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Faithfully – Responsible Grace

Date: 06/08/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Faithfully: Responsible Grace
1 John 4:7-8, Psalm 103
6 August 2023

Prayer

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver whose grace is more than sufficient for us. Amen.

Today, we are changing gears and starting on a new sermon series, Faithfully. I say changing gears because in this series, we will delving deeper into theology. We are hoping to explore key tenets of our Christian faith to help us move towards being more anchored in our faith. At the same time, I also want us to be able to question our beliefs in a faithful way. Especially those beliefs that many might consider “unquestionable truths.”

So to set the foundation for this series, I want to first ask you:

Question 1 (Word Cloud)

How did you come to believe what you believe about God and the Christian faith?

You don’t have to share the specific details of how you came to believe. Just think about the category of things that led you to faith. Was it the Bible? Was it your experience? Was it your logical reasoning? Was it your family or the love of people around you? I want to invite you to reflect. What led you to faith and what helps you make sense of who God is and what God wants from us even now?

The Methodists have something called the Quadrilateral as a four-sided approach to answering questions about Christian belief and practice:

Quadrilateral:

Scripture

Tradition

Reason

Experience

When I was growing up in the Methodist Church, I was fascinated by the Quadrilateral. The reason why this four-sided approach to answering questions about Christian belief and practice fascinated me was because I was struggling with reconciling my faith and sexuality as a young person. I was trying to make sense of Scripture to understand how God saw someone like me when the voices around me, especially in church, only seemed to use Scripture to condemn and vilify.

Each time I approached God and prayed about the issue, asking God to change me if I was unacceptable, I would sense a deep inexplicable peace in my heart that washed over me and anchored me. And I heard God say, “You are okay with me, and I am okay with you.”

At that time, I couldn’t understand how this voice aligned with what I was reading and hearing from people around me, but I knew it was unmistakably God. So, in some ways, experience trumped tradition and reason in my spiritual and theological journey, at least in the beginning stages of my return to God and reconciliation.

But for me, experience alone was not enough. In my mind and heart, I needed to find alignment with Scripture because the traditional interpretations of the Bible with regards to homosexuality had been contradictory to what I seemed to be experiencing in my own life through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

It was when I first attended seminary twenty years ago that I was able to more deeply study theology as a whole, as well as the historical contexts and interpretations of the “clobber verses.” The more I studied Scripture and understood the various interpretations of the “clobber passages” through wider sources of tradition, and combining reason with experience, it became clearer and clearer to me that not only was I not an abomination, perhaps my queerness is a gift. It was only then that I was able to fully reconcile my faith and sexuality.

My experience of God was what first brought me back to life and integrating my deeper study of Scripture with tradition and reason, I came to embrace myself more fully and authentically.

And I recognize that perhaps for many of us who have been marginalized by the Church for whatever reason, experience may play a very significant role in your faith journeys.

So while I hold the Bible as the primary source, I am also careful to listen to the experiences of people around me, staying open to how the Spirit of God may be leading us to add to our knowledge and understanding of who God is, and who we are called to be as a people of God.

You shouldn’t be surprised that at FCC, we do have a lot of Methodist influence in the evolution of our theology. Some of our founding members came from Methodist churches. Our first pastor, Su-Lin, was from the Methodist church and Rev Yap, who was the first Asian bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaya, very kindly and lovingly agreed to become our pastoral advisor in his retirement years.

So I’m sharing the Quadrilateral with you because I want you to have some framework for next few weeks as we dive into this new sermon series. I hope it will be a tool and resource that is helpful to you as you navigate your faith and grow in your spiritual journey.

Today, we kick off by talking about grace. Responsible grace.

Responsible grace means we don’t take God’s grace for granted. We seek to understand the full dimensions of this grace of God in our lives, and we want to respond to this amazing grace by opening up our whole beings — our hearts, our minds, our souls to God, and co-operate with the Spirit of God in the transformation of our lives.

What is God responsible for?

What are we responsible for?

Those are the questions we are trying to answer together today.

Question 2 (Word Cloud)

What do you understand grace to be?

Broadly, Grace can mean God’s unmerited favor that brings blessing and joy. Throughout the Bible, we see the God of the universe finding ways to reconcile with a hard-hearted and rebellious humanity. The story of the Bible is about how God is relentlessly pursuing a relationship with humanity.

Psalm 103:8-14

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 You will not always accuse,
    nor will you keep your anger forever.
10 You do not deal with us according to our sins
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is your steadfast love toward those who fear you;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far you remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a parent has compassion for their children,
    so you have compassion for those who fear you.
14 For you know how we were made;
    you remember that we are dust.

Grace is often described in the Bible as a part of God’s character – eg. Gracious God. And in this passage from Psalms, we see that God’s grace is linked closely to the steadfast love of God, as well as to the compassion of God – like a parent for their children.

“Grace is not something God gives; grace is who God is.” -Richard Rohr

This reminds me of another characteristic very close to grace that is often said to be descriptive of God’s character: God IS Love. Love and grace go hand in hand.

1 John 4:7-8

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 

We cannot understand grace without understanding love.

Love is definitional of God.

Love is the ground of being from which all goodness flows.

Love is not just one part of God’s character. Love defines God’s character.

So how we understand God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s wrath, needs to be understood through the lens that God is love. Love is God’s primary attribute. God is bound to love.

Jeremy Duncan says:

“God is not bound to any secondary attribute. For example, God is not bound to justice. That’s the whole point of the cross. No one gets what they deserve. Love chooses grace over vengeance. Justice is not served because God’s self-giving is actually what heals us…Love overrules even transgression…Whatever God does, God’s actions can only ever be an expression of love because that is who God is.

Of course God is angered by sin. Our God of love is upset when we hurt each other, or we damage love’s beautiful creation or when we squander love’s gifts. But the motivation and the source of God’s response to us is always love. And that shapes how we read Scripture.” -Jeremy Duncan

This understanding of ‘God is love’ is foundational to how we understand grace.

At the same time, over the years Christians have had many ways of trying to make sense of the full dimensions of what grace means. And I want to show you some of those understandings. To keep things simple, let me say historically we have western theology which is dominated by rational philosophy, and we have eastern theology which is based on the experiential vision of God and the highest truth.

From the western theological perspective:

Western:

Desire to preserve the distinction between the divine and the human carries over into their understandings of the Holy Spirit and grace.

Holy Spirit is giver of grace but emphasize difference between Spirit as Giver and grace as gift.

Protestants typically see grace as “God’s extrinsic act of forgiveness”

Grace as power for obedient life is a “supernatural” power, that “irresistibly reforms human nature.”

Catholics see grace as power at work in sinful humanity, enabling us to recover God-likeness and thus, God’s acceptance.

See this power as more “co-operant” than most Protestants

But very clear: this power is a product of the HS (thus, Created Grace) — bestowed by God and not the HS per se.

Eastern:

Grace empowers capabilities already present but corrupted in human life — sin and sin’s effects

Grace enables a God-likeness in us (sanctification), but not irresistibly or without human cooperation

Sees grace as the actual (but not exhaustive) presence of God’s Spirit (thus, Uncreated Grace) — removes distinction between the creator and the created — Grace is both the presence and activity of the Spirit of God.

Overall, Eastern Christianity has a more dynamic understanding of the HS and the Spirit’s work in human life than has developed in the West.

What is God responsible for?

John Wesley makes clear that Grace is the pardon (forgiveness) and the power (empowerment) for transformation in human life.

Grace can often become our shorthanded way to talk about God’s “activity,” or as a description of the way God is — “God is gracious, or Gracious God…”

But to speak of grace is to speak of God. Grace is not an “aspect” of God, or a “quality” of God — it is God.

“Grace is not simply a divinely-originated product bestowed upon humanity, it is the activity of God’s very Self in human life.” -Randy Maddox

Grace is much bigger than just God forgiving us even though we sin.

“God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word … it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit.

Grace isn’t about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace – like saying, “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be the good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.”

― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

One dimension of grace that I want to highlight to you is called:

Prevenient Grace: Pre-Veniere — That which “comes before”

Thus, the emphasis is on God’s work that “comes before” and makes possible human response.

Prevenient Grace is “God’s initial move toward restored relationship with fallen humanity.”

A partial healing of the “debilitated human faculties, sufficient for us to sense and respond to God.” (Randy Maddox)

God’s “specific overture to individuals, inviting closer relationship.”

This grace is “universal” as it is extended to all.

This means God always takes the first step with us.

Question 3 (Open)

When you reflect on your spiritual journey, when have you seen God taking the first step?

Prevenient Grace integrates both eastern/western concepts and it gives us a deeper glimpse into God’s responsibility where it comes to grace.

But what about our responsibility? Since God is the one who takes the initiative and makes the first step, our responsibility is to respond.

What are we responsible for?

Our response

Our repentance

I know the word “repentance” carries a lot of baggage around it. So to clarify:

“Repentance is our personal acknowledgement of our spiritual need, as we are awakened to it by the Spirit.” (Randy Maddox)

If prevenient grace “awakens” and also “convicts” — then the response is discovered in the work of Repentance.

“To experience grace is one thing; to integrate it into your life is quite another.” –Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Our response is reciprocal, not transactional.

Reciprocity vs. Transactional

Not about feeling bad, not about obligation, not about getting something more from God. God has already poured out all of God’s self for us. All God desires is our response – a response borne out of love, a response that is purely out of gratitude.

When we have truly experienced grace, we can say Grace cracks us open.

Have you experienced the grace that cracks you open? I have. How did you respond? For me, it changed my life.

And as people who have experienced the grace of God, how can you practice grace on others?

Question 4 (Open)

So how has God’s grace awakened you to respond today?

I want you to remember that even as God’s grace has awakened you to respond in such a way, God’s grace will continue to sustain and empower you all the way through.

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

-2 Corinthians 12:9 (The Message)

Now that you know that grace is not just a product that God bestows on us but it is God’s very presence in our lives, how do you better understand this verse now?

My grace (my presence, my life in you) is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Amen.