The Scandal of Grace
Come to the Table - Lent: Week 1 - Ephesians 2:1-10
I pray you enjoy this message and God speaks to you through it. To listen to this message you can hear it on the Beech Grove United Methodist Church Podcast (podcast releases Monday mornings), or by clicking here.*
Also every week I offer sermon notes as an opportunity for folks in my congregation to have something to take with them for reflection on the sermon or to help in sharing with others. Check them out here!
*Note: Sermon audio does not match the manuscript…sometimes the Spirit moves
2 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, doing the will of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else, 4 but God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace, you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we may walk in them. – Ephesians 2:1-10
I Love Communion
When I was growing up there was something special about every time I took Communion. I could never explain it fully, but every time I went to the table and received the bread and juice I…just felt something. Never sure how to explain it. I always would call it a mystery. The feeling certainly was mysterious.
As I went through my seminary time I wanted to learn more about the sacraments in general because of how much of an impact I felt they had on my faith life. The mysteriousness behind them made them even more intriguing, and while there is always an air of mysteriousness that surrounds the sacraments of the church and God’s connection to them that is the great draw to practice them often. However, the certain air around Communion was particularly drawing.
Important Reminder: In the United Methodist Church, we have two sacraments; Baptism and Communion.
This Lenten Season we are going to focus on Communion
To focus on communion does bring up this understanding that surrounds the entirety that is the church's sacramental practices altogether.
While we view baptism and communion as sacraments in the United Methodist Church, I have chosen to focus this series on communion. NOT because it is more important, but more so to give us the time of deep study around this sacrament.
The basis for this series was something I created when I was taking a sacramental theology class in seminary, but in having conversations with folks around the practice of communion at Beech Grove, I thought it was important for us to dive into why communion is such a vital practice of our faith, why we are called to practice it as often as we gather, and what makes it a holy experience.
As the church, we can sometimes become disillusioned with the true understanding of Communion. It has become more habitual than anything, and sometimes we merely come up receive the bread and juice, and sometimes we don’t treat it with the true sacramentality that the meal is worth. Some see the meal as a holy rite and thereby can sometimes misunderstand the place it holds within the context of our faith.
I have heard from some that practicing it too often causes it to lose its meaning or that the true intention of the meal is not expressed when we take it too frequently. I have heard longing to understand this sacrament and meal deeply, so that we can be assured when this meal is present that it is a holy time, not because of anything on our end, but because of God’s actions within it. However, a deeper understanding of what is at the heart of this sacrament calls us forward to not treat it as a habitual practice no matter how often we practice it, but to see it for what it truly is meant to be, a holy meal celebrated with Christ in which the fullness of God’s grace is both expressed and experienced.
We are going to work our way through the themes of the liturgy in our Hymnal that we use for Communion and observe the various aspects that are associated with the meal, and my hope and prayer is that through this series, this lenten study, you may come to a deeper understanding of communion and truly have your life changed every time you receive it.
We Start With Grace!
To begin, and before we dive into the liturgy, it is important to talk about possibly the most important aspect of communion, or either sacrament for that matter, GRACE.
Grace begins this whole discussion on sacredness and sacramentality.
In This Holy Mystery: A Methodist Understanding of Communion (that doctrinal document I was speaking of) the writers write,
“Sacraments are sign-acts, which include words, actions, and physical elements. They both express and convey the gracious love of God. They make God’s love both visible and effective. We might even say that sacraments are God’s ‘show and tell,’ communicating with us in a way that we, in all our brokenness and limitations, can receive and experience God’s grace.”
Bottom line: Christ is at the center of this meal and through Christ, we are offered God’s grace.
"What is God’s grace?”
We gain a bit of insight on this from one of the earliest theologians of the Church, Paul, and specifically in his letter to the church in Ephesus.
Paul writes in the scripture for this message,
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
United Methodist Doctrine defines it thus:
"The love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.”
Let’s break that down in light of how Paul introduces us to grace in Ephesians.
We learn first that it is by grace that we are saved through our faith.
We also learn that it is a gift and we do nothing to deserve it, and never can.
Even our good works do not impact the grace we receive from God.
Paul does note that in our creation in Christ and our living into that grace we do good works.
Good works should be a byproduct of our faith.
Grace is not something we earn, but it is something, by nature of being created beings we have, and through our faith, we can experience it in all the fullness God has intended.
This idea is placed in juxtaposition to how Paul speaks about a life without God’s grace.
Life With/Without Grace
Paul begins this teaching by saying,
"You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient”
This idea plays into our understanding of salvation that is expressed by Christ. We often say that life without Christ is death, but life with Christ is eternal life. We talk about these instances of spiritual death, and for Paul, it is a reference to the despair that a life without understanding God’s love entails. Paul addresses desires of the flesh, about how we try and live by our own desires.
We can do what we want to do. We can choose to forsake God and move away from God, but Paul notes that through grace God has always been, and will always be there.
"God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace, you have been saved…”
Since God has offered grace to us, our lives are enriched and made better through God’s presence in the life of creation and this is expressed fully in the manner in which Christ comes down to earth and dies so we may fully understand that love. Paul is communicating what a world with and without the lived experience of God’s grace looks like.
How We Experience Grace
For United Methodists, we have developed a language around grace:
We proclaim the one grace that God offers, but that grace can be experienced and manifest itself in three ways.
The first to discuss is what John Wesley termed as, prevenient grace, or preceding grace. Prevenient means “to come before,” and in that understanding, we name how we see God’s grace present throughout all of creation, and it is present before we ever completely understand God’s grace. This is saying that the experience of God’s grace is not indicative of our actions, again we don’t have to do anything to receive God’s grace. God’s grace is there, and present amongst us no matter where we are, or are not, in our faith journey.
Justifying grace is the work in which we do (in part), sometimes we will also hear talked of in similar manners convicting grace. Even with God’s presence all around and within us, we believe that we have that moment where we claim that grace and we are forgiven and put into the right relationship with God. With that understanding, we continue to make right on our part in that relationship. We ask for forgiveness and seek repentance in our lives to enhance the relationship we have with God. However, we would be fools to consider this a one-time experience of grace, because of the nature that God’s grace is always convicting and justifying us in a relationship. That yearning and urge to draw closer to God is that manner of grace working in a justifying manner.
Finally, as we look at the journey of faith, we recognize that God’s grace sanctifies us, so we name this manner of Sanctifying Grace. This is how grace calls us to become better and transformed Christians. Through sanctifying grace we grow and mature in our ability to live like Christ. We are continuing to work our way toward what John Wesley refers to as “Christian Perfection.” Our doctrine reads,
"By perfection, Wesley did not mean that we would not make mistakes or have weaknesses. Rather, he understood it to be a continual process of being made perfect in our love of God and each other and of removing our desire to sin.”
The cool thing is that we experience each of these manners of grace not in a linear fashion through our lives, but at any point in our lives we experience the fullness of grace in any of these three manners, and because of that we understand grace, not in a linear fashion of our lives, but in a manner of the full experience of faith.
Grace, as we unpack Paul’s theology here in Ephesians and we think about the theology we proclaim as United Methodists our salvation, is best expressed as a journey, weaving through the various experiences of grace as we travel the road of faith.
This journey has ups and downs, it has times of deep learning, and it looks forward to being the best embodiment of the Kin-Dom of Heaven that we can be.
Grace is a Journey
This is grace, and it is why Communion is such a major part of our experience as Christians. Today’s sermon has set the stage for why we take sacraments seriously in our faith, and why they are such a vital continual practice in our communities of faith. Sacraments, throughout the history of the church, have been defined as outward signs of an inward grace (an Augustinian definition). However, in Wesleyan thought and theology there is added an addendum of sorts that not only is this an outward sign of inward grace, but we make explicit that it is also a means of grace. By that, we mean that in the meal and time together we experience God’s grace in any of the manners in which they are presented.
Why is this so important for communion?
In Communion, God’s grace is present through Christ and flows through us. It revitalizes us on our journey of faith. It gives us the presence of God not just at the table, but we are given calm and nourishment for the journey through God’s grace.
This defines and sets forth how we will talk during the rest of our time in this series, because grace is at the foundation of this meal, and our lives together. As we work ourselves the rest of this way I hope that you will be able to centralize this meal on that grace that God offers through it and you will find a renewed understanding and love of coming to the table.
Reflect on your understanding of God’s grace.
How do you experience God’s grace, both throughout your faith and within the meal of Communion?
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Look for a time when I do similar series like this and dive into the sacrament of baptism (maybe later this year).
I had hoped to do a study at my church of our official doctrinal document of communion in the UMC (check out the book: This Holy Mystery) alongside this series, but our Easter Egg Factory made it difficult to do so I am looking for other opportunities to do so. Check out this study guide link to learn more
This Holy Mystery: A Methodist Understanding of Communion, pg. 16 (My own emphasis added in italics to convey grace as a central theme for the sacraments).
Ephesians 2:8-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Ephesians 2:1-2 NRSV
Ephesians 2:4-5 NRSV