Scripture Lesson: Ephesians 2:1-10
At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. 2 You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. 3 At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.
4-5 However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! 6 And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. 7 God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.[a] This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
Today, our denomination is meeting for a special called General Conference in St. Louis, MO for the purposes of praying, listening, discerning and ultimately deciding what our denomination’s policy will be regarding the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons. This is a debate that our denomination has been having for 47 years, ever since the language was added to our Book of Disciple that “homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching.” I’ve spoken already about the ways that faithful, Bible-reading Christians can read the handful of scriptures that reference what we now call homosexuality and, with reason, tradition, experience and examination in the light of Jesus’ teachings on love, can come to a different interpretation of these scriptures than others, who hold to a more literal interpretation.
For the weeks surrounding our general conference, I wanted to lead us through a short study of the General Rules of the United Methodist Church, some of the foundational theology around which our denomination was formed. Last week, we learned about how John Wesley, son of an Anglican priest, and himself a priest in the Anglican Church, had an encounter with a group of Moravian Christians that led to a period of soul-searching, and eventually a change in heart about his faith. Unlike the very methodical faith he learned to practice, the Moravians seemed to be experiencing joy, peace and assurance even in the face of challenges that John Wesley had not experienced. In a journal he explained that though he tried to be good, he continually failed, and eventually concluded that he lacked saving faith, saying, “I was indeed fighting continually, but not conquering. … I fell and rose, and fell again.” On May 24, 1738, he had an experience that completely changed his faith. In his journal he wrote,
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading [Martin] 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.
This experience led to a reawakening of John Wesley’s faith, and to a movement of preaching which led hundreds of England’s working-class poor to hear and respond to the gospel. John Wesley began organizing these new Christians into Methodist Societies, and it was to these small communities of faith that he gave the General Rules:
All three of these rules were meant to help these new Christians to be able to live out, in practical ways, Jesus’ command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Last week, we explored the first rule, to do no harm, which requires us to think not only about the more obvious commandments such as, do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, or worship idols, but also those things that may cause unintentional harm. Some of these may be on a larger scale, such as consumer practices that contribute to environmental harm, systemic poverty or racism; as well as on a more individual scale, such as withholding God’s love and grace from others, speaking ill of others, or refusing to give or accept forgiveness. We also have to be aware that sometimes, our actions may even cause ourselves harm.
So the next rule, then is to do good. John Wesley lived by a personal motto which says, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." Once John Wesley had his “Aldersgate moment” he realized that he had previously been trying to earn his salvation; that if he just prayed more, read scripture more often, and tried harder to be good, that he would somehow feel God’s grace as more real. Once he experienced God’s grace shed abroad in his heart, he realized that he had gotten it all backwards – that God’s grace comes first, and that everything we do once we awaken to God’s grace in our lives is in response to that grace.
In our scripture lesson today, Paul made that same point to the new Christians in Ephesus. Chapter 2, verses 8-10 says, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” John Wesley eventually came to believe that God’s prevenient grace is present in our lives from the very beginning. Before we are even aware of it, God is loving us unconditionally, and wooing us, inviting us to draw close to God, to love God in return. It’s there with us, even in the darkest times, just waiting for us to turn around and recognize it and accept it. Wesley calls this the Awakening or Convicting Grace – when we, like he did at Aldersgate, realize God’s loving presence in our lives and our hearts are ‘strangely warmed’ – when we, too, say yes to a relationship with God. Then, Wesley says that we begin our journey of transformation, of becoming sanctified and going on toward Christian perfection – of living out our lives in response to that saving grace that we couldn’t earn. So good works are not to earn our salvation with God, but to say thank you to God, and to become the vessel for God’s grace to reach others.
John Wesley had a heart for the poor, the sick and those in prison. And he encouraged those in the Methodist societies to live out their faith by doing good to the least, the lonely and the lost. Today we see that in addition to those living in poverty, there are others who are living on the margins of society who long for expressions of God’s love in their lives, as well. Those who are caught in addiction, those who are unwelcome and unaccepted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation, and those who are fleeing violence and abuse. Our response to God’s grace is what Wesley called acts of mercy – unselfish acts of love that bless others with wanting recognition or anything in return; giving grace upon grace to others.
I’ve known self-professed Christians who seem to believe that as long as their own heart is right with God, and they avoid doing evil themselves, then they are doing all that is ‘required’ of their faith. In other words, they believe their faith is limited to a personal relationship with Jesus. But over and over again in the gospels, we see that Jesus, too, has a heart for blessing those who were excluded from the religious community of his day – those who were considered ‘unclean’ due to illness, injury and disease, those who were considered ‘other’ because of their gender or ethnicity, those who were considered ‘less than’ because of economic or social status. Jesus demonstrated that being his disciple included acts of mercy such as feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the poor, and visiting the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25: 35-36).
John Wesley knew that people’s real-life needs had to be addressed in order for them to believe the good news he was preaching. In his own experience of trying to practice a self-focused faith, where his intention was on personal piety, or personal righteousness, his faith remained cold and he felt distant from God. But when he experienced God’s grace as something he could never earn, something he didn’t deserve, and something that came from God’s unconditional love, he was moved to share this same grace, this same love with others. And it moved him to have compassion on others, to do all he could to bless them so they would come to know this overwhelming love of God, as well.
We were created to do good in response to God’s love. Jesus demonstrated a real-life way to bless others. So the question to us today is, how are we doing in responding to God’s love in our lives? Are we out there, sharing it by feeding the poor, clothing the needy? Are we visiting the sick and the lonely and those imprisoned, whether in a literal prison or a prison of their mind or bodies? Are we doing all we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can to bless others?
Our denomination is at a crossroad. We don’t know what will ultimately be decided this week. But as individuals, and as part of this community of faith called Maple Grove, we can decide that our way of living will be one that seeks to do no harm, and one that does as much good to others as possible. Whether or not we remain United as Methodists, our faith and understanding of God’s grace has been shaped in a way that calls us to look outside of our church walls to those in our community who need someone to share with them that God is already with them, already loving them, already beside them with arms wide open, waiting for the day when they turn around and recognize that love, and accept that grace to transform their lives. But how will they know unless we tell them, and show them?
We know that our culture is changing in a way that makes it much more difficult for families and young professionals to attend church on Sundays. That’s part of the reason why I am exploring possibilities for new expressions of faith in our community. I’ve invited some of you to begin a weekly bible study with me over lent to begin discerning what these expressions may look like. But I want to invite all of you to begin praying daily for this effort. How will the 60% of our community who are unchurched or dechurched come to know the amazing love of God? It’s up to us. Pray also that God will lead you to personal ways that you can bless others. Our faith isn’t something we get to keep to ourselves – it is meant to be lived in such a way that others see the difference God’s grace has made in our lives, and that changes the way we treat others; it is meant to be shared with those who are walking through struggles in their lives, and those who have been marginalized because of status, race, religion, orientation, or other things that leave them less than, lonely and lost.
In Bishop Rueben Job’s book, Three Simple Rules, he writes, “I do not need to wait until circumstances cry out for aid to relieve suffering or correct some horrible injustice. I can decide that my way of living will come down on the side of doing good to all in every circumstance and in every way I can." (Job, Rueben P.. Three Simple Rules. Abingdon Press.) In other words, do good NOW. Love others NOW. And if you have never turned around and recognized God’s grace in your life – if you want to say ‘yes’ to accepting God’s grace to transform you into a disciple of Jesus who lives your life in response to this grace by loving God with your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, and by loving your neighbors as yourself, then respond to God NOW.
John Wesley’s brother Charles, also a priest in the Anglican church had a similar change of heart and faith. And he wrote a beautiful hymn that captures these experiences they and other new Christians have described. The fourth stanza says,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!
God’s amazing grace – freely given and present with us all our lives – is calling us to be people who seek to do no harm and to do good. Let’s look for ways that we can share God’s love this week. Do good NOW. Bless others NOW. And share God’s amazing love with every person you meet. Amen.