Ephesians 2:1-10 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Repeat: . 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
During our time in Lent, I have been working with the hymn Amazing Grace as our guide on our Lenten spiritual journey. Amazing Grace is, probably, known as one of the most important hymns ever.
Today we look at verse three. “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come, ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home. I’m going to ask Beth to play the first three verses as we sing them – page 378 of the UM Methodist Hymnal.
Here is the background of the verse—as printed in your Lenten booklet.
- John Newton had been through a lot of trials over the years, so his sermon on New Years Day 1773, he selected the text from David’s prayer (1Chronicles 17:16-17) and borrowed David’s phrase “brought me thus far” for his hymn, adding the word safe — for he knew the dangers and dire straits of the sea, but also trusted the God who would see him home. That is why the original title of Amazing Grace when published in print was “1Chronicles 17:16-17, Faith’s Review and Expectation.”
John Wesley also felt that “hour I first believed” as the time that he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” 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.
Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch as me!
John Wesley and John Newton were contemporaries in eighteenth century England. Each were struggling with the effects of sin on their lives – Newton — slavery, Wesley the lack of belief. And each had consequences of their own sins.
I heard a pastor tell the story about serving a rather large and prominent church in a community. One day, he was walking through the downtown and he was approached by a man who knew he was the new Methodist pastor. They exchanged pleasantries, and then the man asked, “Well how did things go on Sunday? Did you have a good crowd in church?” “The usual crowd” the Pastor said. And then the man said, “I used to be a member of your church, but I’ll never go back there.” And the pastor said, “I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me why?” “I’ll be glad to. I don’t know if you know it or not yet, but you have a lot of hypocrites in your church.”
- The pastor pretended to be surprised by that news. “Is that so?” “Oh yeah,” the man continued. “And I can tell you who they are.” And he started to name some of the more prominent people in the church.
And when he was finished, after a little pause, the pastor said, “You know. You’re right. And ever since I got here, I’ve been thinking that I should throw them out of the church.” “Oh, you’ll never do that,” the man said. “They’re some of your biggest supporters.” “Oh yes I will,” the pastor continued “And I can tell you the exact Sunday that I’m going to do it. I’m going to throw out all of the hypocrites, in fact all of the sinners, out of the church on the same day that the hospitals throw out all of their patients.
The pastor was saying that the church is the hospital for the soul.
- We’re all sick with sin. There’s no better place for the sinners to be.
Sin is the action in our lives that separate us from God. Sin separates us from God.
One of the problems that the church has always struggled with is this idea that the church is only for the clean, for the redeemed, for the perfect.
Now I don’t know about you, but if that is true, then I don’t know what I am doing here.
But you see, John and Charles Wesley discovered that attitude was pervasive among their fellow clergy in the Church of England, and they were using it as the reason to exclude the great mass of people from the church.
The church was for the redeemed, the Holy ones, the pious, or at least those who thought they were Holy.
But Wesley understood the church as an instrument of redemption and salvation. And as such no one could or should be excluded.
Now before we condemn the church for that attitude then, we need to take a hard look at the church of today.
We have worked hard to be an inclusive church but when we talk about inclusiveness in the church, we tend to think in more cultural terms.
- Now, our Wesleyan heritage really is that inclusiveness in the church must FIRST be defined in terms of sin and sinners.
The church is what Christ intends when it embraces all persons, no matter the sinful condition of their life.
When we start excluding persons from the church because of the sin in their lives, as the Church of England was, then we are in essence saying that there are some sins that make us beyond the scope of God’s redemption. That there is a point beyond which we cannot be saved. And so those persons, those sinners, should not be welcome in God’s Holy Church. So, do we welcome all people? I do not think so.
Disaffiliation is about welcoming the LGBTQ people to the church but not as clergy or same sex married. See, we are not as inclusive as we say we are –that — sounds sort of hypocritical doesn’t it.
But there is more to the story about John Wesley and hence our Methodist Church.
- John Wesley’s had emphasis on service, what he called works of piety, and we mistakenly think that the Wesleyan way is a work’s righteousness faith.
In other words, if we do enough good, then we will be good enough, we can earn our place in God’s kingdom through the works we do.
But nothing could be farther from what Wesley believed. In fact, he spent the first 35 years of his life trying to work his way into God’s favor.
But he knew that it was not the way.
On that night when he experienced redemption and was saved on Aldersgate Street, he became aware that salvation did not come through our works, but rather through God’s work in us, because of God’s grace. – Remember he was reading the preface to Romans, and he said – “his heart was strangely warmed with the assurance that he was truly loved by Jesus Christ.”
There was no way that we could earn that. God’s grace is a gift that is the key to God’s plan of redemption and salvation.
Hear again what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians: For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. And so we work not to be saved, but because we are saved.
Like the Sacrament’s of baptism and communion, serving God is an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace.
Just as our bad behavior is a witness to our “bent to sinning”, (as Charles Wesley expressed it in his hymn “Love Divine”), so too our good works are our witness to our redemption and salvation.
So, grace became the cornerstone upon which our Wesleyan faith is built.
Wesley believed that there were three kinds of grace that every Christian must experience in our faith journey.
This Sunday, while we were working with Grace, Wesley listed the first he said was Prevenient Grace.
Sometimes it’s called the grace that goes before.
It is God’s answer to the concept of original sin.
If we are created with this “bent to sinning”, the Jewish idea is that, as humans we are inclined toward sinning, then we find that God continues to work in our lives – even when we do not know it or are aware of it.
And that’s grace.
It is prevenient grace that surrounds us with God’s love,
- convicts us when we act unlovingly,
- and convinces us that there is so much more to life than that which we are living –
- convinces us that God has in mind for us more than who we are.
Look at the hymn that we just sang – the Spirit Song – pg 347 in our hymnal – see prevenient grace in the upper left-hand corner of the book.
In his book, Being Christian in Wesleyan Tradition, John Gooch writes: Have you ever been aware that there was an emptiness in your life, like a hole in your heart? That there was a place that needed to be filled with love and assurance and peace?
That is prevenient Grace – God’s love calling us to return to God to find the relationship that will fill up the emptiness and plug the hole.
Down through the ages of the church, theologians and mystics and scholars have written extensively about the “divine spark” that resides in the heart of every human. It is that spark that brings us to God and the spark occurs because of the love of us that went before we even realized it.
John Wesley talked of grace as the house that God builds for us and he said that prevenient grace was the front porch of that house and that all of us lingered there on the porch trying to decide whether to go in the house or not.
Prevenient Grace urges us, pushes us, challenges us to move into the house but ultimately it is our choice whether to enter or not.
But Prevenient Grace makes us aware that there is a choice for all of us to make in the first place.
The cheerful girl with bouncy golden curls was almost five. With her mother at the checkout stand, she saw them: a circle of glistening white pearls in a pink foil box. “Oh, please Mommy. Can I have them? Please, Mommy, Please!”
Quickly the mother checked the back of the little foil box, and then looked back into the pleading blue eyes of her little girl’s upturned face. It’s $19.50. That’s almost twenty dollars. If you really want them, I’ll think of some extra chores for your and in no time you can save enough money to buy them yourself.
- Your birthday’s only a week away and you might get another crisp ten-dollar bill from Grandma.
- As soon as she got home, she emptied her penny bank and counted… $5 in change.
- After dinner, she did more than her share of chores. Then she went to the neighbor and asked if she could pick dandelions for one dollar.
On her birthday, Grandma gave her another new ten-dollar bill and at last she had enough money to buy the necklace.
She LOVED her fake pearls. They made her feel dressed up and grown up. She wore them everywhere–Sunday school, Kindergarten, even to bed.
The only time she took them off was when she went swimming or had a bubble bath. (Her mother said if they got wet, they might turn her neck green.)
Every night when she was ready for bed, her father would come upstairs to read her a story.
One night when he finished the story, he asked her, do you love me? “Oh yes Daddy. You know that I love you!”
Then give me your pearls, he said. “Oh daddy, not my pearls, But you can have Princess–the white horse from my collection. The one with the pink tail. Remember daddy? The one you gave me. She’s my favorite.”
That’s ok, honey. Dad loves you. Good night. And he kissed her cheek. About a week later, after the story time, he asked her again, “Do you love me?……… Daddy, you know I love you! Then please give me your pearls, he said.”
“Oh daddy, not my pearls. But you can have my baby doll. The brand new one I got for my birthday. She is so beautiful, and you can have the yellow blanket that matches her sleeper.
“That’s okay. sleep well. God bless you, little one. Dad loves you” and as always, he kissed her cheek gently.
A few nights later when her father came in, she was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed Indian style. As he came close, he noticed her chin was trembling and one silent tear rolled down her cheek.
“What is it, honey? What’s the matter?” She didn’t say anything, but lifted her little hand up to him and as she opened it, there was her little pearl necklace. With a little quiver, she finally said, “Here, Daddy. It’s for you”. With tears gathering in his own eyes, her dad reached out with one hand to take the dime-store necklace, and with the other hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue velvet case with a strand of genuine pearls and gave then to her…… He had them all the time……. He was just WAITING for her to GIVE UP the dime store stuff so he could give her a Genuine treasure.)
That is so much like our heavenly father. The Lord has HIS gift of grace or love just waiting for you! He is trying to draw us to him (John 6:44-47) Just like the little girl’s father’s gift of genuine pearls for her. God’s love is real! It is THE Real Thing! God is wooing you to become friends with him and to share all of what he has with you. (Rev 22:17) My friends, what a WONDERFUL, PRECIOUS, PRICELESS gift.
Thanks be to God.