June 29, 2014

Extravagant Grace: It really is a gift Folks!

Passage: Ephesians 2:1-10

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.(Psalm 25:4,5)

During this coming week when we welcome children and a host of volunteers for VBC we are singing, praying, doing crafts, telling stories, having fun, and under, above, alongside all this activity we seek to embody the extravagant grace that Jesus taught and lived. We live in a society that uses a different mathematical system from the Gospel of Jesus. We normally expect one and one to equal two. We expect good bookkeeping! People should get what they deserve! This is not the math of the Gospel. We don’t get what we deserve for the gospel turns our world upside down by offering us grace, not punishment. God’s math cooks the books.

 Philip Yancey opens his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, with the story of a prostitute whose life had reached its lowest ebb. She is homeless, sick, broke, and without hope. Asked if she had ever thought of going to church for help, her face expressed utter shock at the question. She said: Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.

Jesus seemed to draw such folk to himself. They found his company attractive and non-judgmental. Jesus offered a message of forgiveness and grace. His teaching in parables is full of grace. A banquet is opened up to the poor; a Father welcomes back a wayward son; a woman finds her lost coin; a shepherd goes out to find the lost sheep. These stories picture God full of grace and delight at finding and helping wanderers return home. Jesus seems to offer these stories to correct a common misunderstanding about God. Too often we present God as the demanding tyrant who scowls at us for breaking the rules. I wonder if Philip Yancey is right that church has

turned the gospel upside down by teaching ungrace, a Pharisaic legalism instead of the joyous, generous God that we find in Jesus?

Just look at the stories in the bible. The people we expect to get God’s angry stare receive forgiveness: murderers like Moses and David; tricksters like Jacob; prostitutes like Rahab. These people that God calls out to be leaders form a pattern that continues throughout Scripture that is at odds with our sense of justice. Those who deserve the full extent of the law not only get a reprieve, not only pardon, but a calling to be God’s leaders. This pattern doesn’t square with how we think of God or justice. Many of us grew up with an image of God who we commonly believe weighs our good and bad deeds and our fate hinges on whether we score higher on the good than the bad.  The average person today thinks that all they can do is try their best and hope it’s good enough to ensure their souls will end up with God in heaven. And surprisingly this is not an idea reserved to those not connected to the institutional of church. It is an idea that has become fairly common within our churches.

So let us hear this song of the Psalmist. Let the words of her song drift through the corners of our minds and sink deep into our psyche. May God’s paths open up for us? Make us teachable Lord!

I like Philip Yancey’s definition of grace: grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more-and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.

 There was a conference on comparative religions going on in England several years ago, debating among other things what was unique to Christianity: what sets it apart from the major religions of the world. There were many ideas put forward. C.S. Lewis wandered into the meeting and was asked what he thought. His reply was immediate: Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace. After some thought they had to agree that all the world religions, whether Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu, offer a way to earn God’s approval. Only Jesus’ Gospel offers God’s unconditional love.

Nor is this gospel of grace confined to Jesus’ teaching. Throughout the biblical narrative, from the garden of Eden to the final curtain depicted at the end of the New Testament in the book of Revelation, there is a uniform message: it is God who saves us. While our natural instinct is to do something in order to be accepted, the bible asks that we first say Help!

This message is no more clearly set out than in our reading from Paul in Ephesians. Listen again to his words: Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role… No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.

 Yes, even in the first decades of the newly forming Christian communities all around the Mediterranean Paul and the Apostles had to continually to point to the central truth of Jesus: we cannot save ourselves. It is God’s grace that opens us to the truth about ourselves and bends our lives toward a relationship with God.

Martin Luther was deeply troubled by his sins and his inability to do enough to warrant God’s love and forgiveness. He would fast continually; he used to beat himself in an attempt to subdue his fleshly desires. He never felt he could be justified before a holy God. One day as he meditated on Paul’s writing to the Romans he had one of those amazing aha moments. The phrase “the righteousness of God is revealed" (Romans 1:17) had become the focal point of his struggle with God. The question on how to make oneself righteous before God defined Luther’s life up till this moment. Luther learned from medieval theologians that God’s righteousness was an active, personal justice by which God punished the unrighteous sinners like Luther. It was a verse that struck terror into his heart and made him angry toward God. But one day, often called his Tower Experience, Luther came to the realization that this verse wasn’t talking about the active righteousness that God demands, but a passive righteousness that God freely bestows on us through faith. We, Luther came to realize, are justified by faith rather than through our works. This idea would change him set the course of the Reformation.

I did not grow up in Luther’s world of ideas and religion. I never thought much at all about forgiveness or God’s righteousness or the demands of the law or the way to heaven. But when I heard this good news of Jesus one day in a little church in the west end of Toronto my life was opened up in ways I would never have imagined. That moment when I responded to the invitation to trust what God had given the human family in Jesus Christ is seared on my memory forever. I experienced God’s love like a flood of fresh water cascading over me washing me clean and filling me for love toward God I had never known before. I didn’t generate this salvation. I didn’t work for it or try my best to achieve God’s favour. No, not at all! God came to me with good news and grace. God opened my heart to receive forgiveness and blessing. Paul is correct when he says:

All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…(Eph 2:3ff)

 This is the message of the cross and it is the story we will tell over and over again this coming week in songs, stories, skits, games, crafts and prayers during VBC.