In 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.”