Sermon: A Grace-Full Life: Filled or Full?
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Date: October 29, 2017
Today we come to the fourth week of our church wide study on the manifestation of God’s Grace in our lives. And if we have learned nothing else in these four weeks, we have learned this: John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, as well as many theologians down through the centuries like to attach big words to the concept of grace. So the first week we talked about “Prevenient Grace” which is simply the grace that is in us and working in us from the moment of our creation really until we draw our last breath. Going before us into the world and calling us back to God no matter where we may have wandered. And then the second week the word was “Justifying Grace” or the grace that comes when Jesus “comes down” to meet us wherever we are, and becomes the way for us to come to the father. The way of forgiveness and restoration and reconciliation and salvation. Justifying grace working in our life offers that to all of us. And then last week we talked about “Sanctifying Grace” and said that it is the grace that works in us all of our lives, helping us to become what we were created to be in the first place. It is grace that cleanses and strengthens us to stand in the face of the temptations and sins that this world places in our path on this journey that we are all on. Sanctifying grace works in us to keep us on the right path, to keep our hearts clean. But no matter what the words we use, they are all humanities attempt to describe the amazing grace of our loving God. And because of that, I’m not really sure that any words are completely adequate to describe that grace of God. And even more amazing is the fact that God’s grace is a gift, freely given to everyone. But here’s the thing about grace, no matter which words we attach to describe it, while grace is freely given, it is still costly. Now you may be thinking how can grace be free and costly at the same time. Well let me try to unpack that a little. A few weeks ago, tents started to appear across the street from Memorial Coliseum as people started to line up to get tickets for Big Blue Madness. Now it’s the craziest thing. They start camping out across the street because that is city property and not UK property. And UK won’t allow any camping out more than 48 hours before the ticket office opens. So several dozen people get there days ahead and camp out so that at the appointed hour they can make a mad dash across the street and camp at the front of the line and be first to get tickets when the box office opens on the Saturday morning still a week before Big Blue Madness is held. Of course the tickets are free, but hundreds of people are willing to pay the cost to be near the front of the line when the ticket office opens. They pay the cost of sleeping out in the elements (sometimes cold, sometimes hot, often wet), missing work (I guess using vacation days), eat lots of fast food, and be separated from family and friends, all to get these free tickets to watch the UK basketball teams practice. The tickets were free, but they were not without cost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany at the time that Adolph Hitler and the Nazis came to power. And Bonhoeffer kept speaking to the church about standing up and opposing the Nazis. And ended up paying a steep cost. He was imprisoned and just as the allied army came to liberate the prison where he was held, Bonhoeffer was executed, Bonhoeffer knew grace that was free but yet costly. And in his book, “The Cost of Discipleship” which was foundational in my faith journey, Bonhoeffer wrote:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance (by Jesus on the cross), and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….
Cheap grace means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no (confession) is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. . .let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let (us) model (ourselves) on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from (our) old life under sin….
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
You see, God’s grace is free to us all, offered without condition, but it doesn’t come without cost.
As we have studied grace these past few weeks, one of the things that became apparent to me is that for grace to manifest itself in our lives, we must be partners with God in grace. Let me explain. I have used Jesus’s story about the prodigal son as a word picture of how grace manifests itself in our life’s journey. The son has dreams of better things waiting for him outside of his father’s house and so he demands and receives his share of the estate and sets off in pursuit of his worldly dreams. But as is often the case when we pursue the things of the world, things go terribly wrong. And after his life had become nearly the opposite of the fame and prosperity that he had dreamed about, Jesus tells us that He came to His senses. But here’s the thing. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that God or some other force “brought” him to his senses. As I read this story again, it occurred to me that there is a profound difference between being brought to our senses by something outside of us, and coming to our senses. Being brought to our senses implies that nothing is required of us in receiving the grace of God, but “coming” to our senses implies that it is partly by our initiation that we experience God’s grace. Consider the cost that the son had to pay in order to come to his senses. First, he had to give up those worldly dreams and aspirations that had caused him to leave the father’s house in the first place. Those things that seemed so important that he was willing to walk away from all that the father had provided. I know I spent a lot of time as a young adult pursuing worldly dreams while all the while wandering farther and farther away from the Father, until I finally came to my senses and gave in to God’s grace working in my life after basically running from it for a lot of years. But in order for that to happen I had to give up my dreams of law school and politics and being rich and powerful and answer the call to come home. Giving up the things of the world is part of the cost of grace. Because Grace is all about God’s Kingdom which often stands in opposition to the world. John described this coming to our senses when he wrote in his Gospel: I must decrease so that He can increase. And then secondly, the prodigal, in order to come to his senses and allow grace to work in his life, had to swallow his pride, humble himself. Admit he had failed. When he had left the Father’s house he had basically indicated that he was somehow above his father and that his needs were more important than everything the father had built and shared with him as he was growing up. In essence he had betrayed his father, and by asking for his share of the estate which would have normally come to him upon his father’s death, had basically proclaimed his father was. already dead to him. How could he now go back after that? I suspect that Peter may have had the prodigal “coming to his senses” in mind when he wrote: Young men, in the same way, submit yourselves to your elders. And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand so that He might exalt you.
Coming to our senses and starting to walk in humility is part of the cost of the prevenient grace of God becoming manifest in our lives.
But that was just the beginning for the prodigal of paying the cost of the grace of God. Because before he could stand justified before the father the son had to experience confession and repentance. Remember the father ran to meet his son while he was still far off on the road home, and though the father is anxious to welcome him home, the son knows that he is not worthy of such restoration. And so he essentially says: I have sinned against you and God. I am not worthy to come home.” For justifying grace to manifest itself in our life, there needs to be forgiveness and reconciliation and that begins with an acknowledgement of our need to be forgiven and reconciled. The Apostle John writes this about justifying grace: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. Confession and repentance unleashes the power of justifying grace in our life. Jesus came down into our lives in order to justify us before the Father. To do that He went to the Cross for us and we recall that sacrifice when we celebrate Holy Communion. And the beginning of our celebration of that Sacrament is our prayer of confession. He cannot take our sins to the Cross, He cannot justify us, until we release our sins to Him through confession and repentance and testify that it is through Christ alone that we are justified before God. That’s the cost of grace.
But there was still more for the prodigal. Before he could experience the sanctifying grace of God transforming his life, the son needed to submit his life to the father. You see, the Father offered the gifts of sanctification: the cloak of the law, the ring of identity as the son of the Father, and the feast of reconciliation. But here’s the thing, a gift isn’t truly a gift until it is received. The father offered the gift of a life restored and sanctified, but the son had to be open to receiving that life and so do we. He had to choose to resume his life under the law. To be restored to his place in the father’s household and so do we. To be reconciled with the family, including his older brother. The cost of sanctifying grace is contained in the choices that we make. Remember last week we talked about Jesus calling Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and Nicodemus to come out of the dark and live again. But both of those had to make a choice to respond to Jesus’s call on their life. When Jesus calls us out of our worldly tombs to live again, we always have a choice to make. And so, the cost of sanctifying grace lies in the choices that we make. What choices are you willing to make today for the Grace of God working in you? Tough choices are the cost of grace. For Lazarus the choice was life over death. But for Nicodemus the choice was first death to his worldly life, and then to live again. But make no mistake there is a cost to whatever choices we make through His grace. What cost are you willing to pay to live in God’s grace for the rest of your life on earth?
Which brings us to the final manifestation of Grace that we experience in this journey of faith, and that is the Glorifying Grace of God. John Wesley and others also called this the perfecting grace of God. Now, in thinking about the journey that the prodigal made, I think that justifying grace is that manifestation of Grace that allows us to turn towards the gates of heaven, and it is sanctifying grace that allows us to stand at the gate and knock and it is glorifying grace that opens the gates to us for eternity. Glorifying grace is that which works in us forever and ever. It is the grace that the Apostle Paul has in mind when he writes to his young friend Timothy: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith; (I’ve paid the cost). and now I have received the crown of righteousness that lies in store for all of those who have longed to see God.
It is glorifying grace that takes us across the finish line into a perfect eternity.
Now I started off this morning talking about some of the words we have used as a part of this study. Well as we close there are two additional words that I want us to think about. When John Duff first started talking to me about this church wide study, I got fixed in my head that the book was entitled “A Grace-filled Life”. Instead of a Grace-full Life. And so for many weeks, when I talked about this study, I called it a Grace-filled Life.” And when people would correct me, I would think to myself, “What difference does it make?” And even when I would type “Grace-full Life” in the computer the autocorrect would change it to Grace-filled. So I started to wonder why the authors had chosen Grace-full instead of Grace-filled. Full or filled, what difference does it make? But as I have studied the book and thought more about it in preparing these messages, I have come to understand that there is a major difference in how we understand grace in our lives. Because it seems to me that grace filled speaks to a process of grace manifesting itself in our lives. It speaks of becoming. We are in the process of being filled with God’s grace as prevenient, and justifying and sanctifying grace takes hold of us. I look at it this way. We are born into this world as an empty vessel and then throughout our lives in this world God fills us with His grace. The grace of God fills us by calling us home, to community, the church, the family of God. When the prodigal was separated from the Family, He could not survive – He was dead the father says – and so the call to come home was the call to new life. To be born again. I believe that because God’s prevenient grace is always working in our lives, we all hear the call to come home from time to time.. God’s grace fills us through community, the family of God. So many today say they don’t need the church, don’t need the family of God. I can do it on my own. Well how did that work out for the prodigal? The call to come home is God’s call to be a part of the community, the family and be filled with His grace in that. And then God’s grace fills us with the Word. He pours His word into us, even to the point of sending His Son to fill up our lives. John writes: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. And in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. That was Jesus. And Paul also writes that we must become empty of ourselves, so we can become full in Christ, the Word. Because the truth is that none of us are truly empty vessels. We are either being filled by the things of this world or we are being filled by the grace of God. Grace fills us up with the Word.
And then it’s Grace that fills us with the love of God and one another, which is evidenced by how we worship (the more filled we are the more we want to worship) and serve (Can we be filled with love for God and not serve Him? Can we be filled with love for one another and not serve one another?) and witness. (How can we love and not tell everyone about it?”) God’s grace is constantly filling us. Until we are full. But here’s the thing. As God fills us with His grace, we are exposed as broken, leaky vessels. Jesus talked about this when he warned that you can’t put new wine into old wine skins because eventually the gasses will build up and at best cause the old wine skin to leak out so that it can’t ever truly be filled, or at worst the vessel will explode from the gases that build up in it. And so broken vessels can never be completely full of God’s grace. Nor can we be full of God’s grace while there are things of this world filling our vessel. If old wine fills our wine skins, there is no room for the new. So as He fills us with His grace, God is also mending our vessels, and emptying us of the world – by forgiving us, reconciling us, restoring us and saving us. He makes us new so that we can become full. And then when we are completely full, He continues to pour His grace into us, so that we have no choice but to spill over into the lives of others. God uses us as instruments of His grace to help fill the lives of others. Glorifying grace brings us to completion. To perfection. To live forever in God’s image. It is because of God’s glorifying grace working in us that we can fight the good fight, win the race, walk through the gates of heaven and receive our forever crown of righteousness in the Kingdom of God. Through glorifying grace (perfecting grace), we become the perfect completion of Christ’s redeeming, saving work on the cross, the completion of God’s perfect work of creation. A grace filled life made full through Jesus Christ alone, His blood, His body. Don’t tell me there’s no cost to God’s grace freely given. Just look at Jesus on the Cross and the take up your own. So here’s the question. How filled is your vessel with the Grace of God? Where is your brokenness that keeps the grace from filling us, or what of the world do you need to empty out of your life before God’s grace can make you full?