Sunday, September 14, 2008

grace (a sermon)

Following is the text of the sermon I gave a little over a week ago at our service. I hope it helps you in some way. --Troy

a sermon by Troy Cady

Philip Yancey begins his book entitled What’s So Amazing About Grace? with a true story that was told him by a friend who worked with the down-and-out in Chicago. His friend said:

"A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter—two years old!—to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story...I had no idea what to say to this woman.

"At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

Yancey comments: “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”

“The more I pondered this question,” he continues, “the more I felt drawn to one word as the key.” The word he is speaking of is “grace.”

Unfortunately, there are many more stories that could be told that would serve to illustrate the church’s lack of grace. I would echo Yancey’s question: “What has happened?”

Here’s another true story...

Once, there was a pastor of a large church in Minnesota. On an average weekend, 3,000 people attended services at this church. Like any church, this church was not perfect. That, in itself, was not the problem. What was the problem was the fact that many different people had many different ideas as to what needed to be done to “fix” its problems. Some people, for example, wondered why the church didn’t display the American flag in its sanctuary. Others wondered what stance the church took on war, and, in particular, the war in Iraq. So, they talked to the pastor about it. Finally, the pastor decided to do a teaching series addressing questions of politics, war and other similar matters. What he taught, however, was not very popular. In the series, for example, he taught that it is unwise for Christians to align themselves with any one political party. This was an unpopular message because the majority of evangelical Christians in the United States align themselves with the Republican party (and many condemn—by things they say, think or do—those who disagree). The pastor also challenged the assumption of many evangelical Christians that America was borne out of Christian ideals. Because of that, he challenged the idea that it is our job as Christians to be politically active in order to return America to its so-called “Christian roots”. He expressed views that departed from the evangelical mainstream on the war in Iraq. His messages were not popular with many, so in a matter of weeks 1,000 people (one third of his congregation!) left.

That disturbs me, but it is not what disturbs me most about this story. It’s this: At the time this mass exodus was happening, the pastor had conversations with people in his congregation in which they essentially said to him, “I am so relieved you’ve been teaching on this. I’ve felt and thought the same things myself for a long time but I’ve been too afraid to say anything about it.”

“I’ve been too afraid to say anything about it”?! Excuse me, but WHAT THE HECK is going on in church when people are “too afraid” to say what they think about these kinds of things? Have we so lost our way that it has come to this?

The Bible says, “Perfect love drives out fear.” Fear of any variety is an indicator of varied degrees of ungrace. Grace and fear exist in inverse proportion to one another. The greater the grace, the less the fear. So, if we are afraid to be ourselves, to come to Jesus and one another just as we are, then something is seriously wrong. It was to Jesus that the children came unafraid just as they were. It was to Jesus that the prostitute came weeping, broken, but unafraid, just as she was. The woman caught in adultery saw that, in the shadow of Jesus, there is no reason to be afraid. Jesus relieved her of her worst fears, and to this day he continues to relieve us of our fears because of his grace and limitless forgiveness.

You are forgiven. There is no reason to be afraid anymore. Come to Jesus. Follow him, for he takes you just as you are.

The lepers, too, came to Jesus while still in their diseased state. To approach a Pharisee or other religious leader, lepers were instructed to be cleansed first—but with Jesus they could come just as they were.

Still, today, you can come to Jesus just as you are. You don’t have to be “clean enough.” In fact, you can’t be, because Jesus is the one that makes you clean. It’s grace that changes you from the inside-out.

The blind cried out to Jesus for mercy because they knew he would be the one person to grant it. No one else would befriend them. But Jesus, in his grace, did. Even though the blind were considered cursed by everyone around them they had no fear because in Jesus they encountered perfect love, which is unconditional acceptance, which is grace.

Cling to this truth, please: You don’t have to be afraid anymore. Jesus loves you, full stop. Jesus, in his grace, takes you in. He accepts you just as you are. So, don’t be afraid. Run to him. Cry out to him. Receive his mercy.

In case you’re wondering, I’m teaching on this today because I think it’s something that we constantly need to be reminded of as a local church even. That is to say, it’s one thing to tell stories about other Christians “out there” that need to grow in grace, but it’s another thing to say, “Hey, guys: we need this too.”

A story comes to mind as to why I think this...

About a year and a half ago, I messed up pretty badly with some pastoral decisions. In short, I had become impatient with others, demanding and critical. And I used my position of power as a pastor to slap some wrists I felt needed slapping. That’s when God, in his grace and mercy, showed me I was wrong. I knew I needed to confess and ask forgiveness from several people that I had hurt but it was hard. Still, God, in his grace, helped me do it. So, we held a service in which I simply confessed and then left the floor open for people to comment or share what was on their hearts. I’ll never forget what happened: the people of God granted forgiveness and asked forgiveness. Some people confessed things they struggled with and there was an atmosphere of relief. People walked away with the sense, “I’m really not alone in these things. Others struggle just like me.” And with that realization came acceptance and hope, real hope. There was a sense: “Together, with the spirit of Christ (the spirit of grace) reigning over us, we can overcome.”

After that service, a newcomer said to a long-time member, “Is your church always this…raw?” His answer was honest: “Not always.”

I’m hoping there will come a day when the response to that question might be: “Not always, but often.” Now, I’m not saying that church services always need to be gut-wrenching confession-fests, but I do wonder that it was so hard for me/us to be truly honest with each other. And I do wonder that that kind of honesty doesn’t occur more frequently among those who say they follow Jesus. Why, for example, do people feel that it is not safe to tell a fellow believer about something they’re struggling with but they feel safe to share it with a counselor or a therapy group? Some time ago some people in our church wondered, “Why can’t our church gatherings have the same level of honesty and disclosure as can be found in an AA meeting?” That is a very good question, I think.

Why do we hide from each other? Why is this kind of honesty so rare? Why is it so hard to be real with each other about our short-comings, myself included? What am I afraid of? What are we afraid of? Has church become so lacking in grace that we cannot even feel safe to be ourselves? And, if that is the case, have the people of God become, in fact, a people of deception because we are more content to hide our true selves (managing to merely get along in a closed system of ungrace), than to take off our shiny, happy self-deceptive masks and say, “I don’t have it all together, folks!”

These questions tell us something about the experience of the fluctuation of grace in the people of God. You can be sure, if we were more a people of grace, these questions wouldn’t be so personally unsettling. Because of that, you can also be sure: we too are not immune to the disease of ungrace.

Now, before you get too worried, I do think our church does a pretty good job of being real with each other and accepting one another. We do, in fact, confess things to each other openly and honestly. We are, for the most part, a community that expresses grace. But, let’s face it: there will always be room, and plenty of room, to “grow in grace.”

I love that expression, by the way: “grow in grace”. Let that expression stick in your mind from now until your death. “Grow in grace.” It comes from the second epistle of Peter, at the very end of the letter. It’s a prayer with which Peter wanted to leave his readers. We would do well to make it our prayer for each other. It’s a very simple prayer, but that does not diminish its power. The full blessing goes like this: “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Let those wonderful words sink in: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

The Christian life consists of the experience of “growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.” Therefore, if you are going to focus on only one thing in your Christian life it should be this: simply grow in grace.

That sounds so wonderful, doesn’t it? But Christians can be strange sometimes: We all believe that a person can only be saved from sin’s penalty by grace, but when it comes to being delivered from sin’s power in our life, our actions belie the belief that we think grace is somehow lacking, that it can’t quite get the job done. We thank God for extending us his grace by granting his forgiveness, but we then turn and say, “I’ll take it from here, Lord.”

But limiting God’s grace in that way is like asking a surgeon to merely diagnose your cancer, while explaining to him at the same time that you’d rather perform the operation yourself. Jesus, the great Physician, also has the power to heal us utterly. Though grace includes forgiveness, it is so much more than that. His grace is sufficient to make you holy, too. So growing in grace is much more than the experience of repeatedly receiving forgiveness.

Put simply, to grow in grace is to trust, simply trust. The path of grace can only be trodden with the legs of trust. To grow in grace is to abide in Christ, trusting that he is more than able to provide whatever you need to walk in freedom. This is why Jesus tells us to “remain” in him. When Christians ask Jesus to take up residence in their hearts, they are “saved by grace.” But the work of God’s grace is so wonderful, so magnificent that it can never be confined to a single moment of your life. If God’s grace was sufficient to save you ten years ago, it is still sufficient to come to your rescue today. You were saved by grace, and you still are: continue to grow in it.

This also means that, the longer you go in the Christian life, the more you will become aware of your need for grace. You cannot grow in grace while also thinking you don’t need it anymore, now that you’re forgiven. The mature Christian is aware that they need more grace, not less—yet, truth be told, we often think that the goal of the Christian life is to somehow get to a point where we don’t need to depend on God’s grace anymore. We think, “If I do this and this, or overcome this or that, I’ll have arrived.” But Christian maturity consists in the fact that you become more aware of your utter helplessness and so you cling to Jesus ever closer, as if he is the only one that can even possibly save you from your wretched state.

That sounds a bit heavy, but the mystery of Jesus is that when we come to him as wretches, with head bowed low, he lifts our head and ennobles our heart, granting us value we never knew we had. This is why grace really does work. We just sadly, honestly, don’t trust it enough.

Truth be told, we are afraid that somehow grace will become excessive, that we’ll all just go overboard with the whole “grace thing” (as if that were possible!). So we feel it our duty to keep an eye on ourselves and on each other to make sure “we’re all doing our part”. This is what I call “grace within reason.” But “grace within reason” is sheer idiocy, because God’s grace is far from reasonable. In fact, it is arguably the most unreasonable thing ever. To say we need to keep grace “within reason” is like trying to tether the wind. It will always elude you. But, sadly, we don’t trust that grace is enough.

Some time ago I was giving a sermon much like this one to a different group of people. Like this one, the sermon was about grace. Like this one, I explained that to live in grace is enough for us.

After the talk, however, an older man who had been a Christian many, many years initiated a conversation with me. Specifically, he was wondering if, actually, I wasn’t perhaps taking this grace thing a bit too far, if I didn’t need to somehow qualify my message, to say, in essence: “Yes, but…” It disturbed me at the time that someone who had been a Christian so long had come to doubt the power of God’s grace so much. I thought the point of the Christian life was, after all, to “grow in grace”, not shrink in it. I honestly didn’t know how to respond adequately at the time.

Some time ago, however, I wrote a short piece that I feel is a fitting reply to his concern:

"God’s grace is the only thing that rescued me. Yet, somehow, I take up the oars again as if paradise is somehow lacking.

"Our problem is that we place too little hope in grace, not too much, yet we often act as though grace could somehow become excessive. But all grace is a gift from an infinite God and is therefore always limitless. Grace could no more become excessive than worms could become omnipotent.

"We do not trust the sufficiency of God’s goodness, truth told. We’d rather bet on our tired, hungry frailty. But without forgiveness we have no hope. Without infinite grace, we are lost. Without grace we are but worms trying to scale Everest. We do not realize that, far from reaching the heights, we have actually sunk below the depths, like worms, and we are longing, longing for landfall, now long in coming.

"And when we reach that shore, we shall be changed. Grace is life. You can never have too much of it."

As you get older, you will need more grace, not less. If you think the goal of the Christian life is to somehow get “stronger” (whatever that means), start to come to grips now with the fact that all God wants is for you to realize how weak you really are, how in need of his mercy, grace and forgiveness you will be each and every day and to simply cling to him like a little child in trust, believing he and he alone has everything you need. The fact is: we are all weak, not strong. Admit that to yourself, and the wonder is: your weakness will be your strength.

If you have but one prayer, one wish for yourself and for others, let it be this: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Let’s pray: “Lord, may your grace grow in me, in us as a church, in others. May your grace abound. May it reign. May we trust that your grace is sufficient to meet our every need. Lord, relieve us of fear. Help us to grow in your grace. Amen.”

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