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Part 2 of our 4 part sermon series – What We Believe

Our newest sermon series focuses on our Methodist beliefs.  Last week we talked about giving, especially as it relates to apportionments and the importance of being in connection with one another.  There is a temptation to believe it belongs to us, to the local church, when our focus should not be on retaining what we have, but how can we use what we have to further help others.  This week we’re focusing on grace and how John Wesley understood God’s grace to work in our lives.

Not these PJS, although I do have some similar to this admittedly.
Not these PJS, although I do have some similar to this admittedly.

I believe in PJS.

I believe we need PJS to survive. I believe that your PJS say a lot about who you are. And if you’re a Christian, I believe you can’t live without your PJS. By now you probably know I’m not talking about the clothes you sleep in. What I AM talking about is the grace of God. PJS is an acronym for how John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, understood God’s grace in our lives. The letters, P, J, and S, stand for prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. PJS stands for prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. Before you get confused and think we believe in three different types of grace, that isn’t it at all. Wesley simply labeled the different ways God’s grace worked in our lives.

But what is “grace?”

If you have a Bible or a Bible app please find Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, beginning with verse 1. Ephesians 2:1. We talk about grace all the time and in so many different ways that I think we sometimes lose sight of what it really means. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved gift of God that moves us toward Him. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved gift of God that moves us toward Him. God continually acts in the world to move us toward him and that gift is what we call grace. Paul talked about it in his letter to the church in Ephesus that we’ll read together.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Paul is trying to make it clear that we all need the grace of God.

Without it, we’re dead, meaning there is no future for us beyond this earth. But because of God’s grace, because of his free gift to humanity, we have a chance for a better, eternal life. And in case we start getting proud of ourselves or thinking we earned it in some way, if we start convincing ourselves that we’re better than all those people who aren’t Christians, Paul makes sure to tell us that at one time we were like everyone else – disobedient people who followed their own wants and desires. As Paul put it, we were more concerned with “gratifying the cravings of the flesh” instead of listening to God. We’d stay that we, too if it wasn’t for the fact that God keeps reaching out to us over and over and over again. At each point in our lives, God is there. And for us who consider ourselves followers of Christ, it was because of God’s efforts that we finally understood how much we needed him.

Like Denny's, God is open 24/7
Like Denny’s, God is open 24/7

God is working in our lives 24/7

Like your local Denny’s, God never closes. Weekends, holidays, even on Christmas – maybe for God especially on Christmas – he’s always working, always trying to find a way to reach us. Even if we don’t know it. That’s what Wesley called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the grace that comes before we know we need God. Prevenient grace is the grace that comes before we know we need God. For me, the clearest example of prevenient grace came from my mom. It was when I was about eight years old and my grandmother passed away. I’ve talked about her before. She was the one who gave me those sugar cookies with the cherry on top. When she passed away, I had no idea what death was about. Nobody that close to me had ever died before, and so when she did, I asked my mom where she went and I’ve never forgotten her response. She said, “I believe she is in Heaven with God.” This might not seem all that remarkable to you if you grew up knowing about God and Heaven and living in a Christian home, but we were none of those things. We were nominally Buddhist at best. So what in the world would have prompted my mom to say that to me at that particular time is nothing short of God’s prevenient grace. Like when God worked through King Darius to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, God reached out to me through my mom. From that point on, I can point to different friends, family friends, and other people right up to Cassie who kept prompting me into a closer relationship to God. God didn’t come and give them some sort of playbook. He didn’t coordinate some massive campaign to turn me into a believer. It was his constant work in my life that finally got my hard head to turn around. And it was at that moment that God’s justifying grace kicked in.

To Wesley, justifying grace is the grace of forgiveness God gives when we realize we are lost.

Justifying grace is the grace of forgiveness God gives to us when we realize we are lost. It’s that brief moment when our hearts and minds finally turn to God. Justifying means to make right, to bring you back into alignment with God. For some it comes much earlier than others. If you have a hard head like me, it takes a few decades. But when you finally do come around, God covers up your sins and forgets about them. It’s a misconception to say that God erases the sins from our past. God doesn’t have memory impairment. Instead God chooses not to see them. It’s like he puts a blanket over them and just pretends they aren’t there. It’s sort of like cleaning up your room when you were younger. If you were a kid who ever shoved stuff under the bed or crammed your toys into the closet or jammed your clothes into your dresser drawer that’s sort of what God does with our sins. He doesn’t get rid of the mess, he covers them up for us so that our relationship with him can be restored. That’s why it’s called grace. God CHOOSES not to see the mess we’ve made and instead accepts us back. And once we’ve turned to God, it’s his sanctifying grace that moves us forward.

Sanctifying grace then is the grace that moves us forward.

It’s the grace that keeps us from backsliding and moving on toward Christian perfection. It’s the grace that keeps us from backsliding and moving on toward Christian perfection. Wesley thought it was possible for human beings to achieve spiritual perfection in THIS lifetime. It’s what sets us apart as Methodist, this idea that spiritual perfection was possible. Not that we would then forever BE perfect, but that if we kept moving in that direction, we could, for a moment or for small moments at a time, be spiritually perfect. And for Wesley that meant with our focus 100% on God. That at that point, all of our focus would be on God and doing what God wants us to do and being completely selfless. Wesley himself only thought he achieved this milestone at the end of his life. This was a man who would get up at four in the morning and pray for three hours straight before devoting the rest of his day to God. Needless to say, this idea of Christian perfection is not easy. God’s sanctifying grace though is what makes this even possible. God’s presence, God’s inspiration, God’s forgiveness, God’s mercy – all of these are what makes the goal of spiritual perfection possible. Wesley felt that the only way we could be open to receiving God’s grace is by constantly doing works of mercy and works of piety which he called the means of grace and we will talk about those in the next two weeks. But Wesley also felt we could backslide, meaning we could fall from grace. Not that God would remove us but that we would choose to remove ourselves. Either by our pride or stubbornness or greed or other human trait, we could remove ourselves. We start thinking we don’t need God or we get lazy and stop worshipping God or we don’t pray regularly or we don’t do any number of things that would keep us focused on growing and learning about Him. We can backslide if we’re not careful. So the next couple of weeks we’ll talk about how we can stay closer to God.

Kung pao chicken from Sichuan Gardens in MA
Kung pao chicken from Sichuan Gardens in MA – I’d eat that!

But for now, I hope you will continue to practice grace in your own lives.

Like God has shown grace to us, we should show grace to others. It’s so easy for us to do it, and so easy for us not to, that we have to make it a priority in our lives or we could end up being like the Sheriff of the Internet.[1] Ben Edelman is an associate professor at Harvard Business School. He’s also a lawyer, an $800/hour consultant, and known as the “Sheriff of the Internet for pursuing companies he believes have committed online fraud.”[2] He ordered $53.35 worth of food from Sichuan Gardens, a small locally owned Chinese restaurant, including Shredded Chicken with Spicy Garlic Sauce and Braised Fish Filets and Napa Cabbage with Roasted Chilis.[3] Sounds yummy right? Turns out he was overcharged by $4 so the Sheriff of the Internet took it upon himself to right this most grievous of wrongs and threatened legal action against the restaurant as well as demanding $12 be refunded to him according to “Massachusetts Protection Statute, MGL93a.”[4] This professor of the Harvard Business School decided it was worth the time, effort, expense, and energy to hassle a restaurant over $4 which they offered to refund right away. He notified the authorities, he sent long email after long exhausting email, and made a monumental mountain out of a molehill. It got onto social media and soon people were coming from all over to eat at Sichuan Gardens to support the owner and blast the Sheriff. A campaign even got started to donate $4 to the Boston Food Bank. Eventually the Sheriff of the Internet relented and issued his own apology. But all of this could have been avoided had Ben at any point in time decided that grace was better than justice. It was obvious this was not malfeasance but instead a small and simple mistake by a local guy just trying to earn a living. Had he offered forgiveness, mercy, or empathy to the owner of Sichuan Gardens, all would have been solved. Besides, he even admitted the food was delicious.

Think about the ways you can show grace in your own life.

To your spouse. To your kids. To your grandkids. To other members of our church. And do that. Don’t just think about it, but DO that – show grace in the form of love, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness just as God has done for you. Perhaps you will be an inspiration to someone else. Perhaps your actions will lead others to act with more grace as well. And perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll make this world a better place to live. Just remember, God’s grace has, is, and always will be available to you 24/7. And don’t forget your PJS. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2014/12/13/370347429/outrage-over-chinese-takeout-brings-to-mind-a-maxim

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.boston.com/food-dining/restaurants/2014/12/09/harvard-business-school-professor-goes-war-over-worth-chinese-food/KfMaEhab6uUY1COCnTbrXP/story.html

[4] Op Cit, npr.org

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