Tag Archives: grace

Grace; what do we do with it?


Tool BeltSumming up the last three sermons about Grace; Grace may be defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; grace is available to all people, over 7 billion in the world today; and there is nothing we can do to receive grace for ourselves except make ourselves open to that forgiveness, and trusting that it will come.   

Since we have been justified by faith and forgiven for our sins, what are we meant to do going forward? Many people have questioned the doctrine of grace earned by faith alone as it seems to imply that, since we are already justified, we have no need to be good, or do anything in the world.  This is, of course, not the case.  As children of God, forgiven through Christ, we commit ourselves to live a Christ-like life.  As our Epistle reading this morning reads in The Message, “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.  Pursue the things over which Christ presides.  Don’t shuffle along eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.  Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is.”   What does this life look like?

In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace Philip Yancey talks about, “tracing the roots of the word grace, or charis in Greek, and finding a verb that means “I rejoice, I am glad.”  He goes on to say that, “In my experience, rejoicing and gladness are not the first images that come to mind when people think of the church.  They think of holier-than-thous.  They think of church as a place to go when you have cleaned up your act, not before.”  As people of grace, we want our lives and our church to reflect this rejoicing and gladness, and we want people to feel free to join us no matter where they are on their journey of faith.

In our readings last week we read the story of Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray in the words we now refer to as the Lord’s Prayer.  It is in this prayer that we run up against the first requirement of leading a Christ-like life.  Jesus instructed them to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  The first part is all good, forgiveness of our debts, grace, is central to our lives. The problem appears in the form of one of the shortest, and in this case most powerful, words in our language, “as.” Forgive us like we forgive. It is a powerful word because while we are happy to be forgiven, there is a clear link here between our forgiveness by the Father and our own forgiving of our friends, neighbours, and enemies. Our first task as Christians is to forgive, to pass the grace along, and this is definitely a counter-culture way of thinking. 

Yancey quotes Elizabeth O’Connor who puts the dilemma this way, “Despite a hundred sermons on forgiveness, we do not forgive easily, nor find ourselves easily forgiven.  Forgiveness, we discover, is always harder than the sermons make it out to be.” The human tendency would be to brood over wrongs, hold grudges, plot revenge, and pray that the bad guys get their just deserts in harsh punishments. I have no intention of making forgiveness sound easy in this sermon.  It is not. I pray the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime and I often find myself tripped up in the middle and having to go off on a tangent to try to bring myself around to forgiveness for someone else before I can pray the remainder of the prayer. Luckily we have God to help us with our natural tendency towards unforgiveness.

Forgiving others is an emotional and spiritual challenge which we work out mostly internally and through the help of the Holy Spirit.  In more practical terms, let’s look at some of the other things we should be doing as recipients of grace, and to be as Christ-like as possible. I referred last week to the ‘means of grace’ which are a gift from God rather than a checklist to be completed in order to receive grace.  Steven Manskar describes them as, “… how we grow and mature in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength….This means of grace are divided into two general categories: works of piety and works of mercy.”  There follows a nice concrete list…

Piety                                                              Mercy

prayer (private and family)                   feeding the hungry

public worship                                           clothing the naked

the Lord’s Supper                                     caring for the sick

reading & studying the Bible                visiting the jails and prisons

Christian conference                               sheltering the homeless

fasting or abstinence                               welcoming the stranger

                                                                        peacemaking

                                                                        acting for the common good 

These are all things Jesus did and taught his disciples to do, not in order to receive forgiveness but because they were forgiven.

 In reading through several recent issues of the Presbyterian Record I saw many examples of these acts of piety and mercy; I read of the power of prayer; of many different styles of worship from Sunday mornings in the established churches to worship around the campfire at one of our many summer camps; I saw ads for different colleges and universities and the elders institute offering both Christian conference and study, I read of assistance given to people from Fort McMurray and the congregation there, of women’s retreats,  of congregations sponsoring refugees from Syria and Namibia, of young people identifying needs in the community and starting a program to help, of the church signing a joint statement stating that the church would work to implement the articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous; the discipleship is there, it is active and vibrant throughout the national church.

 Is discipleship active here at St. Paul’s?  I believe that it is.  You put an emphasis on worship through our Sunday services 52 times each year.  You regularly meet to share the Lord’s Supper and include in that everyone who attends worship. Worship is based on the reading and interpretation of the Word, and make available monthly books for daily devotion.  Meeting in Bible studies, coffee hours etc. there is a chance to share experiences, questions, and insights with each other.  You are always ready to welcome people to the congregation, collect for food banks, lead services and help with birthday parties at the Carleton Manor, send birthday and Christmas cards and fruit trays to seniors, celebrate PWS&D Sunday, support the Atlantic Mission Society and Presbyterians Sharing. 

Manskar stresses in his article the need to maintain a balance in our works rather than to, “always gravitate toward those that suit our temperament or personality. For example, an introvert may naturally be drawn to …private prayer, Bible study and fasting…and will tend to neglect worship, conference and works of mercy…while an extroverted person will naturally be drawn to those works of piety and mercy that suit his/her temperament but will neglect time alone with God in prayer and reflection.  Could we challenge ourselves to stretch and increase our involvement even in the areas with which we are less comfortable?  This is a question upon which every individual needs to reflect in prayer, and which our congregations need to discern in order to gain a vision for their continuing ministry within the community.

 In a world of ever bigger barns, as individuals and congregations we need to avoid the trap of the greedy farmer, filling our barns with stuff for ourselves rather than with God.  We need to look beyond ourselves to where Christ is looking. To the needs of those in hunger, in pain, in trouble with the law, everyone we meet, for as it states in Colossians, “Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing.  From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ. “

 We will know we are getting it right when people see a church which is active, vital, open and welcoming; a place to come for help, as well as to offer help, and a place to grow in the love and service of Christ. 

 

Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”.Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002. Print.

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Grace; how do we get it?


checklistIn case you have not read the last two posts, we have been talking about grace.  The first week we defined grace as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God which means that, “God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love” (Yancey). And last week we focused on the issue of whom this grace is for.  Our answer from Colossians was that “God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing…”

 For today, we change our focus again and look at the issue of what we need to do in order to receive God’s grace for ourselves. Today’s quick answer is, say yes, thank you! “In his article entitled Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship, Steven W. Manskar said,

 “This life (of Christian discipleship) begins with forgiveness of our sins. When we acknowledge who we are (sinners in need of forgiveness), we can begin living into the lives God desires for us as his beloved children.  With forgiveness comes freedom – from sin and death – so that we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love those whom God loves; as God loves them, in Christ.  All this is God’s gift to the world – grace.”

 As we hear in that description, before we can receive forgiveness of our sins we need to admit that we are sinners in the first place.  This is why our service of worship always includes a confession of sins.  If we feel that we are justified in all our acts without God then we will not need grace at all. This admission of our sinful nature is also a part of the summary of Louis B. Weeks’ chapter on following Jesus in his 1941 publication To Be a Presbyterian, 

“In the sequence of trying to follow Jesus we are first enabled to repent, to recognize the sinfulness in which we exist and call upon God for forgiveness. We are then permitted to sense that God does not count our sin against us, because Christ intercedes for us.  Then we experience the falling away of sin, the restoring of our relationship as children of God.  Finally, we move in the process of following Jesus.”

Having accepted that we are in need of forgiveness, we move on to receiving the gift.  First, as a gift that is offered freely and without price, it must be received and accepted as a gift.  As our Gospel reading says today, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Think for a moment about the last time someone gave you a compliment. Maybe they thought you looked good, your clothes were nice, or your work was well done. How did you feel? Happy or proud right? Or maybe you felt awkward or undeserving. Does this sound familiar to anyone? “That is an awesome shirt!” “Oh, I’ve had it for ages.” or “I got it from a bag of things my friend was getting rid of.” Somehow in our society we have come to think that accepting a compliment with a simple thank you is somehow prideful, and pride must be avoided. If we have this much trouble with a simple compliment imagine the challenge in accepting that all the things of which we are most ashamed in our lives have been erased with no penalty.

 Some theologians say that if we are seeking God, it is only because God has planted in us the desire to seek him, and that it is God rather than man who seeks relationship.  God is looking for us, desires a relationship with us, and has grace waiting for us when we are ready to accept it, all we really need to do is ask, or knock and then stay on the step expecting the door to open.  When you ask for something, as I tell my kids all the time, you need to be prepared to accept the answer whether it is positive or negative. In this case you ask in faith knowing that the answer will be yes.  I think that when we ask for grace, in this context, what we are really asking for is God’s help with accepting the gift.

The reformed tradition of Luther and Calvin teaches us that justification, being made right with God through forgiving grace, is received through faith alone, that we do not need to make ourselves good enough through doing the correct number of good deeds in order to receive God’s forgiveness. In fact, none of us are capable of making ourselves good enough for God. Remember that grace is freely given and unmerited.  In our humanity and in this world of corruption and greed, it is difficult for us to accept that anything is freely offered, that there are no strings attached. 

 “Congratulations, you have won a free trip to the Caribean…”

The idea that anyone, even God, can love us despite our sins and flaws seems ludicrous and then adding that there is nothing in it for them is just more than we can fathom.  We have so much trouble forgiving ourselves and those who slight us in any way that it may be beyond our imaginations that God would forgive even the direst of sins.

Manskar points out that, “we are not always faithful, patient, or available to God.  God provided us with the means of grace, gifts given to help us make time and space for God in our lives.”  One of these means is in prayer, both private and public.  Through prayer we can ask for help with accepting grace.  Where faith is the only requirement for justification, we can follow the example of the father of an epileptic boy in need of healing who said, “”I believe; help my unbelief!”  We might pray the words of our call to worship from this morning, “May we drink deeply, and receive your grace. May we stand in trust, and receive your strength. May we open our hearts, and receive your healing love.” In public and in private we can not go wrong by praying the way Jesus taught in today’s reading from Luke.

 Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

 The bottom line today is that there is nothing we can do to receive grace for ourselves except for making ourselves open to that forgiveness, and trusting that it will come.  Our real struggle will be with our human nature and our inclination to doubt.  For help with that we have but to ask. In the words of John Wesley;

“O that we mayst all receive of Christ’s fullness, grace upon grace;

Grace to pardon our sins, and subdue our iniquities;

To justify our persons and to sanctify our souls;

And to complete that holy change, that renewal of our hearts,

Whereby we may be transformed

Into that blessed image wherein thou didst create us.”

Grace, what is it?


Kingsclear-20110612-00079

I really started thinking about grace one summer, around nine years ago, when I was visiting my sister outside Montreal.  She said that she had heard the term used in church for years but realized she didn’t think she really understood it. I had been doing some theology courses and she asked me what I knew about it. I shared the little bit I knew about the grace of God as shown in the forgiveness of sins, but it felt a bit lame, lifeless somehow.  A seed had been planted. Since then we have both watched out for books and articles on grace. One of the first books I read was Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.

When dealing with a concept such as grace, people often start with the word itself.  I was surprised that when I Googled for definitions of grace the first seven definitions were secular; it wasn’t until the eighth definition that God was connected with the word.  Of course, from my egocentric view of the world, it is hard for me to imagine why the people writing these dictionaries didn’t understand that without God’s grace the other meanings might not exist and certainly wouldn’t be as powerfully positive.

As a noun, grace is defined as; elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion, or action; a pleasing or attractive quality or endowment; favour or good will; a manifestation of favour; mercy/clemency/pardon; favour in granting a delay or temporary immunity; an allowance of time after a debt or bill has become payable granted to the debtor before a law suit can be brought.

When I look in my five volume Bible dictionary, the entry for grace is ten columns long. I will spare you the details. Theologically, grace is defined as the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; the influence or spirit of God operating in humans to regenerate or strengthen them; a virtue or excellence of divine origin.

For most people, even those who are not Christians, the first thing they are likely to think of when asked about grace would say that it is the thing you say before you eat a meal.  This was definition 10 in the dictionary listing. The next most familiar references may be the many idioms in English.  We think of ‘falling from grace’ when we have done something wrong or disappointed someone; of having grace to do something like hold the door open for someone; of being in someone’s good graces; of doing things with bad grace making it clear even as we comply with a request that it is against our will; and the very familiar idiom, “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”

In an article entitled “Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship”, Steven W. Manskar says of grace. “Grace is God’s unmerited, unconditional love and acceptance freely given to all.  This grace is incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). This grace is free, but it is not cheap.  It comes to us at great cost to God: the suffering and death of God’s Son on a Roman cross.  We must always remember and be reminded that the grace God gives is a costly grace.”

We read a story of grace in Luke 10:25-37.  A familiar story in which we usually focus on the fact that a Pharisee was trying to trick Jesus once again, and that we are to love everyone, not just those who are the same as we are, but there was grace.  The poor beaten up naked man lying in the ditch did nothing whatever to deserve anyone’s help.  We don’t even hear that he cried out, presumably he was little able to do that as he was left “half-dead”. 

The first two people who walked by were religious men a priest and a Levite.  We read that they went by on the other side of the road. Perhaps they were afraid of being seen with this naked man, afraid that he might indeed be dead and would cause them to be unclean, or perhaps they were just busy and distracted and didn’t want to take the time.  Imagine them muttering to themselves as they continued on their ways, “there but by the grace of God go I.” They may have been thinking about grace, but did not carry it through beyond themselves to their neighbour.

This Samaritan man, who by rights should not even have been seen talking to a Jew, covered his body, cleaned his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn.  He cared for him until morning and then, without promises of being paid back, he arranged for his care at the inn until he recovered, even if it ended up costing him more than he had already given, which according to one source was enough money to pay for a month’s stay at an inn at the time.  This story illustrates grace; unmerited, unconditional love, free but not cheap.

Amos 7:7-17 seems, on the surface, to present a view of God who was vengeful, the antithesis to grace.  In this passage God sent his prophet Amos to bring a message of doom.  When the king attempted to make Amos stop doing what God had told him to do, the message became even worse.  Having already allowed for intercession on their behalf, God said this time that he would not pass over Israel again. They would have to pay for abandoning the faith and practice of their ancestors. The judgement declared was focused on three places; the high places where they had been worshipping false gods, the sanctuaries where they were no longer worshiping, and the house of the king whose line was to be destroyed by the sword. 

During a discussion about what makes Christianity unique, at a British conference on comparative religion, C.S. Lewis summed it up, “Oh that’s easy. It’s grace.”  It is in Christianity alone that we find the love of God poured out for us freely without merit.

So, what is grace?  After 69 pages Yancey “…attempts something like a definition of grace in relation to God.  Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more-no amount of spiritual callisthenics and renunciation, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes.  And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder.  Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.”

Defining grace may be very difficult, but experiencing grace, if we are open to awareness of it, is not.  John Newton, a reformed slave captain, certainly knew what grace was in his life.  He knew just how low he had gone, and knew the feeling of being lifted out of that dark place and being given a new start.  He did not write a definition of grace, but he wrote of his experience in the now famous and well-loved hymn with which we began our worship today;

Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

 

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace?. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997. Print.

Manskar, Steven W. “Opening Ourselves To Grace: The Basics Of Christian Discipleship – Umcdiscipleship.Org”. Umcdiscipleship.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 3 July 2016.

The Candle of Love: Conflict and Love


This past Sunday we lit the fourth Advent candle, the candle of love.  As we did so I got thinking about what we know of love.  Church goers will be familiar with the scriptural quote from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  That is a love that would be hard to emulate wouldn’t it?  And then there are the words from 1 Corinthians 13, 

1If I speak in the tonguesa of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,b but have not love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

On reading these sections of the Bible I think we risk getting a very romanticized idea of perfect, comfortable love which will always meet our needs and never be challenging.  So what about all those conflicts in our families?  I believe we miss out on a rather significant point from God’s love letter to his people, as the Bible is often called, we have often been in conflict with God.

In my classes lately we have been looking at Dr. John Gray’s love letter technique for dealing with conflict within relationships.  One of the things that is so powerful about this technique is that it focuses not on everything that is wrong with the other person, but on our own feelings.  The idea is that by going systematically through all the feelings and writing them out we will find ourselves back at love.  There is a section for each of; Anger, Sadness, Fear, Regret, and Love.  My students often start out rejecting the idea out of hand because it starts out with such negative feelings.  After all, we aren’t supposed to get angry, jealous, etc. 

Let’s look at those again.  We have read about the wrath of God, and out of anger Jesus destroyed the fig tree.  Every time humans have turned their backs on God and strayed it must have saddened God, as it would any parent when rejected by their children.  Jesus is moved to sadness over the troubles of others, and he cries in sadness and some degree of fear over the challenge in facing the cross.  It seems clear that God has felt regret if only by looking at the number of times we were cast out, sent into exile or in other ways punished, only to be taken up again in God’s arms. 

If things in your relationships are not all rosy and exciting as we head into Christmas, do not feel that the Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love are not for you!  It is because of God’s love (anger, sadness, fear, regret and all) that we were sent the awesome gift of Jesus.  It is out of God’s love that we are offered grace.  It may take us years to unwrap it, but the gift remains there for those who believe. 

To find out more about the Love Letter Technique read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by Dr. John Gray

Publisher HarperCollins
Released 1992
ISBN ISBN 0007152590