RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES: 1 LOVE IS FIRST,
MIDDLE, AND LAST
SCRIPTURE: Mark 1:4-11; John 1:14-18
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
Today we begin a new sermon series, entitled, “RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES.” The eminent theologian Karl Barth, who preached with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, inspired this idea. Each week during January and February, I will present an idea from the news --- some current, and some a few years old and we will look at in light of a major Christian doctrine. Today’s news is the doctrine of grace, the love of God for each of us.
You probably heard the news. It broke a few months ago. It was the lead story on CNN’s business report, news that rocked the tech and business world. “Hundreds of millions of PC’s (personal computers) at risk for a virus attack.”
Some newspapers warned: “Be extra careful if you go on line this week. Hackers have discovered a flaw in Microsoft Windows that allows them to take control of your computer. Just about all versions of Windows are vulnerable, and Microsoft says it won’t have a fix for an indefinite time, so take extra care not to open any email from someone you don’t know, and stick to websites you trust.”
Then, guess what happened during the 2016 Presidential Campaign and Election, the United States has accused Russia of hacking into national defense sites and the Democratic National committee. Cyber warfare! I don’t think our personal email accounts are of interest to the Russians but if a company the size of Microsoft and the National Security Agency can’t protect itself or us, how secure can any of us be?
A government official said this: “The potential security threat is huge.”
But I am here to give us God’s perspective on our vulnerability, and I am here to report the news is good. It doesn’t matter how big or small we may be in the world’s eyes, we can be confident in the knowledge that we are invulnerable when it comes to the love of God.
So here is the bulletin everyone: God’s love is free. It is a gift. All we have to do is receive it. It is called grace, and I call that news you can use.
The threat of a massive virus with the potential to infect hundreds of millions of Windows P.C.’s gives us a penetrating insight into the vulnerability of human life. Microsoft is one of the world’s biggest, most strategic, wealthiest and most positive companies in the world. By just about every measure of business achievement it is a tremendous success.
Yet this threat also strikes close to home because Microsoft’s vulnerability affects the vulnerability of just about every home computer. Nothing is invulnerable. Everything is fragile. Everything we create is, in the end, a house of cards.
The opposite side of the coin is no matter how small, poor, or bad anyone of us is, we are still loved by God. Regardless of the ruin we create, the forgiving, transforming love of God is always ours. Our baptism allows us to be raised with Christ through a grace that allows us to belong as children of God in a way that can never be taken away.
Another area of great fear for many people today is that of identity theft. No one is exempt from the criminal minds who seek to steal our personal identifying information for their own financial benefits. Our belonging as children of God gives us a new identity, one that is never lost or damaged.
God’s grace does not mean a free ticket out of the difficulties of the world --- and I don’t recommend baptizing your computer as a way of preventing viruses. What God’s grace does do is allow us to belong to God, one of the blessings of life that cannot be taken away or destroyed. Our identity as a child of God is immutable. We are always loved by God.
As United Methodists, and thus heirs of John Wesley, we place strong emphasis on the grace or love of God. We believe grace is foundational in the character of God and the creative source of all God does and is in creation.
Today is “The Baptism of Our Lord” Sunday. It is a time when many churches baptize infants. In both our remembering and in our baptizing we are proclaiming the grace of God. We baptize infants as a sign they are loved by God, and we are too, even before we are aware of that love.
The reading from the Gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus’ baptism. Yet, this story, and all of Mark’s gospel, starts with another person, John the Baptizer. He is described as proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The key to understanding Jesus’ life and ministry is here in this introductory story.
Mark is putting forgiving love, grace, out in front. It is where we start when we seek to understand what Jesus is all about. Mark also makes it explicit “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him.” Grace, the forgiving love of God, is given front billing as being the most important and it is offered to everyone.
The gospel writer John makes the same point about Jesus but in his typical more poetical style. For John, Jesus is full of God’s glory, full of grace and truth. From Jesus we have all received grace upon grace. All this is in John’s prologue, setting the stage for our complete understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus is understood to be full of grace, and Jesus points beyond himself: “No one has ever seen God, it is God the only Son, who has made him known. This gracious nature of God is God’s nature as well. Grace is the dominant characteristic of God.
It was John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, who developed what he called the scriptural way of salvation. In this understanding, Wesley outlines a process by which God loves us and the effect of God’s love has upon us.
Grace is unmerited love. It is love freely given. Love with no strings attached. If we don’t have to do anything to earn this unmerited love, Wesley said it was “prevenient.” By this term he meant it was available to us and worked in us before we realized, before we could even turn from our sin to receive it. It was love given before the act of repentance. Thus, love is first.
Scholars have often spoken of the “primacy of grace,” meaning it is foundational. Yet it is also first in chronological sequence. God acts to love before we do anything. Nothing is original with us. God is the original lover. John Wesley, in a sermon preached in 1740, entitled “Free Grace, stated: “Our actions are the streams not the fountain. They are the fruits not the roots. They are not the cause but the effects of God’s free grace.”
According to Wesley, the second aspect of grace is justifying grace. This is grace that declares us innocent, forgiven. It is the love that redeems us by healing the broken relationship between us and God. This is love in the middle, in the very midst of the messiness of life. God gets into the trenches of life alongside us and tells us that no matter what we have done we are still loved.
Wesley contended there was yet a third dimension to love. Love didn’t just reach out to us, and then reunite us with God, but God’s love also equips and strengthens us for greater love. Wesley called this sanctifying grace, perfect love, growing in grace, going on to perfection. It is the aspect of God’s grace that if responded to, keeps us growing spiritually and acting faithfully all our lives.
Thus, God’s love is first, middle, and last. God’s love is all.
Here is the summation of the whole of life. No matter what wonders we have created or what destruction we have caused grace is offered to us. Connections are available to us. Christian theology contends that in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit God’s love is always present to us. God seeks eternally to connect with us.
However, if grace is ignored or refused, there is no real pleasure in life. Love is first, middle and last.
The grace of God is unearned, unending, and unbelievable. It is always there for us. Thanks be to God.
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH