Grace upon Grace

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

—Matthew 11:28-30, The Message

Praise and Adoration

Praise is a river glowing on joyously in its own channel, banked up on either side that it may run towards its one object, but adoration is the same river overflowing all banks, flooding the soul and covering the entire nature with its great waters; and these not so much moving and stirring as standing still in profound repose, mirroring the glory which shines down upon it; like a summer’s sun upon a sea of glass; not seeking the divine presence, but conscious of it to an unutterable degree, and therefore full of awe and peace, like the sea of Galilee when its waves felt the touch of the sacred feet.   Adoration is the fulness, the height and depth, the length and breadth of praise.

—C. H. Spurgeon

Pentecost and the Church (4)

The distinctive, constant, basic ministry of the Holy Spirit under the new covenant is so to mediate Christ’s presence to believers—that is, to give them the knowledge of his presence with them as their Sayiour, Lord, and God—that three things keep happening.

First, personal fellowship with Jesus . . . becomes a reality of experience, even though Jesus is now not here on earth in bodily form, but is enthroned in heaven’s glory.

Second, personal transformation of character into Jesus’ likeness starts to take place as, looking to Jesus, their model, for strength, believers worship and adore him and learn to lay out and, indeed, lay down their lives for him and for others.

Third, the Spirit-given certainty of being loved, redeemed, and adopted through Christ into the Father’s family, so as to be “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), makes gratitude, delight, hope, and confidence—in a word, assurance—blossom in believers’ hearts.

By these phenomena of experience, Spirit-given knowledge of Christ’s presence . . . shows itself.

—J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 49

Pentecost and the Church (3)

The Spirit makes known the personal presence in and with the Christian and the church of the risen, reigning Saviour, the Jesus of history, who is the Christ of faith. Scripture shows . . . that since the Pentecost of Acts 2 this, essentially, is what the Spirit is doing all the time as He empowers, enables, purges, and leads generation after generation of sinners to face the reality of God. And He does it in order that Christ may be known, loved, trusted, honored and praised, which is the Spirit’s aim and purpose throughout as it is the aim and purpose of God the Father, too. This is what, in the last analysis, the Spirit’s new covenant ministry is all about.

—J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 47

Pentecost and the Church

The need for a theology about the Day of Pentecost is seen by reflecting on how readily Christians misunderstand the nature of the church. For many people the church is a voluntary organization of individuals. . . .

The church is a community called together by the Spirit of the Risen One. It is not something we choose to do (and equally well could choose not to do), but something to which we are summoned. The Greek word for church (ekklēsia from which we derive “ecclesiastical”) means “those who have been called forth or summoned,” much as one is summoned to appear in a court of law. And we are called as a body of interdependent parts, not as separable individuals. The free-spirited individualism of our age is a manifestation of Babel, not Pentecost, as should be evident from the intransigent divisions and intractable conflicts such individualism fosters. The Risen One, who is present at all times and in all places, seeks to bind together by the action of the Spirit all things that have been wrongly separated. Participation therefore is not something we do on the basis of personal choice or need; participation in the Body of Christ is inherent in being Christian. The church, not the individual, is the irreducible unit of Christianity. Further, the church is to be a sign of the future: No matter how haltingly and imperfectly, the church seeks to enact in the present world the justice and grace that characterize the eternal reign of God. Therefore Christians participate in the church not so much for what they can get as for what they can give, for what they can offer as an alternative to the dominant ways of the world.

—Laurence Hill Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 76-77

Celebrating the Ascension

Ten Reasons to Celebrate Ascension Day

1. The ascension of Jesus testifies that what we can perceive with our five physical senses is only part of the splendor God has envisioned for us—while doing nothing to denigrate the beauty of our bodily experience of the world around us.

2. The ascension of Jesus gives us language to speak about both Jesus’ absence and presence—his absence from us in the body, and his presence with us through the Holy Spirit. Being honest about Jesus’ absence is the first step to being open to God’s empowering presence with us in the Holy Spirit.

3., The ascension of Jesus depicts the boundary between earth and heaven as permeable. Our prayers cross over this boundary, Jesus’ resurrected body passes through this boundary, and—one day—so will ours.

4. The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize heaven. It pictures heaven as a place in which resurrected bodies belong. Heaven is not just ethereal and vaporous.

5. The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize Jesus today. As you read this, in the present tense, Jesus is not passive, but active. Jesus is praying for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 24-25). Jesus is sending the Spirit. Having prepared a place for us, Jesus is actively waiting for us.

6. The ascension of Jesus helps us see lordship and sovereignty as good and gracious. In this sad world, power is equated with bullying or coercive force. In contrast, fusing the words “reigning Lord” and “Jesus Christ” transforms our understanding of power and helps us envision the kind of power that is purely good and altogether lifegiving.

7. The ascension of Jesus changes our picture of suffering. The ascension of Jesus helps us see that heaven is a place that is not indifferent to human suffering (Heb. 4:14-16). This calls us to embrace the overlapping rhythms of worship, pastoral care, and justice. Ascension Day is a profound resource for addressing deep pastoral needs—for those who struggle with depression, guilt, shame, burnout, shallowness, and conflict; for those who are persecuted; for victims of war and violence; for victims of abuse and tragedy.

8. The ascension of Jesus can prevent us from over-identifying with everyday reality. The ascension “sets our minds on things above” (Col. 3:1), and reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. This, in turn, teaches us to invest deeply in our work and daily life, but to hold on to it loosely. It gives us a basis for passionate living that is graced by freedom, not grasping; invitation, not control.

9. Ascension teaches us a lot about ultimate desire, the kind of soul-aching desire that drives so much of our human striving. It reminds us that our ultimate desires cannot be satisfied with life as we know it, that ultimately all God’s saints long for “a better country” (Heb. 11:16).

10. Ascension humbles us. It shows us how limited our minds, imaginations, and words really are. It teaches us to ground our worship in doxology: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”

—John Witvliet (originally published in Reformed Worship 115, March 2015)