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The Means of Grace: The Language of Faith

John 1:14-18, 1
John 1:1-4

When I was at Asbury this
summer I had a preaching course, which is something I haven’t had for awhile
(can you tell?). There were 19 people in the class, which meant that we heard nineteen
sermons in a row over two days. And you thought one a week was tough!

One of the things we talked
about a lot, however, is that the content of the message is always balanced by
the body language of the messenger. Do you spend too much time looking at your
notes? Then you’re probably nervous or unsure. Do you pace around a lot? That’s
dealing with nervous energy (you can make people dizzy that way).

Preachers tend to pick up
habits of those they respect. For example, when I was a kid my pastor used to
hold the Bible in his hand the whole time he preached and whenever he made a
point, it flapped. I didn’t adopt that particular habit, but I do something
that’s kind of an unconscious homage.

See, instead of flapping the
Bible, I have a bad habit of using my hands too much when I talk. When I took
my first preaching course back in seminary, we videotaped our sermons and then
would watch them in class. The prof would always speed up the tape to show us
our body language, and I looked like I was about to take off. Someone asked me
last week why I put my hands in my pockets…it’s to keep from taking off! (See video below for an example):


It’s interesting to notice how
much our body language, our little rituals, communicate for us. For example, go
ahead and cross your arms. That’s a sign of being “closed” to the person who’s
communicating something to you. I always worry if I look out at the
congregation and see a lot of crossed arms! Now, look down—is you right arm
over your left or your left over your right? It’s usually equally divided,
which says something about our listening position as well!  We learn a lot just by watching peoples’
hands.

Truth is, we’re communicating
all the time in sign language. We usually associate "sign language"
with the beautiful and effective means of communication developed and used by
the hearing impaired – American Sign Language. Not only does ASL make
communication possible for those with hearing and speech impairments, it also
sets them apart and identifies them as a distinct community of people.

But even American Sign
Language isn’t universal.  Like
spoken language, it has different forms, vocabularies, and dialects depending
on the region or country where it is used.  Christian sign language, the language of the sacraments,
however, is universal – recognizable and translatable everywhere from Colorado
to China. 

Today we look at some of the
“means of grace” that John Wesley talked about often – they means by which
God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace begin to shape us into the
image of God we were created to be. As we said last week, growing in Christian
maturity involves a lifetime of practice—the means of grace. For Wesley, there
were two categories of the means of grace – the “instituted means,” those
practices instituted by Jesus, and the “ordinary means” – things like Bible
study, prayer, fasting, etc.

Today we want to look at the
instituted means, which are the sacraments. In the Methodist tradition, we have
two sacraments – baptism and holy communion – because these were instituted and
commanded by Jesus (others add additional sacraments). When we talk about the
sacraments, we’re talking about God communicating with us through a distinct
and holy sign language. As we break the bread and take the cup today, all
around the world people in churches are doing the same thing, recognizing the
same symbols of faith, grace, and hope. 
It doesn’t matter if its Westminster Abbey, an underground house church
in China, or here at TLUMC, we all share a common language of faith:  a “sign language” of “visible words”
that transcends the boundaries of country, color, and culture. 
 

God reveals himself to us in
many and mysterious ways, because God desires us to know him, to experience him, not merely know about him.  If I send
you my resume, you will know something about me, but you won’t really know
me.  Knowing someone takes time,
effort, exploration, and experiencing that person in a variety of
settings.  If you begin to know
someone well, you will be able to identify them at a distance because of the
way they walk;  you can know their
state of mind simply by their expression, by the way they sit or by something
they do with their hands ();  you
can tell when they’ve been in a room just by a lingering feeling (or by the
socks they left on the floor – just ask my wife).  The smell of  a
certain perfume, the softness of a kiss, the wink of an eye all communicate
something that doesn’t require words. 

So it’s no wonder that God’s
communication of grace to us is more often beyond words.  We have not received merely a “word”
from God, but the “Word [that] became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The author of 1 John states at the
outset that it was not an idea or philosophy that he and his community were
proclaiming, but rather, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what
we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and
touched with our hands concerning the word of life.  It is the person of Jesus who is God’s supreme “visible word.”

It is that “visible word” that
we gather to experience today during this World Communion Sunday. It was
Augustine, the great bishop of the 4th/5th century who called the sacraments
themselves “visible words.”  In the
church’s understanding of the sacraments, the bread that is his body and the
wine that is his blood are “visible words” that proclaim Jesus Christ – the
history of his suffering, death, and resurrection, the mystery of his presence,
and a foretaste of his kingdom.  In
the sacraments  the ordinary
becomes extraordinary – not because the elements of water, bread, and wine take
on some meaning or magical form of their own, but because what they represent
(re-present): the presence of the Visible Word, Jesus Christ, and God’s grace
freely given through Christ to all of us. 
In a very real sense, water, bread, and cup are a form of language
through which God reveals to us the mystery of faith. 

John Wesley defined a
sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and
a means whereby we receive same.” British sociologist David Martin has
suggested that Christianity is basically a sign language: These things
"shall be a sign unto you." Christians are people who read the signs
and decipher the code. In fact, this is the best we can do – make sign language
about the eternal, the infinite, the God who does not think our thoughts or
whose ways are not our ways (Divinity in a Grain of Bread [London: Lutterworth
Press, 1989], 53-55, 69-70).

What do the signs of our
sacraments mean?

Baptism is the sign of
initiation into the church, a sign of God’s grace poured out on us. In our
tradition it’s not so much bound up in what our response is and it is a sign
that God is already at work in us. It’s a beginning, a new birth. That’s what
the water symbolizes. It’s only done once – because God’s grace is always good.
I remember the guy who asked me to baptize him a second time because it “didn’t
take” the first time. But I explained that God’s grace is still good and we did
something to remember his baptism.

Communion is the ongoing sign,
the regular practice – a sign of God’s grace and Christ’s invitation. We
celebrate it often because we can’t get enough of that grace! For us, the bread
and grape juice (not wine because of the early Methodist concern about
temperance) signify that Christ is real and present with us (not
transubstantiation, but “real presence”). These are universal signs – meal,
welcome, fellowship- and are open to all.

 The real language of the Christian faith is formed not with
our mouths but with our whole bodies – especially our hands. In many ways,
Christianity is what you do with your hands. Look at the hands and you know all
you need to know (cross formed when receiving communion). Faith is in the
handiwork. Jesus said, "Do this … in remembrance of me." Not say
this … or explain this … or perform this … or sing this … but do this.
       

Maybe we need to go back to
our childhood in order to really understand how this works. Speech pathologists
are even beginning to teach children and parents sign language as a way of
communicating before the child forms words.  Evidence suggests that this actually helps the child learn
speech more quickly.

Perhaps using a similar kind
of sign language helps children experience God more fully as well.  Before the Wesley children could even
speak, Susanna Wesley (mother of John and Charles and 17 other children) taught
them to pray by making signs with their hands. Historians are not sure whether
these signs were simply folding their hands during prayer, or whether it was
making the sign of the cross, as the Wesleys were to do later in life. But they
learned to pray with their hands before they could pray with their mouths. 

I think this is part of what
Jesus meant when he said, “unless you become like little children, you will not
enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I
think that’s an invitation from Jesus for us to go back to a time in our lives
when we didn’t worry about schedules and salaries, budgets and bureaucracies,
prestige and power; a time where “climbing the ladder” didn’t have anything to
do with promotions and stress and everything to do with snagging that freshly
baked cookie on the counter; a time where we didn’t have the vocabulary to
describe the indescribable, where words didn’t matter, but holding mommy’s hand
was everything.

It’s an invitation to simply
hold out our hands, to open our hands and receive the love and grace that God
wants to give us, his children. 
It’s an invitation to stop our ceaseless chatter, to put aside our need
to have everything in our lives quantified, categorized, and sanitized and
simply be:  be in the presence of
God, to listen, touch, feel, taste, smell, experience the indwelling message
and mystery of the Visible Word. 
It’s an invitation to come to Christ’s table, to allow him to love you,
to know you, to speak to you in ways that words cannot capture. 

Here is bread for the journey
of your life.  Prepare your hearts
to converse with God in a new language this day, the language of faith – taste
and see and the Lord is good! – and may his Word satisfy the hunger of your
souls.