Reblogged from: Experiencing the Sacred: Grace
There’s a tension in the air. Maybe it’s not so obvious. The Christmas tree is still in the sanctuary. The herald angels still echo, fading into memory. Most of the world has moved on, so to speak. Carols have become countdowns. The baby in the manger now has 2014 bannered across his chest. Those we call Wise Men have offered their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and are now making predictions of the 2014 fair market value of gold, frankincense, myrrh. Every year because the Christmas season is twelve days, there is a tension between the newness of a new year and the lingering Christmas decorations which seem to be the out of place evidence of a lazy homeowner; but this tension is precisely what should be occupying our minds as we wrestle with the question of “What now,” now that our savior is born—a savior who is fully human and fully divine.
How do the fully human connect with the divine, anyway? As United Methodists, when we talk about connecting with God, we use the word “Grace.” Grace is God’s gift. It can be God’s gift of love or vision or patience or desire. God’s act of giving is what we call grace. So, here we have a gift. In the UMC we understand grace in three distinct ways. Keep in mind that we are not talking about three different types of grace; rather we understand God’s grace in three ways. First is Prevenient Grace.
Prevenient Grace is God loving us before we know God. God moves toward us before we move toward God, and it has to be that way. For example, think of a baby and a good mother or father or guardian. A good parent or guardian will love the baby, provide for the baby, clothe the baby, feed the baby, long before the baby can ever ask for love or shelter or comfort. I would imagine that most of us call our son or daughter by name long before he or she can say it or even recognize it, and again, it has to be this way. If you waited for the child to ask, “May I have some milk, please,” the child would never make it.
God calls us by name long before we are ever able to articulate it for ourselves. This is one of the reasons we baptize infants in the church. It is a symbol of God’s Prevenient Grace. God loves you and claims you even before you are able to ask. In other words, we wouldn’t know to ask for grace unless God had already given it. There is gift at the doorstep already there for us, or if you prefer, Jesus said to the disciples in the Gospel of John, “I go to prepare a place for you.” A place has been prepared. The table has already been set.
The second way we United Methodists understand Grace is called “Justifying Grace.” Justifying Grace is God’s saving work in the person of Jesus Christ, or Justifying Grace is the Incarnation. Justifying Grace is the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Imagine you see this gift on your doorstep, but you remain in your chair “knowing” that the door is locked. Jesus has unlocked the door. The door is open. That’s the short answer. The slightly longer answer goes something like this:
In Deuteronomy 11, Moses looked at the crowd and said, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and curse; the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.” The commandment that Moses shared with them was the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord God is one. You shall love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength.” The people turned from that commandment and the Law became a curse. It’s like God gave humanity a chocolate cake and said, “Only eat one slice a day,” but humanity decided to eat five slices a day, making them sick. The cake is good and holy, but when you eat the cake in an ill-prescribed way, the good cake will make good people sick. So, God became fully human while maintaining God’s divinity, God ate the rest of the cake, which made himself sick to the point of death. Instead of offering healing, humanity said, “Well, if you’re the son of God make yourself well. Turn these stones into Alka-Seltzer,” and Jesus said, “It doesn’t work like that. The cake is finished.” Jesus died and then after three days, Jesus rose again and said, “No longer will you need cake, because through me, life is sweet.” Justifying Grace is God’s work in the person of Jesus Christ. The gift is right there on the other side of the door and Jesus has unlocked the door.
The third way we understand Grace in the Church is Sanctifying Grace, which is the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Prevenient Grace is God’s gift that God has given to you before you are aware of God. Jesus opens the door and unwraps the gift, and imagine that the gift is a gumbo pot. Jesus shows you how to make the gumbo, how to add the ingredients, how long to simmer . . . Then Jesus says, “Got it?” And humanity says, “Nope.” Jesus says, “Don’t worry. I tell you what. I’ll leave the Holy Spirit with you so that you can practice. The Holy Spirit works within us, through the means of grace, transforming our soul for a deep and abiding love of God and neighbor.
John Wesley talked about “Means of Grace,” or channels through which we experience God’s abundant life. The definition of what qualifies as a mean of grace is quite broad, and they fall within two general categories: works of piety and works of mercy. Works of piety is a fancy way of saying, “Things which are good for your own soul”: Bible study, prayer, fasting, holy communion, meditation, small groups. Then there are works of mercy—things that are good for the other: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, ending homelessness, tutoring children . . .
Paul says in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is a 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.” Let’s unpack that a bit:
For by grace: It’s not something you’ve done or not done—through God’s gift of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace
You have been saved: There are some communities of faith who like to scare non-christians into becoming disciples. They say something like, “If’ you’re not good with Jesus, I hope you don’t get hit by a bus today . . .” That bogus, as far as I’m aware of the Gospel. What would church look like if we listened to Paul here? How would our life in the church look different if we have already been saved? Paul makes a lot of sense to me here. Do not be afraid!
Through faith: Through our trust in in God. Remember when God had to trust in humanity. What would the world look like if we had that kind of trust in God?
Not the result of works—we do not earn our salvation. Good works are the fruit of salvation. The good you do does not earn your salvation, but the good you do shows the world that you understand what God has given you.
Created us for good—God made us for good. Go out and do it. Let that be your resolution.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.