Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Three-Fold Grace, Feb. 12

2 Peter 1: 1-9
Luke 15: 11-32

Grace—It’s probably the most important word in the language of Christianity. It is just one syllable, but it is so hard to wrap our minds around. Swirling around the idea of grace are the ideas of salvation, sin, forgiveness, atonement. Many of these words we’ve heard and think we understand, but which do not occupy the modern mind like they did the mind of Luther, Calvin, or Wesley or any of their contemporaries.
One difference in the thought of Wesley and other reformers is that the basis of many reformers’ ideas about sin and salvation is based on “objective truth.” Concern was more for the overarching idea about God’s relationship with humanity. Wesley was concerned with sin and salvation from the vantage point of subjective experience. Unless the idea of sin and salvation became effective in human life it remained abstract and useless. He constantly examined his own experience and that of others to see whether and how the Biblical teaching was realized.
Wesley was interested in loosening the idea of grace from a single experience of justification or salvation, to instead be conceptualized as a stream of experience, a whole lifetime of salvation. A path of human and divine relationship that led toward humans realizing and manifesting the image of God—what Wesley called utter sanctification, or perfection.
Our scriptures today illustrate three very important aspects of Grace. We believe that humans have fallen into a state of Sin. But we are never so far from God that he can’t reach us. This is prevenient Grace. We believe that this God grabs hold of us, either in a dramatic change of life, or in a gradual process. This is justifying grace

We believe that God molds us after the moment of justification. This is sanctifying Grace.
This parable of the prodigal son is what Charles Dickens called, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It is Christianity in a nutshell. IF you understand the meaning of this story, you understand the heart of Christianity.
In our story, Jesus tells of a son who misunderstands what his father has to offer. He thinks of his father as an ATM machine, and he doesn’t want to wait around for the old man to die to get what’s coming to him.
Too often we think the problem is that our desires are just too strong. The church seems to take on this dreadful task of stamping out desire. But as C. S. Lewis pointed out on the radio back in 1948, the problem isn't that our desires are too strong, rather, our desires are too weak. We are far too easily pleased. We settle for mere trifles like money, sex, glory, when God wants to give us true wealth, genuine intimacy. We were not made for the far country, however enticing it may be. We aren't pigs. We are sons and daughters, and we dare not settle for less.
First thought of returning to father while he’s wallowing around in the mud with the pigs. Prevenient grace. Wesley said that prevenient, or preventing grace is responsible for “all the drawings of the Father, the desires after God, which if we yield to them, increase more and more; all that ‘light’ wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world’ showing every man ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God,’ all the convictions which his Spirit from time to time works in every child of man.” Grace accomplishes much before justification and sanctification occur.
The earlier Reformers had attributed collective guilt to all human kind. In Adam’s sin the whole body of humanity sinned. Hence they emphasized universal human guilt accompanying universal depravity. The fate of an individual was not determined by personal sins, and all people deserved nothing but punishment. So in principle there was no reason to deny that infants too are guilty and deserving of eternal punishment.
Wesley drew back from this conclusion. He agreed that physical death is a punishment for the sin of Adam who was in some way the representative of all human beings. Therefore, death afflicts all people, including infants, independently of their personal sin. But spiritual or eternal death is inflicted only for actual sins. Wesley wrote, “I believe none ever did, or ever will, die eternally, merely for the sin of our first father.”
Wisdom is when we recognize the empty place inside for what it is. God calling us home. T. S. Eliot put it like this: "The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." It was not unheard of for sons, younger sons especially, to try to make it big in the burgeoning mercantile economy of Greco?-Roman world. But you were supposed to invest, to save. The money this boy squandered was his father's, his family's social security. By wasting his inheritance, the son in effect says to his father, "You don't matter." Common wisdom said you don't tempt your son this way, they'll only take advantage of you. This father let himself be taken advantage of. George Balanchine got it wrong in his ballet, which debuted in 1929 in Paris; the son, groveling, the father, austere. No, Jesus says the father ran. Now running is regarded as cool in our culture, but in Jesus' day men just didn't run; to run was a sure sign you had lost all dignity. But this father, who let himself be taken advantage of, cares more for the boy than for his own dignity. He could have given the boy a thrashing, required heavy penance, sackcloth, fasting, ashes. But he ran.
Return to father’s arms and coming to terms with his sin. Admitting his sin. Justifying Grace. Grace of father.
Justifying: For Wesley, it is like going before a judge, and declaring your guilt. You are in that very moment justified because of the atonement of Christ, and in that instant, you begin on the road of sanctification—a real as well as a relative change. in justification, sin remains, but does not reign
Experience of admitting my guilt. Freeing experience. Admitting means “letting in.” When we admit our sin. When we “let it in” and accept that it is our condition, we also admit God’s grace that had equalized this sin. It is being embraced by the arms of a tearful, happy father.
Sanctifying grace is participating in the feast. It is where the older brother, who resents his father’s welcoming spirit, falls flat on his face. The author of 2nd Peter tells us more of this “growing into grace” through the association of grace with the process of sanctification, or “participating in the “Divine nature.” We are told to support our faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. Peter reminds us that we keep these things by the grace of God to keep us from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of Jesus. So that we don’t forget the cleansing of past sins.
Wesley believed that sanctifying Grace began at the same moment of justifying Grace. The actual result of the new birth then seems to be that the perception of spiritual reality which had only flickered before becomes established and what is seen is truly recognized and affirmed. This establishes the love of God and neighbor as the real basis of the new life. But the unregenerate nature, with all of its perceptions and habits, is far from obliterated. It resists the newly dominant love.
The closest term in the contemporary vocabulary to what Wesley meant by sanctification is spirituality. Many Christians feel a hunger for something more than their present participation in Christian life provides them. They understand themselves to be believers, and this status is important to them. They do not feel God’s condemnation or condemn themselves. But their lives still seem fragmented, aimless, empty, without sufficient purpose, shallow. They seek some structure or discipline that can respond to their needs.
Wesley agreed that being a Christian was crucially important, but it was not enough. Justification and the new birth initiated Christian life. But the living of that life was much more than simply claiming the status of having been saved at some point in the past. The focus should be on what is happening now. And unless what is happening now is sanctification, it does not suffice. This is why I suggested that we explore together the Christian disciplines and daily practices.
Some forms of spirituality today focus on moral behavior. More are quests for inner serenity. For Wesley the separation of these two would prevent either from being Christian. His account of sanctification was shaped by both concerns. IF time, talk about the midpoint between Moravians and Lutherans.
We, too, need to find a way between claiming too much and too little of the life transforming power of grace. We need to have enticing but realistic expectation of what our lives can become. We need to understand our role in the realization of those expectations without supposing that we can bring them about by our own strength.
So, in what way can you give voice to your experience of salvation? In what way do we build upon the grace given us? If you don’t know how to speak about it, how do you think you can share the good news of it? How, in your own language, do you convey those words that John Newton, a scoundrel and slave dealer, shared with the world upon his conversion. “I once was lost, but now am found—was blind but now I see.”
One thing that used to be a distinctive element of Methodism was the testimony. This was a time when people stood up in front of their brothers and sisters in Christ and shared with them their experience along the road of salvation. Wesley didn’t believe that salvation was one lone event, but instead a whole lifetime of journeying with God. I challenge you to think about your experience of salvation.
Somewhere along the line of Christian history, common thinking of salvation evolved into a focus on the next life. We have seen that the belief that what happens beyond death is supremely important has led at times to people doing for the sake of otherworldly salvation, things that were harmful to people here and now. Wesley did not understand salvation to be something otherworldly. Wesley wrote that salvation “was not a blessing which lies on the other side of death, or (as we usually speak) in the other world. It is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.
Grace is unfolding and it is enfolding. It is a journey and it is a sudden experience. Grace is God’s gift and our responsibility. I say responsibility because Grace demands a response from us. The response is repentance, it is turning around, it is journeying on and accepting our gifts.


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