Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Means of Grace (Malachi 3:7)

Sin was and is a reality, even in the lives of Christian believers, John Wesley said. Christ’s sacrifice broke its power, and as his grace works in our lives, we watch it diminish and grow weaker. But it won’t fully disappear until God’s final judgment.

So what do we do in the meantime? We “wait for God’s grace.” Ooookay. How long? How do we wait? How will it show up? What else do we do in the meantime?

Wesley preached this sermon because there were some groups in his Methodist movement that suggested things like communion, Scripture reading, baptism and even prayer were idols. Only God’s grace saved people, and these other things could make people dependent on them instead of on God. A person who felt a close connection to God during communion, for example, might be substituting communion for God, especially if they didn’t feel that connection any other time.

These people said that the proper way to worship and serve God was to wait for him to lead them through the Holy Spirit. Anything else was trying to use things to influence or direct God, and that was idolatry.

Wesley disagreed. According to his church and his understanding of Scripture, the means of grace were prayer, study of Scripture, and communion. God worked in people’s lives through these things to influence their hearts, minds and spirits and draw them closer to him.

Jesus himself had directed the disciples to pray and to take communion, and Paul reminded Timothy that Scripture was designed to teach, correct and guide people in walking with God. If Scripture itself directed people to do these things, then how could they be idolatry?

Of course people could abuse them, Wesley said. They might use prayer as a way of showing off their own righteousness, or take communion as routine, or pick and choose Scripture to make their own points without exploring what it might actually mean. But that didn’t make the means of grace themselves wrong – it meant the people who’d misused them were wrong.

When we take a look at these, it’s not hard to figure out how God works in prayer and Scripture reading to guide us, and to affect our lives with his grace. Real prayer, prayer that listens as much or more than it speaks, allows us to hear God leading us. Perhaps it’s towards a call he has on our lives, or perhaps it’s away from a harmful situation or bad habit. Even bringing our concerns and joys before God helps us focus on the source of our joy and our help.

In Scripture, we may also find ourselves guided. And challenged, and confused, and comforted, and stimulated and probably just about anything else that can help us grow in our faith. The stories of people meeting God and dealing with God’s presence in their lives offer us patterns and conversations that open God’s grace to us, and help us open ourselves more to God’s grace.

Communion’s connection is a little trickier, maybe, to see at first sight. But Wesley reminded us that Jesus himself directed us to take the bread and cup, as a way of remembering him. If it were only a memorial to a dead man, then I doubt very much we’d still be doing it today, some 1,900 years later. Memorials fade with time, and there’s nothing special about getting killed by the Romans. Lots of people did it.

But in communion, we remember one who was dead but is alive, one who died and was raised. He told us the bread and wine were his body and blood, and when we take them, we become his body for the world, united by the blood shed in his sacrifice. The molecules of the bread and juice, after they’re digested, spread to every part of our bodies. We, as the body of Christ, spread throughout the world to do what his body did during the years it was on the earth: Proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand at that God loves all his children.

Grace is God’s all-purpose tool for remaking and reshaping us so that we more and more resemble what he always intended us to be. As we remember that though death came to Christ, its power was broken, we are reminded that not even death can separate us from God. Those reminders help chip away at the fear and hate that keep our sin alive, reassuring us that God loves us and we need fear nothing. As both fear and hate diminish, more of God’s grace becomes apparent in us and to us.

Just had to wait on it.

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