The Collect for Easter 2: Orthodox Tension

This week’s collect, which I hope all of us at the Witness Cloud have prayed many times already, is one written by Thomas Cranmer himself, and worth meditating on:

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The entire focus of the prayer is in the invocation: ‘a sacrifice for sin’ and ‘an example of godly life’ (or, in 1662, ‘ensample’!). The request itself then asks for grace to receive the benefits of that sacrifice, as well as to follow the ensample. In one fell swoop, Thomas Cranmer has written a beautiful prayer that holds up for us the tension, the balance, of orthodoxy.

The sacrifice of Jesus, the request for grace, and the benefit Christ gives us all target Pelagianism. Regardless of what the man Pelagius may have actually believed, Pelagianism, the teaching condemned by the ancient church, is a rejection of grace, a declaration that we do not need God’s help in saving ourselves, and our good works are good enough. (Again, in case a Pelagius fan drops in, I’m not saying this is what he or Caelestius or Julius of Aeclanum believed.)

Our salvation — indeed, our very ability to do good works and follow the ensample of godly life — depends upon God’s grace. Whether you are Augustinian, follow the more moderate path of John Cassian, embrace the approach of the Eastern Church, or are a dyed-in-the-wool Hyper-Calvinist, historic orthodoxy teaches the same: We need grace.

Some people, however, are inclined to grace abuse. The example that springs to mind is someone I once knew remarking to me, ‘That’s right, we’re all saved by grace, not by our works. What do you think goes on between me and my boyfriend every night?’ As though sin should abound all the more because of grace. This is the heresy of antinomianism.

But the tension of orthodoxy is that grace enables us to be holy. Jesus is our example of godly life, and we are to pray for grace to live by it. We are created to do good works.

Here we see the beautiful care put into the readings for Communion in the Prayer Book, for Cranmer chose 1 Peter 2:19-25, a passage that directly upholds the doctrine of this collect:

For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (NIV)

Finally, I close this reflection with the words of St Mark the Ascetic, ‘No Righteousness by Works’, a text in The Philokalia:

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfil the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward due to them. Both are mistaken. (No. 18)

~ Matthew ~

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