Good God Grammar

Dear friends in Christ,

Grammar matters! A period here, a comma there, and the entire meaning of a sentence can change.

Let me give you an example. Last month we commemorated the feast of St Francis. It’s usually around that time of year that a quote attributed to St Francis makes the rounds again. Maybe you’ve heard it, it goes something like this: 

“Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

First of all, the veracity of this quote is questionable. There’s actually no written record of Francis ever saying this, so we can’t be sure that he did.

Second of all, the quote is actually kind of problematic. Use words, if necessary. The implication is that words are not (or at least not always) necessary to the preaching of the gospel. Instead, we can let our lives and actions proclaim the gospel. We can show the truth of the gospel in the way that we live and treat others without ever having to open our mouths and say anything.

I suppose that’s a nice idea and it’s partly true (the gospel ought to shine forth in our lives) but in my opinion it gets it quite wrong! Let’s just say that if the proclamation of the gospel depends on the way I live and treat others then the cause of the gospel is in desperate trouble! Moreover, if I believe it’s God’s love shining through in my life then I can’t afford to rest on my laurels and assume that goes without saying. The whole point of the gospel is that God has acted despite and in spite of how we act! The gospel doesn’t depend on me, it depends on God. At some point you’ve got to say so.

Grammar matters! Let’s apply that principle to the above quote (falsely) attributed to Francis. Maybe if we play with the punctuation we can churn out something closer to the truth. How about this: 

“Preach the gospel. At all times if necessary. Use words.”

That’s better. Same words. Same order. Different meaning. Grammar matters.

In our Collect this Sunday we’ll pray,

LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy household the Church in continual godliness; that through thy protection it may be free from all adversities, and devoutly given to serve thee in good works, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Where we place the emphasis here matters greatly and can change how we hear and understand the prayer. For example, we may hear that prayer and place the emphasis on “godliness,” “devoutly,” “serve thee,” “good works.” All well and good, but that risks focusing the Christian life on us and what we do.

But there’s a piece of theological grammar that I try to keep in mind whenever I preach and it’s helpful here too. It’s this: “Make sure God is the subject of the verbs.” When applied to preaching, this makes sure that sermons are focused on what God has done and is doing rather than presenting you with a to-do list of what you ought to do. It highlights God’s grace and guards against moralism.

Let’s apply that theological grammar to our collect by highlighting the verbs of which God is the subject. What does God do, according to the Collect? God keeps, protects, and frees.

First, God keeps us “in continual godliness.” To say that God keeps us is to say that God is not only our Maker but our Sustainer. Our whole life (as individuals but also, chiefly, as the Church) is sustained at every moment by God. We are under his constant care and guidance. Christ loves us and gave himself for us, purifying us and making us worthy to stand before God the Father. As members of his Church he has given us the Holy Spirit, enabling us to be holy even as God is holy.

Second, God protects us from all adversities. This isn’t to say that we get through life unscathed. You know as well as I do that isn’t so. Nevertheless, God both protects us from adversities unknown to us and protects us from those adversities that do assail us, from without and from within, so that our faith is not defeated. God protects his Church, so that despite 2,000+ years of persecution the Church continues to grow and advance. 

Third, God frees. God frees us from and God frees us for. God frees us from the power of sin and death, for a life of service and love. Sin has lost its power and we are able to follow Christ and serve him in loving obedience not because of our own capacity or strength but because of what God has done and continues to do.

Grammar matters, never more so than in the Christian life. Keep the emphasis on God, who he is and what he has done/is doing, and sound Christian theology and living is sure to follow!

God bless you church. See you Sunday.

Jonathan+

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