Amazing Grace

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The recent Joint Declaration of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) states:

"By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work, and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts, while equipping and calling us to good works."

This is a good synthesis of Paul's teaching in his many Letters, and of the apostles' Peter and James in their respective Letters, etc. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God - not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph.2:8-10).

An e-mail I received recently entitled "Heaven's entrance exam" humorously illustrates this important truth about our relationship with God:

A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St.Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates and says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You give me some good reasons why your name should be in the Book of Life, and I'll give you points for them." The man said, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart." St.Peter replies, "That's wonderful, it's worth 3 points". "Only 3 points?" the man exclaimed. "OK, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service". St.Peter comments, "Terrific, that's certainly worth 1 point". The man said, "Only 1 point? OK, I started a soup kitchen for the poor and visited the Home for the Aged regularly". "Fantastic" replied St.Peter, "that's good for 2 more points". The man says, "Only two points? At this rate, the only way I'll get into heaven is by the grace of God!"

And St.Peter replies, "Bingo, 100 points, come on in!"

This is a very important truth to remember, to relish, to proclaim, and to be newly convinced about in the Third Millennium of Christianity. In similar vein, Jesus too once declared, "After having done all things well, say 'we are but unworthy servants'!" (Lk.17:10b). The popular hymn, "Amazing Grace", sung with devotion by millions of believers, expresses the "mystery hidden for all ages and now made known to the saints" about true salvation, that is, "Christ in us, the hope of glory". Such hymns are popular contemplation at its best!

But the Joint Declaration goes on to explain that the justified person is responsible for the mercy of God received, and has to take care of it! Hence, the parable about the Last Judgment in Mathew 25 is severe about those who take life and love lightly, and live very individualistic, selfish and egocentric lives: "I was hungry, etc., and you did not..." The Letter of James rightly underlines the truth that "faith without works is dead" (2:14-26). Hence the grace of contemplation is authenticated by the graces of compassion and courage, and all three are the wellsprings of many initiatives of love!

In this new Millennium, the Holy Spirit, making us more "perfect" or mature in Christ, must fill us with new power to evangelise, not only by word, but even more by our deeds, our behaviour, our witnessing. Our renewed experience and celebration of the grace of our Lord Jesus, the love of the Father, and the fellowship of the Spirit should lead us to show the world, by our own example, that the Good News is not something utopian (an impossible dream) but something eminently practical and possible. The world is longing to see this, as Pope Paul VI wisely pointed out:

"May the world of our time which is searching, now in anguish, now in hope, receive the Gospel not from evangelisers who are dejected or dispirited, or from those who are impatient or anxious. Let them hear it from ministers of the Gospel whose lives are aglow with fervour, from those who have received the joy of Christ into their lives..."

Pope John Paul II too reminds us, "The witness of a Christian life is the first and irreplaceable form of mission. The first form of witness is the very life of the missionary, of the family, of the parish community, which reveal a new way of living. Every one in the Church can and must bear this kind of witness! ...The Gospel witness which the world finds most appealing is that of concern for people, and of charity towards the poor, the weak, and those who suffer..."

Here we have it then, loud and clear. If we are looking for an authentic Third Millennium personal spirituality, it must include, on a daily basis, these two foci or emphases: joy in the salvation we have received through Jesus, expressed visibly in celebration; and charity or solidarity with and concern for the poor and needy, expressed visibly in action or witness.

There are too many "good" Christians who are only focussed on receiving the blessings of salvation (in their sacramental and personal prayer life, and in charismatic inner healing and other phenomena, etc.) and not at all practically concerned about sharing their blessings with their "neighbour" (there is no evidence of such sharing in their daily lives). As a result, Christianity gets emptied of its power, for the Spirit cannot keep filling us if we don't share with others that infilling - we become stagnant pools instead of bubbling fountains, and the world sees nothing for it to be impressed about.

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