God doesn't make us do anything

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni
Rector

June 23, 2019

If you are going to study the Bible in depth it helps to be familiar with Greek and Hebrew. The most ancient texts of the Bible are in these two languages. I speak neither.  

I can read a very small bit of each. But, if you were to peruse the bookshelves of my office, you would discover I have many resources to help me research both languages. If you were to peruse my bookshelves very carefully you would also find a English-to-Latin dictionary. Latin is another handy language when it comes to Christian scholarship. It is not as central to the study of Scriptures but it is useful in other areas like the study of liturgy.  

Much of the liturgy of the Episcopal Church has Roman Catholic DNA, so to speak.  Many of the words we encounter each Sunday morning can be traced directly back to Latin texts over 1000 years old. So, occasionally it helps to wade into a little Latin here and there.  

This week I found my little English to Latin dictionary quite helpful and very enlightening; all because of one word in our Collect this morning.  Our Collect for the Day begins with this petition:

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name…
  
One word stuck out to me this week.  It not only stuck out but it bothered me.  The word is make.
  
“O Lord, make us…,” we pray.

Maybe it’s because I treasure being independent.  Maybe it’s because it was common when I was a child, when confronted by a bully or a bossy know-it-all trying to push me around, my general response was, “Oh yeah?  Make me.”  Maybe it’s because this sense of God making us love him is wrong.  You can’t make someone love you.  This flies in the face of basic Christian understanding of free will.

So I did a little research this week, a little language sleuthing and discovered that, while the word make is an accurate translation of an ancient Latin collect, it doesn’t really capture the fullness of the word. Instead let me offer you a bit more wordy approach to the meaning of this prayer from the Latin:

 O Lord, create and form in us perpetual
 and reverent love for your holy Name.


The point of this prayer is not that we are asking God to force us to love him but to form us in God’s love, to craft and accomplish God’s love within us, that we may always be guided and led by God’s will.

Massey Shepherd, was an Episcopal priest, professor and liturgical scholar.  He was also one of the primary leaders in the work that brought us the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  He wrote of this collect that the illuminating metaphor of the original ...likens God’s help and governance to that of a pilot or helmsman.  The pilot alone can bring us safely to our destination; we love him because he never abandons that care and concern for us from the moment we have placed ourselves in his hands.That makes so much more sense to me.  That is so much more comforting. I can live with that.

Surely, God can make us do anything.  But the life of faith we have been called to live is not one of being force, or coercion, or manipulation.  Instead we  are called to trust and love.

God seeks to build our trust, to nurture our love.  God doesn’t seek to make us do anything. God seeks to make his home within our hearts.

© 2019, Tom Thoeni