It’s hard to believe that summer is coming to an end and here we are on Rally Day, ready to jump into a new program year of worship, study, service, and fun! To get us started, the Education Committee and I chose to focus on a basic aspect of our faith: Grace. The doctrine of Grace is a foundation of all Christian denominations, but it is particularly important for us as Methodists. John Wesley had a laser-like focus on grace and had a distinctive way of explaining how it is the channel through which we are offered and experience the gift of salvation. So, for the next six weeks in worship and in our Thursday evening Bible study, we’ll be exploring just what is so amazing about God’s amazing grace.
So we all have a common starting point, we should have a common definition of the word “grace.” Our Book of Discipline describes it this way: grace is “the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.” I still rely on the definition of grace I learned as a teenager in my two years of confirmation classes at the First United Church of Christ in New Philadelphia: “Grace is undeserved goodness.” That is, it’s the goodness God showers on us without our having done anything to deserve it.
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is a good source for learning about what it means to have God’s grace operating in our lives. In his words to the Galatians, he reminds us of what it means to live a life filled with and guided by grace. So, as we set out on this next phase of our faith journey together, we can allow Paul to keep us lined up with what is often called “the Gospel of Grace.”
Paul was not a happy camper when he wrote his letter to the Galatians. In fact, he was very disturbed. You can practically hear him sputtering with indignation all through the letter. But it’s not the anger Paul expresses that we’ll be focusing on over the next six weeks. Instead, we’ll explore what is at the heart of the Gospel as Paul proclaimed it: the unearned gift of God’s love, expressed through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
We can pull out lots of great verses from this letter but, as with all Scripture, it’s important to know something about it as a whole. What is its background? Why did Paul write it? What was going on in his world at the time? If we don’t pay attention to the context of the letter, and just pick out the bits and pieces that we like or would make a good bumper sticker, we run the risk of simply reading into it what we want it to say, rather than allowing Paul to have his say.
So, why was Paul all up in arms? It was nothing less than what he saw as an attack on the most fundamental principle of the Gospel—that out of God’s desire to rescue the world from the power of evil, in Jesus God had broken into the world and completely transformed it. This was the gospel that the Galatians had gladly received when Paul traveled through the region’s cities and planted the initial churches there.
But, there were some new faces in those Gentile towns in what is now modern-day Turkey—Jewish Christians who were teaching an entirely different view of the Gospel. At every turn, their teachings were at odds with the Gospel as it had been revealed to Paul. According to them, Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough to assure our salvation; following the Law, including circumcision, was also necessary. According to them, the leading of the Spirit wasn’t enough to sustain a moral life; only the Law could restrain human passions. According to them, Gentiles joining together with Jews as one body at a common table wasn’t enough; Gentiles must first become Jews, before they could be Christians. And, finally, they believed that the cross hadn’t changed the world; they thought that the world could go on pretty much as it always had. According to these new teachers, Paul had it all wrong. They said that he had been exposed to Christianity by the apostles, and then he had gone on his merry way to disseminate a whole string of errors.
Paul had heard that the Gentile Christians in the region of Galatia were being swayed by these new teachers, and he is appalled at what he has heard. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel,” he says. And he goes on to literally curse the ones who are, in his words, “confusing” the Galatians and “perverting the Gospel of Christ.” His indignation carries through the entire letter.
But that’s understandable. Paul feared that these teachers were undermining the understanding that, with the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the world had been permanently and irrevocably changed, through God’s grace. They were retracting the freedom Christians had been given, by God’s grace. They were rejecting the unity of Jews and Gentiles that had been made possible by God’s grace. They were ignoring the fact that something entirely new had been born in the world by God’s grace, and that from that point on, everything had been made new. At every turn, they denied the gracious action of God—action that transformed the world and, with it, our individual lives.
The first chapter of the letter is Paul’s opening salvo in his battle against this false gospel. He has two objectives in mind: first, to begin his defense of the Gospel he preaches, and then to defend his authority to preach it. He had to demonstrate that what he was teaching was not just some figment of his imagination, but neither was it a second-hand theology handed to him by human teachers.
Paul needed to remind the Galatians of his credentials: that he had been called into the life of a prophet along the lines of Isaiah and Jeremiah, set apart from the time he was in the womb, and that when the Son was revealed to him, his life was transformed as he recognized the true nature of God’s call on his life. Up until then, he had seen himself as an ardent, faithful Jew, zealous to maintain the purity of Jewish tradition. He was so passionate about that, that when he discovered Jews worshiping Jesus, he persecuted them, trying to destroy the infant church.
But then his eyes were opened—not by human teachers, but by God. For three years, he traveled and taught on the strength of what had been divinely revealed to him—that the Lord Jesus Christ lovingly gave himself for our sins to set us free from the power of evil in our world, according to the desire of God the Father that the world would be redeemed.
Galatians is often read with an eye only to what it has to say about individual transformation. But, for Paul, that transformation, and the grace that makes it possible, is much bigger than that. It’s nothing less than a complete upsetting of the way things had always been, and there would be no going back—not to the Law, not to a dependence on ourselves for salvation, not to a world where God saves only people who follow a particular set of rules. And this is all because God so loved the world—the world—that God’s Son was willing to die for its redemption.
That, my friends, is grace: love for the world that is an unearned gift. Love that’s not conditioned on following a set of rules. Love that’s available to every person, simply because we are part of the world God created and intends to fully restore to righteousness.
We experience this grace in so many ways. We are bathed in it from the time we are born, long before we know anything about God or our need for God. We say that grace is prevenient—it “comes before” our own comprehension of it. Every one of the little children who arrived in our parking lot this past week for their first day of pre-school was surrounded by it, even if they knew nothing about God. Paul speaks of how he swam in it in his mother’s womb, as God set him apart and called him even before he was born. Grace, preveniently active in our lives, draws our hearts towards God.
We experience grace when we reach a point in our lives when we recognize that there is a happier, more abundant, more whole life to be lived, and that our sinfulness stands in the way of our living it. We realize that all our ideas of what it takes to have that life are wrong: that it doesn’t matter how much money or stuff we acquire, how many good deeds we do or how few swear words we say, how often we go to church or how many bad habits we give up. We realize that we can’t save ourselves from lives that lack true meaning, lives that lack true peace, lives that lack true joy. We realize that nothing we can do on our own will secure the life that God’s prevenient grace has led us to desire.
When that happens, by God’s grace, our hearts are opened to the truth that Paul declares: “that Jesus gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” We see that because of what Jesus did, we are no longer subject to the power of this world, just as the entire world is freed from the power of evil. Through God’s grace we are justified: our lives are lined up with God’s desire for us. This, perhaps, is where we see most clearly the transforming power of God’s grace.
Paul was doing everything right—he thought. He was so committed to the rules of his faith that he was willing to resort to violence to stamp out those who violated its traditions. But then he experienced God’s justifying grace: he saw the truth of what Jesus had done, and it changed his life.
Where in your life have you experienced God’s grace? Can you think of a time before you really embraced Jesus and the salvation he offers? What changed in your life when you consciously accepted him as your Lord and Savior? Many people who grew up going to church every Sunday think they always have embraced him, but they haven’t really grasped when God’s grace means for them.
They are people a lot like me. I went to church every Sunday, went to Sunday School, went to Youth Group, went to Bible School, sang in the choir, continued serving as an adult. But it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s and went on an Emmaus Walk that I finally understood what God’s grace meant for me: that being undeserving of God’s love didn’t have to prevent me from experiencing it—that God’s love is a gracious gift, offered through Jesus precisely because I don’t deserve it and never will.
That revelation changed me. I felt an enormous burden lifted from my heart. I no longer feared a cold and judgmental God who wouldn’t love me—couldn’t love me—until I reached a certain level of worthiness. By God’s grace, I began to experience a freedom and joy in serving and worshiping God that I hadn’t known before, and couldn’t know without God’s grace working in my life. God’s prevenient grace led me into that pivotal moment and surrounded me until I arrived there. And then, God’s justifying grace transformed my faith into one of freedom and joy and peace.
God’s grace doesn’t stop working in our lives after we’ve been justified. It continues to guide us and strengthen us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. God’s grace is sanctifying. That doesn’t mean that with our acceptance of Jesus we immediately become perfect, with haloes beaming from our heads. It means that we continue to grow in our knowledge and love of God. We are in a continuous state of being perfected in love. We continue to walk more closely with Jesus and to become more like him as we do. Paul’s experience of God’s sanctifying grace led him through years of preaching in Arabia and Damascus, until the news of what God’s grace had done in him reached the ears of the churches in Judea.
Paul’s concern for the Christians in Galatia was that they would be drawn away from the saving grace of God. Because, it is possible for us to fall away from the grace that saves us. As Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, we do not believe in the notion of “once saved, always saved.” We believe that it is always and only God who saves, but we also believe, as the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards writes, that “only by our ongoing, living relationship with God through faith can God’s saving intention be fully realized in our lives.” Like the Galatians, we can begin listening to a different, distorted gospel, and lose our saving relationship with God.
Fortunately, we can return to that relationship. When we do, we experience yet another transformation of our lives and our faith as we come back to God as the grateful prodigal who has returned home. This is what Paul is calling the Galatians to, right from the beginning of his letter. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Come back to grace.”
On this Rally Day, as we “come back” to a new year of worship, study, service, and fellowship, we hear Paul calling to us. If you are secure in your relationship with God, come back to deepen that relationship. If you realize that you have fallen away, whether that fall has been big or small, come back to the God who loves you with an indescribable love. Come back to the grace through which God created all things. Come back to the grace of Jesus, who gave himself up to free the world and us from the power of sin. Come back to the Gospel of Grace, which transformed the world and continues to transform us, every day. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young