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.

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