O Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow after us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Value of Hand-me-down Vestments
Every Sunday when I vest for worship, I wear two garments that train me in dependence and humility: the priest’s stole and the celebrant’s chasuble.
Some priests own their personal set of stoles. I do not. I wear the set of stoles that were given to our church. I also wear a celebrant’s chasuble (a garment worn by a priest at the celebration of the Eucharist) given to our church that belonged to a faithful priest who departed this life.
Even if I acquire personal stoles in the future, I prefer the stories of grace represented in our church’s vestments. These are living symbols that the grace of God and the work of God preceded me in the church I serve. These vestments will remain at the church when my service as priest and rector is complete. The priestly work of God will continue when my service is complete.
It’s symbols such as these that teach me to pray for grace before worship, “Apart from You, we can do nothing” (John 15:5).
This Sunday all Anglicans will enter worship asking for the grace of God to precede and follow us. We will pray these words at a particular moment in Christian history, 2018 A.D, asking for God’s help in these present days. Yet we pray for grace in these present days in the awareness of being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witness”(Hebrews 12:1)—the saints and martyrs of Christ’s church.
For over two thousand years, God has been faithful to precede his Church with grace. And God will be faithful give grace to us and our descendants in the faith, those who follow after us.
God’s Faithful Grace In Our Stories
What is true for Christian history remains true for one’s personal story—God gives abundant grace in ways that surpass our awareness. The psalmist testified to this mystery of preceding and completing grace:
“Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16).
Likewise, the Scriptures bear witness that God’s grace will perfect us. Paul encouraged the Philippian church with great confidence in God’s perfecting grace:
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
He also spoke to the Thessalonian church regarding their sanctification:
“He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
The witness of grace throughout the Scriptures is clear: God does not throw us back on ourselves to save ourselves. He creates us by his grace, sustains us with his grace, and redeems us by his grace.
Continual Good Works and A Long Obedience
I also love the scope of life implied in this collect. Not only does this prayer incorporate the beginning and end of our lives, but it envisions faithfulness through our entire lives: “that we may continually be given to good works.” This phrase reminds me of the virtue that Eugene Peterson commended to pastors many years ago—a long obedience in the same direction.
The life of faith will be filled with trials and adversity. Over time, we will be tempted to grow listless in faith and good works.
The Desert Fathers gave a name to this particular temptation and sin: acedia, which means listlessness and spiritual apathy. The Apostle Paul recognized this temptation when he urged the Galatian church to “not grow weary in doing good” (Galatians 6:9).
Yet this same Paul wrote that we are saved by grace, not by our works. When our strength is spent, we are not thrown back on ourselves to save ourselves. Only the grace of God restores us. We need the grace of God to strengthen us for a lifelong commitment to good Gospel works.
From Beginning to End and Back Again
In a way, this prayer for grace has been embedded into the order of our liturgy every Sunday.
When we begin worship with the Collect for Purity, we are asking for the grace of God to go ahead of us in worship, “to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you…” At the beginning of our liturgy, we pray for a perfect end—perfect love. Yet we acknowledge our need for grace and help at the beginning.
At the conclusion of our liturgy, we receive the priestly blessing—the good words of grace—before the deacon dismisses us to go forth into the world in Jesus’ Name.
The order is everything: the priestly blessing speaks grace preceding our commission as disciples. We cannot imagine going forth with Jesus’ mission without Jesus’ grace.
Having received the grace of the priestly blessing, we enter each week, trusting that wherever we go in the Name of Jesus, the grace of Jesus will also follow after us.
One does not expect to live perfectly. Again, God doesn’t throw us back on ourselves. Sunday worship comes around again where we will confess our need for God in the Collect of Purity and the Prayer of Confession. And the word of grace awaits us once more to strengthen us for a long obedience of good Gospel works.
Grace Is Everywhere
In his masterful novel, The Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos tells the story of a French priest who knew deep pain, both in his personal life and in his life as a priest. Yet when he considered the full span of his life, the priest expressed a profound mystery to one of his dearest friends in a letter. “Grace is everywhere,” he wrote to his friend (p. 298).
That is the work of God for which we pray this Sunday and always, to see and know that the grace of God is everywhere in our lives.