Last week we began getting “back to basics” by exploring the Apostles’ Creed. There are actually lots of Christian creeds. The scholar Jaroslav Pelikan has collected nearly a thousand of them. But the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and the rest of the 998 or so all express the same beliefs about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Church, forgiveness, and eternal life.
Those basic beliefs are accepted by all Christians. But throughout history, different sects and denominations have had their own unique ways of living out those foundational beliefs. It makes me think of my husband’s fast-pitch softball team of 11-year-old girls. All fastpitch teams play the same game with the same basic set of rules. But each team plays the game a little differently, according to what their coach feels is the best strategy for winning.
Like all Christians, we United Methodists claim the beliefs that are expressed in our creeds. But we focus on some things in ways that make us somewhat different from our brothers and sisters over at Community of Christ or Cedar Creek. Those are the basics we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks.
Perhaps the most important one is the special emphasis we place on grace—the grace that makes possible all that Paul speaks of in our passage today. But, what is grace? Paul reminded the Ephesians that the grace through which they had been saved is a “gift from God.” John Wesley called it “God’s “bounty… or free, undeserved favor.” Our Book of Discipline, which some of you are familiar with from our “STEeR” Bible Study, goes a little further: it says that 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. Before our class could be confirmed, we had to be examined by the Consistory—kind of like our Ad Council. One night, we all had to stand in front of that semi-circle of men—they were all men, dressed in their dark suits and white shirts and dark ties. They asked each of us a question in turn, most of which came from the Heidelberg Catechism. Nearly fifty years later, I still remember my question: “What Is Grace?” And I have never forgotten the answer: “Grace is undeserved goodness.”
God’s grace is constantly poured out on us throughout our lives. We are swimming in it, every moment. But God’s grace is multi-faceted, and we experience it in different ways as we make our way through our faith journey. We have words to describe these different aspects of grace. God’s grace is prevenient, it is justifying, and it is sanctifying.
When we describe God’s grace as “prevenient,” we’re using a fancy word from Latin that means “going before.” Most of us aren’t born being conscious of our need for God’s forgiveness. We aren’t aware of how much we need God’s love and presence in our lives. But God knows. And God doesn’t ignore us until somehow we stumble upon the insight that we need God. Instead, God surrounds us with grace that is prevenient—undeserved goodness that goes before our ignorant selves and woos us until we recognize that we need God. Before we know God, God knows us and draws us ever closer until we see for ourselves what and who has been surrounding us all along.
Max Lucado tells a story about a young girl named Christina, who longed to leave her poor rural Brazilian village for life in the big city. Her mother Marie’s heart was broken when, one morning, she realized that her daughter had left. She knew what life on the streets would mean for her daughter. And so, Maria quickly packed a bag and prepared to go find her. On her way to the bus station, she stopped to get one last thing. She found a photo booth, closed the curtain, and took as many pictures of herself as she could afford. On the back of each picture, she wrote a note.
When she arrived in the city, Maria went to all the places where a young, poor run-away girl might end up: bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place with a reputation for street walkers or prostitutes. At each place she left her picture—on bathroom mirrors, hotel lobbies, community bulletin boards, corner phone booths. Soon she ran out of both money and pictures, and she had to return to her village, heart-broken and without her daughter.
But a few weeks later, back in the city, Christina was leaving yet another hotel room. Her eyes reflected her pain and fear and a bone-deep weariness. As she walked through the hotel lobby, she saw a picture taped to a mirror. It was a picture of a familiar face—her mother’s. She removed the small photo, and saw the message written on the back: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.”
As I was choosing the hymns for this week, I looked for ones that express the different qualities of God’s grace. “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” which we sang earlier, speaks of how God’s grace comes to us through Jesus, before we know we need him: “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; see on the portals he’s watching and waiting, watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, you who are weary, come home; earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling ‘O sinner, come home.’”
At some point, we begin to realize that a home exists for us, a home we long to live in. We feel the emptiness of what has been called the “God-shaped hole” in our hearts, and we long to fill it. But, we realize that, on our own, we can’t do anything to fill that hole, or to open the door to that place where we can experience the fullness of a relationship with God. We recognize that our sins stand in our way. The mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal described our longing this way: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, . . . though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only . . . by God himself.”
When we come to Jesus, offering him our sinful lives and our aching hearts, sharing our longing to be made right with God, we are forgiven through God’s grace and made right with God. This is called justification. God’s justifying grace changes our relationship with God; we are no longer servants but children of God. We know this because God’s justifying grace carries with it the blessing of assurance—the heart-deep knowledge that God loves us and, through our faith in Jesus, has forgiven our sins.
John Wesley had been a priest and missionary in the Anglican Church for nearly ten years before he experienced God’s justifying grace. He served God, but he questioned whether his faith was a true faith. He knew that something was lacking in his relationship with God; he felt that hole in his heart. During a terrible storm at sea, he realized that he was afraid to die, and he recognized that as a lack of trust and faith in God. He was a fearful servant of God, not a trusting child of God.
But, on May 24, 1738, Wesley experienced the justifying grace that assured him of his salvation. Wesley wrote this in his journal that night. “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 he 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, 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.”
The hymn “I Surrender All” describes this experience of offering ourselves to Jesus in humble repentance and childlike trust, and the assurance that, through God’s justifying grace, we are forgiven, accepted, and loved. “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give. I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live. All to Jesus I surrender, now I feel the sacred flame. O the joy of full salvation! Glory, glory to his name!”
Justification by God’s grace isn’t the end of the story for us as Methodists. We see justification as just the starting point of the process of sanctification—the process of becoming more and more Christ-like, of shedding our old ways of life and living into the new life we’ve been given. Some denominations see sanctification as a one-time event that happens when we are justified. But we believe that the sanctifying power of God’s grace continually draws us towards Christian perfection or, as Wesley described it, a heart that is “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor.” As our Discipline says, God’s sanctifying grace continues to nurture us, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, “we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor.”
You might remember that when I came to Zion, Marc and I were in the process of renovating our house. The project began the day we signed the contract for the work, but it was several years before we were, well, mostly finished. As much as we’ve accomplished, there is still more to be done. Our sanctification is a life-long renovation project, one that may take right up until our dying day. But God’s gift to us is the sanctifying grace that gives us the power to live in new ways, and we are accompanied by that grace until the day when we are perfected in love.
The hymn we will sing together in a few minutes is a prayer for sanctification. It’s a prayer we can sing with confidence because God’s sanctifying grace makes it possible for us to live as the new creation that is born when we are justified. Here’s what we will be praying as we sing: “More like you, Jesus, more like you. Fill my heart with your desire to make me more like you. More like you, Jesus, more like you. Touch my lips with holy fire, and make me more like you. Lord, you are my mercy. Lord, you are my grace. All my deepest sins have forever been erased. Draw me in your presence. Lead me in your ways. I long to bring you glory in righteousness and praise.”
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he speaks of how God’s grace accomplishes the work of saving us from the lives we once lived for the life God has planned for us—a life of eternal relationship with God. Paul reminds the Ephesians, and us, of what life without Jesus is like—following the ways of a world that doesn’t love us and has its own interests at heart, having our minds set on earthly things rather than divine things, trying to fill the empty places of our souls with things that don’t satisfy us, because the only thing that can fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts is God.
Paul’s words about God’s prevenient, justifying grace are beautiful and hope-filled: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. . .” Then, Paul speaks of that life which God’s sanctifying grace makes possible—the life for which God has made us, a life of good works that reflect the faith we’ve been given, and the way of life that God has prepared for us.
What is grace—prevenient, justifying, sanctifying grace? It’s a gift from God. It’s “God’s “bounty… or free, undeserved favor.” It’s “the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.” It’s undeserved goodness. However we define it, we experience it throughout our lives as God’s surrounding, saving, empowering gift. Thanks be to God for the blessing of amazing grace. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young