Monday, June 20, 2011
How does grace flow?
Which way does the river of God’s grace flow? We tend to think of it flowing primarily towards us. It is a comfortable relationship. He comes to us in our sins and He forgives them. He comes to us lost and He lights the way. He comes to us in our upset and despair and He gives us peace. He comes to us in our sorrow and despair, and He gives us hope. We may be tempted to think of Pentecost in purely personal and individual terms. The Spirit who is mine. But here the promise of Jesus speaks of a river of grace that flows not only to us but, by the Holy Spirit, through us. The miracle of Pentecost is the gifts that God comes to His people with the rich grace that flows in rivers of love and that this river does not end with us. It flows through us for the building up of the Church and for the calling of the elect from among all the nations.
What is it that Jesus promises? If you thirst, you can come to Him and drink. First of all, even the thirst that wells up in us is itself a creation of the Spirit and God at work in us. The thirst for God is not something we cultivate like fine wine. It is a false idea of spirituality which posits us as seekers and God as the found. The Spirit builds this thirst with us and it is the Spirit who leads us the only One who can satisfy this thirst – to Jesus Christ alone. We treat spirituality as if it were a hobby and we act as if our quest can be met in many different places. There is only one source of forgiveness, life, salvation and peace. Anywhere other than Jesus and we will come away empty and disappointed. Only the Spirit builds this thirst in us and only Christ can satisfy it.
Even then, we would be helpless to obtain these gifts were it not for the Spirit who creates faith in us to receive what God offers us in Christ. This faith grasps the gifts of God and clings to them. Where our hearts were once closed and sealed by skepticism and fear, now the Spirit works to open them to Christ and to His gifts, that the things of God might become fully ours. It may seem foolish for us to constantly repeat this but if we get this wrong, the things of God will be forever beyond our grasp and we left unable to fulfill His bidding.
Just as too many of us think that faith is our own action, so do fall victims of our own pride to think we can make believers out of unbelievers. The Pentecost account makes it clear. We are not the causes of conversion but the means through which God’s efficacious Word and Sacrament do His bidding. Where we speak His Word, He calls and gathers His elect. Where we administer His baptism, He promises the Spirit will impart what this Word gives to the water. Christians do not witness because we fear people will go to hell, Christians witness because the Spirit has unleashed our tongues to speak of what Christ has done, of the hope that is within us, and of the wondrous grace of forgiveness and new life. In this way, we cannot help but let the river of God’s mercy flow through us any more than we can stop the Spirit from bringing forth good works and His fruits in our lives.
When the living water that is Christ flows to us and the Spirit works faith in us to receive His gifts and grace, then the result is that out of our hearts flow naturally rivers of that same living water to others. The Spirit not only works in us but through us just as He worked through the apostles of old who were boldly spoke in languages they did not learn in the ordinary way.
The Spirit directs the world to Christ through the witness of His people. Our witness is not our holy living or our experience of believing but the very Word of Christ – of His suffering, death and resurrection. And to all whom God has elected, this Word of Christ does what it promises and works faith in the hearts of those hearers. The point here is that we cannot help but speak and what we speak is taught to us by the Spirit - the message of the cross and empty tomb. Listen to the Pentecost sermon of Peter. He spoke of Jesus, crucified and risen. That is the long and short of witness.
Christian witness is not some new law or burden or obligation we must keep. It is the natural outflowing of what God has flowed to us in grace. The forgiven forgive, the redeemed testify to the Redeemer, the restored tell of their hope, the dead in trespasses and sin who have been made alive in Christ bubble over with this news. We are not lights in the sense of a source of light but mirrors and reflectors of Christ's light.
Pentecost is not a self-serving miracle. The Corinthians got it wrong. The Spirit was not given for some personal private experience, not for a devotional language or to establish our spiritual credentials. The Spirit was given that we might build up the body of Christ the Church for the work that God has given His Church to do. Building up the body of Christ or edifying the Church and giving witness to the hope that is within us are not competing aims but the very same goal and purpose.
Baptism is the lens that clarifies all of this. The call of Jesus to go and witness is directly tied to the giving of baptism’s power to His Church. By baptism we receive the Spirit and the Spirit works faith in us to hold on to Christ and His grace. In baptism we are given a new vocation as God's new people. Worship, witness, prayer, works of mercy, and Christian service are the natural extension of what God has done in us. Through us Pentecost ever continues – God calling, gathering, and enlightening.
Grace flows to us and through us. The Word of Christ we heard, we tell. The forgiveness we have received, we use to forgive others. The water of baptism is the meeting place of those whom the Spirit calls. In Pentecost this becomes marvelously clear. In the cacophony of many languages speaking all at once, one voice is heard – the language of Jesus. He turns the many into one holy people, He empowers them to serve the Lord and do His bidding, and He makes us into instruments through which the rivers of grace flow through us to others. What a splendid blessing! Amen