Gleanings from the Collects: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

O Lord God, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

This collect is new to the American Book of Common Prayer. However a similar petition may be found in the Great Litany.[1]

The idea that God’s people are battling “the world, the flesh and the devil” comes from the Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 2 verses 1-3. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sinsin which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the bodyand the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Care must be taken to properly define these three battlefronts so that we do not form a circular firing squad. When we speak of “the world” we are not implying that the created order is evil. The opposite is true. St. Paul teaches in Romans that creation reveals the invisible attributes of God.[2]If you have had your breath taken away by a beautiful sunset or a royal mountain range or a majestic red wood tree, then you know this to be true.

When we speak of “the world” we are referring to the worldly temptations that draw us away from God. These are not limited to, but certainly include, the temptations of riches, fame, power, and the godless systems, philosophies and cultures that promote the same. 

When we speak of “the flesh” we are not referring to our bodies or even to our bodily needs. God created man as the apex of His creation and God Himself took on our flesh in the Incarnation. The body of a Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit.[3]Thus our flesh is not evil as some heresies have contended. 

The “flesh” in this prayer refers to our longings and appetites that are driven by sin. This is commonly seen when we distort the gifts of God. He gives us bread to eat and we become gluttons. He gives us the fruit of the vine and we become drunkards. He gives marriage the gift of sex and we become promiscuous and perverse. He causes our cup to overflow and we become selfish hoarders. The “flesh” is that two year old that lives in us all who wants it his way and wants it now!

When we speak of “the devil” we are not speaking metaphorically. We are referring to a spiritual being that is our hated enemy. Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness reveal the devil as one who would be god. Countless souls have been deceived by him and made him theirs. 

A 19thcentury French poet[4]wrote, “One of the artifices of Satan is, to induce men to believe that he does not exist: another, perhaps equally fatal, is to make them fancy that he is obliged to stand quietly by, and not to meddle with them…” While this poet seemed to have not heeded his own advice, the lesson is that we invite peril if we do not believe that the devil exists or if we think him to be idle.

St. Paul tells us that the grace for which we pray to stand against these temptations is readily available to us. Verses 4-7 states, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses,made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

[1]Written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer with the bulk of the material taken from the Sarum Rite of the 11thC. 

[2]Romans 1:20

[3]I Corinthians 6:19

[4]Charles Baudelaire

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