For many of us who were not shaped by the 1962 Book of Common Prayer (and some who were), the language therein (and unto all men) can be a little challenging to participate in. The prayer of humble access, for some, is just unprayable. The seemingly endless emphasis on our wretchedness and sinfulness can become a noisy cymbal, a clanging gong.
However, I think we need to be very careful with the bathwater.
In Sunday’s Gospel, the centurion’s disposition rings with a similar tone: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” (Luke 7:6-7)
The thing is, by all accounts, this guy was worthy of blessings: he was a lover of the people of God, he built them a synagogue, he had soldiers and slaves under his command, and was a man of means and authority who used it for the good of others. He even risked contacting a suspicious rabbi to heal his beloved slave.
His self-effacing words are not coming from Luke’s usual meek characters who show similar humility, like the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4) or the confessing tax collector (Luke 18:13). It is not because of his worthiness that the centurion’s slave is healed, but it is because of his faith. It is his acknowledging his need for God, it is his awareness of his helplessness. The humility that accompanies faith does not belong to economic status. The act of faith itself is not a membership card; rather, it is the posture that makes our receptivity to grace possible: the abandoning oneself to God seems to be the key to this whole Christian business.
Abkhazian elder Murat Yagan used to say, “you can’t pray for more grace. God has given you everything already—in fact, his own life. What more do you want?!?!” You can only pray for the ability to receive it. Acknowledging one’s need for God, one’s powerlessness, and turning to God does not make God like us more, or influence God to feel inclined to grant our wishes; rather, it is the depth of our turning towards God, our abandonment, and the realization of our smallness in relation to the unspeakable vastness of crucified love that creates the space for us to receive what he is already giving us. The humility of faith is not for God, it is for us to make room for God, to enable us to yield.
Our own strength and self-sufficiency, piety, theological profundity and spiritual refinement become barriers to the one and only thing we need to yield to God’s transforming grace: faith. “Humility,” according to Murat Yagan, “is knowing our dependence on God.” Sometimes, I wonder if those of us glowing in our liberal, progressive, and self-empowered “inclusive” Church, are so afraid to offend, afraid to not be in control, afraid of the word “obedience,” or afraid to surrender our self-directed spiritualism, that we miss the pearl of great price.
Can we really presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness?
As we will pray from the propers on Sunday:
May we hear and do what you command,
Give us the wisdom of obedience
Deliver us from all spiritual pride,
and give us a quiet confidence in your mercy.