A Sermon for the XIVth Sunday after Pentecost | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Keep, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy Church with perpetual peace; and because the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall, keep us ever by thy help from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation

In the words of today’s Collect the Church asks God to keep it in perpetual peace. Mindful that without the help of divine grace the frailty of man cannot but fall, we pray that we may be kept by God’s help from all things hurtful and lead into all things that are profitable to our salvation. It is only by God’s grace that we are able to think, will and do that which is good and this Collect reminds us that we need to pray constantly to be led into all things that are profitable to our salvation.

The Collects have been described as the jewels of the Roman rite. They express in words that are simple, yet profound and full of meaning, the great truths of our faith. They usually consist, like today’s Collect, of a petition (in the case of today’s collect that the Church may be kept in perpetual peace), followed by an aspiration (that we may be led to all things profitable to our salvation). It has been said that they preserve something of the sobriety of classical Roman civilisation, but now in a Christian form. These prayers take us back to the Rome of age of Leo the Great, of Gelasius and Gregory, when the Roman Empire was breaking down in the West and the Church proved to be the only instrument of continuity at a time when society seemed to have collapsed. As the Roman rite spread outwards from the city of Rome to other parts of Europe they became the prayers of western Christendom. Sunday by Sunday, week by week, for well over a thousand years, in some cases one thousand five hundred years, they have formed the basis of the Church’s prayer. Those who joined in the prayers of the Church knew that the frailty of man without the help of divine grace could not but fall, and that they needed to pray to be led into all things profitable to their salvation. These prayers formed the basis of the spiritual lives of the saints, of members of the religious orders, of the clergy and the laity. Whatever their differing personalities, levels of education and spiritual insight, they expressed their faith through these prayers.

But, we might say, that what then, but now we are all children of the Enlightenment and know better. Are not those who are still using and praying in this way stuck in the past? Surely we now know that we no longer need to ask for divine grace to help and guide us day by day, but can achieve all we need through our own efforts. Whereas classical Christianity taught us to look outside ourselves to God, who created us in his own image, who came to us in the midst of time in the person of Jesus Christ, and will judge us at the end of time, the Enlightenment repudiated this faith as an antiquated superstition. History was now seen to come to a climax not in the events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in first century Palestine, but in eighteenth century Europe. Through the application of reason and science the human race could finally achieve all that was needed to improve the world. A civilised, but non religious humanity would succeed where the earlier ages of faith had failed. The classical faith of the Church was now seen as out of date and out of line. There was no need to look to any kind of supernatural purpose behind the world, but rather to a purposive progress within it as societies shook off the antiquated faith of the Church that had kept them in bondage to the past. There was a need to be optimistic about what human beings could achieve and no need for the pessimism of prayers like today’s collect that the frailty of man without divine grace cannot but fall.

In more recent times the optimism of the age of the Enlightenment has faded. We are now told that we live in a post-modern age. Whereas the philosophy of post-Enlightenment western man sought to replace belief in classical Christianity with faith in reason and science, we are now taught that this too was an illusion. Those who claimed to be objectively describing the world were simply engaged in a power game to control it. There is no such thing as objective truth, but rather each person creates his or her own truth, which is whatever they feel at a given time. Even whether they are male or female is not a given reality, but something that they can create for themselves. It is heavily ironic that the descendants of those who sought to replace the Christian faith with belief in reason and science have now abandoned not only Christianity, but reason and science as well. We are more conscious than our Enlightenment predecessors of the darker side of humanity, but we are now left with no overall vision and no hope. We lurch from crisis to crisis, there are wars and rumours of wars, diseases and changes to the climate, but we lack any coherent faith to guide us forward.

In fact our situation is not so very different from the age in which the prayers of the Roman rite were written. The classical civilisation of Rome that had thought it would last for ever had decayed, there were incursions of barbarian tribes, plagues and changes to the climate. But in that age people prayed. They prayed through the prayers of the liturgy that we are still using today. They knew that though the frailty of man without God’s grace could not but fall, they could seek his guidance to keep them from all things hurtful and lead them into all things profitable to our salvation. They sought first, in the words of today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. Their prayers and their labours were not in vain. Over time the barbarian tribal kingdoms that replaced the Roman empire in the west were Christianised and the so called Dark Ages was also an age of saints.  The rulers of the tribal kingdoms saw (however inadequately in practice) that the Church possessed something that they did not have, a faith that the human race, though fallen and sinful, could be redeemed and restored by divine grace.

We face an analogous situation today. The age of Enlightenment has run out of steam. A naive and superficial faith in human progress has been replaced by cynicism, apathy and despair. It is the Christian faith that provides the answer to our problems, that enables us to avoid the extremes of an unrealistic optimism about human progress that ignores the darker side of human nature, or a despairing resignation that abandons any search for truth and meaning beyond ourselves. The Christian faith teaches us that there is ultimate meaning and purpose, but the human race has fallen and is sinful. We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves and we need to ask for divine grace to enable us to think, will and do what is good. We should not seek to build up treasure on earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break in and steal, but seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things we be added unto us. It is not, as G. K. Chesterton put it, the Church that will lead us back to the dark ages, the Church is the only thing that got us out of them.

Let us make today’s collect our own and pray that the Church may be kept in perpetual peace in our own time and place, and that though the frailty of man without divine grace cannot but fall, we may be kept from all things hurtful and lead into all things profitable to our salvation.

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