Sunday, February 08, 2015

It's All About Grace

It’s All About Grace

Ephesians 2:8-10   (NRSV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Two weeks ago we talked about the difficult concept of HOLINESS.

I define holiness --- for a Christian --- as living "in Christ" and I shared with you some question that you can use to ask yourselves every day --- in every situation that will help you "live in Christ"

How does this action, word, thought affect my relationship with God?
How does this action, word, thought affect God’s ability to love others through me?
How am I fitting God into every aspect of my life for God’s sake?
Is God a major factor in everything I do, say, think, and feel?

If we can all learn to do that --- to ask ourselves these questions --- the world (or at least our corner of the world) will be a much better place.

But the key to being able to ask those questions --- or at least ask them without them shaming ourselves into a set of behavior --- is to know and experience GRACE.

Grace is another of those tough concepts

Foremost --- Grace is a FREE GIFT
          If you hear nothing else from me --- hear this: GRACE IS FREE

Most of us seem to understand that concept with our heads
          We can verbalize that it is free
But most of us have a hard time embracing it with our hearts

That is precisely the problem that John Wesley had.
          He KNEW that grace was freely given by God
Unfortunately --- his heart often acted like it was something that one had to earn.

And until Wesley's Aldersgate experience --- that is exactly how he seemed to live.  Trying to do everything he could so that he could earn God's grace and so that you could as well.

The Greek word Charis --- which is translated into English as Grace is used 148 times in the New Testament.

The way the word is used in the New Testament it means:
an act of kindness, an expression of selfless love that is completely underserved and given without any expectation of reciprocity

When Paul uses the word in his letters found in the New Testament we see that for him GRACE has two distinct meanings.
          1.       a quality of God's character
          2.       a work of the Holy Spirit to help us become all that God intends us to be

I want to take a moment at look at these two ways that Paul had of understanding Grace and then we will look at how John Wesley understood it.

For whatever reason, many of us have become convinced that God is an angry God who is out to judge us and get us. 
          A God who is never satisfied with our sinful selves.
          A God who is always disappointed in us.

But that is not the way that Jesus describes God.

For Jesus God is love.
          God is a father who searches for a lost sheep or a lost son
          God is a friend of the least --- the prostitute, the poor, the drunkards
For Jesus --- God is a God of great mercy ---- a God of compassion --- a God of second, and third and fourth chances.  A God who NEVER gives up on us.

God is a God of GRACE --- not a God who is out to get us.
Grace IS God's character --- selfless and undeserved love

But not only is Grace God's very character --- Paul also sees grace as God's work in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

Though this God draws us closer.
God forgives us and transforms our very lives.

Grace is more than simply defining God's character --- Grace is an action word describing God's active attempt to build a relationship with us

When John Wesley talked about grace --- he spoke about it in three different ways.

You might even say that he identified three different types or forms of Grace
Prevenient Grace
Justifying Grace
Sanctifying Grace

Most of you are probably familiar with these three types of grace, but I want to take just a few minutes and walk us through them

They are somewhat sequential --- in other words --- we move from one type of Grace to another along our journey.

It all begins with PREVENIENT GRACE
While Wesley really didn't come up with this idea --- he is the one who really brought it to the forefront

Prevenient grace is the idea that God is working in our life whether you know it or not --- whether you are a Christian or not.
          God is reaching out to you with love and acceptance

We choose whether we accept this grace or not --- but God is constantly trying to woo us into a relationship with God

JUSTIFYING GRACE according to Wesley is what we experience when we say YES to God --- when we learn to put our trust in Jesus and recognize what Jesus has done for us.

This form of grace is what we experience when we come to understand that sin no longer has dominion in our lives. 

It is the grace that begins the process of freeing us from those things that hold us back from being the people God wants us to be.

Wesley, and the New Testament talk about this grace in terms of being born again --- it is the new beginning that we experience when we give our lives to God.

Wesley said:
"it is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life: when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness."

Prevenient grace is what makes us able to hear --- to see --- to begin to respond to God's love. 

Justifying grace is what comes when we say YES to God. 

When we allow God to become first in our lives.  This is the new birth that the Bible talks about.

Paul put it this way in his letter to his friends at Corinth:
2 Corinthians 5:17   (NRSV)
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In many ways, Justifying Grace is really the beginning of our relationship with God.

Prevenient grace is very one sided --- but when we accept a relationship with God we begin to see all that God has in store for us --- all that God has done for us.

God desires to help us become better people
          less selfish and more selfless
The holiness that I spoke of last week

This journey really begins to take shape when we experience justifying grace.

We begin to mature in our relationship.

And as we move toward holiness we experience the third form of grace that Wesley spoke of and that is SANCTIFYING GRACE

To be sanctified is to be made holy

Wesley suggested that we experience sanctification when we live the Jesus Creed.

When we love God completely with our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength --- and when we love others as we love ourselves.

Remember what Paul said as he described the goal of sanctification in our scripture passage this morning.
Ephesians 2:10   (NRSV)
we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life

Early in his life Wesley did not understand that GRACE was a free gift --- that it wasn't something that you earned --- until he had his life changing experience at a Bible Study that was being held at Aldersgate Street in London.

The year was 1738, and Wesley, fresh from the disaster in Georgia was in a state of despair.  He wanted the kind of faith that he saw in his Moravian friends --- but everything he DID to get it seemed to leave him empty.

I am going to let Wesley describe the experience to you.
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.

Wesley prior to that May night in London always was trying to "prove" himself to God.

The sad truth is that when we create a God who judges us by a set of rules --- we can NEVER live up to it.  We never can image that God is satisfied with us.

What Wesley finally figured out --- and wants to share with us --- is that God --- out of God's great love for us has taken the initiative to be in a relationship with us. 
We can call that salvation if we want --- but God is the one who initiated it. 
And our lives are to be lived in grateful response to that love.

Wesley believed that as we grew in grace we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit which is seeking to sanctify us.

Wesley spoke of "the means of grace" and by this he meant our doing things to make ourselves more open to the work of God's justifying and sanctifying grace in our lives.

Wesley in various sermons spoke of many different practices that can help us along the way --- none of them are too surprising
·         prayer
·         scripture reading
·         receiving holy communion
·         public worship
·         fasting
·         abstinence
·         serving in mission and ministry with others
·         reading books on the Christian life
·         walking in silence in the woods
·         spending time in small groups with other Christians

My hunch is we can all add to that list the ways that God speaks to us and helps us live a more holy life.

But there must be a caution here.

If we are not careful we can turn these practices into rules. 
They must always be a response to God's love --- not an attempt to find it

Finding it is all about opening out eyes to the presence of God that is already there.

The goal of the Christian life is to move along the spectrum of grace
          Prevenient Grace --- Justifying Grace --- Sanctifying Grace
Seeking to become holy --- like God is holy

Wesley developed this theological understand as a response to John Calvin.

Calvin argued for the idea of double predestination.
Double predestination claims that God chose those who would be saved and those who would be damned before they were even born.

The choice was unconditional --- by that I mean God chose the elect and the damned solely by divine will --- not upon anything that people would do or not do in their lives.

Wesley struggled with this idea because he believed that if God predestines some people to eternal damnation based on nothing they have done and solely on God's divine will --- then God is unjust --- and for Wesley God could not be unjust.

So he rejected this idea.

Wesley believed that the spirit is working in everyone and he called this PREVENIENT GRACE

Wesley would argue that we could chose to accept this grace --- or choose to reject it.

This is why Wesley developed such a passion for "lost" people.  He wanted to make sure that they had their eyes open to the spirit's working in their lives so that they could choose to follow Jesus.

Grace is hard.

We all struggle with it.

Most of us want to try and earn God's love because that is how we think the world --- and God works.

We seek to prove ourselves worthy of God's love and continually find ourselves coming up short.

I was ordained at Lake Junaluska, a United Methodist campground in the mountains of Western North Carolina.  It is truly a beautiful place --- and the experience was life changing for me.

I roomed with a fellow Duke Divinity student at the annual conference session that we were ordained at in June of 1985.

Brent was a lot like me --- trying to figure out what God wanted to do with us.

The night before we were ordained, we stayed up late talking in our hotel room.

Brent told me that he had struck a bargain with God
          He would become an ordained minister if God would love him

What Brent didn't understand at the time was that God already loved him.
          There was nothing he could do to earn it
          All he had to do was accept it.

Stop trying to earn God's love

Accept God's grace and grow in your relationship with God

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