5-19-19 “Grace That Forms Us”
I’ve had what I can only call some “DUH” moments in the last couple of weeks. Or, as I suggested to Lynn, they could be “mini-strokes.” I’ve found myself forgetting how to do some very basic things around the house in recent days, or going to do something only to remember that I had already done it. I told Val the other day that I had the thought that I need to remember to invite the new pastor to come to Dinner With Friends in June so he/she can experience it, only to then remember that I will be at Lakeside that week, and only then to realize, duh, that I had led my last Dinner With Friends earlier this month and had not realized it. So, on second thought, I’m not sure if what I’m experiencing are mini-strokes, or many strokes.
In another “duh” moment, I also realized after leaving worship last Sunday on Mother’s Day, that I won’t be here on Father’s Day, a thought that was reaffirmed as I began studying Galatians 4 for this week’s sermon. One thing that I began doing earnestly during my renewal time is spending time nearly every day reading and studying scripture. Knowing that I would be doing this series on Galatians, I began reading and studying the book well in advance and have spent time in it nearly every day since the series began. Galatians 4, our chapter for today, invites us into a relationship with God like the one Jesus had, where we feel compelled to think of God as a parent, as a Father, Paul puts it.
And that made me think of Father’s Day and then of my father. And apparently, it did the same for our District Superintendent, Rev. Tim Bias, as well.
Tim shared in the District Newsletter this week that, growing up, his father was his hero and that he wanted to be like him and wanted his father to be proud of him. And even though his father put no pressure on him to perform, he wanted to please his dad. His father was an athlete in high school, playing basketball and football, so Tim played basketball and football. His dad was a contractor who built houses, churches, hotels, and libraries, and as a teenager, Tim used to take his friends around town and show off the building his father had built. He was proud of his father and wanted his father to be proud of him.
When he was 24 years old, Tim’s mother asked him to come to her home - there was something she wanted to talk with him about. When he arrived, his mother shared with him that the man Tim had called Dad, the man he had grown up idolizing and striving to be like, the man who Tim so wanted to be proud of him, had adopted Tim when he was 9 months old. As Tim put it,
“The reality of God’s grace came rushing into my life. He had chosen me to be his son and had given me his name. Dad loved me from the beginning. He didn’t care whether I played football, basketball, or became a contractor. He had already loved me and accepted me. All I could do was accept his love for me.”
Reading Tim’s story brought tears to my eyes as I thought about how my father had died when I was six years old and wondered how different life might have been had he lived. I thought about all of the men in my life at that time, fathers of my friends, men from church, pastors, who stepped into my life to try to fill some of that void for me, not out of obligation but out of love for my parents, my family, and for me. And that made me think about the man my mom would eventually marry when I was 19 years old and in my sophomore year of college. George Owens was kind and gentle, a Christian man who, like Mom enjoyed painting, and who had raised kids of his own already and now, in marrying my mom, was taking on a new family by choice. And out of love for both Mom and me, and out of respect for my father, prior to marrying Mom, he have me a gift which I still have. It’s a plaque with the name Anderson on it, and these words,
“You got it from your father, it was all he had to give.
So it’s yours to use and cherish, for as long as you may live.
If you lose the watch he gave you, it can always be replaced.
But a black mark on your name, son, can never be erased.
It was clean the day you took it, and a worthy name to bear.
When he got it from his father, there was no dishonor there.
So make sure you guard it wisely, after all is said and done.
You’ll be glad the name is spotless, when you give it to your son.”
George, while technically and legally my step-father, was more father to me than Dad ever had the chance to be. I had Dad in my life for 6 years, of which I have few memories. George was in my life for about twenty years, dying six months after my mom. And while he was George to me, because I met him as an adult, our relationship was Father-Son. And he was Grandpa to my girls and my siblings kids.
Since Lynn and I married in June of 2004, blending our two families, I’ve come to realize that I don’t like the term “step” when it comes to our family relationships. I know it’s a necessary legal term in order to define what are and are not biological relationships, but I try never to refer to Lynn’s daughters, Leah and Jill, as my step-daughters, preferring to think of them as “our” daughters. I love them like my own, and consider the three grandchildren that Leah and Jill have given us to be our grandchildren, to be my grandchildren, not Lynn’s grandkids by Lynn’s daughters and certainly not “step” grandchildren. I love each of our six grandkids and have unique relationships with each of them, based on who and how they are, not on who their parents are, and I would be mortified - it would break my heart - to think they loved me less as a grandfather because there wasn’t a biological connection. Likewise, I would feel like a fraud, a failure, or an imposter if I somehow looked on those beautiful boys as “second tier” or “less worthy” of my full love simply because they don’t carry my genes.
In our passage from Galatians today, Paul continues to address the issue he’s tackled from the beginning of this letter, the idea that “false teachers” have come along behind him, trying to convince the people of Galatia that God’s grace is not sufficient, that they must adhere to the Law, or at least the part of the Law they think important, in order to be children of God. And Paul is mortified that the people of Galatia whom he has come to love, who cared for him during an illness, might be turning away from that love, the grace poured out on them through God in order to adhere to a Law that, as we shared last week, he said no longer applies in the light of Christ.
And in his desire to correct the false teaching they have been given, he lifts up three ways that the grace of God is working to be formational for them, and for us. First, Paul says, God is forming the world. In Galatians 4:4 Paul states, “But when the fulfillment of time came, God sent God’s Son, born through a woman, and born under the Law” (CEB). In God’s time, God chose to act in Jesus, breaking into the world as a new creation in order to form the world. And this, he says, impacts all people, Jews and Gentiles - EVERYONE - freeing them from all that holds them back, all that keeps them from living as the children of God that they are created to be. As children of God, we are formed into the image of God by our relationship with God the Creator, the God of grace, and not by legalities or rules of Law, or by the powers of the world.
Second, God is forming us as children and heirs of the promise that, as we talked about last week, was given directly by God to Abraham and that supersedes the Law given to Moses third-hand. The Holy Spirit affirms our status as children of God and we are invited into the same close, loving relationship with God that led Jesus to call God “Abba,” or Father.
God’s grace in our lives means that as children of God we don’t earn our relationship with God by following rules. God’s love for us is given to us freely.
And even more, there is nothing we can do that will ever separate us from God’s love, as Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome. So, we are totally, completely and eternally loved by God - we can’t earn it and we can’t lose it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and we respond to this gift by being formed in the image and likeness of Jesus.
This “forming” of ourselves is what we call “Sanctifying” grace, and it continues throughout our lives. The word sanctify simply means “to make holy,” but not in a holier-than-thou sort of way. Instead, God’s sanctifying grace shapes us more and more into the likeness of Christ. As the Holy Spirit fills our lives with love for God and our neighbor, we begin to live differently. The seed or presence of God which is planted within us seeks to move us toward the presence of God in others and in creation. This desire, this seeking, is what we call “Prevenient” grace, or the grace that goes before us, the grace of God planted in us before we even know of God and that seeks to reunite with God throughout our life. When we recognize that seed in our life, when we acknowledge that seed’s presence within ourselves, that is God’s “Justifying” grace at work. It starts from within us before we are ever conceived. And when we acknowledge it in others, we know we’ve begun the process of sanctification, of growing in Christ.
Rev. Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., Dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, refers to this whole process “an inside job.” Raised right here on the Hilltop, Carter lived at 26 S. Oakley, and graduated from West High in 1958. In his book, A Baptist Preacher’s Buddhist Teacher, he talks about how he came to adopt a Christian attitude of peace and pacifism through the teachings of Jesus, as modeled by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and later by the Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda. And one of the things he talks about in his book is that our striving to be more Christlike begins as an “inside job.” It begins within us, by our doing the work to change ourselves, our thinking, our speaking, our actions, before it ever translates into how we live in the world. And he suggests that the only way to have peace in the world is first to have peace within ourselves. We can never hope for peace in others if we cannot become peaceful ourselves. That peace-making that occurs within us is God’s sanctifying grace at work, changing and forming us into the image of Christ.
We participate in that forming, that change, that “inside” work, through what we call the “means of grace.” It is here, by putting ourselves in spaces —physically, mentally, and spiritually—through participation in the sacraments, in the community, in prayer and scripture study, that we are opened up to allow God to fill us and form us. We make room for the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts and lives. We do not do these things to earn something from God. Our spiritual growth is a gift, given to us through the sanctifying grace of God.
As we seek to grow in love for God and neighbor, God works in us to eliminate sin from our lives, because God’s grace is greater than our sin.
And third, while God is forming us in creation and as children of God, God is also forming us in community. Our faith calls us into relationship with one another as the body of Christ. The same grace that has been given to us as gift of God is given to all people everywhere - there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female - and this grace freely given compels us to share grace freely with one another. We have an identity together as God’s children that unites us across our differences in practice and experience. As we come to faith through grace, we are formed individually in the image and likeness of Jesus, but we are also formed in his image together as community. Therefore, we both rejoice together and weep together. We are called to help bring to formation the image and likeness of Christ in others as we seek to help each other live in the freedom of grace rather than the bondage of the law and the world. Paul’s concern for the church in Galatia is that of a parent who grieves over a child who turns from the way they have been taught. As a community formed in the image of Christ, we work with God to reveal the in-breaking of God’s new creation in our church and world today.
Paul’s deepest desire is for the people of Galatia to be formed into the image of Christ, not by adherence to a custodial law whose time has passed, but by the freely given grace of God whose time is eternal. In Jesus, God showed us what it looks like to be fully formed in God, and through Christ we are invited to recognize the Holy planted within us and to grow more Christlike in our formation. Through the love of Christ given for us all we are beloved children of God - not step-children - born of water and the Spirit, and formed in the image of the God of Grace who is love. There is no rule or law or Book of Discipline that can change that. Thanks be to God. Amen.