As far as I know about Christianity, the Episcopal Church is unique in its use of the Baptismal Covenant. Other groups of Christians regard Baptism as necessary for salvation. And, in fact so it is regarded by the Episcopal Church. But whereas others consider Baptism as a thing that is done to a person at a point in time, the theology of the Episcopal Church is that being baptized demands a certain way of life. That way of life includes being nurtured in the Word of the Lord and the sacramental life of grace. It includes the practice of daily prayer. But it also includes certain practical dimensions of Christian life—things which we should strive to do in our daily life. These things are the practical application of Christianity.
The practical application of Christianity appeals to most of us, I suppose, because we pride ourselves on being practical people. We tend to be a down-to-earth lot, for whom the reality is that for every mystical flight of the soul there has to be a landing. The grace of God pulls us up; the gravity of life pulls us right back down. So these Baptismal vows have a side of that practical daily living that is absent in the ways in which many groups of Christians understand baptism. “When you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you seek and will you serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
This Sunday’s lessons from James and from Mark all focus on that challenge to seek and serve Christ in all persons. In James 2:1-14 there is a warning about showing partiality on the basis of the outward appearance of the person. The challenge he holds up is that we must learn to look at the intrinsic goodness that comes from within and regard the person in that fashion. Similarly, in the Gospel, Mark 7 24-37, there are two people who are brought to Jesus for healing. One of them is a Syrophoenician (not Jewish) and the other was a fellow who had an impediment in his speech. To challenge the narrowness of his disciples’ thinking, our Lord provocatively says of the woman and her daughter that “it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” This was our Lord’s way of challenging the disciples who only saw a heathen woman, and his way of provoking them to see the real person with the real need standing before him.
When we pray the prayer known as the Prayer of Humble Access, we are echoing the sentiment of this story of Jesus healing the woman’s daughter. We remind ourselves that we are not worthy of the grace of God. We pray that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the table, but we are reminded that we too must learn to trust in the great, manifold mercy of Almighty God. The prayer is not in much favor these days because people feel that it is too much self-denigration. But in actuality it is not. It remains a statement of our profound gratitude towards Almighty God for his blessings to us.