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February 8, 2015, 2:35 PM

Prevenient Grace


1 Corinthians 9:16-23, NRSV
16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
 
Prevenient Grace
 
Many Sunday evenings, before the 5:00 pm service starts, I have an opportunity to watch an 18-month-old member while her mother is setting up for Sunday school. And if you have ever found yourself watching over a toddler you know that it is your job to walk slowing behind while the wonderful toddler explores the world.  I have noted many times as I walk behind this little one (and remember walking behind my own children many years ago) that they are completely oblivious to my presence.  They are so captivated by the world, exploring all they can see and hear and touch, that they forget there is anyone else there. They just want to experience more and more.
 
However, once in a while, the toddler comes across something that leaves them nervous, uncertain or frightened. Or they trip and fall. Or in the course of their exploring they glance falls upon the one following and suddenly they are aware of this loving presence, who has been there all along. And they turn and greet the loving adult, perhaps showing something they found, or running into their embrace for comfort. This is Prevenient Grace.
 
John Wesley, the founder of the United Methodist Church, gifted the Christian community with a deep understanding of the grace of God—one of the many wonderful gifts he shared with the world.  He spoke of grace working in our lives in different ways. As we journey as disciples of Jesus, as we model our lives more and more after his, we are filled with sanctifying grace—the grace that leads us closer and closer to holiness. That moment when we become aware of God’s loving presence and move into that discipleship journey, we are made right with God, restored to God—justifying grace. And that grace that was journeying with us before we knew it, that grace that was waiting for us to turn to be embraced—prevenient grace.
 
We too can become absorbed by the world, distracted by many things, rushing off after new experiences, exploring our world, completely oblivious to the divine Parent. But God, the loving Presence, is with us in each moment, loving us, waiting for us--prevenient. That moment comes, when we become aware of that loving Parent, whether through need or a change in awareness, and we turn and enter into those loving arms, waiting to hold us—justifying. In that moment we are invited into a long lasting, enriching, life-changing, life-saving relationship and we journey together with God, with Jesus, down the road of holiness—sanctifying.
 
Sometimes we experience something on the journey that pulls us away from our divine walk—John Wesley called it ‘backsliding.’ I see it as simply part of being human, that propensity to be overwhelmed by life, distracted by obligations, tantalized by new things. But God continues with us, waiting for us to realize and to return to the graceful walk with God. Once in while, on this journey, we get everything absolutely right—perfection. We are living fully in the light of grace. And once we have achieved that moment, we know we can reach it again, and again, and perhaps live in it a little bit longer each time. Wesley gifted us with a rich, powerful understand of God’s grace.
 
Wesley’s understanding is, of course, founded on the life and ministry of Jesus, but it is also deeply grounded in the Apostle Paul’s writings in the New Testament. Wesley’s understanding of grace is rooted in Paul’s understand of God and God’s grace. Grace seems not to be the topic of today’s reading from 1 Corinthians. At the beginning of chapter nine, just prior to today’s scripture, Paul is on the defensive. Some in Corinth are accusing him of Not being an apostle, of falling short. Jesus, as he commissioned the disciples and sent them out as apostles, charged them with not taking anything with them, but to rely on those who received the good news for hospitality and support.  However, Paul, when he was in Corinth, continued to support himself as a tentmaker. For this some Corinthians have stated he is not an apostle, he has fallen short.
 
Needless to say, Paul is angry with their accusation and is “letting them have it” in no uncertain terms. As he defends himself he lifts up the God who made him an apostle, the God who was seeking him before he knew he needed to be found. And he speaks of those sent by God to him who showed him the prevenient grace of God waiting for him. This is the job that Paul is now called to, the job Paul is sent as an apostle to do—to show people the grace of God waiting for them.
 
That means Paul must be really present with the people unaware of God’s grace, completely present. He must sit at table with them; hear their stories. He needs to learn what it is that distracts and prevents them from recognizing that grace. And only then, can he join them as they turn into the embrace of God and are surrounded by grace. That means Paul sometimes sits at a kosher table, sometimes a Pagan table, and sometimes he must refrain from the table until those hosting are ready. It means that sometimes he joins people in prayer, sometimes he joins them at the marketplace, and sometimes over a drink. It means sometimes he must cover his head, and sometimes he must refrain from covering his head. Paul, without compromising himself, is willing to be with people…REALLY with people, and to model and point toward the prevenient grace awaiting them.
 
This is our job as well. The church, the community of faith, is called to many things. We are called to ministries of discipleship where we learn and grow and develop our relationship with God. We are called to ministries of nurture, where we open our arms to embrace members of our community in need. We are called to ministries of service where we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and visit the sick and imprisoned. But our first call—repeated over and over by Jesus and Paul and Peter…and John Wesley…is to share the good news, to help others see the loving Parent right there beside them, to model and point to the prevenient grace of God.
 
That means we have to be with people, REALLY with people. We need to sit with them at table and hear their stories. We must learn what is distracting them and keeping them from recognizing that surrounding grace. We must walk beside them and stand with them as they turn into the grace and embrace of God. So, where are the people who need this from us? Where are those who are unaware of the loving grace waiting for them? They are not in the sanctuary…in our worship spaces.
 
Are we willing to go? Are we willing to be with them…REALLY with them?
 
Are we willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be with them?
Are we willing to go to unfamiliar places?
Are we willing to step outside our comfort zones?
 
Are we willing to go?
 
Because if we are, if we are willing to go, we will witness nothing less than Jesus taking them by the hand and lifting them up to new life.
 
Thanks be to God! Amen.
 
Receive this blessing (by Jan Richardson)
 
May your life be a river.
May you flow with the purpose
of the One who created
and called you,
who directs our course
and turns you ever
toward home.
 
May your way shimmer
with the light of Christ
who goes with you
who bears you up
who calls you by name.
 
May you move
with the grace of the Spirit
who brooded over
the face of the waters
at the beginning
and who will gather you in
at the end. Amen.

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