Monday, November 03, 2014

Responsible Grace

Joshua 3:7-17
Romans 2:4b-13
Matthew 23:1-12

“If we truly believe that we are the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ, our actions would (not "should") begin to reflect that belief.”  Alisa Hope Wagner

The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to die by a court in Athens in the late 4th century BCE, having been found guilty of “corrupting the youth” and for “impiety toward the gods”.  Both charges came not from any physical act on his part but strictly because of his teachings, his philosophy which challenged the dominant culture (actually a lot like Jesus!). 

Unlike Jesus, the stink of Socrates’ death sentence was that he would have to do the deed himself by voluntarily drinking hemlock.  It was an honor thing, I suppose, or perhaps a social test that would force Socrates to do what he claimed to believe: that in his concept of a “social contract”, he would be compelled to respect all the terms of the society he embraced, not just the ones he liked.  Socrates' "social contract" held that one must not expect the benefits of being a part of something the rules of which we disregard and to which one is not willing to fully contribute.  There could be no half-hearted measures; one was completely in or completely out.

The foundation of Socrates’ philosophy that got him into trouble with the whole of society is that what he believed to be the most significant component in the search for wisdom is espoused by Jesus.  In order to find true wisdom, one must first acknowledge one’s fundamental ignorance (humility).  One must acknowledge there is always something to be learned. 

For the faithful, our ultimate source of wisdom is The Lord; but that wisdom is not magically imparted to us when we decide to call ourselves Christians.  This wisdom is discovered as we intentionally seek it out.  It is found only on the path made possible by The Lord as that step of faith is portrayed in Joshua.  Of course Israel would take that first step on that particular path according to the promise of what was ahead, but they would also discover soon enough that this one step is not enough.  There are many more steps to be taken.

“Responsible grace” is a lot like Socrates’ idea of a “social contract” in that while we can be assured we will receive much more than we can ever give, we must not ignore our need and our duty to give.  Not diametrically opposed to the concept of “free grace”, yet “responsible grace” demands a duty which comes with the “social contract” or, in the Church, the Holy Covenant we are baptized into.  We become a part of something bigger than self, and this comes with undeniable responsibility according to biblical terms.

We do not deny that grace is The Lord’s “unmerited favor” which is freely given according to The Lord’s own nature and cannot be earned by human means.  Rather we embrace the reality that just as hatred breeds hatred, mercy will breed mercy (the essence of grace).  It is the “social contract” of the community of faith, actually the social terms of the Covenant itself.  It is much bigger than “personal salvation”, that necessary but inadequate first step.  It involves the entire community of faith – and then into the greater community we are called to serve.

As UM elder JD Walt observed recently, "While salvation may begin with a decision to trust Jesus, if it does not lead to a daily decided-ness to belong to Jesus it will mean less than nothing to the world Jesus came to save. In fact, it will actually be worse for the Church because when God’s own people do not ever-increasingly reflect the depths of The Lord's nature, it turns people away from The Lord."

“Responsible grace” is the Wesleyan concept of sanctification; the active, engaged, and engaging pursuit of spiritual perfection by which we grow and mature in the faith, discovering along the way that as much as we may give, we will receive much more in return.  However, we will not come to know this until we actually engage.  We can think it, we can have ideas and opinions about it, and we can talk about it in our Sunday school classes; but until we are directly involved and actively engaged, we will know nothing.

For too many the concept of “free grace” has not lived up to any particular tangible promise – as evidenced by the exodus of the disillusioned masses from the Church.  Rather "free grace" has become more like the shiny new car we buy.  We get excited by all the features and the “new car smell”; but once our “prize” suffers its first door ding, the shine is no longer so shiny and we no longer seem to notice the “new car smell”.  It is no longer a new and shiny thing of perfection to be enjoyed and used responsibly; it becomes a burden.  Often following such “disasters”, we turn our attention toward something newer and shinier because this will no longer do.  It is still a reality, but it is one we no longer embrace.  It is always human acts, especially within the Church, that put the "door ding" on grace when we reject grace by refusing to offer grace

We cannot have what we are unwilling to share.

Christian author William Branks once wrote, “Many Christians live as if salvation is the only reason Jesus died.  Christ died so we would die to sin and live to righteousness, [as St. Peter observed] (1Peter 2:24).  This is a lifelong discipline that we must exercise every moment.  The Lord’s marvelous grace does not excuse us from His expectations of holy living.” 

St. Paul affirms this principle in his epistle to the Romans when he writes, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (2:4b)” - and that in order to provoke good works as witnesses of "God's kindness".  By the context in which St. Paul writes, that repentance involves “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” as St. John the baptizer held out for those who asked what must be done for salvation’s sake (Luke 3:8-14).  "Repentance" requires much more than an apology.  "Repentance" is a whole new direction, a whole new life - AND as St. John points out - righting our many wrongs.

Too often we take that bold first step – which is good – but we step no more.  We stop because "cheap grace" has convinced us the Journey is done for us.  Like the Israelites, we cross over under The Lord's guidance but soon forget Who made that first step possible … and relatively safe.  Worse, we fail to remember what we are stepping into (assuming we are ever told what we are stepping into); the “social contract” of the Church, the Holy Covenant.

“Responsible grace” is not about having all the right answers for all the social “hot button” issues and personal challenges we face.  “Responsible grace” is, for the Church, entirely about learning to ask the right questions as we venture forward in what can be a most exciting and engaging life in Christ and His Church.  It is about what we can do for The Lord, for His Church, and for His people – that is, for one another; and doing this in the Light of what The Lord has already done for humanity at the Cross.  That is our reality.  So if we claim to believe that, we are required to live that.

“Responsible grace” acknowledges the reality that we are not independent travelers in this Journey of Faith, but are rather inter-dependent on one another so we may continue the Journey with the confidence of knowing that when we stumble (and we will!), there will be someone there willing to help us up.  "Responsible grace" not only requires that someone help us up, but it also requires that we get up!  But if one voluntarily removes oneself from the Body, how can the Body know help is needed??

The unbelieving world that is in darkness will try us, will test us, and will demand from us an accounting of what we claim to believe, as they did Socrates.  Socrates was not afraid to face his sentence because he believed in his concept of "social contract" enough to live it, but he also believed in life after death. 

As Socrates BELIEVED, Jesus was not afraid to face His sentence because He KNEW there is Life Eternal!  And He showed us in The Resurrection so that we can know what we need to know in order to persevere.  Our Lord showed us what "Responsible grace" looks like in which what is freely given will be abundantly received - in this life and in the Life to come.

This is the grace, dear friends, that requires a response - in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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