Rev. Teri Peterson|
The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit
Ephesians 2.8-10, John 1.14-16, 14.15-17, 25-26, Romans 5.1-5
15 July 2012, People’s Choice 7
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’” From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”
Near the end of his ministry, Jesus said,
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion, who will be with you forever. This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees her nor recognizes her. You know her, because she lives with you and will be with you.
“I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.
Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness combined with our faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
I remember the sermon title from the very first Sunday I ever went to church—it was “Old Time Religion.” Granted, it was 1999, so that’s not that long ago, but still. I don’t remember anything about the sermon, nor do I remember the prayers or the scripture or the music, though it was Easter so it was probably resurrection related. But I do remember, very clearly, the final words said in that service, and in countless worship services since then. “Go into the world today and have courage. Hold on to what is good. Return no one evil for evil. Honor all of God’s children. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit go with you, and remain with you and all whom you love, this day and forevermore.”
I’m pretty sure that sums up the gospel, right there—preachers the world over could probably just say those words and be done. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit go with you...is there better news to be heard or lived?
But now, as then, these are big words. Powerful words. Confusing words. What does it mean to gather, grow, and go in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? What does it mean to live in the love of God? And what on earth does the Holy Spirit have to do with the committee that plans potlucks and picnics?
These are big questions. And the answers seem unbelievable, so we can hardly believe they’re for real. We just heard a moment ago that we have ALL received grace upon grace, that it’s a gift of God we can never earn or do or possess. Surely John and Paul can’t have been serious. We are Presbyterians with the classic strong Protestant work ethic. They can’t possibly mean that God’s grace is just...free. I mean, you get what you pay for, right? And we all know that grace is amazing, so how can it not be something we work for?
But there it is. Unbelievable and ridiculous and true, all at the same time. Grace: the gift of love, completely undeserved and yet received nonetheless. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is what opens us to know the love of God. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is what allows us to persevere, knowing that trouble produces endurance which produces character which produces hope that will never disappoint. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ can never be possessed, only received, lived, shared. In other words, it is a circle that can only be widened. The circle of grace can never be drawn to exclude, can never shrink only to those we think deserving, can never be held back. It is ever and always widening to include the whole of creation, until every person knows they are loved, until every person is a part of the web of relationship that binds us together.
And the way we know this grace? Through the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus promised, has been sent to live with us, within us, among us as a companion, a friend. Now, I know that we Presbyterians are often wary of the Spirit—it freaks us out a little that there’s this part of God who is referred to with feminine pronouns, and that we can’t get a handle on the Spirit. God the creator we can sort of understand, and Jesus we can read about and follow his teachings, but the Spirit? She moves too fast, at the edges of our vision, closer than breath yet often indistinct. We talk about Jesus living in our hearts, or the image of God being planted within us, but to think about the Holy Spirit dwelling in and among us is somehow a little weird. Well, friends, today is the day we get over it, because here’s the good news that comes with a challenge for our rational enlightened protestant selves: God the Holy Spirit wants to be our companion, our advocate, our helper, our teacher, our friend, and is not willing to take no for an answer. Jesus promised the Spirit of Truth would be with us, and sometimes the word “with” there is translated as “in”—as in, inside you—and sometimes it can be translated “among”—as in, part of the community with you. In fellowship with you, with us.
Fellowship—it’s not just the committee that has the hardest time getting volunteers! Human beings are hardwired for relationship, for community. We need to feel connected, to belong. In churches, fellowship is often another word for community building—Brewed Awakenings or potluck lunches or pancake breakfasts. Times when we can deepen our relationships with each other, make new connections, have fun. So...what’s stopping us from having fellowship with the Holy Spirit? Do we think the Spirit doesn’t like to have fun, is boring or uptight, or will constrain our good times—like when people find out I’m a pastor and ask if they can still drink or swear around me? Or do we think perhaps we’re not cool enough or good enough or worthy of having a friendship with God? Or that God is too distant and uninterested, too high and holy, too far out of our league? It’s unbelievable to think that God would want to hang out with us, to be friends on that level...and so we don’t believe it.
And yet God pursues us. Calls us to relationship—though few of us have the energy to invest in another relationship, so we push away and insist we just don’t know how to pray or that God doesn’t speak to us. But still the Spirit is among us, within us, with us, as a companion and friend—the kind of friend who tells the truth, who challenges as well as comforts, who reminds us of what we already know deep down, who is a window into real unconditional love. Jesus has promised us a Companion who will live with us forever, who will teach us and remind us. Paul calls the Spirit the conduit through whom we receive the love of God, a gift.
The thing about gifts from God is that you can’t really return them, even if you could locate a receipt. Once God decides to give you a gift, that’s it—it’s yours. And the first gift is that of the Holy Spirit. The question is not whether we’ll be in relationship with God, it’s how. What kind of relationship will we choose to have with this God who will not leave us alone? Will we be close friends who talk every day, who share our lives and hopes and fears and dreams and secrets? Or acquaintances who nod when we occasionally pass one another on the sidewalk? Will we screen the calls, or pick up every time? It may seem odd to talk to God the way you would talk to a person sitting across the table at the coffee shop, to share mundane details as well as major events, but isn’t that what friendship is? Relationships are made of small moments—a shared joke here, an embarrassing incident there, a surprising moment of hope in the middle of the week, a delicious casserole next to a jello salad. Time spent in silence, eyes open to the subtle movement of the wind, hearts that perceive the image of God in others, ears attuned to the word in scripture and in everyday conversation. Grace, Love, Fellowship.
One of the ways I have pondered answering the question “What is grace?” is by saying “grace is the gift of fellowship with the Holy Spirit.” It seems like a convoluted answer designed to write a sermon for a people’s choice series, but it’s also the truth. Grace is God’s gift to us...a gift of love, of peace, but most of all of relationship. God, in Christ and through the Spirit, offers us the friendship that surpasses all understanding, the friendship that can change our lives, the friendship that is the foundation for all others. We love because God first loved us—and we are friends because God first befriended us, sending the Spirit to live in and with and among us. And so we can go into the world and have courage. We can hold on to what is good, return no one evil for evil, and honor all of God’s children. We can love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. We can gather, and grow, and go out to share the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit, widening the circle until the kingdom comes.