Grace 2 Corinthians 13: 14
A Sermon by Eleanor Childs Trinity Sunday, 15 June 2014
We sometimes end our services with ‘the Grace.’ Well, I’m going to turn things on their head and begin with ‘the Grace’.
‘May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.’
We hear that wonderful Trinitarian blessing regularly in Church so I thought this Trinity Sunday would be a good time to reflect on it, so that our familiarity with it does not dull the riches and wonder of our Christian faith.
‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ ‘Grace’ is a word whose meaning has changed over the years. It is often used now to describe style and movement. The word ‘gracious’ retains something of the original meaning – ‘kindly’ or ‘well-disposed to people.’ The original meaning has to do with generosity and unmerited favour. The old expression ‘grace and favour’ has that meaning and denotes residences which the queen has at her disposal which she can offer for occupancy free of charge or at a peppercorn rent.
What is Christ’s grace, his generous gift that is offered freely to us? As Christians I think we all know that it is forgiveness and access to God’s presence. And yet many people don’t take advantage of it. Modern society has ditched the notion of sin and many people would scorn the idea of being sinners. They may have buried those words and concepts but I can tell you that guilt and feelings of worthlessness are alive and endemic in our society. I worked as a counsellor for a number of years and the prevalence of feelings of guilt and worthlessness is astounding. They don’t always come to the surface at first. When you drive something underground – like the concept and reality of sin – it bubbles up elsewhere wearing various disguises. Often when feelings of anger, anxiety or fear are probed, behind them you find lurking feelings of shame, unworthiness, self-hatred, fear of condemnation and rejection. Often – not always of course, the anger and stress and hatred are masks to conceal feelings of guilt which are much harder to accept. And it was only when people felt safe and accepted in relationship with someone that they dare to own them and break free from their bondage.
And that is the grace of Jesus Christ – that he offers us acceptance as we are. He offers us free and full forgiveness for all that we have done and all that we are, because he has paid the price on the cross for the forgiveness of the world. But He never imposes on us. He freely offers us forgiveness, but it is up to us to believe him and receive it and let go of the past and our own failures and the failures of those who hurt us. If we are determined to hold on to our past or our failures or grievances, our hands are full, and we cannot receive his grace and forgiveness. And this is especially true if we hold on to hatred or unforgiveness towards those who have hurt us. I love that old hymn (287)
‘Just as I am thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come.’
Jesus by his death reconciled us to God. Before he came, sin – which is the self-centred, self-pleasing life which we all live – had alienated us from God, who is holy. Holiness is a very difficult concept for us moderns to grasp because we have lost most of our sense of the sacredness of life. Some people experience it at rare moments, like at the birth of a child or at the experience of deep intimacy or in the presence of great beauty. God’s holiness, which comprehends his purity, beauty, integrity, completeness, perfection, love, is such that before Christ came we could not approach him in our sinfulness for we would have been consumed – think of a satellite re-entering earth’s orbit; it risks being burnt up by the intensity of the heat of earth’s atmosphere. Yet God originally created humanity out of love and for love. And he desires to share his life and interests with us. Even when his creation went astray and humanity chose to be its own god, he never stopped yearning and seeking relationship. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself’, scripture says. He sent his son to rescue us, to pay the price of our release.
Let’s all just try a little exercise. Imagine God thinking about you. What do you assume God feels when you come to mind? I’ll tell you the answer because God talks about it repeatedly in scripture: he feels intense love and longing for relationship. He yearns to heal and to bless us and to share his vision of life and health and peace with us. Many Christians still have to taste deeply of God’s love. They subscribe to it in theory, but they don’t trust themselves to it. St Paul did. You remember his great hymn to love in 1 Cor.13 ‘If I have not love, I am nothing… Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trust, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’ Paul is speaking out of his own experience of God’s love.
Jesus lived in constant joyful relationship with his father, God, praising him, consulting him, depending on him, seeking his will. He demonstrated God’s love for humanity by his every action – welcoming, caring, loving, healing, forgiving. He gave us the family prayer, which begins, ‘Our Father’ and the word for father was the intimate Jewish word, ‘Abba’, or ‘Daddy’. God is our wonderful, close, loving Father. But we must not forget his holiness. The next phrase in the Lord’s prayer is ‘Hallowed (or ‘holy’) be your name.’ Intimacy and reverence are to characterise our relationship with God. He is the creator of the universe but through Christ he has adopted us into his family as his loved children.
The third person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. He has often been the most neglected member of the Trinity, probably because as a scientific, materialist generation we have difficulty relating to someone as elusive and different as the Holy Spirit. We know from our creeds that He is a person, who ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’. Jesus, prior to his crucifixion, informed his disciples about the coming of the Spirit: John 16; ‘When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.’ The work of the Spirit is to point us to Christ, to make real in our experience what was real in Christ’s – the love and power and truth of God. Wherever the Church is growing and people’s eyes are being opened and lives transformed, there you see the work of the Spirit. When Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again of the Spirit of God, Nicodemus was mystified and Jesus explained ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ We recognise the work of the Spirit by its effects, just as we see the effects of wind by the swaying of the trees. At Pentecost 3,000 people were converted to Christianity by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. But his work in our lives does not stop at the beginning of our Christian lives, for he wants to make us like Christ, and that is an ongoing, lifelong process. Throughout his life, Jesus was led by the Spirit.
If God were an independent unit, then for us who are made in his image, independence would be the supreme value. But God is a community of 3 united in an eternal dance of love. There is fellowship in heaven, communion between the members of the godhead. And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of fellowship. He makes real in our experience the grace of Jesus Christ and the love of God. But he doesn’t just bring us in Christ to the Father, he brings us together to him as the Father’s family. We are brothers and sisters committed to loving one another, whether we feel like it or not. And believe me, we need the power of the Spirit to do this, for left to ourselves, even with our best intentions, we split, divide, separate and judge one another. One of the greatest witnesses to the truth of the gospel is the quality of relationships between Christians. Jesus himself said, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ To do this, we need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. Apart from him, we fail miserably, as the state of the world testifies.
So, may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen