When Jesus Stands Center Stage
When God points to Christ and His gifts we more often than not prefer to suck the divine thumb than go where it points us. In this way, for example, when we walk into a church we don't automatically look for the Lord's gifts laid out, ready to be administered and received. Instead, we prepare ourselves, spiritually, intellectually, and morally for what we have come to achieve for ourselves in God's name. We focus on ourselves more than the Gospel, unless it's a gospel that enables and empowers us to realize our hopes and silence our dread of divine punishment. Rarely, though, do we stop to ask, "Why am I doing that?" On the other hand, when we are not in the way of Gospel and the Lord's gifts then we can celebrate, rejoicing that all of God's doing is bent toward giving to us and all our doing is turned toward receiving from Him what is impossible for us to do for ourselves. In this way, when we walk into a church, we are not there primarily to satisfy our thoughts, wants, and whims, not to 'do what is in us', to use a popular old medieval expression, but to help our neighbor focus on what matters—the real reason we are gathered together, which is Christ and His gifts. This is the way of the Gospel, of gifts being poured into our hands without measure or limit. It is what makes every local congregation the church catholic. Where Christ and His gifts are delivered to sinners for their forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation, there Christians have something to rejoice about.
But, what do we do when Christians are more focused on their doing for God than God's doing for them? What is a preacher to say when he is expected, pressured by a congregation even, to devote more attention to secondary matters, like a Christian's behavior, than to the primary matter of the justification of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone? St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians offers us a helpful example.
When the Corinthians were more concerned with spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, arguing over who should preach, who should lead worship, who should pray and who should stay silent, he doesn't jump into the fray. Instead, he preaches more Jesus to them. He focuses them on Jesus and His gifts. In this way, the apostle pushes their concerns to the periphery so that Jesus may occupy center stage.
In the same way, when a congregation suffers malnourishment because they have been focused on what gifts they bring to offer to their Christianized gods, we don't pick apart their godlessness, hoping to argue them into repentance and true faith. We don't say, "You know, if you'd just stop your godless nonsense, you'd be real Christians after all!" First, we preach and teach Savior Jesus. We emphasize His gifts that are handed out to us, gifts that satisfy eternally. In this way, we all together come to know that the Gospel and His gifts are the primary reason we are in a church at all. He is there for us with life-giving gifts that are given into dead hands of faith.
The greatest threat though, whether in a congregation or from the pastor, is a legalistic approach to the Gospel and Christ's gifts. This reveals a slavish adherence to advancing God's will according to our self-imposed time tables. But the Gospel works entirely by drawing the lost sheep to their Shepherd. Not in our way of measuring time and success, but in the way of the Lord, in the way of Gospel, which sees every person in relation to eternity. In this way, the Gospel and our Lord's gifts inspire Christians to say, "Wow! I can't believe I was so concerned about myself. This is so much more than I ever imagined. The Gospel really is inexhaustible, and the gifts really do satisfy."
Nonetheless, it's tempting for us (because it's easy) to say, "What is wrong with you people? Don't you know you're not focused on what matters, on the One who is the reason you're here! Come on, get it together!" Sure it may work in the short term—like putting a gun to someone's head can temporarily compel them to pick up a box—but force will never affect a permanent change to someone's heart. Only the Gospel and Christ's gifts of Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Absolution can convert someone's heart from "a heart of stone to a heart of flesh," as the prophet declares.
We point to Christ Jesus and His gifts because that's the way of letting the Lord have His say. In this way we are drawn out of ourselves, away from what matters most to us, to focus on the reason we are even in a church, in the assembly of saints, a member in the body of Christ. The Gospel and His gifts draw, invite, and pull us out of ourselves to receive God's love given and shed for us in Christ Jesus and, as a consequence, to love our neighbor by pointing them, too, to Savior Jesus who saves, satisfies, and comforts us today and always.