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Ecclesia and Grace: How to act as Ecclesia in the world

Date: 11/07/2021/Speaker: Rev Miak Siew

[ Download sermon discussion questions for self-study or group discussion click here ]

All the time – I learn something new
Times too – I experienced healing through the process

We have been using Menti. But today, I want to especially invite you to participate – because this sermon is a little different. I do hope that you do get something out of it through your pariticipation.

I want to start off today asking you if you know what this is?
This is a labyrinth – specifically, the one in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I visited Grace Cathedral several times – it is a beautiful church at the top of Nob Hill.

Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools. Some of you may have walked on a labyrinth as a spiritual practice before, and some of you may have tried a finger labyrinth where we trace the path with our fingers on a printed labyrinth instead of walking an actual one.

The labyrinth represents a journey to our center and back out into the world. Don’t confuse labyrinths and mazes – sometimes these two words are used interchangeably, but really – a labyrinth is not a maze.

A maze is more like a puzzle to be solved – to get from one point to another point through twists, turns and dead ends. A labyrinth has only one path. The way in, is the way out. You cannot get lost in it – the path leads you to the center, and then back out again.
While there is just one path to the center of the labyrinth, our individual journeys are different. You can rush through it, or pause at every step to pray and reflect and to allow how the twists and turns speak to us.

At the heart (mind the pun) – the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of our very being, and back out into the world with a deeper understanding of who we are.

So today, I want to invite you to a journey to the center. And we start outside the labyrinth.
For This sermon series – we have been talking about Ecclesia – How to be the church.

What do you think stops us from being the church, being Ecclesia, the community of Christ followers? Or what do you think makes us give up being the church?
Sometimes we get burned out. We give and give, we do and do, and then we run out of steam. We are drained, and really, really tired.

Sometimes we experience conflict, and we get burned. We become tired of being misunderstood by people – especially those we work with. Sometimes we get hurt in the process.
Sometimes we are disappointed. Disappointed at the outcome, disappointed at the response to the work we do, disappointed at the lack of appreciation, disappointed at the lack of impact, disappointed that nobody stepped in to help and we are alone carrying the burden.

Sometimes we get triggered. In the process of doing the work of Ecclesia, we experience things that cause us to relive memories of bad or traumatising experiences. The recent letter by the Bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore regarding the denomination’s stand on same-sex marriage may have triggered some of you. It certainly triggered me.
Again, who I am is described as broken. Again, sexual orientation and gender identity issues are placed in the same category as exploitation of sex and addiction to pornography.

And of course, I felt angry. I felt indignation.
And this is where I am, perhaps where some of you are. Burned out, disappointed, triggered, angry, hurt.

Perhaps some of you have experienced something at home, at work, or in church that made you feel disappointed, hurt, angry and even burned out.

So we begin, standing outside the labyrinth, feeling all of this, and wondering how we can be church with all of this feelings?

Now, it would appear that the title of this sermon is a spoiler. “grace” is the answer to how we can be church despite being tired, drained, burnt out, disappointed, angry, hurt.

But it is not that straightforward. Just like the path to the center of the labyrinth, while grace is the answer, it is a meandering path. And it is one that we have to choose to take. In a maze, we are confronted with choices – which paths to take, where some will lead to dead ends, in a labyrinth, there is only one choice – the choice to enter the labyrinth or not to.

So I invite you to join me as we step into this labyrinth today.
What do you understand grace to be?

“The unmerited love of God, which both forgives and transforms the sinner. It could be said that the good news of the gospel is none other than the message of God’s grace” – Essential Theological Terms, Justo Gonzalez

While we may have different ways to describe grace, the important aspect of grace is “unmerited.” We have done nothing to earn it, we have done nothing to deserve it.

What are the narratives in the Bible you can think of that demonstrates grace as unmerited?

Jesus on the cross – Luke 23:34 “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Jesus pardoning the thief in v43 “truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise.” (maybe, since the thief did do something – when he told Jesus “remember me when you come in your kingdom”

We remember – in the parable of the lost son, the father running out to embrace the son who returns even before the son said a word. That is grace. Unmerited love. The parable is often also called the parable of the prodigal son. Prodigal doesn’t mean lost – prodigal means “wastefully extravagant.”
Timothy Keller, in the book The Prodigal God, writes “The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but according to Merriam-Weber’s Collegiate Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.”

It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term is therefore as appropriate for describing the father in the story as his younger son. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment…

In this story Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, God’s children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the subject of this book.”

Grace is offered to everyone. We remember the last supper every week over holy communion, and Jesus ate with Peter who denied him three times, and Jesus ate with Judas who betrayed him to the authorities. It would be difficult to find someone more undeserving of grace than Judas. But even though Jesus knew Judas was going to betray him, he still loved Judas, still ate with Judas, and still washed Judas’ feet.

Jesus could have told Judas “What you are going to do, do quickly” before Jesus washed the disciples feet. He could have sent Judas off even earlier – even before the Passover meal. But Jesus included Judas – and that is grace.
However, receiving grace is not easy. Even Peter refused to let Jesus wash his feet in John 13.

Why do you think Peter refused to let Jesus wash his feet?
Peter struggled with accepting grace. He felt he wasn’t good enough – he didn’t deserve to have Jesus wash his feet (something that even slaves won’t be doing). But Jesus told him “if I do not wash you, you will have no share with me.”

In what ways do you think you are also refusing to let Jesus wash your feet? What are the reasons you think stops you from allowing Jesus to do that?

Like Peter, we may struggle with accepting grace. It is not an easy thing to accept love or accept grace.
It may be because we think we don’t deserve it. And because we don’t deserve it, we will be indebted if we receive it.
We live in a transactional world. We are steeped in its values. We are taught that there is always a price. Accepting love will mean that we have to pay for it later. But the way of Christ is not transactional. God’s grace is not transactional. It is transformational. If we do what we do as Christians out of a debt, then we are not really transformed within. We are just trying to pay God back for the grace we received.

However, if we move away from a transactional understanding and accepted God’s grace and love (that is unconditional), then we are allowing God to transform us within.
At this point, we reach the center of the labyrinth, the heart of this sermon.
You are beloved. You are loved beyond measure. God loves you.

We are told that a lot – we have repeated this often at FCC – but it is not easy to internalise. Because very often, we don’t believe we deserve that love. But that’s the thing – we don’t need to deserve it – God’s grace is sufficient.

But this cannot be just something we know intellectually. It needs to be experienced.

In this moment – I would like to invite you to take part in this short meditation / prayer exercise. I will be inviting you to do some visualising as I read from John 13. If it helps you, you may close your eyes.

In your imagination, see the room where Jesus is having supper with his disciples. What is the room like – is it large or small? How is it arranged? Are there windows, and if so is there still light coming in at this hour?
Now see the people in the room, yourself among them. Who is there? Is it just the twelve, or a somewhat larger group of Jesus’ friends?

Look around at all the people there, and take a moment to listen in on and draw profit from some of the conversations. What are they talking about?

John 13:1-15
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.
At a certain moment, Jesus rises from the meal, removes his outer garments, and ties a towel around his waist. As he begins to wash the disciples’ feet, how do they react? What do you feel?

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”

Can you see the expression on Simon and Jesus’ face during this interaction? How about the other disciples? How do you feel about this interaction?

Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.” For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
Then Jesus moves over the Judas. What is Judas’ reaction? Does he say anything to Jesus? How are you feeling as Jesus washes Judas’ feet?

Now Jesus comes to you to wash your feet. I want you to imagine Jesus in front of you, and washing your feet. Imagine the warmth of the water flowing over your feet, your toes. Can you hear the soft splashing of water? As Jesus is washing your feet, do you something to him? Or did you keep quiet? What feelings are coming up for you? Can you feel the texture of the towel as Jesus dries your feet?

So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
“As I have done for you, you should also do.”

I want you to slowly come back to the present.

How do you feel? How was the experience?
Let me tell you what I encountered at the center of the labyrinth.
I have faced disappointments along this journey. And there are times I feel a deep resentment. Despite all that I poured into the work, in spite of all the time and energy I have poured out, there are times things don’t turn out the way I think they should.

There are people I have tried to help, counsel, show up for, write letters to appeal on their behalf, listened to their struggles, offered advice and insight – really tried my very best – and even in situations where I felt God was there with me as I intervened – they didn’t change.

Disappointment perhaps is a little too gentle – I would say I felt betrayed.
I would say I felt heartbroken when they went back to their old ways, the old patterns. Some fell afoul of the law yet again.

And then, I hear – well, hear in the sense of an inner voice – “You haven’t fully offer grace to yourself so you are not able to offer grace to others.”

And I realised that I am still stuck in the mentality that grace is deserved. I may have accepted God’s grace, I have missed a step. I haven’t been able to offer grace to others, because I have yet to offer grace to myself. I haven’t been able to be kind to myself, I haven’t been able to forgive myself for all my shortcomings, faults and failures. Sometimes there is just one person in the world who hasn’t forgiven us – ourselves.

And because I have not been able to offer myself grace, I cannot offer grace to others.
Offering grace to myself, forgiving myself is not the same as excusing myself for bad behaviours. Grace is also not letting myself off the hook, or not be accountable, or be held responsible.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship. Cheap grace is like having a powerful conversion experience and thinking everything must go well ever after. The reality is that not everything will go well ever after. The conversion experience should lead us to inner transformation and growth.
Love and grace are free, but they don’t eliminate accountability for how we live.

I am slowly learning how to allow myself to be sustained by grace, and offer grace to myself, and offering grace to those people who disappointed me. And I want to invite you to the same journey. Like allowing Jesus to wash your feet, are you able to allow God’s grace to wash over you?

It is when we are able to receive God’s grace, that we are able to offer grace to others. This is the kind of transformation we experience, and what I understand Jesus means by ““Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me” Unless we accept grace fully, we will not be able move, and live and grow in Christ.

Are we able to allow God’s love and grace wash over us? Are we able to surrender into that embrace and allow ourselves? Are we able to hear God calling our name and inviting us into a new life marked by grace?

I really love the song the Summons (or otherwise knowns as will you come and follow me)

Will You Come And Follow Me
If I But Call Your Name?
Will You Go Where You Don’t Know
And Never Be The Same?
Will You Let My Love Be Shown,
Will You Let My Name Be Known,
Will You Let My Life Be Grown
In You And You In Me?

You may be ready to say “Yes” now. You may have been ready long ago, and have been saying “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” every day of your life since then. And you may not be ready right now because you are still wrestling with that voice whispering in your ear “you are not good enough.” That is all okay.

It is vital we embrace this grace, and offer each other grace – because this will be our anchor to the ministries we do, the outreach, the projects – all the work we do as church, as ecclesia. Otherwise, we will continue to be tripped up over all the conflicts, all the friction that will inevitably arise when two or more people work together.

I have seen it happen. Despite the best of intentions, we end up being hurt by one another – sometimes because we misunderstand one another, sometimes because we have different working styles and different approaches, different way of dealing with things – all affected by how we are shaped by earlier experiences. Sometimes, leaving someone out unintentionally, causes hurt.

This happens in communities everywhere. Recently, someone in the LGBTQ community raised concerns over the use of the term “fag hag” being used for a musical, saying that that term is derogatory and shouldn’t be used. There was a lot of conflict and anger and negativity.

But we are a different kind of community. We are ecclesia. We are called to be the Body of Christ. So we need to operate differently – with grace.

I have come to realise a lot the anger, a lot of the pain comes from our inability to experience and offer grace.
Grace means that we allow ourselves to be “not good enough.” Grace means we allow each other to be “not good enough.” That doesn’t mean we don’t hold each other accountable or responsible. It means we separate the person, from the behaviour, from the mistakes, from the failures. Grace doesn’t mean we enable bad behaviours either – but we find ways to engage from a place of love.

How it helps – when I am able to allow myself to be “not good enough,” I am able to hear criticisms without taking it personally, and without taking as an attack on my personhood or my self-worth.Because when we lack grace – we judge. We judge ourselves, and we judge other people.

When I am able to allow other people to be “not good enough,” and love them just as they are, I am less affected when they don’t behave the way I want them to, or do things I think they should not do. I cannot control their behaviours, I can only control my own. Even God cannot control their behaviours – because we all have free will.
So to be church in the world we need to be a community of grace, anchored in love.

This is when we turn and retrace our steps out of the labyrinth.

As we retrace the steps we took to reach the heart of the labyrinth, we now walk from the innermost parts back out, and as we walk out, we bring what we have experienced in the center out as well. We bring the grace we experienced out into the world.

How it looks like –
When we feel like we are betrayed – we remember that Jesus washed Judas’ feet. He washed the feet of the ones who would abandon, deny and betray him. We remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter after Jesus’ resurrection. He didn’t cast Peter aside when Peter failed. He asked Peter “do you love me,” and telling him to feed and tend to his lambs and sheep. In this process, I think Jesus was both showing grace to Peter, and pointing out his responsibilities, and holding him accountable.

Remember – grace doesn’t mean we do not hold ourselves or someone else accountable. Holding someone accountable isn’t the same as judging.
Someone’s bad behaviour doesn’t make them undeserving of grace, because grace, by definition is unmerited – you don’t have to “earn it.”

John 13
So when he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
“As I have done for you, you should also do.”
As we step out of the labyrinth, I hope you, like me can respond –

Lord, Your Summons Echoes True
When You But Call My Name.
Let Me Turn And Follow You
And Never Be The Same
In Your Company I’ll Go
Where Your Love And Footsteps Show.
Thus I’ll Move And Live And Grow
In You And You In Me.

[ Download sermon discussion questions for self-study or group discussion click here ]