Star Words: Grace

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

Every once in a while someone asks you a question that you think you know the answer to, until you actually try to put your answer into words. That’s what happened to me a couple weeks ago when the question “What is grace” came up in Sunday Bible study. As I told you last week, that question was the prompt for this series we’re doing on words we throw around in church a lot without always knowing what they mean.  What is grace? It’s…grace. It just is.

That, of course, is not really a good answer, and it’s an even worse sermon.

I thought a bit about how we use the word grace, not just in church but in life. There but for the grace of God go I, we might say when we see a friend or neighbor going through a rough time – which reminds us that we are not better than them just because things are going better for us, but also might raise some questions about why God’s grace is apparently so selective. Another one I’ve heard a lot these days, largely from women who are trying to hold down full-time jobs and maybe homeschool kids and care for their families and themselves. Give yourself grace: it is a way of reminding each other that imperfection is allowed. Each of those phrases might give us some glimpse into what grace is; neither really encapsulates it.

The most common way I’ve heard grace defined is unmerited favor. And, in fact, every church or denomination in Western Christianity seems to use some version of this definition. Our United Methodist Book of Disciple puts it this way: grace is the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.[1] In other words, at its most basic level, grace is simply God’s goodness present and at work in our lives. It is the gift of waking up to a new day, the view of the sunrise out your window and the song of the birds as you sip your morning coffee; it’s the help of friends and neighbors when times are tough; it’s the strength you somehow find in yourself in the midst of adversity and real forgiveness in the face of real wrong; it’s the promise of hope when everything around you is hopeless.

None of those, things that we earn; none of those, things we can buy (except, I guess, the coffee); none of those, things we deserve; all, gifts freely given by a God who loves us.

I suppose that’s why grace is hard to define, because it’s all of those things, and more.

But Methodists also have a pretty distinctive understanding of God’s grace works in a life of faith. I told you last week, when we talked about the word sin, that we had to start there before we could get to grace. That’s not because sin precedes grace; God’s grace is present in creation itself. But to fully understand grace, we have to know that sin is a problem. And we have to know that it’s our problem. We are all created in the image of God, to love and be loved, but we also all have to reckon with the fact that there is this thing in us and outside us and bigger than us that has tarnished that image.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement, believed that God’s grace – that unmerited goodness – is present in our lives even so. He called this prevenient grace. This is grace that goes before us and meets us wherever we go. It’s God’s grace that is always with you, no matter what, before you know it, whether or not you believe in God at all.

When I baptize a baby, for example, we’re testifying to prevenient grace at work. That baby doesn’t know what’s going on. She isn’t able to say that she’s sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He isn’t able to make a commitment to a new way of life in following Jesus. But we baptize babies and children anyway because we believe that God is already at work in their lives, hopefully with our help, bringing them to the point where they will be able to make that decision for themselves.

Prevenient grace is grace that allows us to finally say yes.

But at some point we do have to say yes, and that brings us to justifying grace.

We could say that it’s the grace that wakes us up. It’s when we suddenly look around and realize we’ve been surrounded by prevenient grace the whole time, and what’s more, we needed it, because we are in fact broken, and we do not want to be. But then we also realize that we are forgiven, and accepted, and that God loves us anyway. In other words, we are justified: through the life, death, and rising of Jesus.

Last week, when I talked about sin, I described it using the example of the sin of racism – how it’s a matter of personal choices made on a day-to-day basis, but also a matter of heart and the unconscious prejudice we often hold there, as well as a matter of forces that are bigger than us. Every preacher knows that to end a sermon on some good news, but I struggled with that last week. It’s easy to talk about grace when it’s forgiveness for something little, a one-time action in the past. But racism isn’t past. What does grace look like when we talk about the sin of racism? Surely it can’t be just a pat on the back for white people, God saying, it’s OK, you mean well, while Black people continued to be murdered in their homes by misinformed police and polling sites are closed and an armed mob storms the Capitol waving Confederate flags and wearing Nazi shirts? That would be what the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call cheap grace, grace that makes us feel good but demands nothing from us.

In the last week and a half, whenever I’ve heard pleas for national healing and unity and moving forward, that’s the term that comes to mind: cheap grace. Because we haven’t reckoned with the things that divide us, and there is still no justice for those who are still marginalized in our society.

The same goes for me: how can I ask for grace when I know that I still haven’t fully reckoned with the privilege that comes from generations of whiteness?

But justifying grace isn’t cheap grace. It’s grace found in repentance: not just feeling sorry, but turning away. I am loved, no matter what. And I don’t have to be perfect. But I do have to keep turning.

It’s God’s justifying grace that allows something new to begin. This is the grace of which we sing: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

In some traditions, this might have been the end of the story, but not for Wesley. In fact, something that Wesley struggled with is the fact that people who called themselves Christian just didn’t seem to be actually better or nicer or more loving than anyone else. Have you heard the quote, “Christians aren’t better people, they’re just forgiven?” Well, Wesley would have hated that quote. Grace, for Wesley, isn’t just a one-time thing; it continues to unfold through the course of our lives helping us grow in love and holiness. He called this sanctifying grace: grace that doesn’t stop at forgiving us, but can actually change us. This is the grace, for example, that allows me to keep doing the work of examining my own privilege and prejudice and to begin saying no; to become someone who embodies justice and reconciliation instead. Not a one-time event, but a lifelong process of allowing myself to be shaped into the person God created me to be.[2]

And maybe that’s a lot. So maybe I’ll go back to the beginning: grace is God’s goodness at work in our lives, in ways we can never earn or buy or deserve. Sometimes it looks like a sunrise and a helping hand from a friend. Sometimes it looks like mercy: God’s unconditional love and complete forgiveness of a wretch like me. Sometimes it looks like growth: God giving me what I need to love my neighbor better, whether that’s a word from the Bible, or the opportunity for ongoing confession, or the experience of God’s presence in bread and wine at communion.

Maybe you’ve heard of a guy named Paul. He was fervent in his beliefs, steadfast in his commitment, clear in his understanding of right and wrong. He went after early followers of Christ. He tracked them down and turned them in and, when one of them was stoned for blasphemy, he held the coats of those who did the stoning. And then one day he saw a bright light and heard a voice from heaven, and nothing was ever the same again.

We heard his words just before I began speaking. “I am what I am by the grace of God,” he said.

And from then on, Paul was God’s person, devoted to God’s work: to sharing the message with others, that they are loved, they are included, they are forgiven, that they can be God’s people, too. That is, he says, not me, but the grace of God working in me. God’s free gift, not one he ever deserved, but one that continued working and unfolding in his life to the very end.

What is grace? It’s God loving you into creation, calling you back when you went astray, calling you God’s own; it’s God forgiving you and calling you into new life and forgiving you again. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. It is by grace that we go out to be God’s people in the world.


[1] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016, p. 51.

[2] John Wesley, The Scripture Way of Salvation. http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-43-the-scripture-way-of-salvation/

Star Words: Sin

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11; Romans 7:14-25

A few weeks ago in Bible study, toward the end of our journey through the Bible in a year one of the participants asked a simple question. “What is grace?” she said.

It was a question that caught me momentarily off guard. The person who asked was not a new Christian, someone who had grown up in church. And grace is a word we use all the time in church. And there I was, just bandying it about in Bible study like we all knew what it meant.

When I thought about it, though, I realized I wasn’t that surprised. There are lots of these words we bandy about in church without ever really stopping to define them, and maybe we kind of know what they mean through a process of absorption over time, but maybe also in this process we’ve been left not always knowing what we’re talking about, and maybe with questions we’re afraid to ask.

So I introduce you to our latest sermon series, Star Words, a reference to the “star words” we chose for Epiphany last week to guide us through the coming year. The words we’ll talk about over the next few weeks will be words that are basic to our Christian faith, so basic that perhaps we rarely stop to actually ask what they mean.

We’re going to start today with the word sin. And yes, I realize that sin would make a pretty bad star word; it’s not a word you’re going to hang on your refrigerator all year. But it is, in a way, our starting point: we have to talk about sin before we talk about grace and salvation and all those nicer words. And it is one of those words we bandy about in church, perhaps without being totally clear on what it is. We know it when we see it, or at least we think we do, but that’s not quite the same.

I have to issue a caveat here – and this is a drum I’ve beaten all through our Bible in a Year study – which is that the Bible isn’t written by one person. It’s written by lots of people, sometimes even within the same book, and those people have different opinions and perspectives. And so that is to say that the Bible’s not a dictionary, you don’t just look up sin under the letter s and find a definition. Nevertheless! It is good to have a working definition that can be the starting point for our theological conversation.

On a very basic level, we might say that sin is something bad you do. We could go all the way back to the Garden of Eden here. The first two humans in creation are placed in a garden, and in the center of the garden is a tree, and the tree is bearing fruit. And God says to the two humans, to Adam and Eve, you can eat what you want from any tree in this garden – except that one. And what do they do? They eat it anyway.

The word sin is not used yet in this story, and yet it has informed so much of how we think of sin. Sin, here, is disobedience to God. And sin is that: we see it over and over again in the story of God’s people, how God told them not to worship other gods, but they worshiped other gods. How God told them to be good to the poor, but they exploited the poor instead.

Maybe this is also the basic way we think about sin in our own lives. What is sin? It’s that lie I told; it’s the time I walked past that person in need; it’s the thing I said to my annoying coworker last week; it’s any number of worse things I might have done or left undone. And yes, I’d call all of those things sin, or at least they might be.

And yet to call sin simply a matter of breaking rules, of racking up demerits, sounds a little simplistic, doesn’t it? We can’t even seem to agree on what God’s rules are, or which ones in the Bible still apply to us today. Understanding how God wants us to live is important, but there must be something more to talk about than just a list of rules.

The Hebrew Bible tends to be known by Christians for its rules, but even there, we find an understanding that the problem of sin goes deeper than just bad things we do. In Psalm 51, for example, which we often read on Ash Wednesday, we hear the Psalmist pray: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This Psalm is linked in its heading to David and his “taking” of Bathsheba: one very bad decision that, in the story, leads on to a number of other bad decisions as David tries to cover his tracks. This Psalm, though, acknowledges that sinfulness is more than just a collection of bad decisions: it’s something about us, something that has been there since birth. When the Psalmist prays “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” it is not just about forgiveness for one act; it is the whole heart that is the problem and that needs cleansing.

As we get into the New Testament, and especially into the letters of Paul, sin starts to mean something even bigger than that. You heard some of his words from Romans before: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” For Paul, sin is not just a human tendency but a force both within and outside of ourselves, to which we are beholden. Surely we can relate to this: the feeling of wanting to do one thing, but doing another instead, the feeling that we can’t escape our own brokenness and failing and that of the world around us no matter what we do. For Paul, sin is something that rules and enslaves us.

For me, one of the most useful ways I’ve come to understand sin in all its aspects is through the example of racism. On a basic level, I am a person who can make choices, good or bad, when it comes to how I treat people of different races. I can choose to snub someone of a different race than me, or make offensive jokes, or pass them over for a job I’m hiring for. Those are all sins, and all require repentance.

But I think most of us know racism is more than that. It’s not just a matter of simple good and bad choices. Instead, speaking as a white person in America, those decisions I make each day about how to treat my neighbors are tinged by ideas that I’ve absorbed since I was born about who is good, and who is smart, and who is dangerous. These are not things I’ve been explicitly taught; they’re in the American air we breathe. And so when I make that decision about hiring, maybe I don’t make it based on race – but that’s there, underneath, shaping my opinion of the person whose resume is on my desk. And maybe, when I call the police on someone unfamiliar in my neighborhood, I don’t do it just because they’re brown or Black, but at the same time, if I’m honest, I might have felt less threatened if they were white. This is sin, not just the sin of individual choices, but sin that requires a new heart, cleansed of all bias and prejudice.

And it’s bigger than that, too. Racism isn’t just about me or other people like me, but, in America, it’s a reality in which we live. It is not just inside us but all around us, in the monuments that line our streets, the gross economic inequality that exists between white people and Black or Latino people, our failure to come to terms with our history of slavery and Jim Crow, in policies that make it harder for Black people to vote.  We saw it this week, when an armed mob of mostly white people protesting election results broke into the Capitol waving not just Trump flags, but Confederate flags, and Nazi flags, and wearing shirts that said things like “Camp Auschwitz.” This was not just politics, but white supremacy on display, and still, and still these protestors were met with less resistance from police than many of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, especially as they first arrived at the Capitol. This is sin, and it’s sin that we all here in America live and move within. And many of us, I’m sure, feel powerless to change it.

And yet the individual choices we make do still matter.  It matters that we call out white supremacy when we see it in our lives or on the news. It matters that we do our parts to change unjust policies. It matters that we choose to interrogate our own assumptions and biases. It matters that we repent when we fail to do these things. Sin is all these things: a matter of choice and a matter of heart and a matter of the forces over which we have little control.

But sin is not the end of the story. For Christians, sin is always met by grace: grace that doesn’t excuse us, but does change us. And yes, grace will be the next word we talk more about next week. As we find our new identity in Christ, who has died and risen, Paul tells us we enter into a new reality, one where sin doesn’t wield its power over us any longer.[1]

At the beginning of the service, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, and in a few minutes we will remember ours as well. Before we are baptized, in the United Methodist Church, we take some vows – or, if we are too young, someone takes them on our behalf, and we confirm them later. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? We are asked, and we say, we do. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? We do. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord? We do. We do.

In our baptism, we say no to sin and yes to grace. No to injustice and oppression and yes to justice and mercy. No to the forces of wickedness and yes to the power of the love of Jesus Christ.

It seems like a good time to remember and renew those vows.

And, in baptism, we find a new beginning. We have all sinned. We have all fallen short of God’s glory. We have all participated in evils larger than ourselves. And the good news is that our sinful, broken selves are met by a God who loves us, gives us new hearts, and empowers us to live, serve, reject, and resist in the reality of grace.


[1] Interpretation: Romans by Paul J. Achtemeier was helpful to me in my understanding of Paul’s concept of sin and grace as two different realms we live in.