When I went on a Cursillo, which is the Anglican version of Walk to Emmaus, nearly 25 years ago I was told that we would hear a series of long boring talks on the Christian faith. Now after all these years I have a chance to give one of these talks, and sure enough our lay director has told me it can’t be long. But never mind. I’ll do my best to make it boring.
I’m Robert Hunt, and my talk is “Sanctifying Grace.”
When I was the leader of a large scout troop one of my favorite events was called the “Arrow of Light” ceremony. Boys aged 11 years old had to successfully complete many requirements before they could receive the Arrow of Light. Then at this ceremony they were officially inducted into the Boy Scouts. At the end of the ceremony each boy was given a new scarf, a new hat, and was officially welcomed by the older scouts into the troop. It was a fine moment for the boys, and their parents; a recognition of hard work done, and a new identity as scouts. Yet it was also only the beginning of their life as scouts. I remember one year that just a few weeks after the Arrow of Light ceremony we were camping. A group of young boys were trying hard to make a fire on a cold wet night. Supposedly this was a skill they had already mastered, but clearly they weren’t going to be able to do it on their own. And as they became discouraged it was obvious that some were going to give up and just have a cold dinner. Now often the older boys don’t want to have anything to do with the new kids, but one boy, already 18 years old, finally went to the group and patiently worked with them to break up small wood and find its dry core, to arrange the twigs so they would quickly burn, and finally with them to tend the tiny flame until it could be fed larger twigs, branches, and finally become a bonfire that warmed those boys, and indeed the whole troop.
This is Sanctification: the way in which God’s Holy Spirit works with us after our conversion, overcoming our discouragement and weakness to help us reach the fullness of life in Christ.
We often feel inadequate to our Christian vocation, but as Paul says in Romans, (8:15-16) “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.”
We might also think of sanctification as a kind of Spiritual gardening that God undertakes in our hearts. We all know what its like to clear a plot of ground to plant flowers. You turn the soil, and then try to pick out all the stones, roots, and weeds. Then you plant the flowers. Yet inevitably as the flowers grow weeds grow up alongside them. The gardener has to keep watch, and again and again kneel to the hard work of pulling from the soil anything that might detract from the beauty and health of the garden. Like the expert gardener the Holy Spirit can tell the difference between weeds and flowers long before either is full-grown. And thus with us and for us, the Spirit points out the sin in our hearts and helps us overcome and remove it for good. Thus the righteousness of Christ, which is attributed to us through faith, gradually becomes part of our own character. We are restored to the original image of humanity that God created, the humanity upon which God looked and said, “This is good.”
As this occurs in our lives we find a kind of power we cannot otherwise experience.
There is a man I know well who was constantly stressed out on Sunday mornings. He made the coffee for our fellowship hour, and was always upset that things in the kitchen were not exactly the way he wanted them. And of course people would leave cups out, or there would be spills, or the dishwasher wouldn’t function just right. By the time this gentleman left the church he would be either furious or completely exhausted or both. His ministry was both loved and appreciated, but somehow he himself was always unhappy. One day as he fussed over the dishes and grumbled about the spills on the counter the woman helping him serve suddenly put down her dish towel and walked out to speak to someone. A friend of hers was obviously distressed and she wanted to offer words of comfort. He was furious. “A mature Christian doesn’t leave a mess”, he said. His companion replied simply, “God will forgive the mess”, and left him fuming.
The next day he called and wanted to talk to me. “Will God forgive a mess?” he asked. “Of course,” I said. As we talked it became clear that he thought of salvation in terms of general forgiveness, but not the pardoning of all those small sins and imperfections that mar every human life. So he was trying to make himself and everyone else perfect without God’s help. What a drain on his emotional and spiritual energy! Fortunately this was a turning point for him. Convinced that God did indeed forgive a mess, he began to consciously and constantly seek the Spirit’s assurance of God’s pardon for his small failures, and those of others. As he did, he found that gradually his vision of ministry was lifted beyond the minutia of kitchen organization to the fellowship and love engendered by his hospitality. And in loving humans, not coffee cups, and receiving their appreciation for his ministry and not his coffee, he discovered that Sunday afternoon could actually be rather relaxing - even if the dishwasher did break down.
The presence of the Spirit in our lives frees us from the fear of guilt and punishment, and directs us towards the true purpose God has for us - which is love.
A rushing mountain torrent may seem like the epitome of power. The melting snow releases a vast store of energy, which can carve solid rock and sweep away huge boulders. Yet any engineer will tell you that only when that cataract is dammed, and mounts up into a beautiful, placid mountain lake, does it become useful. Backed up behind a dam, the tremendous energy of the water can turn a turbine and produce useful energy.
Paul writes, (Romans 8:6) “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” And this too is sanctification. A melted heart is a good thing. But a molded heart is a much better and useful thing.
Just as a dam disciplines a river, so the Spirit must discipline our lives if we are to be used by God. And the model we have of such a life, a life totally transparent to God’s Spirit, is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Way: and so we follow his way of service to others. Jesus is the Truth; and so we seek through disciplined study to know the truth. Jesus is the Life: and so we seek to find life by every deepening our relationship with him. The “Service Sheet” is simply a daily reminder of ways in which to discipline your life toward God so that the Spirit can guide you toward completeness.
(Go over Service Sheet step by step)
At first this may seem like a lot. And it is. It’s a greater commitment to being open to God through the Spirit than most of have made before. But imagine what you are trying to accomplish with the Spirit! A life worthy of a son or daughter of God. Is there any other endeavor you have attempted which compares to this?
When humankind was first created God put Adam in a garden, to be a gardener. Perhaps the service sheet can remind us of this primeval vocation. We need to be attentive to the soil, but should never just be diggers in it. We need to be attentive to the seed, but never merely sowers. And we must attend to the flower, yet never be merely florists. From soil, to seed, to flower. From devotion, to study, to service. Ours work with God’s Spirit, our Sanctification, begins rooted in God’s love, and ends only when the world can see the beauty Christ in us.