Category Archives: Grace
I’m taking what I hope will only be a one-post break from my review of The Bible Tells Me So to share a long summary of an event I attended this weekend. Hopefully sometime soon, I’ll be back with part two of my review series!
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Eight months ago, after a summer away from church and a good deal of soul-searching, I started attending Thoburn UMC. I had only had minimal experiences with United Methodism before, but they had all been more or less positive. And I had heard a lot of great things about Thoburn, so I figured I would give it a shot.
At first, it was all very different to me. It is as if Christianity were like a metal ball within a transparent glass globe, and that globe has many angled flat surfaces, kind of like a disco ball. Depending on what surface you look through, the metal ball might appear large, small, wide, narrow, etc. The ball is the same, but every angle skews it differently.
So the surface through which I saw Christianity had shifted as a result of being immersed in Thoburn culture, and largely in an incredibly positive way. Here was a faith community that challenged me to step outside myself. I have learned so many new things about Christianity since I’ve been going to Thoburn, and that really could be a blog post in and of itself.
Today, though, I want to narrow in on one of the newer things I have learned. This weekend I attended an all-day lecture event titled “Reclaiming Our United Methodist Heritage.” The speaker, who wrote a book of the same name which the small group leaders at my church are currently studying, is Paul Chilcote. The insights he shared were so life-giving, so profound, that I thought I would write a summarization of them here. I apologize in advance for the length, but since I’m already planting this post in the middle of a series, I didn’t want to break it out into separate posts like I probably should have!
Session 1. The Message: A God of Grace and Love
Paul began his first lecture by defining grace as understood by John Wesley, whose theology and work of revival in England formed the foundation of United Methodism. Wesley challenged the Calvinistic view of grace in that day, which claims that God has predestined certain people to accept His saving grace, and others to reject it.
For Wesley, God’s grace is universal; all may receive it, and none are excluded from it. It is an all-encompassing grace (which, by the way, makes perfect sense to me since that is the very definition of grace itself!!). Paul defined this Wesleyan grace as God’s unconditional movement toward all created things in His desire to draw us into his loving embrace.
After giving this broad definition, Paul went on to describe how there are two components to this kind of grace: creation and restoration. It is foundational to the Christian faith that God created the world ex nihilo—out of nothing. Therefore, God’s very first act of grace was creation itself. God is self-sustaining, so giving us life—and such a diverse, enormous, complex life at that!—was an act of grace and not an act of necessity.
The second broad component of grace is restoration. To kick off his exploration of this, Paul began by describing how this theme is woven throughout orthodox theology in a way that is beautifully unique to Christianity. The very concept of a Trinitarian God—three-in-one, father, son, and spirit—is entirely unique to the Christian faith and points to the fact that (this is SO cool!) the very nature of the triune God reveals his desire for reconciliation, for relationship. God himself is a relationship, a nexus, a model for how he desires to interact with his creation. What a powerful concept!
This grace of restoration is not only an individual movement, but as Paul put it, has a “cosmic dimension”. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul the apostle declares “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”(NIV) This is restoration on a corporate scale, concerned with the redemption of the world as well as the redemption of the individual.
Here, Paul transitions into a description of the Gospel that dovetails perfectly with this two-prong grace, and brings into light the ways many Christians fall short of telling the whole story of the Gospel. In light of Wesleyan grace, the Gospel has four chapters: creation, fall, forgiveness, and restoration. Too often, especially in the evangelical tradition, the gospel is watered down to concepts two and three, and we forget where we came from, and where God is leading us in the broader scheme of things.
Chapters one and especially four are crucial to the Christian life, for restoration is the process of imbuing us with the capacity to love others in the way that God has loved us. It is the beginning of the journey described in 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is the process of sanctification in which followers of Christ are vessels of clay to be shaped into something new, something that has a purpose in the Kingdom of God.
Session 2. The Community: A Family in Which to Grow
The second lecture of the day transitioned into a discussion of the necessity of community in the Christian walk. If our ultimate purpose as Christians is to love, he argues, then we need community to do it well, because loving well is something that cannot be a solitary task. The Church is meant to nurture and deepen our faith, which then manifests itself in a love that is action-oriented. This is key: if there are no such acts of love in our lives, then our faith has no meaning (a concept that is very clear in scripture). And the Christian community is the force responsible for propelling that outward manifestation of love.
Embracing the Four-Chapter Gospel as described in the previous lecture is also key to developing a rich community. To illustrate this, Paul walked us through a history of the Church’s development in the United States. When the Great Awakening swept through the nation in the mid-eighteenth century, Protestant Christianity as a whole became fixated on individual salvation. We began asking ourselves the question “am I saved?” when in reality the more poignant and important question is “what am I saved for?” And the answer to that question, of course, is what the fourth chapter of the Gospel is all about.
Paul then went on to share a brief illustration about Billy Graham, and how conversion is never enough to sustain growth in Christ. As an incredibly successful evangelist, Graham spent many years converting many people to Christianity. What he found later in his life, however, was that many of his converts were not remaining within the faith. Much like the seeds that fell on rocky ground in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, they had an incredible conversion experience but did not grow roots in the Christian life. As a result, they gradually fell away.
Graham came to realize what Wesley had already encouraged centuries before; Christian community creates retention, it creates Christians who develop and grow roots in a way that a single recitation of the sinner’s prayer can’t. In essence, small groups (which I should point out are quite different from institutionalized Church!) are vital to spiritual development.
Paul concluded his lecture with a fresh interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Typically, when we read this story we see Mary as someone to be admired; she knew learning from Jesus was more important than carrying on with the house work, and her sister Martha would do well to worry less about hosting Jesus. Paul, however, used this story to illustrate the duality of the Christian life; we can’t always be like Mary, sitting and listening and learning and doing nothing. We must also be like Martha, who took on acts of service in a practical way. We as individuals and as a corporate body need both: Mary’s heart and Martha’s hands.
Session 3. The Discipline: A Pilgrimage of Accountable Discipleship
This lecture focused on different practices of the church and individual Christians as we grow in Christ. Paul began by introducing several helpful concepts that we must understand in order to carry out these practices, which he defined as “the things we do to address fundamental needs in response to God’s active presence in the light of the world.”
We then broke down these practices into smaller sets. Works of piety encapsulate the broad categories of worship and devotion, while works of mercy involve acts of compassion and justice. There are both corporate and personal dimensions to each of these practices, and the two must be balanced in sync if healthy growth is to occur within the life of the Church.
Another aspect of Methodist practices that I found to be particularly interesting was the emphasis on song. Indeed, Song is so central the United Methodism that in England it is known as “the singing church.” John Wesley’s brother, Charles Wesley, composed many great hymns during his lifetime. Often throughout the lecture, Paul would read through a few stanzas of one of Charles’ hymns and then draw out theological insights from them that meshed beautifully with the Methodist ideas he was sharing.
We spent a great deal of time on the final practices that Paul explores in this lecture: that of the Word and the Table; i.e., scripture and communion. Paul framed his discussion of the Table within the concept of time: we can see it in the dimension of the past, in which the focus is the Lord’s Supper and its significance in preceding Jesus’ crucifixion. For us it is an act of “anamnesis”, of reenacting the past to bring its reality into the present moment. It is a commemoration of the most significant story in all of history: story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The present dimension is most easily defined in the word the Eucharist. Growing up, I had never referred to the Lord’s Supper as such, so I looked up the word to see what distinguishes it. Far more than a commemoration, when we refer to sharing the bread and the wine as the Eucharist, we are adding a dimension of gratitude. Paul took this even further, and described the Eucharist as a practice of joy and celebration. I loved this concept, especially since it was so new to me.
Finally, the future dimension of the Lord’s Supper focuses on the hope we have in God for the restoration of the world. The ultimate purpose of the table, in the grand scheme of things, is press us outward, to move us into a world in need of the hope we have.
Session 4. The Servanthood: A Mission in God’s World
The final lecture of the day was largely about our relationship with our mission field: the world. Paul prefaced his introductory statement with the warning that it would be controversial, and indeed it was: we are part of the Christian faith not for our own salvation but to be God’s ambassadors for love and service. The entirety of our life is meant to be an offering to God: a very high calling indeed!
This concept has ultimate clarity in the story of the gospel and what Paul calls “kinosis theology.” This is the idea that it is the nature of God to empty himself. For example, when Jesus came to the world as a human being, he emptied himself of all Godly qualities save one: Love. And since Love is the essence of God, Jesus remained wholly human and wholly divine.
Of course, we as a church are called to live in a similar manner. Paul used the metaphor of a hurricane to illustrate what this would look like in the life of the church. The strongest hurricanes are the ones with a powerful centrifugal force: that is, an outward force that spirals wider and wider. If a hurricane shifted to focus inwardly—centripetal force—it would die quickly.
The Church must always be that centrifugal force. We cannot be an introspective people, concerned with preserving our own traditions and maintaining our own small way of life. If we do, we would be as dead as the eye of a hurricane. The Kingdom would move forward, because God is at its head, but it would move forward without us.
Instead we must be concerned with the world around us, and attuned to its needs. Paul talked about two dimensions to these acts of service. The first is what we most often think of: acts of compassion. This type is generally something personal, and it involves being present in the midst of those who are suffering.
The second type is justice, which is of course generally a more corporate approach. This type recognizes the mistreatment of others, and translates empathy for them into an effort to improve their circumstances. As Paul described this form of service to others, I couldn’t help but remember a quote that I had read once. Tony Campolo, an influential and very wise minister, declared that “justice is nothing more than love translated into social policy.” And likewise, Paul made it clear to us that justice always has a political dimension. It is about doing God’s work in the world by changing the systems in place that oppress.
The final session of the day was rounded off with the plea to listen. So often, injustice is something subtle, worked so deeply into the fiber of our culture that it is only by being attentive listeners that we can see the problems that plague others and realize the need for change. And again, this is something we must do on an individual level and as the corporate body of Christ.
In all, the day was full of so much learning, and exposure to new ideas and fresh ways of thinking about the Christian walk. But I really believe that if I remember anything from this event five years down the road, I think I will probably remember the way we participated in communion at the end. We sang a hymn and read some liturgy, as well as reciting the Lord’s Prayer. But what struck me about it most of all was how intimate it all felt. Having grown up in the church, I’ve participated in communion more times than I remember, but always as part of a large congregation and usually by being served in my pew.
Communion that day was a pretty small group, so small that we could have all lined up together at the same time to come to the front and receive the bread and the wine. And in keeping with all the lectures Paul presented over the course of the day, Paul spoke words that reminded us of the future aspect to these elements we were receiving. This was a reminder of God’s love for us, and we must in turn go and extend that love to those around us. It is what we were made for, and it is what God’s purpose is for each of us.
A blog post I read awhile ago on Addie Zierman’s blog rings through my ears every now and again. In her beautiful and poetic writing style, Addie captures the scandalous nature of God’s grace. She writes:
“This is the only place in your whole world where there are no expectations; this is the one person you cannot disappoint. There is no test. God is not waiting for you to do some certain thing or to say some particular combination of words to give you Good Things.”
God’s grace is limitless—there is no end to His love for us and no time in our lives when we are required to earn it. We are infinitely loved exactly as we are—with all of our baggage, bad attitudes, shameful pasts, and every other part of us that the world might deem to be unworthy of love or forgiveness.
We are accepted by God, we are loved by God, and there is nothing we can do in this life to make that untrue.
More often than not, I struggle deeply with this idea. My human nature rebels against the grace of God because it seems too marvelous, too beautiful to be true. And what’s more, I think most people struggle with this, because whenever I talk about that with someone—whenever I say, “God accepts us, God loves, we are cherished by God more deeply than we could possibly imagine exactly as we are” the response I hear is always one of conditions: “Yes but God doesn’t want us to stay that way. True repentance means turning away from sin.” Or they say, “Yes but, remember, God is holy, and he cannot tolerate sin.”
I listened to a sermon once that talked about that incredible story of the pharisees and the adulterous woman in John 8. If you don’t know the story, it’s basically about how the pharisees are trying to trap Jesus into drawing a line in the sand when it comes to sin and stoning a woman for committing adultery. But Jesus turns the tables on them, and tells them that only a sinless person has the right to condemn her. He defends her in such a beautiful way, a way that would have been unprecedented at the time for a man to treat a woman. It’s a lovely story.
And here’s the part that is relevant to grace and our inability to come to terms with the enormity of it. During the sermon, the pastor talked about how that story was very nearly omitted from John’s gospel. It was too scandalous, too shocking, too incredible to imagine that the Messiah would respond in the way that he did, by offering her grace, by saing “Neither do I condemn you”. Early Christians thought it might communicate the wrong kind of message to put in print that Jesus would do such a thing.
They couldn’t conceive of a grace so exhaustive that it would rise to the defense of not only a woman, but an adulteress.
Yet that is exactly the depth and breadth of God’s grace. It knows no limits, and there is no corner of humanity that is so dark, so lost, so cruel or filled with hate, that God’s light can’t break in and wash it all away. It has no conditions, and no requirements to live up to in order to receive it. All that is required of us is to let it happen, to simply let God’s grace wash over us.