Week of the Sunday from August 21 to August 27
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
To be honest, this collect is quite similar to last week’s collect. Let’s strip away the standard endings and compare the two.
First, this week’s collect:
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness
Then, last week’s collect:
Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy; and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall, keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation
God is still merciful.
You’ll notice that both prayers affirm that God is always merciful. The requests are made on the basis of his “perpetual” and “continual mercy.” (Granted, this week’s prayer add’s a mention of God’s goodness.)
My thoughts haven’t changed that much on this point since last week. I still think that Psalm 103:8-14 is one of the best biblical descriptions of God’s mercy (and his goodness):
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
The Church is still in desperate need of God’s mercy.
Both prayers also confess that, on its own, the Church is, as I put it last week, “miserable”—an object of God’s pity. Without God, “the frailty of our nature causes us to fall.” And without God’s help, the Church “cannot continue in safety.”
As we’ve been reminded by the horrific news of clergy sex abuse, when the Church “falls” or fails to “continue in safety,” there are tragic consequences.
The Church can destroy lives. This despite the fact that it is Christ’s body and bride.
This is heartbreaking. It should drive us to prayer.
We need God’s cleansing AND defense, his governance and protection.
Last week, on the basis of God’s mercy and in light of our frailty, we prayed that God would teach, keep, and lead us.
This week, it’s a bit different. We ask God “to cleanse and defend [his] Church,” to “protect and govern it always by [his] goodness.”
The first thing I’d like us to note that these four things pair up quite nicely:
- cleansing and governance
- defense and protection.
Second, and this is my main point this week, the Church needs BOTH cleansing AND defense.
Because cleansing without defense would destroy the Church.
Defense without cleansing would enable the Church’s continued sin.
And it’s worth noting that these are the default human responses to the Church’s error. We either neglect to defend or neglect to cleanse.
For an example of the former (cleansing without defense), consider the blistering external critiques of the Church that, though justified, give little thought to the Church’s preservation or health.
For an example of the latter (defense without cleansing), look no further than when the Church refuses to repent when its sins are brought to light. Instead, it often ignores or silences the victims of its own abuse.
Instead, we need God to BOTH cleanse AND defend his people.
How does God do this?
How does God cleanse and defend his Church? How does he govern and protect his people?
First and foremost, through the reading, teaching, and preaching of his Word.
Scripture contains plenty of “internal critiques,” as it were, of the people of God. Consider the Minor Prophets, perhaps especially the book of Amos. Consider the prophetic, challenging words of Jesus Christ in the Gospels!
God still uses his Word today to cleanse his Church and lead it to repentance.
This requires godly leaders to preach and teach the Word.
OK, so, technically, God can still make sure that his Word his heard even when the leaders of the Church fail.
Still, this doesn’t mean that we should act as if “the stones crying out” (see Luke 19:40) is a viable long-term replacement for bishops, priests, deacons, and leaders who faithfully proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
James understood the importance of the teaching office(s) within the Church:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).
As we’ve seen recently in the news, when the Church’s leaders fail, it has disastrous consequences.
So, the Church must take care who she appoints to be her leaders, it must not be hasty in the ordination process (see 1 Tim. 5:22).
But this also means that the Church’s leaders must keep short accounts with the Lord and with one another. They must lead the way in confession and repentance. They must be willing to bring their own sins and the sins of their peers and elders to light, even when it costs them power and prestige to do so.
Ultimately, we rely on the cleansing protection of God’s Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, of course, is in, with, and under (to borrow a Lutheran phrase) both the teaching and understanding of God’s Word.
The Holy Spirit is also the one who enables the Church to choose faithful leaders.
The Holy Spirit is the one who gives those leaders the strength and courage they need to confess and repent.
So, as we pray the collect this week, we also cry out “Come, Holy Spirit!”
Conclusion: A Prayer for the Church
I don’t mean to burden us with too many collects this week. But, you can never have too many collects!
So, it seems appropriate to conclude with one of my favorite collects in the Book of Common Prayer, the following prayer for the Church:
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church.
Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purify it;
where it is in error, direct it;
where in any thing it is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen it;
where it is in want, provide for it;
where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior.