April 18, 2021 Grace. Period: We Are God's Children, by Pastor David
John 3:1-7. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous.
We take a moment of silence to listen to the echo in our hearts of the scripture and the music, sensing God’s graceful presence in this time of listening and reflection.
April 18, 2021 Grace. Period: We are God’s Children
Grace. period. Grace is what we are all about in the church. People love to sing about “Amazing Grace” and our sign “Grace.Period” has already had people writing about it on Facebook and calling me up. We love the idea of grace. Did you know that Methodist have particular ideas about grace that have been some of the distinctive contributions of the Methodist movement to the world? That’s what we’re going to be looking at during this sermon series for the next five or six weeks. I’m hoping we have a clearer understanding by the end of what grace is and how grace works in our lives.
When I was walking down the hall during middle school - what we in Cincinnati called junior high school - I had to keep my eye out. There was a guy who was looking out for me too, and I knew that if he saw me and he could he would punch me. And if I saw him I would punch him. So you can bet, I was always watching for him.
One day I was walking from my locker out of the building. The halls were empty because school was out, so I wasn’t as wary as usual. All of a sudden this guy grabbed me and put me in a headlock. I was scared because he had me stuck and he could for sure beat me up. He said, “Are you going to stop hitting me?”
And I started laughing. I said, “Sure. I’ll stop hitting you, if you stop hitting me. That would be great!” I had thought that he was the one hitting me, and I realized in that moment that he didn’t like it any more than I did. It felt like a moment of grace.
It was a surprise, and it was a gift. Does that fit with your understanding of grace? I have a feeling that we may have different definitions and understandings about grace. It’s worth spending some time unpacking what it really means.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in England, had very specific ideas about grace that have permeated a lot of Christian understanding and theology. I’m not an expert about it, but let me give a little overview of the three kinds of grace Wesley talked about and in future weeks we’ll dig a little deeper.
Wesley talked about prevenient grace - which is kind of like original blessing, the grace which allows for all other kinds of grace. Prevenient means preceding. Justifying grace, or justification is grace that comes from accepting the love and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. And the third kind of grace Wesley talked about was sanctifying grace. Sanctification happens when a person knows in a deeper way that God makes him or her whole. Wesley called it going on to perfection.
Wesley gave all of these concepts of grace a lot of thought and preaching. Wesley’s most unique contribution to the understanding of grace might have been his belief in prevenient grace. A few years ago I got this letter in the mail. I took a picture of it knowing I would want to use it in a sermon someday. The outside of the envelope said in big letters, “You have been pre-forgiven. Open to find out how.”
That ad for a credit card or whatever it was could have been a perfect advertisement for prevenient grace. Prevenient or preventing grace meant “preceding” grace. Wesley had to be careful about this among Protestant theologians. Many of them back then felt that humanity was totally depraved. Luther seemed to meditate on being a worm. They felt like only God’s grace could save them.
Wesley believed that too. And he figured that the only way humans could even be capable of thinking about or live into grace was if God gave us grace from the very beginning. Prevenient grace made every other kind of grace possible. It was universal, given to everyone, and part of every human being’s legacy.
In our time, I’d say we’ve expanded on and believe in prevenient grace more strongly than ever. We understand this grace given to all people to be free and freely given to people of all nations, ages, races and religions. Wesley believed that, but only in the sense that prevenient grace made possible the acceptance of God’s grace in our lives.
So Methodists promoted infant baptism as a way of signifying and celebrating prevenient grace, and later Methodists also celebrated young people accepting that grace for themselves. As Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed at Aldersgate, he felt like he was reaching for these higher levels of grace. Methodists reach for those deeper understandings of grace when we celebrate confirmation classes and people becoming a member of the church. I’m just saying that Wesley had a stricter and more nuanced understanding of grace than we have today, and this series on grace is a good opportunity to dig into those concepts.
But we start from prevenient grace. We have been pre-forgiven and we open up the scripture, and open up this series to find out how. There are surprises waiting for us - gifts that help us to know that God is with us, that God loves us and that we’re all in this together, and we don’t need to punch each other. In fact, we clearly value grace as a society, without totally understanding. We are hoping that grace gets us through the next couple of weeks when the verdict is announced in the Chauvin case - that somehow we learn to hold each other accountable so that the endless cycle of punching and counter-punching in this society might have an end, that we can call out the systems that are un-gracious and the ways we each have been blinded to our own ways that we participate in those systems and think that we deserve grace somehow while other people don’t. We believe in grace. We believe in God. We believe “the name “God” points to this mystery of love in its unlimited depth, the center of all that is; love that overflows onto new life.”
John and Charles Wesley worked out their theological ideas in songs as much as in sermons and writing. Charles was especially prolific, using old tunes with new words, just like we do today. Today, we sing one Charles Wesley’s songs to a traditional English Christmas melody. You may recognize the tune and want to sing along.
Responsive Hymn 2084 Come, Let Us with Our Lord Arise