“Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.” This collect begins with quite the petition. It calls to mind what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:13, as translated in the King James Version: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” Or it may bring to mind a fairly famous axiom—“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
We Nazarenes like to attribute that quotation to Phineas Bresee but it certainly wasn’t original to him. Some claim it goes back to Augustine; others argue against that view and claim a different author. Even murkier than the question of the authorship of the quotation is the question on who exactly gets to decide what is an essential and what is a nonessential.
The church certainly seems divided over what is essential and what isn’t these days. Perhaps the collect’s second petition might give us a clue: “make us love what you command.” Isn’t it sad that we seem to not be able to agree about what God has commanded? Did Jesus really mean I have to love my neighbor? Does welcoming the stranger really include immigrants and refugees? Is the Sermon on the Mount describing how to live as a Christian now or is it describing the kingdom once it comes in its fullness? Can a Christian get a tattoo? Am I allowed to wear polyester? These are, for the most part, important questions. These are divisive questions. As we try to navigate them as God’s people in this time, we certainly need the gifts of faith, hope, and charity to serve as constellations helping us find our way. It seems again, that charity is our north star, since in Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NIV)
Our collect for this Sunday suggests that the petition to “make us love what you command” is so that “we may obtain what you promise.” What exactly is it that God promises to us? The question reminds me of a little plastic loaf of bread that sat in my mother’s kitchen when I was a child. The center of the plastic loaf was cut out and there were little strips of paper stacked on end inside the loaf. If you pulled one of the strips of paper out, there would be a Bible verse on it. It always seemed to me to be a kind of fortune cookie approach to receiving a promise as daily bread from God. Yet, every time I pulled out one of those strips of paper, I felt a sense of hope after reading what it said.
“Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.” Lord, we certainly need you to do this in our lives.