Scripture: Ephesians 2:8-10
Date: October 12, 2014
I heard a pastor tell the story about serving a rather large and prominent church in a community. And early on in his service there, he said, he was walking through the downtown and he was approached by a man who knew he was the new Methodist pastor. They exchanged pleasantries, and then the man asked, “Well how did things go on Sunday? Did you have a good crowd in church?” “The usual crowd” the Pastor said. And then the man said, “I used to be a member of your church but I’ll never go back there.” And the pastor said, “I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me why?” “I’ll be glad to. I don’t know if you know it or not yet, but you have a lot of hypocrites in your church.” The pastor pretended to be surprised by that news. “Is that so?” “Oh yeah,” the man continued. “And I can tell you who they are.” And he started to name some of the more prominent people in the church. And when he was finished, after a little pause, the pastor said, “You know. You’re right. And ever since I got here, I’ve been thinking that I should throw them out of the church.” “Oh you’ll never do that,” the man said. “They’re some of your biggest supporters.” “Oh yes I will,” the pastor continued “And I can tell you the exact Sunday that I’m going to do it. I’m going to throw all of the hypocrites, in fact all of the sinners, out of the church on the same day that the hospitals throw out all of their patients. Don’t you understand that the church is the hospital for the soul. We’re all sick with sin. There’s no better place for the sinners to be. You see, one of the problems that the church has always struggled with is this idea that the church is only for the clean, for the redeemed, for the perfect. Now I don’t know about you, but if that is true, then I don’t know what I am doing here. But you see, John and Charles Wesley discovered that attitude was pervasive among their fellow clergy in the Church of England and they were using it as the reason to exclude the great mass of people from the church. The church was for the redeemed, the Holy ones, the pious, or at least those who thought they were Holy. But the Wesley’s understood the church as an instrument of redemption and salvation. And as such no one could or should be excluded. Now before we condemn the church for that attitude then, we need to take a hard look at the church of today. We have worked hard to be an inclusive church but when we talk about inclusiveness in the church, we tend to think in more cultural terms but our Wesleyan heritage has been that inclusiveness in the church must first be defined in terms of sin and sinners. The church is what Christ intends when it embraces all persons, no matter the sinful condition of their life. When we start excluding persons from the church because of the sin in their lives, as the Church of England was, then we are in essence saying that there are some sins that make us beyond the scope of God’s redemption. That there is a point beyond which we cannot be saved. And so those persons, those sinners, should not be welcome in God’s Holy Church.
Now there are those who look at John Wesley’s emphasis on service, what he called works of piety, and mistakenly think that the Wesleyan way is a work’s righteousness faith. In other words, if we do enough good, then we will be good enough. We can earn our place in God’s kingdom through the works we do. But nothing could be farther from what Wesley believed. In fact, he spent the first 35 years of his life trying to work his way into God’s favor. But he knew that it was not the way. On that night when he experienced redemption and was saved on Aldersgate Street, he became aware that salvation did not come through our works, but rather through God’s work in us, because of His grace. There was no way that we can earn that. God’s grace is a gift that is the key to His plan of redemption and salvation. Hear again what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians: For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. And so we work not to be saved, but because we are saved. Like the Sacraments, serving God is an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace. Just as our bad behavior is a witness to our “bent to sinning”, (as Charles Wesley expressed it in his hymn “Love Divine”), so too our good works are our witness to our redemption and salvation.
So grace became the cornerstone upon which our Wesleyan faith is built. Wesley believed that there were three kinds of grace that every Christian must experience in our faith journey. The first he said was Prevenient Grace. Sometimes it’s called the grace that goes before. It is God’s answer to the concept of original sin. Because if we are created with this “bent to sinning”, this disease, then, as God’s children, standing in need of redemption and salvation in order to return to God’s creation, we must also have the cure, the antidote, within. And that’s grace. Sometimes we are not even aware that we are experiencing God’s grace. It is prevenient grace that surrounds us with God’s love, convicts us when we act unlovingly, and convinces us that there is so much more to life than that which we are living – convinces us that God has in mind for us more than who we are. In his book, Being Christian in Wesleyan Tradition, John Gooch writes: Have you ever been aware that there was an emptiness in your life, like a hole in your heart? That there was a a place that needed to be filled with love and assurance and peace? That is prevenient Grace – God’s love calling us to turn (return?) to God to find the relationship that will fill up the emptiness and plug the hole. Down through the ages of the church, theologians and mystics and scholars have written extensively about the “divine spark” that resides in the heart of every human. In a recent homily, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee said: We actually hold in our heart the spark of the divine. And Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes: Why do you assume that the divine spark expresses itself identically in all people? Perhaps the opposite is true. It is that divine spark that makes each of us unique and gives us purpose. When we look beyond that outer self, we find a divine purpose – how we are meant to impact society, environment, and personality. For each person that is an entirely unique mission – and that is the Godly spark with in us.
John Wesley talked of grace as the house that God builds for us and he said that prevenient grace was the front porch of that house and that all of us lingered there on the porch trying to decide whether to go in the house or not. Prevenient Grace urges us, pushes us, challenges us to move into the house but ultimately it is our choice whether to enter or not. But Prevenient Grace makes us aware that there is a choice for all of us to make in the first place. And it seems to me to imply that because of prevenient grace – eventually everyone of us must choose to serve God or reject Him.
I recently read about a small town in France which turned out to be a safe haven for Jewish people during World War II because everyone in town was committed to hiding them from the Nazis. After the war, a reporter by the name of Philip Haille went to the town to see what kind of people would risk everything to do such an extraordinarily good thing. And what he discovered was that the the people of the town weren’t extraordinary in any way. They were just ordinary people. But he did learn that everyone in the town attended the same church on Sunday morning. They worshipped and prayed and studied scripture together. And then came the day that the Nazis came to town and started going door to door looking for Jews. If even one of the townspeople had broken down, they would all be doomed. But the people were united in their resolve and none of the Jews hiding there were captured. The reporter talked to one elderly woman who said that she had faked a heart attack when the Nazis came to search her house and in the chaos and confusion none of the Nazis search the basement where her family of Jews was hiding. And she said: The pastor taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus. And when our time came, we knew what to do. That time comes through God’s prevenient grace. They knew to serve God and others because of the grace that was within them.
Perhaps you’ve been feeling a nudge or a twinge and you have this feeling that life was supposed to be more than you have been making of it. That’s God’s grace working within you.
Which leads to the second type of grace that John Wesley identified – what He called justifying grace or saving grace. Kenneth Carder, perhaps the foremost scholar today on United Methodist Theology and Doctrine today, writes: Justifying grace, which may come suddenly or gradually, is the assurance that we are forgiven daughters and sons of God. Justification is being claimed as children of God – the infinitely, unconditionally loved children of God. Through His justifying grace God accepts us just as we are, forgives our sins and restores us to relationship with Him. It is because of justifying grace that we can repent of our sin and turn our life around. It is conversion. Being born again. It is the grace that changes us.
In John’s Gospel we learn about Nicodemus. A Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Temple that sentenced Jesus to death and one night he came to Jesus and asked Him what he needed to do to be saved. And Jesus said to Him, you’ve got to be “born again.” Justifying grace brings about a complete change. We are saved from the old life in which we denied the image of God within us and fell into sin, and so we are born again, recreated, redeemed, restored, saved, to live the life as we were created to live it.
Now, there are a few things that we need to understand about this grace that justifies.
First, it is God’s gift to us. Grace is transforming. It changes us. It brings new life. And all of that is God’s action toward us. What Wesley had encountered in the Church of England was the attitude that before you could be a part of God’s community, you had to have already been transformed. From sinner to saint and also socio-economically. You earned God’s grace and love. And for the first 35 years of his life and the first several years of his ministry, John Wesley labored under that understanding. But he had no sense of personal salvation. No assurance of his place in God’s Kingdom. And then God intervened and offered him the gift of grace. The assurance that no matter what he had done, God still claimed Him. And so Wesley came to understand that his worth and identity were shaped by who he was, a child of God, and not his accomplishments and achievements. That he, like the Apostle Paul, was saved by the grace of God, and not by his works. And that grace was the beginning of the faith journey and not the ultimate destination. In his picture of the house of grace, if prevenient grace is the porch, justifying grace is the front door.
Second, Grace does not discriminate. Grace originates in the heart of God and therefore becomes His gift to all whom He loves. All His children. Wesley believed that the church needed to open it’s doors to all of God’s creation. No matter their ethnicity. No matter their chosen profession. No matter where they lived. No matter their socio-economic class. And perhaps the one that has been the hardest for the church to grasp since the beginning of time – no matter where we are in life. Because you see consciously or unconsciously, the church has often discriminated against persons based upon sinfulness of our lives. We have said by our actions and inaction, that some sin will be tolerated but other will not. But justifying grace makes no such distinctions. God offers his gift to all who will receive. Wesley believed that one of the outward signs of this inward grace was Baptism – because at Baptism God claims us as His own, no matter what we have done in our life. So the Methodists practiced open Baptism. Age, ethnicity, station in life didn’t matter because God claims all as His children. You see, the church believed that Baptism was a sign of completion. And so they used Baptism as a way to exclude, rather than embrace. And there are many who bring that same understanding to Baptism today. There was a recent study done that indicated that there was a significant number of persons who were members of the United Methodist Church, some long time members, who had never been Baptized because they had never felt worthy. Adam Hamilton, who is pastor of the largest Methodist Church in the United States, recently said that based upon that information, the church offered the opportunity for persons to be Baptized who had joined the church but never been Baptized, to come and receive Baptism, and he said, that they Baptized persons for two hours. Not persons who were new to the church and faith, but persons who had been a part of the church for a long time but had never witnessed to God’s action in their lives through Baptism. If that’s where you are in your faith journey, as part of our Covenant service on November 9th we’re going to offer the opportunity for you to come forward and be Baptized, so I encourage you to talk with me about that.
And then thirdly, justifying grace opens the door for us to go back to the perfection of God’s creation. Last week we talked about God’s plan of redemption and salvation which has been unfolding ever since Adam and Eve first chose sin over God. Well, grace is the key part of God’s plan to restore humanity to that which we were created to be. It is through Grace that we are redeemed and saved.
Which leads to the third expression of grace that is inherent in our Wesleyan Faith, and that is Sanctifying Grace. I love the way that Kenneth Carder defines sanctifying grace. He writes: “Sanctifying grace is God’s unending pursuit of Christlikeness in us.” One writer has commented that the concept of sanctification is perhaps the most significant contribution of Wesleyan theology to the doctrine of the church. John Wesley, himself, thought that sanctification (which he also called holiness of heart and life) was the distinctive emphasis that separated Methodism from all other Christian expressions because it taught that our faith is a journey that ultimately leads us back to the perfection of creation, to the restoration of the full image of God. Salvation is not the end of the journey, as many in the church taught and continue to teach, but really it’s just the beginning. And as such, it is the great hope of faith. God accepts us, redeems us, forgives us, where we are and then begins the process of sanctification, the work of restoration in us. Though Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience was the culmination of long period of searching and restlessness, it was really just the beginning of his journey towards perfection. In 1763, twenty five years after that salvation experience, Wesley confided to a friend, “What I seek is holiness of heart and life?” Two of Wesley’s favorite passages of scripture spoke to holiness or perfection. One was Matthew 5:48 in which Jesus, Himself, is recorded as saying: “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And the second was Hebrews 6:1 which says: “Let us go on toward perfection.” That passage was the text that he used as the basis of at least 50 of his sermons. Six months before his death at the age of 88, Wesley wrote in his journal of the continuing journey toward perfection that he had been on for more than 50 years and says: This doctrine of Christian Perfection is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He (God) appeared to have raised us up.” In simpler terms, Wesley was saying that the principal reason that God raised up the Methodist movement was to share this sanctifying faith. He felt so strongly about this that he went so far as to say: If we can prove that any of our preachers or leaders, either directly or indirectly, speak against it, let him or her be preacher or leader no longer. When I was ordained, one of the questions that I was asked was whether I believed I was going on to perfection. So a faith that matters is a faith that helps people towards perfection. If justifying faith says that God accepts us, saves us, where we are – sanctifying faith says that God accepts us where we are, but He does not intend to leave us there. The very fact that we are in need of redemption and salvation means that we are not at the place in our life and faith that God would have us be, or we would not need to be saved in the first place. In the house of grace, prevenient grace is the front porch – justifying grace is the front door through which we enter a saving relationship with God and sanctifying grace is that which allows us to settle into the rest of the house. In commenting on Wesley’s house analogy, Kenneth Carder says: Sanctification is the endless exploration of the rest of the house. It is nothing less than the restoration of the divine image in us. And so perfection, holiness, entire sanctification comes as we allow God dominion over our entire house, our whole life.
And so, for us, a faith that matters is not one that excludes but one that invites all persons to come along with us as we explore all the rooms of the house of grace. As we more and more reflect God’s image – become who we were created to be. And growing, dynamic, faith filled churches – churches that are making a difference in their community – are not filled with people who have arrived, but rather people who are on the journey. Not perfect people, but people who are moving on towards perfection.
A faith that matters is a witness of lives who are on the journey and seeking others to walk with them. And we do that through worship, and Sunday School, and Bible Study and small groups/missional communities where we are constant working to introduce Jesus Christ in EVERY life. And God is calling persons from within His church to serve as vessels of His grace because a faith that matters is one that calls each one of us back, no matter how far we’ve strayed, one step at a time, to embrace the image of God in whom we were created.
I love the story of the prince who had a crooked back. When he went out in public, no matter what he did, he looked crooked and bent over and he walked with a limp. When he looked in the mirror, he found his image to be damaged and grotesque. He longed to see an image there that was worthy of an ideal prince. And so he had a sculptor carve a statue of what he considered to be the ideal prince. The prince of the sculpture was tall and noble, standing straight and erect and handsome – everything he thought a prince should be. Everything he thought he should be. And when the statue was finished, the prince had it placed in the garden outside of his window. And several times a day, the prince would go and stand by the statue and contemplate himself as he would like to be. And eventually the people began to see a change in the prince. Inch by inch he was becoming tall and erect. He was growing into the likeness of his ideal image.
And so God sent His perfect son, Jesus Christ, to live among us. He is the ideal image in which humanity was created. And then He gave us the gift of grace so that, as we live and dwell with Him, we might become more and more like Him. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. For everyone of us. And a grace filled faith is truly a faith that matters.