Grace

First in the “Marks of a Disciple” Series,
Delivered January 9, 2005 by Rev. Keith Wright.

Theme: Grace – Christ followers understand and have received Jesus’ saving grace, and desire to extend the unconditional love they’ve received to others in their community, country, and around the world.

Sermon Text:
Galatians 1:3-24

It’s great to be with you again. My name is Keith Wright, and I have been working here at Central over the last several months as the consultant in equipping ministry working with the staff and several of the ministry teams to help this church function at a slightly higher level in the area of equipping ministry. And it’s a real privilege to be with you this morning and to share with you some of the things that God has put on my heart from his Word. I always enjoy preaching here because there is a great spirit in this church and I believe that the spirit first of all begins with an attitude of prayer. There was probably two dozen people this week that either called me or emailed and said that they would be praying for my time of bringing the message this morning. And I can’t tell you what that does for a preacher to know that the message is being supported in prayer because when we get up here, either John or myself or others, we just want to see God’s Spirit flow in and through us. So, that is just a blessing to be in a place where there is an atmosphere of prayer, and then also there is a real joy here as well, that is easy to get caught up in and that is so special when we come together.

I have to say that it has taken me a little bit of time this morning to warm up and I am grateful for this church for one other reason and that is that at this crazy church if you are preaching here, you have to bring three wardrobes with you on Sunday morning. Now, last night when I went up to go to bed my wife was asking me, ” Why are you digging a sweater out of the armoire?” She was like, “I saw your preaching robe downstairs and you got your suit laid out in the bathroom.” And I said, “Well, I got to keep going through these wardrobe changes all the time.” But this morning I am grateful because I live down in Washington and as I was backing out of my driveway in the dark this morning, the first thing that happened was I dumped my coffee all over my dress shirt, so I was able to disguise it somewhat by buttoning my sports coat at the first service. The second service I had my preaching robe on which completely covered the spill, which was great and then following the service an older gentlemen came up to me and he hit me on the elbow a couple of times and he said, “Good Catholic sermon” after I just poured a cup of coffee, so I ruined that one as well. So I am on the third outfit of this morning. Don’t get any ideas.

One of the real fun things about working with the staff up here has been some of the brainstorming sessions that we have been having as a part of our staff meetings and special staff retreats, talking about what it is that we want to do here in ministry, what God has laid on our heart as we go about the ministry that God has called us to here at Central Presbyterian Church . And we are all, as the staff, keenly aware of the fact that it is so important to know what we desire to see happen in our midst as a church, and most importantly, what we desire to see happen in the lives of individual people in order that we might build ministries and programs and administrative systems in order to help accomplish the vision that God has laid on our heart. It’s important to know the types of characteristics that we are trying to bring about as believers here at Central as we are doing all of this ministry so that we can look back and say, ” Okay, we have seen growth in people’s lives in various areas as they have participated in our programs and ministries,” because if you don’t know where you want to end up then its very easy to get caught up into a lot of activity and spend a lot of money and build buildings and not have the results that you really want. But what we are about is, we are about developing people and we want to see people grow in Christ and to exhibit characteristics of Jesus Christ in our lives, to be equipped for ministry and to see their faith in Christ make a real difference in the way that they function and live in this world that God has placed us in.

When you came in this morning you should have gotten a bookmark and I encourage you to reference this bookmark because this is basically a summary of the document that the staff has come up with over the last several months of what are the marks of a disciple at Central. This morning I have the privilege of being able to speak on the dynamic that makes life transformation possible, which is the dynamic of grace and let me just read to you what we have come up with in terms of what we are trying to see in terms of grace-filled people around here at Central. Grace. Christ followers understand and have received Jesus’ saving grace in desire to extend the unconditional love they have received to others in their community, country and around the world. And in order to support this particular statement I would like for us to look to Galatians chapter 1 and look at a passage of scripture where Paul is reflecting upon God’s grace in his own life and encouraging the Galatian believes in this whole arena of grace, as how they think about it and how they apply it in their lives. Galatian 1, beginning at verse 3. This is Paul writing to the churches in the region of Galatia.

“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sinsto rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

And then skipping to verse 13:

“For you have heard my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles,I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.”

And we will conclude with verse 23, which is Paul’s reputation in the early church.

“They only heard the report: “The man who formally persecuted us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.”

Let’s pray together. Lord, I would pray that this morning we would move to just a knowledge of the concept of grace to experiencing grace in our lives, living as grace filled people and enjoying the many benefits that grace brings to our lives. And so Lord, I would pray that by your Spirit you would speak through this scripture passage, through the words that I have prepared and most importantly Lord, through the atmosphere of this worship service that all of us would be touched and blessed by your grace and love, so that we can be more deeply in relationship with you and we pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.

The Bible is a story of God’s grace. And throughout the entire scripture you can trace a thread of the saving work of God through Jesus Christ. The overall theme of the Bible is none less than the salvation history of God through Jesus Christ, and we see revealed in scripture that God had a plan from the very beginning, continuing through the present and into all eternity for us to be in a vital and intimate relationship with him and that he will pursue all means, at all times in order for us to be in that loving, intimate relationship with him. And you can open the scripture to any passage and you can see hint of this theme being played out. And it’s important, in fact, as you read the Bible, and as you study the scripture in small groups, and other venues that you look for what is the message of good news that is contained in the particular passage you happen to be reading at the time, because it’s there and it is so important that we focus on the real subject of the Bible and the real message that God is trying to get across to us. Now, throughout the Bible we see this theme of grace being communicated to us in a number of ways, but there are three essential messages that are being proclaimed throughout scripture and certainly in our passage that we are looking at this morning. I know that we live in a day and age where it’s not in vogue to say that there are some absolute truths, but when we look at the message of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, there are at least three essential truths that are communicated to us throughout scripture and God is asking us to wrestle with those truths, to come to some conclusions about the truths and literally to stake our lives upon the truths that are being claimed about God’s grace in scripture.

Truth number one is this. That there is nothing that you have ever done, or doing, or ever will do that can earn God’s favor. You can never be good enough or smart enough or good-looking enough to earn God’s favor or grace in your life. And so often, we get caught up in a couple of ways of thinking that really keep us apart from God. There are two pitfalls that are very easy for us to fall in to. The first pitfall is trying to prove to God that we are worthy enough to deserve his love and this is played out in a variety of ways. We are people who want to accentuate the positives about our lives. We want to impress other people. And often times we are called upon to give brief summaries of who we are and what our life is all about. In a work setting we might be asked a little bit about what we are doing in our career and we have amazing abilities to come up with these 15-second infomercials about ourselves; little sound bites about who we are. And an example of this would be something along these lines. Well, just very flippantly and casually throw off some facts like this. “Well after graduating pre-med from Harvard I went into a MD PhD program at Hopkins and before I started my surgical practice I did a two year fellowship down at NIH.” And we do that very casually because we don’t want to appear conceited, but we want people to recognize that we are pretty good, and we are pretty special people and we know that if they are impressed that they might open up some doors for us. And besides the fact it sounds a whole lot better than saying, “You know I graduated cum lousy from college and I spent the last 15 years working at a job I hate in order to pay off my student loan debt.”

And we pull the same type of thing in the church as well. We want people in our fellowship to know that not only are we believers, but we are the right kinds of Christians. So we will rattle off one of these statements like, “Well, after accepting Christ through the ministry of Inner Varsity in college, I joined Central Presbyterian Church. Not your typical Presbyterian church, we want to be clear up front; and then, I was like discipled by Johnny Sackett because he is like the key disciple around here; and now I serve as a trustee, I can handle money and I tutor inner city kids on the weekend.” So, we get these things down to just a very short sound bites. But the fact of the matter is, is that sometimes we start believing our own press releases and start thinking that we are pretty special and we feel like just as in the world, we need to do one more thing in order to impress people, that we need to do one more thing to even impress ourselves and tragically sometimes to even impress God. If we get caught up in this whole syndrome then all we are trying to do is to do more and more things to show that we are worthy of God’s love and of God’s grace. And that’s an endless cycle and that’s an empty way to live life.

You know Paul got caught up in the syndrome in his own life. We see in our scripture this morning that Paul says that he was advancing in Judaism even faster than some of his peers and then he elaborates on this in Philippians, chapter 3, where he talks about his credentials as a young man that was rising quickly through the leadership structure of first century Judaism and he says, “If anyone thinks he has reason to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eight day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting in the church; as for legalistic righteousness, thoughtless.” You see, Paul was doing everything he could to build his resume, to have the best credentials, to have the perfect pedigree. And the fact of the matter is that when it was all said and done that he had invested his life, thinking he was doing the right things, but it was doing all of the wrong things. And that’s exactly the syndrome that we find ourselves in when we are trying to prove that we are worthy enough to God.

Well the opposite could also be true, where we can never feel like we are worthy enough. We come here to worship on Sunday morning and we look around at all the other people seated around the sanctuary and we say, ” Boy if I could only be as strong a Christian as that person” or, ” If I could only have as much faith as my friend over here.” We look to ourselves and we know the things that we have done to hurt other people, the things that we have done that have disappointed God. We know about stuff in our lives that may have just happened to us and we have had to live with the consequences of those things. And we know all too well and we lay awake late at night and we run the tape over and over again in our minds about either the things that we have done and we feel guilty for, or things that have been done to us that we feel shameful about. We can never quite get over that and that has terrible ramifications in our lives because it starts depressing our sense of worthiness and then we feel like we could never be loved, especially by God.

Paul could have felt the same way as well. Our passage this morning talks about the fact that Paul was a persecutor of the church of Jesus Christ. Here he was out killing people that were professing Jesus Christ to be their Messiah and again he had what he thought were proper motivations, but he was directly opposed to the purposes of God and when he realized the errors of his way, it would have been very easy for Paul to look back in his life and said, “I am a murderer. I am a no good bum. I totally insulted God and I am not worthy for living.” And he could have lowered his own sense of self worth in his own mind and kept himself from experiencing the grace that’s available through Jesus Christ. And our passage this morning says that after Christ appeared to Paul that he was driven out into the wilderness and he did business with God out there in the wilderness, but the result of that is that he had a real sense of being overwhelmed by God’s grace. He came to peace with himself and with his God and he was able to come back from the wilderness experience and to embrace life and embrace ministry and to make a difference in the world. God elevated his sense of self worth.

And so, it’s easy for a preacher to stand up here and say, there is nothing you could ever do to earn God’s favor or merit, but we also need to see how that works itself out in our lives, where we try to continually earn God’s favor or we put ourselves down to keep ourselves from God’s favor. That’s the bad news. But the good news that we see throughout scripture, that we see in our passage this morning as well is that our God is a God of grace. He is full of grace. He overflows with grace. His grace is always available to us and he is always coming after us with his grace. Some of you here this morning need to hear the message that God is crazy about you. He carries your picture around with him in his wallet and as he is up there in heaven, he pulls it out of his back pocket and he shows it to the angels and he says, “Look at my kids. Look at them. I love them. They are special to me. I have created them. I think they are amazing.” And that is the message that God has I believe for some of you this morning. You need to realize that God is crazy about you. And that he is there wanting to just lavish you, bathe you, overpower you with a sense of his love and acceptance and forgiveness, which are the trademarks of his grace.

You know for Paul here in this passage, he is kind of a ranting and raving maniac in the opening verses of Galatians, chapter 1. He gets through the night and he is pretty quickly in the first couple of verses, but then he just launches on to this diatribe on the whole theology of grace, because the early church basically was a group of people that had got caught up in a controversy called the Judiazing controversy and there was a group of teachers that were coming saying, “Yeah it’s okay to accept Jesus into your life and accept his love and grace, but you got to do more, because this religion he started, Judaism, he’s got to keep the Old Testament laws and the laws of the Jewish faith. The males need to be circumcised” And they kept adding things to the offer of free grace that was available through Jesus Christ. And Paul is just ranting and raving about in this passage is this is absolutely untrue. I have got to nip this heresy in the bud from the very beginning. God’s love and grace is just available to you. There is nothing that you need to add to it. You just need to accept it. And anytime you try to add anything to just merely accepting God’s grace then you are watering down the essential message of the gospel. You make the good news something that is not good news at all. So what Paul wants to make very clear from the very beginning to these believers is that we have a God that wants to lavish his love upon us and that there is nothing that we can do. We just need to accept and experience and be bathed in this love that he wants to give to us.

Also we see in our passage this morning is that we have a God that pursues us out of his love. He is so crazy about us that he pursues us and wants to make that relationship with us just right. We see examples of this from time to time in the news when a parent loses a child and what do they do? Do they sit passively at home in their study and kind of wait for that child to come back home? No. They call all their friends and their relatives and they marshal all the resources of the community. They put out an Amber alert, and they do everything within their power to pursue that lost child and to bring that lost child back into the fold of the family where they can experience the love and the relationships and the security and safety of the home. Our God is not a passive God that sits there in heaven and kind of waits for us in our lost ways to find our way back to him, but he is a God who actively pursues us until we discover his love for us. And this is what he did for Paul on the Damascus Road. Paul was going out to persecute the members of the early church and Jesus Christ pursued him and revealed himself to Paul and told him that he was accepted and forgiven and Paul’s life was transformed in that moment. That’s the kind of God that we have and he brought him back into a relationship with him.

The third key theme that we see throughout the Bible is the truth about God’s grace, is the fact that when we have experienced this type of extravagant grace from our God, that there is nothing that we can do to hoard it to ourselves or to be selfish about it. But once we have truly experienced God’s grace, we are motivated for the rest of our lives to tell other people about what we have experienced and we want them to know how our lives have been changed for the better because of our encounter with Jesus Christ and with our experience of his love and acceptance.

You know Paul talks in this passage this morning that there are a number of fringe benefits to experiencing God’s grace and it is kind of peppered throughout our passage this morning. He says in the opening verse, verse 3, that peace is upon us when we accept God’s grace. That we come to a sense of putting away our drives and we can just live our lives with meaning and purpose as we move forward in life. Paul we see here was a person who gained a great sense of confidence because he knew who he was and what he was about because of his encounter with Jesus Christ and that’s a fringe benefit to us as well, is that we gain an incredible confidence for living when we know that we have a God that loves us and we find our security and our pleasure in him. And then we see as well, that ultimately Paul was able to find community among other believers and again this is a fringe benefit that not only we can experience God’s grace from God directly, but that we can experience that type of grace from one another as we all try to fan one another’s flame to be all that God would want us to be.

At my former position, I had a board member and one of her sayings that she would continually say to all of us was that everybody needs two types of people in their lives. They need a Hollywood agent and they need a cheerleader. And we need somebody to come along side of us and say “rah rah you”. So we know that we are encouraged and supported and motivated for life. But also somebody that will go ahead and brag about us to other people and open doors for us and tell other people how special we are. And that’s a fringe benefit that we get from being a part of the body of Christ,that we have one another to be each other’s cheerleaders and press agents in order to promote one another in the ministries in the goals and the futures that we all have together.

You know to experience all three of these truths, I believe that we need to have an experience with the cross of Jesus Christ. And for some people the cross is just a decoration that we have in our sanctuary. It’s a symbol of Christianity and it becomes a part of the architecture and perhaps we consider it and perhaps we don’t as we come to worship. But I believe that if we are truly going to experience all that God has for us in his grace, that we need to come to grips with what happened on that cross and appropriate it into our lives in a way that our lives are changed and transformed and energized.

When I was growing up my father worked as a prison guard at a minimum-security jail. In fact, this jail was called the Honor Camp, because it literally was a camp that the county had bought from the Boy Scouts and had converted to a facility to house nonviolent, misdemeanor-type lawbreakers. It was an all-male facility, so men were housed in this facility for approximately a year, where of course it was a prison and they had their routines on a daily basis dictated to them and they did not have any freedoms there. But because it was a prison without bars, they had to have some way to mark the boundaries of this Honor Camp. And the way that they marked the boundaries of this Honor Camp was that there were markers all the way around the perimeter of the camp that just so happen to be in the shape of small white crosses nailed to the trees. And so the inmates knew that as long as they were within those markers, that they were in jail, but that they would have to be part of the routine while they were in there. Well also while I was growing up, I have got a lot of fond memories of loading up the family station wagon and driving out to this Honor Camp on Sunday afternoons where our family along with other families from our church would conduct worship services for the inmates on Sunday afternoons and it was a wonderful time to minister to the inmates, but always after we had that time of ministry, the families that traveled out there together would go to a part of the Honor Camp that was kind of the recreational facilities and we had the opportunity to fish and to hike and to play basketball, to swim and to even putt around on a miniature golf course. And so, I’ve got these amazing memories of eight or nine years of a kid growing up and doing ministry and being with family and friends in this spectacular setting doing a lot of fun activities.

But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to realize that perhaps my recollections and perceptions of the San MateoCounty Sheriff’s Department Honor Camp was a little bit different than those that were detained there. And I think the difference was, of what people’s relationship was with those crosses that were on the trees. For those that were incarcerated, they were there and for them that Honor Camp was a prison. And they were there because they deserved to be there. They had done things that were wrong. They had broken the law and they needed to pay a penalty to society for what they had done. So they were serving their time, doing their duty and they were completely without freedom. Whereas for myself and my family whenever we went up there, we were completely free and so we could enjoy all of the amenities of this old Boy Scout camp and play and have fun and it was a very joyful experience of just being released to be able to enjoy all that that was offered there.

The gospel is a message of here we are in bondage for our sins and that God enters into that prison and basically pays the penalty on the cross for our wrongdoing, for our sins, for the things that are in our lives that have separated us from God. And if we just believe on him and accept his gracious offer of salvation and forgiveness that he extends to us, then we can be free. We have the opportunity to walk under the shadow of that cross into a life of freedom and of joy. And it dawned on me that the men that were in that prison, whenever they did satisfy their time, they would go out that one road that exited that camp and they would go under the shadow of a cross and they would be free. And that is exactly what our God would want for us to have as well, is to be able to pass under the shadow of his cross into a life of freedom, because we have experienced the grace that he has offered to us on the cross.

Over the past several months, I have had a very meaningful time in my own personal quiet time of prayer, basically using a prayer method that I first learn from Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline”. And this prayer technique is basically entitled, “Palms Down, Palms Up” and I have modified it to add Palms Out and basically what I do in my quiet time is I sit in a chair in a comfortable position and in my minds eye I envision Jesus Christ on the cross before me. And then I think about what Christ did on that cross and how he is offering grace through that cross to me and to the people that I know and to the world in which I live in. And so, as I sit there in my chair I will begin my prayer time with my palms down and I will basically release to God and lay at the feet of the cross the things in my life that I just don’t want to hang onto any longer, the guilt for the things that I have done wrong, the hurt for things that have been done for me. I lay down the ways that I have hurt other people, sometimes intentionally, a lot of times unintentionally. I lay down my fears. I lay down my doubts. I lay down my self-sufficiency and my ego. I lay them all there at the foot of the cross because they all stand in the way of the vital life that God wants to give me through his grace.

And after I have had a time of just laying the things that I don’t want in my life anymore at the foot of the cross, I merely turn my hands over and make myself available to receive the grace that God wants to offer from his cross to me. His acceptance, his love, his forgiveness, his power, his presence, the gifts of the spirit, the fruit of the spirit, his blessing, his lavish love, his extravagant grace.

And after I have had the opportunity to just receive these things, not to grab hold of them, but just to receive them into my life, I turn my palms outward to the world in a position of blessing and I ask God to bring to mind people and situations that need God’s grace to flow from me to those circumstances and God will continually bring to mind family members and neighbors, friends, people that I don’t like, world situations, people that I know are involved in ministry and I know that they need God’s encouragement. All kinds of things will come to mind and I merely ask God to use me as a channel of his grace through prayer in to those circumstances.

This morning I would like all of us collectively to conclude this service but just contemplating on the cross and setting down your Bibles and any programs and I am going to lead us in a prayer time of just going through this exercise and asking that you just place your palms into the various positions, that we can claim the three truths that I have proclaimed this morning and receive God’s grace into those areas as well. Let’s pray together.