Tag Archives: Grace

Grace

File"-Saint Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles by Valentin de Boulogne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It riles me a bit when at the end of a service of worship we are invited to say the grace and we respond in the words with which Paul ends his 2nd Letter to the Church at Corinth: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. What is my problem? It is this – when “The Grace” is announced (an almost universal custom these days) at the end of a meeting or worship, the words that spring to my mind are not those of Paul. Instead, I find myself wanting to say: for what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. To speak of those words of Paul simply as “the grace” is to diminish the extent of a three-fold blessing from God to us: a benediction that promises more than the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ; more than the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; more than the love of God. It is the blessing of God who gives himself totally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is the language of the doctrine of the Trinity; the doctrine of the Triune God and one of the most difficult facts of Christian doctrine. The hymn writer gets to the heart of it in the line God in three persons, blessed Trinity. Brief, succinct, maybe – but allow me to make my confession: I have often wished at the appropriate season I did not have to preach it, a tough concept to get round. But because the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential expression of believers’ faith, and although one finds it difficult to make sense of it, give up on the Trinity and our God is too small.

A father came home from work to find his young son busily drawing. “What are you drawing?” father asked. “God”, said the budding artist. “You cannot draw God”, said father, “no one knows what God looks like”. “They will soon”, the lad replied, “I have nearly finished”. The doctrine of the Trinity paints the big picture of God, shows us what God is like. Whatever: we cannot say what we mean by God unless we say, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is not my intent here to attempt a commentary on the verse with which Paul concludes his letter to the Church at Corinth. As it stands, the verse is not making a case for the doctrine of the Trinity – the Apostle had another purpose in mind. What he does is set out those three roles of the Trinity alongside each other, highlighting in each one of the ways in which God functions. Let us, by way of example, take a look at the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace: a chameleon-like word in common parlance. The boxer Mohammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) was said to be fabled for his grace in the ring, the implication being that he moved about the ring like a ballet dancer. However it not what we mean when we speak about Jesus. We talk about accepting something with grace; of showing bad grace although, if it is to do with “elegance” or “goodwill”, there can be no such thing as bad grace. Grace is a title we give to an archbishop or a duke. With no disrespect to either of them, Jesus does not come across as a duke or an archbishop. We speak of the means of grace when referring to an act of worship or either of our sacraments. We speak of channels of grace – kindly influences benefitting our good – and there is the table blessing, the grace before meals. John Newton gave us the hymn, Amazing Grace. Eugene H. Peterson (The Message) goes along with that in his paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 13, The Amazing Grace.

Jesus told a story about a man who planned a great feast (it could have been a wedding banquet). Invitations went out but, for one reason or another, the invitations were declined. When the tables were set there was no one to sit at them. So the host sent his servants out on the streets and lanes of the town to invite the most unlikely people, described in the gospels as the poor, the maimed, the lame, all they could find, both good and bad; folk more used to humble fare, with never a thought of sitting at table in such grand surroundings. In other circumstances the host would never have contemplated giving hospitality to that kind of person, He was not obliged and no one compelled him to share his table with any of them but he did, an act of open-hearted, generous hospitality. It is said, it was grace which offered the invitation and grace which gathered those people in. The story illustrates something of how we understand and what we mean by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the story, God is the host, the banquet is the feast we share in God’s kingdom – the random guests, the likes of us who, when we come to that heart-searching moment sat before the Table set for the Lord’s Supper, can only say “we are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.” Words I can seldom say without a lump in my throat.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ – a prayer; a promise; a benediction.

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Fits like a glove

Millais: Christ in the House of his Parents. Image credit: Wikimedia

Millais: Christ in the House of his Parents.
Image credit: Wikimedia

Part of the mystery of the event so recently celebrated by us and, at the same time, part of the glory of Christmas is that Jesus hailed from Nazareth where he was the village carpenter. Nazareth, a place from which no good thing was expected to come. Nathanael, eventually to become a disciple of Jesus, when told by his friend Philip that Jesus was God’s Anointed One, simply could not believe it. “Nazareth,” the bewildered Nathanael exclaimed, “Can anything of good come from that place!” Nazareth, a village of little expectation and Jesus, son of Joseph, an artisan, not a prince – take it with a pinch of salt! Yes, village carpenter he was: good with tools; with skills that were not confined to shaping wood. A carpenter not a joiner, as we understand the term, and certainly not the odd jobs man who advertises his services in the columns of the local newspaper. A good carpenter in Palestine in Jesus’ day was a craftsman of multi-skills. (Trade Unions, as we know them, would have a field day.) If you wanted a door planed or someone to drive in a few nails, you sent for the carpenter, and if it was a chair that you wanted or a table or a coffin, a bridge, even a house or a yoke for your oxen, the carpenter was your man.

I have never driven a pair of oxen. I did drive a pair of horses, Clydesdales, once upon a time, and in some respects that is much the same. If you are a horse man, whether show jumper or, as in my case, a ploughboy, like an ox-man, you are concerned with harness and yokes with which you attach your horse to a plough, or harrows or whatever. No good if they are ill-fitting or badly made. No good if the collar chafes at the shoulder or the saddle-girth strangles the belly or the tree-chains cut into the hock. They have to fit well! In Jesus’ day, if a farmer needed a new yoke for his oxen it was much like going to the bespoke tailor on the High Street for a new suit. A yoke was made of wood and the farmer would take the beast to the carpenter, first to be measured and then to be fitted. The yoke was tailor-made!

Jesus knew all about yokes from personal experience. In the course of his ministry of teaching and pastoral care there was an occasion when he utilised that expertise to illustrate his message. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, and the word easy may also be translated, serviceable, good or well-fitting.My yoke is easy” was actually the motto of the family business – it hung on a sign above his workshop door. It is part of folk-lore too that it was no idle boast, for Jesus had the reputation for making the best ox-yokes in the whole of Galilee and, without exception, the yokes he made fitted like a glove, as we might say. It is Matthew (11: 28-30) who tells us of Jesus’ use of the family business motto in his teaching. But there he does not speak of those well-fitting products shaped on his work bench, Jesus is talking about people; about life. James Stewart, a pulpit giant and theologian at the time of my youth and before, wrote an excellent hand book (Life and Teaching of Jesus) for the use of Boys Brigade Bible Classes. I was greatly influenced by him. He said this: “Made by the same hands, the yoke for the oxen at the plough and the yoke for the disciples of the kingdom were alike, they were light and easy fitting.” Jesus’ invitation and promise were addressed to a devout people whose spiritual allegiance had become a burden. They were exhausted and worn out by the increasing and ludicrous number of demands and regulations their leaders and teachers persistently added to the rule book, with the hope of gaining God’s blessing. The yoke – the task to which they were committed – was nothing other than an ill fit. For a people burned out by the intensity of religious fervour, what was intended to be a blessing had become an intolerable burden. (A yoke could also be the mark of servitude or slavery.) Jesus offers something different: a better way of life, a joy and a blessing, its demands tailor-made. “Take my yoke and put it on; the yoke I give you is easy and light.” The ironic feature of this tale is the reluctance of the Hebrew people to throw in their lot with Jesus. They feared what he offered might be no different – a burden rather than a joy. There is a paraphrase of the Saying of Jesus about the yoke which fits well. It goes like this: “pulling with me is easy; pulling against me is hard.”

The conclusion to this piece is brief, and the impression may be given that it has been forgotten or of lesser significance. The truth is that no one is excluded from this challenging invitation and tremendous promise. When life is tough and hurting; when things are getting on top of us and we are feeling low, Jesus speaks to us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not an invitation to escape trial or tribulation. There is no magic wand on offer, or rocking chair in which to take our ease. It is the promise that is at the heart of the Gospel, that there is no situation that must end in failure; no search for truth or for God that inevitably leads to a cul-de-sac. It is the promise that in the strength of grace God’s enabling gift to us, our life will be moulded so that we can cope.

My yoke fits well. A promise to carry with us into the New Year 2014.

A near miss

Salvation Army

Salvation Army

It was young people’s day during my brief time in the Salvation Army when members of the young people’s section were invited to give their heart and dedicate their life to Jesus. Toward the end of the meeting the Young People’s Sergeant Major – the Leader in charge – made her appeal presenting us with the opportunity to start out on the road of discipleship. The journey would begin, she explained, by our being saved or, if we were already committed, to rededicate ourselves to the service of Jesus. She wanted us all to be saved by accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Salvationists were well accustomed to this kind of appeal. The worshipper who was challenged by the message and felt compelled to respond to this altar call would make their way to the front and as invited, kneel at the penitent form. They would arise, counselled, prayed over, their request confirmed – the process of salvation begun.

Back to young people’s day – the process a wee bit different. There was no altar or penitent form in the smaller hall in which we met. So, she was going to ask us to come to the front and kneel before the big drum, to declare publicly our intent. “Hands up those who haven’t been to the penitent form,” she asked. Slowly I raised my hand. “Put your hand down, John” I was instructed, “You have been saved!” That was it – am I saved or am I not? That is the question. What do I say to the enthusiast who might want to know, who asks, “Are you born again?”

That was it until . . . . . . . . .

Stripped image of John Wesley

John Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One Sunday evening some years later, the minister was trying to educate the inattentive members of the youth fellowship in the traditions of Methodism. He was telling the story of the Kingswood colliers coming up from a shift underground hewing coal, to be confronted by the Reverend John Wesley preaching the good news – the gospel of grace. The picture is still vivid in my memory of those men, white channels marking their coal-dust faces where the tears flowed as they listened and opened their hearts to the Spirit of Jesus. How their lives were transformed, some of them converted into preachers, others to positions of influence at work and in the community at large, partners in the religious revival led by the Wesleys, a revival that helped give birth to Methodism. This late 18th Century revival helped to turn the minds of the English people from thoughts of revolution, although not all historians agree.

The story told that Sunday evening of those responsive Kingswood colliers has had a lasting impact on one youth. From that moment, my conscience ceased to trouble me about missing out on that young people’s day when I was told . . .” put your hand down.”

Prayer: Lord, we thank you for our spiritual awakening, for those who pointed us to Christ, those in whose lives we caught a glimpse of Jesus. Thank you for Jesus, all he means to us; our hope for days to come. Amen.

Consensus

The detective in the crime novel fell foul of his superiors. His downfall was due to his brutish harassment of suspects and to his intransigence in what he believed to be right and wrong. The arrogance and lack of compassion in the man resulted from his insistence that everything be measured strictly in terms of black and white. What is wrong with that? A reasonable question for a Christian to ask. It’s how many of us understand it, and there certainly are passages in the Bible which rule out compromise. Little wonder there is so much bigotry attached to religion.

Apart from there being grey areas in our pursuit of morality, the varied opinions of so many different people inevitably prevent a common mind in all things. In the course of my ministry I have presided over hundreds of meetings of one sort or other and know well how messy and difficult it can be in church business meetings to obtain and maintain a consensus. Rabbi Blue the well-known and popular writer and broadcaster, in one of his inimitable pieces, speaks of the problem of doing what is right and following conscience, yet being bound to a majority vote.

I wonder if the strange, but not unusual, Hebraic custom of deciding by casting lots, the method adopted by the apostles in the appointment of Judas Iscariot’s successor (Acts 1:26), was an acknowledgement of the difficulty of obtaining a common mind: a safeguard against human prejudice. Our acceptance of a compromise solution, and our loyalty to a majority decision with which we do not agree, may reflect a healthier spirituality than that of the absolute authoritarianism so much in vogue. When things we believe in and hold dear are rejected and we are convinced that the path favoured by our opponents, albeit it by a reasonable majority, is at a cost to our particular cause,  it is almost inevitable that the proponents of the minority cause will be disappointed, angry, hurt, resentful, even tempted to throw in the towel. It happens in all walks of life – the church is no exception.

There is another way, to respond to the challenge of achieving togetherness, whatever side of the fence we stand, generously and graciously respecting one another’s integrity. In the biblical and Christian vocabulary ……….GRACE!

Prayer: Lord, give us grace to keep our word, especially when our view is a minority one and we must abide by a majority decision, when we do not understand the way you are leading when you lead us along the path we resent having to take. Amen