prayers disappeared from the Anglican Prayer Book at the Reformation, some Anglicans in the the 19th century Oxford Movement again began using such intercessory prayers to deceased saints. They based that practice upon the pious opinions of some of the Church Fathers. Most of those reasons focus on the fact that God’s deceased saints are now with Him in heaven, and are therefore presumed to be in a better place to pray for other members of Christ’s Church. St. Jerome, who died in AD 420, articulated the rationale for prayers to the saints:
“If the Apostles and Martyrs, while still in the body, can pray for others, at a time when they must still be anxious for themselves, how much more [can they pray for others] after their crowns, victories, and triumphs are won… shall their power be less after having begun to be with Christ?”
Although the New Testament contains many examples of mortal saints on earth praying for each other, there simply are no clear biblical examples of mortal saints praying to those saints who have died and are with the Lord. If prayers of intercession to those deceased saints were desirable, surely they would have been included in the New Testament. By contrast, we read the following in the New Testament from Saint Paul in Second Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” If we- through the prayerful study of Holy Scripture- are made “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”- without any clear examples of intercessory prayers to the deceased saints, then clearly such prayers are not needed. Likewise, the Book of Hebrews states that we can- and should- pray directly to God, as we read in Hebrews 4 (vs. 14-16):
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Why should we pray through an intermediary if we can pray directly to God? When asked how to pray, Jesus begin with the words: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” He alone can answer our prayers, and grant the petitions Jesus listed in the Lord’s Prayer. And since our historical Anglican Prayer Book likewise contains only prayers addressed to God, I will continue to follow the template of the Lord’s Prayer as the God-given example of how we should approach God’s gracious throne. Amen.
The Prayer of Humble Access
We have come to the Prayer of Humble Access in our series through the Communion Service of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It is located very close to the actual reception of Holy Communion, just as it was in the original English Prayer Book of 1549. The Prayer of Humble Access is found on page 82, if you wish to follow along.
The prayer begins: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” We don’t come in an arrogant manner to the Lord’s table, pretending that God owes us something, but rather with the full realization that we deserve the death penalty which the Old Covenant required for those who sin against our holy God. Sin is any lack of God for God or for others; and since none of us is always perfectly loving, we have transgressed God’s greatest commands and therefore deserve to be forever estranged from Him. We therefore need God’s merciful forgiveness. So God, who is rich in mercy, in the midst of our condemnation comes to us with these gracious words from Titus chapter 3:
But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (vs. 4-7)
Note that Paul wrote that God “saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” That “washing of regeneration” is outwardly seen in Holy Baptism, which is our entry into the Church. This is why Baptism is required before receiving Holy Communion. Holy Baptism is the critical beginning of our Christian life as a new birth, whereas Holy Communion sustains us along the road of our mortal lives. Since the two are connected, let us recall the meaning and benefits of our Baptism.
Colossians 2:11-13 tells us that in Christ,
“…you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses…”
Abraham received “believer’s circumcision” after God reckoned him righteous as a sign of his faith, and then the male infants of his household were all circumcised in order to incorporate them into the people of God, to be raised in the community of faith. Any good Jew would have understood the importance of raising children in the faith.
The first Christians were all Jews who would have understood that Jesus replaced circumcision with baptism in the New Covenant. Baptism incorporates believers’ children fully into the Church, and that can’t happen without the forgiveness of sins. Just as Jesus healed people based on the faith of other believers- such as the Centurion’s servant- so also God regenerates the children of believers in the waters of baptism because of the faith of the Church members who will raise those children.
Having received this undeserved, merciful washing of regeneration, Jesus provides His spiritual Body and Blood as the means of forgiving and sustaining us along the road of life. But it is purely undeserved grace: as the Prayer of Humble access goes on to say, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” This is a direct reference to the Matthew chapter 15 encounter that Jesus had with a persistent Canaanite woman who requested Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus responded that He was the Jewish Messiah, not a Canaanite Messiah. He told the woman, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” But that persistent Canaanite woman showed her faith by agreeing, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, she believed Jesus had enough grace for the whole world, not just limited to Israel. To which our Lord responded, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” That woman clearly understood what the Prayer of Humble Access goes on to say, “But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.” Mercy: never deserved, always wonderful, and always God’s gracious gift to those with penitent humility.
Now the next phrase of the Prayer of Humble Access makes some people uneasy: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood.” This is language borrowed directly from Jesus’ words as recorded in John chapter 6:51-58:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
Jesus explained that He was talking about His spiritual Body and Blood later in the dialogue: “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (v. 63).
We Anglicans agree with the ancient Church belief that the Communion elements become the “living bread” which comes down from heaven by the operation of the Word and Holy Spirit. This is a spiritual reality that is the life of the world, just as God’s breath originally gave spiritual life to Adam’s lifeless physical clay. And we need this spiritual food to heal us of the terminal disease of sin that we’ve inherited from Adam. That’s why the Prayer of Humble Access goes on to say that Holy Communion accomplishes a wonderful grace in the lives of believers: “…that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”
When Jesus instituted Holy Communion, He stated “For this is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). According to Jeremiah chapter 31, the New Covenant describes a relationship in which God’s people know Him in their hearts, and He forgives their sins. As with Holy Baptism, we don’t separate the New Covenant promise of forgiveness from the physical means of delivering that promise, because we believe that God uses the physical creation to convey His spiritual blessings- just as your loved-ones physically convey their spiritual love unto you. God’s forgiving love brings us through this mortal life unto eternal life, where “we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” That’s the “Communion” part of Holy Communion: it is the desire that Jesus so earnestly prayed for in John chapter 17 (vs. 20-24):
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”
The Prayer of Humble Access is one of the most biblical and beautiful prayers in the Prayer Book, for it reveals the heart of God’s redemptive love, the same God who created us to worship and fellowship with Him. It says, “I forgive. I am with you now through thick and thin. And I want to be with you, and all My people, in an everlasting fellowship that will be more wonderful than anything that this earth could possible offer”. And that’s something to look forward to. Amen!
The Distribution & Prayer of Thanksgiving
We have come to the Communion Distribution in our series through the Communion Service of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, found on pages 82 & 83 of the Prayer Book. The Holy Bread is delivered to the people with the words: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.” Then the Holy Wine is delivered to the people with the words: “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”
These words for the distribution of Holy Communion are probably the lengthiest in any Christian liturgy, and that’s due to the fact that they are the combination of sentences used in two different Prayer Books. The original English Book of Common Prayer of 1549 had just the first part of the distribution words: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life;” followed by, “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” This was consistent with the ancient Christian belief that the consecrated Holy Bread and Wine are indeed the spiritual Body and Blood of the the Lord Jesus Christ. This belief in the Real Presence of Christ in Communion reflects our Lord’s language in John chapter 6: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day… The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” Then when Jesus instituted Holy Communion at the Last Supper, He again stated, “This is My Body… this is My blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:26, 28). Because Jesus said that His words are spirit, we believe that Holy Communion is spiritual Food. Remember what the spiritual is: the physical body without the animating spirit is lifeless. It is the spirit which gives real life to the physical. Holy Communion is not some necrotic cannibalism of flesh, but rather the real spiritual food of the living Body and Blood of Christ from heaven, which is mystically present in the bread and wine.
In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic belief of Transubstantiation developed which focussed on the nature of the change of the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. This was an unfortunate case of where the human mind tried to comprehend an incomprehensible mystery of faith. The later Reformers rightly rejected this scholastic addition to God’s Word; but unfortunately in doing so, some of the Reformers adopted a belief that the Communion was only symbolic. In doing so, they negated the force of Christ’s words, rejected the early universal belief of the Early Church, and forgot that God’s grace is given to us through physical means.
The 1549 Prayer Book was revised in 1552 under such a later Reformation influence, and substituted the original words of distribution with: “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving;” and, “Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” The 1552 revision that emphasized a memorial and symbolic view of Communion was never made official, and King Edward’s death put the Roman Catholic Queen Mary on the throne, temporarily returning public worship to the old Latin Mass.
When the Protestant Elizabeth I became Queen, the distribution words of both the 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books were combined. This Elizabethan Settlement reaffirmed the ancient Christian belief in the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence in Holy Communion, while also acknowledging His words: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Thus, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Anglicans accept Christ’s words at face value as a wonderful mystery of God’s saving love, which we accept by faith rather than by intellect. After all, why should we try to improve upon the inspired language of Holy Scripture?
So the Prayer of Thanksgiving on page 83 of our Book of Common Prayer recaps what took place as the faithful received Christ’s forgiving and sustaining presence in Holy Communion, and the implications on how that precious gift should transform our lives:
“Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion.”
The first part of this Prayer of Thanksgiving reminds us that the Bread and Wine of Communion are “holy mysteries” and “the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood” of our Savior Christ. Christ’s words are not to be intellectually dissected, but rather faithfully accepted: we have received the very real and spiritual life of Christ, which assures us of God’s redemptive Passover sacrifice in Christ Blood, allowing us to be passed-over by the dread judgment that is to come. Moreover, as members of the Body of Christ, we are heirs of everlasting life because He rose from the dead.
Note that this first part of this thanksgiving prayer calls the Church “the mystical body” of Christ, “which is the blessed company of all faithful people.” Anglicans have always believed that we are not the only true church. In the Old Testament, there were believers like Jethro and Melchizedek outside Israel; and in the New Testament, Gentiles were grafted into the true Israel through faith in Christ Jesus.
Since we know that God’s faithful people exist outside of Anglican churches, we do not close our altar to “the mystical body” of Christ, “which is the blessed company of all faithful people.” We do require that people indeed be Christians through Holy Baptism, which is the entry into Christ’s Church. And then the rest of the Communion Liturgy contains what is required for the right reception of Holy Communion: faith in the Holy Gospel- as recited in the Nicene Creed- and humble confession of our sins followed by absolution. Saint Paul required that we examine ourselves prior to communion, for the worthy reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood requires penitent hearts that receive Him as Savior, and desire to follow Him as Lord. So the post-communion thanksgiving prayer ends with these words:
“And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.”
Forgiven and strengthened by Christ’s presence and Holy Spirit, we can rightly appreciate Saint Paul’s words from Romans chapter three:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [vs. 21-26]
Let us therefore treasure this New Covenant relationship in which God’s people know Him in their hearts, and He forgives their sins. Let us partake often in this Gospel sacrament that proclaims the Lord’s death until He returns in glory. And let us ever walk together by faith in the truth, compassion, and love of our crucified Savior, so that we can be what He wants us to be: faithful witnesses of the life that He offers unto all sinners. Amen!