The Properties of God – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

2 Peter 3:11-18
Mark 12:13-17

The other evening, I engaged in a discussion with a friend about the Prayer of Humble Access. This prayer, recited just before communion in the Rite I liturgy; of the Prayer Book, and is known for its poetic, though somewhat outdated, language. I pointed out to my friend that is a version of the prayer, in contemporary language, which begins: “We do not presume to come to this your table, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy.” Opinions on this prayer vary; some may find its tone overly submissive, while others, like myself, prefer to focus on the aspects of God’s grace.

My friend observed that, for him, the modern language didn’t capture the depth he found in the more traditional language, especially highlighting the phrase: “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” He argued that “characteristic” doesn’t convey the same depth as “property.” The term property refers to a quality or feature uniquely belonging to an individual or thing. Being a science enthusiast, he likened it to a “physical property of matter,” explaining that such a property is an attribute observable and measurable without altering the substance’s chemical identity. Properties observable only through chemical changes are chemical properties, whereas physical properties are apparent without change or during physical alterations. Examples include changing states of matter or altering matter’s shape through actions like folding or cutting. Physical properties are detectable through our senses, making them crucial for describing matter.[i] Applying this analogy to the Prayer of Humble Access, we recognize that mercy is an unchanging attribute of God amidst a constantly changing and evolving world.

In our lesson from the second letter of Peter, we encounter a passage imbued with apocalyptic urgency. The author poses a compelling question: “What sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” This inquiry, steeped in discernment, challenges us, as followers of Jesus, to consider the properties we should embody amid an increasingly volatile world.

The language used in this epistle—descriptions of all things dissolving, the heavens ablaze, and the elements melting—may indeed mirror the tumultuous times we find ourselves in. We are witnessing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the widespread issue of gun violence in our nation, a global surge in nationalism, the threat to our environment in climate change, and the murders of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, broadcast on social media in an instant. These events drive us toward levels of anxiety that I think resonate with the themes discussed in our lesson. When we are faced with such distressing events, it is hard not to follow the urges of our limbic systems into states of self-preservation through “flight, fight, or freeze.”

In our Gospel lesson from Mark, we encounter a story where Pharisees and Herodians attempt to ensnare Jesus with questions designed to trap Him in a theological dilemma, aiming to justify His arrest. They believed posing a question about taxation could corner Him into either heresy, by supporting the emperor, or incite trouble with the Roman Empire by promoting tax evasion. They ask, “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

Astutely aware of their scheme, Jesus requests they show Him a Roman coin. He then inquires not just about property—as in ownership—but also about specific properties of the coin, asking, “Whose likeness and title are on this coin?” They respond, “The emperors.” Jesus’ reply—to give the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God—skillfully avoids endorsing the violation of both Jewish and Roman law.

When we explore the inquiry presented in the second letter of Peter, we engage in discerning our identity as God’s children and the defining qualities that should accompany such recognition. Essentially, this encapsulates the purpose of the Lenten season: to reflect on the properties within us that mark us as followers of Jesus. Tomorrow, we will delve into the Book of Common Prayer’s guidance on observing a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance (with “repent” fundamentally meaning ‘to turn around’); engaging in prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and dedicating time to reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.[ii] This process helps us reconnect with our identity as God’s children, sharpening the properties that reflect God’s nature, as exemplified by His son, Jesus.

We also engage in this practice by continually partaking of Jesus, present in the forms of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist. The version of the Prayer of Humble Access in the 1928 Prayer Book elaborates: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, put it this way: “As each touch of the artist adds some fresh feature to the painting, so each communion is a touch of Christ which should develop some fresh feature of his own perfect likeness within us.”[iii]

As you come forward for communion in a few moments, bring forward something within you that you know does not reflect the qualities of Jesus. Offer this to God and in exchange, receive and partake in the body and blood of Jesus, present in the bread and wine. As you begin your Lenten journey tomorrow, aim to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”

[i] Helmenstine, A. (2022, March 12). Physical property of matter – definition and examples. Science Notes and Projects.

[ii] 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 265

[iii] Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation: Of Communion, chapter 12, page 160

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