Sunday, June 9, 2013

The demands of grace

Living in Ordinary Time: Invitation and Challenge
Galatians 1:3-7, 10-24

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Reading the first chapter of Galatians makes me think
maybe Paul should have sought the advice of experts
in letter-writing etiquette.
They would have told him, “Don’t write a letter when you’re angry.
And if you do, don’t send it.
Just let it be your therapy.”

But obviously, Paul sent the letter,
and probably, as fast as he could.
You can see evidence of his haste,
if you’ll look with me at Galatians 1.
Typically, Paul opens his letters with
“from Paul, to the church in Galatia [or wherever]
grace to you and peace, etc., etc.”
It takes him a good four or five verses to say that.
And then he takes another four or five to be polite,
and reminisce about his last visit,
and tell them the good things he’s heard about them.

But listen to the very first verse, which we didn’t read.
I’ll paraphrase only slightly.
Galatians 1:1 . . .
“Paul—an apostle who was, by the way,
not appointed by human beings,
but by God himself and by Jesus Christ, so listen up—
To the churches of Galatia.”

Then v. 3, again, slightly paraphrased.
“Grace to you and peace,
from the God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ—
who, by the way, bled and died so the likes of you
could be saved from your sins, and rescued from evil.”

Even in his formal introduction,
Paul can’t resist getting in a couple good licks right away,
to establish his authority, as coming straight from God,
and to establish God’s righteous demands of his people.

Then, in the body of the letter, he gets straight to the point,
and it’s no Mr. Nice Guy.
V. 6: “I can’t believe you’re deserting the Gospel of Christ so quickly,
and turning to another perverted Gospel.”
That was a translation, not a paraphrase.
What amazed him was how quickly they settled
for a cheap imitation of the Gospel,
not the Gospel he shared with them—he, Paul,
the apostle who spoke with authority given by God.

In vv. 7-8, he gets so agitated he starts cursing, literally.
He said, “I don’t care if an angel comes to you.
If that angel preaches a different Gospel than what we preached,
let the angel be cursed.”
If anyone brings a different Gospel, let them be cursed.
I’d use the D-word, which is literally what he’s saying,
but I don’t want to confuse the children among us.
Paul knows his salty language will offend some people.
So right away he adds, v. 9,
“Do you think I’m trying to make people happy?”
No! I’m not a people-pleaser.
I only care what God thinks.”

Eventually, by the time he gets to v. 13,
he starts to calm down a bit.
He gets personal and vulnerable.
He speaks of his own conversion on the road to Damascus,
where Jesus Christ himself confronted Paul and set him straight.

Paul’s conversion was a traumatic encounter.
His vision of Jesus was so powerful, according to Acts 9,
he was knocked to the ground,
and struck blind, for days.
Jesus confronted Paul head-on
about his sins against God and God’s people.
His life was turned around, and he was ordered—yes, ordered—
to start working on behalf of
the very people he was trying to destroy.
The order came straight from God,
and Paul could not resist.

You’ve heard some people use the expression,
“Well, if God ever wanted me to do this, or that,
he’d have to hit me with a 2-by-4.”
Paul was hit with a 2-by-4.

But now, years later, he describes that traumatic call from God,
with an interesting turn of phrase,
“God called me through his grace,” Paul says.
That bolt of lightning?
or whatever knocked him off his feet?
That sudden attack of blindness?
That no-holds-barred demand from God,
that he turn his life upside-down?
That . . . Paul described as an act of grace.

That’s not how we often think of God’s grace.
This is not the kind of grace that rains down on us
in gentle showers of blessing.
This is God’s strong hand of grace that grabs hold of us,
turns us around,
reorients us,
and shakes some sense into us.
It’s the voice of God that says, “No! Stop going that way.
You are missing the point.
This is not about you.
This is not about what you can pull off on your own,
with your raw energy and zeal and devotion.”
Like the voice said to Paul, “Stop kicking against the goads.
Turn around. Go my way.”

That’s a different slant on grace, isn’t it?
God’s lavish and unmerited grace
is more than simple gift.
it is more than gentle showers of God’s blessing
on what we are now doing,
it is more than affirmation and acceptance
of the way things are now.
Sometimes, God’s grace does come to us in exactly those ways,
gift, blessing, affirmation, embrace.
But sometimes, God’s grace grabs us.

God’s grace, always, is God’s loving and active intervention
into our lives and our present reality.
And that grace comes in many forms—
sometimes blessing and affirming,
sometimes challenging and redirecting.
God’s grace is God holding us in a love grasp,
and not letting us go,
until we get the message,
until we are reoriented,
and directed toward a life of love and sacrificial service.

Now, God’s hand neither forces nor manipulates.
It invites.
But it’s a strong and persuasive invitation.
It’s a grasp of love,
that shows us the good life God created us for.
God designed us to have the fullest and richest life
when we give up our own agenda,
and orient ourselves toward God’s agenda.

So the church in Paul’s day,
and the church today,
and everyone of us here personally,
all try to live in the balance
between these two realities of grace—
gift, and the demands of obedience,
love, and ethics,
invitation, and challenge.

The early church struggled in a huge way to find this balance.
It was huge.
The struggle lasted for generations.
This is why Paul was so emotionally tied up
in what was going on in Galatia.
It was part of this cultural and theological battle
that raged across the church,
and Paul was in the heat of the battle.

Remember, the Jesus movement was a Jewish reform movement.
All of Jesus’ disciples were Jews.
After Jesus left, the apostles in charge of the movement
set up headquarters in Jerusalem,
and worshiped in the temple and synagogues.
They were devoted to a better practice of Judaism.

But things were rapidly changing by the time of Paul,
20-plus years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Communities of Jesus-followers were popping up everywhere,
not just in Jewish country,
but all around the Roman Empire.
Gentiles were joining these communities . . . in droves.

This caused conflict.
The gospel said salvation came by God’s grace,
through faith in Jesus,
not through following the law.
So many leaders, including Paul,
taught that Gentile believers should be welcomed
without requiring them to become Jews.
No need for males to be circumcised,
which for thousands of years,
had been the fundamental ritual of the covenant,
the sign of belonging to God and God’s people.
So now, men, as well as women who did not follow Jewish law,
were sitting in house churches
in chairs right next to devout Jewish believers in Jesus,
eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper with them,
with no restrictions!

This was unheard of, until now!
It directly challenged everything Jewish believers in Jesus knew
about what it meant to be Jewish.
So among the communities in Galatia,
influential teachers went around redefining the Gospel of Jesus,
as something for Jews only.
They were trying to raise the bar,
religiously, ethically, culturally.
They were trying to preserve the normative,
high-demand nature of being one of God’s people.

There were other teachers out and about
who found the new freedoms for Gentiles exhilarating,
and taught even greater freedom.
Essentially saying there were no ethical restrictions.
Gluttony, greed, sexual immorality.
Do as you will.
God’s grace will cover your sins. Period.

And then there was Paul, and those like him,
who vehemently insisted that Jewish ritual law
was unnecessary for salvation,
since God saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
But, holiness, self-sacrifice, and obedience to Christ,
were still expected of all Christians, Jew and Gentile.

This conflict absolutely permeated the life of the early church,
and permeated most of the New Testament scripture,
from the book of Acts on.

And, I would submit,
this same argument permeates the church today.
Different issues.
Same argument.

How much grace should we extend to others,
as they learn the way of Jesus?
What is the relationship between ethics and salvation?
How does God’s grace work?
Only at the moment God saves us, upon our confession . . .
and after that, we depend on following all the rules?
Or does grace cover over all our sins, always . . .
and we only need to accept people where they are,
and not make judgements about behavior?

And what about the grace Jesus offered?
What did Jesus mean when he said to the woman
who narrowly escaped being stoned for her sins?
“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

I want to share a simple little model with you,
and then connect it both to Jesus’ ministry,
and life in the church—the early church, and today’s church.

It’s the invitation and challenge matrix.
It’s illustrated in your bulletin insert, so take a look at it there.
This was proposed first by Mike Breen,
someone who helped lead a movement of church plants,
small, alternative churches, in the U. K.

So the vertical access is invitation.
It’s the degree of open-armed welcome we give to others.
At one end, high invitation,
we continually invite people into relationship with us,
the message we give, in word and behavior,
is you are welcome here!
we are all on a journey, come be with us in it.
At the other end, low invitation,
we hold back the welcome,
we don’t trust the change newcomers bring,
we enjoy stability too much,
so we erect boundaries, or we just keep quiet.
If people don’t know about us, they won’t try to enter.

And the horizontal access is challenge.
It’s the degree of expectations we have
on those who wish to be in relationship with us.
Toward one end, low challenge, expectations are minimal.
We keep the bar low, so as to allow as many as possible to enter,
with little cost, effort, or demands.
Toward the other end, high challenge, there are high expectations
of what it means to be in relationship with us.
There is a covenant and there are obligations
for this community, or this relationship.

Relationships, whether one-on-one, interpersonal relationships,
or whether communal relationships, like churches,
or small groups, or families, or what have you . . .
relationships fall generally within one of these four quadrants.

A low challenge and low invitation relationship (lower left),
has almost nothing to offer,
no compelling vision to rally around,
no expectations.
It creates a boring and apathetic culture.
Think, perhaps, some old church about to die
for lack of a vision and mission.
Nobody is being turned away,
but they aren’t being invited, either.

High invitation and low challenge (upper left) sounds good.
Friendly, welcoming, inviting, non-judgmental.
But there is also very little expected of joiners.
No deeper life that we are being called into.
It creates a cozy, consumer-oriented culture.
Think, perhaps, some big, seeker-sensitive megachurch,
with fun worship and music and a feel-good preacher,
who never talks about the hard road
of following Jesus in a world that does not.

Then there’s low invitation and high challenge (lower right).
Here you have to earn your place in the relationship.
IF you can manage to do the right thing,
and believe the right thing,
and meet all the other criteria,
and prove yourself over time,
you can come in and be part of us.
And if you stray too far from our high standards,
you’re out on your own again.
This way of being in relationship,
or way of being church,
creates a stressful, legalistic, high-anxiety culture.
Tends to foster discouragement, rather than encouragement,
because who can measure up?

All three ways I just described of being in relationship,
or ways of being church,
short-circuit what true church is about.
They are cheap imitations of church.
They are not the kind of community that either
Jesus or Paul envisioned.

The church that empowers people to live the life they were created for,
the church that makes real disciples out of people,
is the high invitation and high challenge church.

It’s the kind of life Jesus was referring to when he said,
the road is hard that leads to life.
It’s difficult. But it produces real life.

It’s the kind of community culture Jesus invited people into,
when he said, “Come unto me.
My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
And you will find rest for your souls.”
There is life, and joy, and rest.
But the metaphor for that life is still a yoke. Still a burden.

Here, in a high invitation, high challenge church,
we create a culture that welcomes us in,
and pushes us forward in our journey.

There is a strongly compelling vision
of a flourishing and joy-filled life in God’s kingdom
where all—that is, all—are welcome to come and experience it,
and be transformed by it.
Where all of us recognize our own brokenness and fragility
and shortcomings of faith.
Where all of us are fully accepted, and fully expected to sign on
to a joyful and challenging way of life.
We join a community that takes seriously the command
to love God fully, and love each other as we love ourselves.
We are all challenged—in the beginning, always, forever—
to submit our lives for continuous transformation
by the Holy Spirit.

This is the church I long for.
Here, in my smaller group relationships.
Here, at Park View Mennonite Church.
Here, within the larger Virginia Conference, and MC USA.
I long for relationships—at every level of my Christian life—
where the welcome is wide,
and the mutual challenge is great.

Where we never, never, give up on each other,
or walk away from each other, because we are family.
Even when we don’t approve of the way other family members
live their lives.
We stay in the struggle—
of a high invitation and high challenge relationship,
where the shared goal is
to make more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ,
and to fully participate in the mission of God.
That mission is to keep saving and redeeming and reconciling
the world and all creation.
Which, of course, include us, the so-called faithful.
Our conversion to the lordship of Jesus Christ,
and to the living way of Jesus, should never end.
Ongoing conversion to the Gospel
can only makes life fuller and richer.
By the saving grace of Jesus Christ, may it be so.
Let’s sing a song that echoes Jesus’ words of invitation
into such a high invitation and high challenge community.
“Come unto me. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
And you will find rest for your souls.”
Sing the Story, #48

—Phil Kniss, June 9, 2013

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