As many of you know the United Methodist Church as a denomination is in a season of division that came to a head at a special session of General Conference in February. Following that conference our West Ohio Bishop Gregory Palmer invited all the churches in West Ohio to spend time studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This sermon is the first of six in a series in response to the Bishop’s request.
Grace is such a central part of our faith but ironically is very hard to explain. Grace is like good art; we recognize it when we see it, and especially when we experience it. But let’s start with a definition so we’re all on same page. The United Methodist Book of Discipline says grace is the “undeserved, unmerited loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.”
It may also help to clarify the difference between mercy and grace which are often confused. While the terms have similar meanings, grace and mercy are not the same. As one author says, “mercy is God not punishing us as our sins deserve, and grace is God blessing us despite the fact that we do not deserve it.” In other words, mercy is deliverance from judgment. Grace goes one step further and extends kindness to the unworthy.
Those are good words but it may be better to illustrate what grace is and how it has the power to change lives.
When I was in high school our family car was a Rambler station wagon. It was about the uncoolest car a teenager could be caught driving. I was spared the shame of driving that car most of the time because somehow my parents who were far from wealthy found the money to provide me with a wonderful red and white six-year-old ‘56 Chevy. That was an act of Grace.
But there were times when I still had to drive the Rambler. I don’t remember why I drove it to work on one particular day, but I parked it in my usual spot by a brick building across the street from the flower shop where I worked. One unique feature of that Rambler was that it had a push-button transmission. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason instead of having a gear shift it had a pad of buttons to the left of the steering wheel, one for drive, reverse, neutral, etc. What it didn’t have was a button for “park.” That was normally no problem; you just needed to remember to set the brake. But on the day in question, perhaps subconsciously because of my dislike for that car, I failed to put the parking brake on, and as I was walking across the street to the flower shop I heard a crash and turned to see that the car had rolled down the hill into the brick building. Making matters worse I knew my dad had already traded that car in and was waiting for the new one to arrive.
Needless to say all that day I dreaded facing my dad when I got home. He was not the most gracious person in the world, and I expected him to be very upset. Dad didn’t have to yell or punish me; I just always felt like I didn’t quite measure up to his expectations. But on this day he surprised me by being very understanding and forgiving. That’s grace. I was clearly in the wrong, but instead of a lecture or silent disapproval I got undeserved, unmerited love.
Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia is all about grace. Galatia was an area in what is now modern day Turkey. It was one of the first places Paul went on his initial missionary journey, and he started churches there in Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Paul cared so much about these churches that he wrote this epistle to the Galatians because he heard they were straying from the Gospel of Grace he had preached to them, and he returned to Galatia on both of his other missionary journeys. That was an act of grace itself because on their first trip Paul and Barnabas had been stoned, beaten and jailed because they preached salvation came through Christ’s sacrificial love instead of by the traditional Jewish laws Paul had been so zealous for in his previous life.
But I’m getting a little ahead of the story. A few weeks back Pastor Chris preached about Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus; so I won’t spend much time on it today. There are many examples of God’s transformative power in the Bible, but none more dramatic that Paul’s. That story is told in Acts 9 if you want the unabridged version. Paul refers to it in the verses we read this morning when he describes himself as one “proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” He says he persecuted the Christians so viciously because he was “far more zealous for the traditions of his ancestors” than his peers.
Saul, which was Paul’s name before his conversion, was a hard line law and order guy. He believed that rigid compliance to the Jewish laws was the only way to win God’s favor. Period. That Saul would not have been caught dead preaching to the Gentiles in Galatia and would have in fact persecuted anyone who did. But listen to what the transformed Paul says in this letter to the Galatians: “God, who had set me apart before I was born, called me through his grace so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” Paul did a complete 180 about face in his theology. He knew first-hand that he was not saved by his zealous devotion to the law but was set free by Grace; and that grace was so liberating that he literally and repeatedly risked his life to share it with others.
One of my most precious memories as a father is when my son Matt expressed his love for me by saying he was willing to run through a wall for me. Believe me, that’s undeserved grace, and it is just how strong Paul’s devotion to God was because of the power of God’s grace to turn his life around.
I ran across this example of grace in a news story the other day. It was about a young autistic boy who was at an amusement park with his family. The boy’s greatest desire that day was to ride the Spider Man ride. The line for that ride was very long when the family arrived that morning; so they decided to wait for a shorter line later in the day. As luck would have it, when they returned to Spider Man late in the day the ride had broken down and was closed for repairs. The young boy was beside himself and went into a world class melt down, throwing himself on the ground. He was inconsolable, and nothing his parents tried would calm him down. A young woman working in the park witnessed the boy’s meltdown, assessed the situation and simply went over and lay down beside him on the ground and lying there on his level began to talk to him until he was able to calm down. That was an act of grace. The boy’s parents thanked her for her compassion and promised they would return to the park soon, and when they do they will ride Spider Man early in the day. Our God of grace is one who lies down beside us in our worst moments. Author Anne Lamott captures the essence of that story. She says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace-only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
Methodist founder John Wesley helped clarify how grace works by describing three different expressions of Grace. The first expression of grace is illustrated in Galatians 1:15 where Paul says God “set me apart before I was born.” That’s prevenient grace or the grace that precedes any human action. Prevenient Grace means God pursues us, that God is the initiator of all relationships with her.
The second expression of grace is justifying grace, the grace that pardons and forgives. Paul describes it in the salutation to Galatians where he says, “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” Justifying grace is what reconciles and realigns us with God no matter what we’ve done or who we have been. And it’s free – you can’t earn it and can’t buy it. Christ already paid the bill.
And that leads directly to the third expression of grace, called sanctifying grace. In Galatians we see evidence in Paul’s life of God’s transforming grace. Saul the persecutor has become Paul the proclaimer and witness for Christ. Or as John Wesley puts it, “God’s grace seeks nothing less than a new creation in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Sanctifying grace is God’s freely given presence and power to restore the fullness of God’s image in which we are created.”
Father’s Day is bittersweet for me because I have many regrets about the lack of closeness with my father. I was very late in learning to give him grace for doing the best he could with the life circumstances he had to overcome, and because of that we often did battle over our different world views.
But I want to add that my dad was actually a good example of God’s transforming power, and his conversion was no less dramatic than Paul’s. He was not a person of faith before going off to WW II, but after the war he was co-pilot of a B-17 that was flying 16 other soldiers home from Europe. Shortly after taking off from a refueling stop in the Azore Islands their plane developed engine trouble and they had to ditch, which means crash land, in the dark and fog somewhere in the North Atlantic. Only 4 of the 17 men aboard that plane were still alive when they were rescued after 12 hours in the water. That experience transformed my father into a very devout Christian for the remaining 70 years of his life.
But my dad’s faith was primarily one of laws and rules, and that was at the heart of the tension in our relationship. I wish I had understood earlier that my dad needed the certainty of his legalistic religion because of his childhood growing up with an abusive step-father. He needed the comfort he found in strict rules and structure to compensate for the lack of security he felt in his childhood home where grace was absent.
My father passed his need to strive for perfection on to his children, except for my younger sister – she was his favorite and could get away with murder. But as his eldest child and only son I tried to live up to his expectations. I excelled in school, in scouts, and church but it was never quite enough. I realized recently that I have no pictures of myself as child where I’m smiling. I always look too serious, too afraid to screw up. And so when I left home I rebelled – made stupid mistakes as a young adult I should have made in adolescence and hurt several people in the process.
The good news is that it’s never too late for God’s grace to work its magic. My dad and I didn’t ever agree on politics or theology, but through God’s grace we learned to accept our differences in his later years. We were able to extend grace to each other and stop pushing each other’s buttons.
Can I change this guy into a car? No, Transformers came along well after my childhood, and unlike the movie transformers this one can’t transform itself, and that’s a perfect example of Grace. We can’t transform ourselves either, no matter how many diets or exercise programs, or New Year’s resolutions we try. Grace is the opposite of “self-help.” We don’t want to admit we need help to change ourselves, but when we come to that place when we surrender our inflated notions of our own powers, then and only then – God’s undeserved, unmerited action of the Holy Spirit can transform us.
Have you had the experience of returning a rental car to one of those places where you have to drive over spikes that keep people from stealing cars? The spikes fold down so you can drive forward over them, but if you try to back up the spikes stay upright and, as the sign says, can cause “severe tire damage.”
I’ve never done that with a car, but I know in real life I do often go backward in my faith, as we all do. That’s so common that in the old days the church had a term for it, they called it “back sliding.” And when that happens and we ruin a set of Michelins, God says, “It’s OK, tires can be replaced, or even a whole Rambler.” God made us fallible human beings with free will. That means we all screw up regularly, but grace means that it doesn’t matter how often or how badly we mess up, God our Heavenly Father is still there waiting with open arms for us prodigals to come home.
Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH
June 16, 2019