Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Where Your Strength Ends, God’s Grace Begins” (Romans 8:26)
May 20, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Every year on Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  At the Last Supper Jesus promised his disciples that after his departure he would send the Holy Spirit, the “Advocate,” the “Spirit of truth”:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 15:26 and 16:13).

Several weeks later in Jerusalem Jesus kept his promise, as Luke wrote:

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).

The same Holy Spirit who filled the disciples can fill you anew today—as Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).  Have you ever asked God to fill you with the Holy Spirit?

As Jesus said, the Holy Spirit indeed leads you into all truth, and reminds you of what you so often forget—that you are loved unconditionally by the Creator and Redeemer of the universe, that the presence of the Living God is with you all the time, no matter what.  And today I am preaching on a specific way the Holy Spirit ministers the grace of God in your life—as Paul wrote in today’s epistle passage: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Romans 8:26).  There are times when you are so weak, so utterly in need of God’s help that you do not even know how to pray.  And yet that is exactly where the Holy Spirit meets you.  Where your strength ends, God’s grace begins.  Paul put it this way:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

Sometimes being weak is not so bad, like when you fall in love.  Along those lines here are some lyrics from the beautiful Belinda Carlisle, former lead singer of the classic 80’s rock band the Go-Go’s.  When I was in college the only guys I knew who did not have a crush on Belinda Carlisle were either in serious denial or were just plain lying.  In 1988 she had a huge hit called “I Get Weak” about what happens when we fall in love:

I get weak when I look at you
Weak when we touch
I can’t speak when I look in your eyes
I get weak when you’re next to me
Weak from this love
I’m in deep when I look in your eyes
I get weak
(From her 1987 album Heaven on Earth)

Each of you has experienced that kind of weakness.  It is amazing isn’t it?

But outside of that kind of weakness we live in a world that does not value weakness at all, a world in which we either need to overcome our weaknesses or disguise them.  In job interviews when you are almost invariably asked “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” you are supposed to disguise your weaknesses as actual strengths: “One of my weaknesses is that I can be impatient with those who are not as passionate about their work as I am, but I just really like to get things done” or “One of my weaknesses is that I tend to be a perfectionist, but I just want to see things done right.”   Disguising your weaknesses may work in job interviews, but in real life, and in real relationships, it ultimately backfires.

There are times when try as you might, you cannot disguise your weaknesses, they are there for all to see.  That is when you need the Holy Spirit to help you in your weakness.  The good news is where your strength ends, God’s grace begins.

Many years ago when I was in the process toward ordination I was being interviewed (or interrogated) by a diocesan standing committee who asked the following two-part question that I never saw coming: “What is one of the greatest failures in your life, and how did you experience God’s grace in that?”  There was no getting around that question, because in our failures we actually experience the grace of God—because the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  That was not only the most important question I was asked that day, but also the only question I remember being asked, perhaps because it was the only question that related to real life and real ministry.  Why?  Because the grace of God connects with your life as it actually is, not as it could be or should be.  The grace of God is especially powerful in your failures and weaknesses.

In the mid twentieth century an Episcopal priest named Sam Shoemaker was instrumental in the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has helped millions of people with addiction recovery.  And where do the Twelve Steps begin?  By acknowledging weakness: Step One is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable” and Step Two is “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”  In other words, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness.

This is utterly contrary to the self-assured individualism that is ingrained in our culture, but it is true, especially when your self-assured individualism falls short.  “The Lord helps those who help themselves”—that is the Law.  “The Lord helps those who cannot help themselves”—that is the Gospel.  This is not only true for members of Alcoholics Anonymous; it is true all of us.

Jesus did not come for the righteous but for sinners.  Jesus did not come for the healthy but for the sick.  Jesus did not come for the found but for the lost.  Jesus did not come for the strong, but for the weak.  In his account of the gospel Matthew wrote that crowds followed Jesus, crowds of sick and lost and weak sinners because the Holy Spirit had anointed Jesus to help them in their weakness, because they knew that as the Old Testament prophet Isaiah had foretold centuries earlier, Jesus “(would) not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:20).  Think about your life for a moment.  Where are you bruised?  Where is the flame that once burned so bright but is now a “smoldering wick”?  Where are you sick, or lost, or weak?  Again, that is where the grace of God meets you.

The church is not a club of self-made overachievers.  The church is a fellowship of failures.  Speaking for myself, I have an impressive array of weaknesses, and a fine assortment of failures, some of which are there for all to see.  But I have experienced again and again in my own life, that where I am the weakest, where I am the most in need of the help of the Holy Spirit—which the older I get is increasingly the rule rather than the exception—that is where the grace of God so often connects with my life, because “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

They rarely teach that at seminaries.  Instead, seminaries often try to “form” skilled professionals for the institutional church who will be inspiring leaders and profound preachers and insightful scholars and wise administrators and caring pastors and stirring liturgists—on and on it goes.  In his prescient 1979 book The Wounded Healer the late Catholic scholar Henri Nouwen warned:

Everywhere Christian leaders have become increasingly aware of the need for more specific training and formation.  The need is realistic, and the desire for more professionalism in the ministry is understandable.  But the danger is that instead of becoming free to let the spirit grow, the future ministers may entangle themselves in the complications of their own assumed competence and use their specialism as an excuse to avoid the much more difficult task of being compassionate (42).

Reliance on anything but the help of the Holy Spirit in our weakness will ultimately backfire—not just for ministers, but for all of us.  The Old Testament prophet Zechariah was very to the point about this—“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:14).  Or again, as Paul wrote, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

Paul wrote from personal experience.  In his most vulnerable letter, his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote about a “thorn in the flesh,” something that was even too big for him to handle:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  So, I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

According to this passage the primary way the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness is with the grace of God—the one-way, unearned, unconditional, all-encompassing love of God, a love that scripture assures us surpasses any breadth or length or height or depth we could imagine, a love that “surpasses knowledge” itself (Ephesians 3:18-19), a love that never ends (1Corinthians 13:8), a love that helps us when we cannot help ourselves.

And every week here at Christ Church this grace of God by which the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness” is offered in the gospel of God’s grace preached and the sacrament of God’s grace administered.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” scripture assures us, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).  When we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion we receive the grace of God, because as we read in The Book of Common Prayer sacraments are “effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him” (BCP 872).

Jesus never avoided “the much more difficult task of being compassionate.”  Jesus was moved with compassion, moved from heaven to earth, moved from the manger to the cross.  Jesus never disguised his human weakness.  Jesus came in the human weakness of a newborn baby, and died on the cross, his human weakness there for all to see.  But “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength…God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:25, 27).

Jesus “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4).  It was the power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.  And at the end of your life, when your human weakness will be there for all to see, and you die, you too will be raised.  Your earthly body will be “sown in weakness…raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:43), the power of the Holy Spirit.

Where your strength ends, God’s grace begins.  That is the good news of the gospel on this Pentecost.

Today may the same Holy Spirit who filled the disciples fill you anew today, and help you in your weakness.