A Chosen People
A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a video
featuring Jon Stewart of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, where in a piece
about the wedding of Chelsea Clinton, who is a Methodist, Stewart said this:
“Methodists are like the University of Phoenix of religions.
Just send them 50 bucks and click ‘agree’ and you’re saved.” Now whether you
love or hate Jon Stewart, the fact is that his critique is pretty poignant
about what Methodism has become. In a lot of ways, our denomination has
forgotten who we are called to be as Christians and Methodists. As our t-shirts
suggest this morning, it’s time we did some “rethinking” of church. To do that,
we don’t need to focus first on something new, but rather pay attention to our
If you were to ask me to use one word to describe what
Methodism is about, I would tell you that word is “grace.” If you look up
“grace” in the dictionary, you see it defined as “elegance” or “politeness” or
“a pleasing quality.” We think of dancers and skaters being “graceful,” for
example. But in theological terms, grace has a much more powerful meaning when
it is applied to what God is and does. Biblically and theologically speaking,
“grace” means God’s unmerited favor—the fact that God loves us even when we
don’t deserve it. Grace is God’s greatest gift to us—God’s love offered to us
without any prerequisites or hoops to jump through. To put it another way,
grace is God’s movement toward us at God’s initiative.
John Wesley believed, as did many of the theologians of the
Reformation, that our salvation is only possible because God moves toward us by
offering grace. When we receive God’s offer of grace, we are “saved.” Now, in a
lot of Christian traditions, salvation is mainly about being saved from
something—going to hell when you die. I’ve been around a lot of Christians who
seem to be fixated on hell as much as, if not more than, heaven. Their idea of
grace is a theology of “turn or burn,” and salvation acts as a kind of “get out
of hell free” card.
Wesley would say, however, that while we do need saving from sin and its consequences, we are
perhaps even more so saved for
something as well—that God’s grace works in us to shape us into people who are
holy and set apart as people who reflect God’s own image. God’s grace enables
us to become the people we were created to be from the beginning—a people who
can walk with God and know the power of God in our own lives in the present.
Wesley was concerned as much about how we live as about how we die, and his
theology was less about a formula for getting people into heaven than it was
about a way to get heaven into people—the way of grace.
Using Scripture as his primary source, Wesley thus
understood grace as the means by which God works a change in us, transforming
us into God’s own image, making us fully whole and fully human in the way God
meant for us to be from the beginning. Wesley would say that God’s grace comes
to us in three movements, which he called prevenient, justifying, and
sanctifying grace. Everything that Methodist Christians do and believe flows
forth from this understanding of grace.
So, today we’re going to look at the first movement –
prevenient grace. Now, here’s a word you have probably never seen before.
“Prevenient.” It comes from the Latin praevenire, which means to “come before,
precede, or anticipate.” Prevenient grace is thus the grace that “comes before”
our conscious knowledge and love of God. It is the grace that God offers to us
even before we know who God is or what God is up to.
Prevenient grace recognizes that God has known us and cared
for us from the very beginning of our lives. Think back to our Call to Worship
this morning, which comes from Psalm 139 – one of the great psalms that remind
us who we are in God’s eyes. Listen again to the Psalmist’s words – “O Lord,
you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up…where
can I go from your spirit?…verse 13 – “For it was you who formed my inward
parts ; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am
fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very
well.” That reminds me, too, of the word God gives to Jeremiah when he calls
the young man to be a prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart.” God’s grace, God’s love, knows us
intimately before we are even aware of it (Jer. 1).
The apostle Paul understood this and reminds the church at
Ephesus that they, like Paul himself, were chosen in Christ “before the
foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love…” that
they were “destined for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ” (Eph.
1:4-5). We were created for relationship with God, to be God’s own children
through adoption, made possible by grace. We are all “destined” for a
relationship with God, but Wesley would say that we have a choice whether or
not we embrace it. Grace is freely offered to everyone, regardless of their
past—as Paul will say to the Ephesians in chapter 2, “You were once dead
through your sins, all of us were, but God made us alive through grace.” God
chose us first, and invites us to choose him, too.
Now, as many of you know, I am an adopted child. My adoptive
mom used to tell me all the time that I was “chosen.” But like a lot of adopted
children, I have also understood the other side of that equation. Studies have
shown that a lot of adoptees struggle to define their identity because, often,
they come into the world as the byproduct of a mistake and can come to believe
that they themselves are a mistake. The result can be either a sense of despair
and low self-esteem, or a driven-ness that seeks to prove one’s worth to those
who gave them up, even if it was for a good reason.
A couple of years ago, I learned some information about my
birth parents, whose names I still don’t know. I was born in a Salvation Army
hospital in Pittsburgh to a 24 year-old unmarried woman. My father, according
to the caseworker, was an officer in the Salvation Army—a pastor. I am the
product of a scandal, a mistake. But when I read Scripture, I realize that I am
not a mistake—I have been chosen by God. All of us have been chosen from the
foundations of the world, from the time we were born, no matter the
circumstances—to be children of God.
We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God does not make
junk, and God does not make mistakes. God has formed us and created us for a
purpose, to be loved and to love, and to reflect God’s own image. We are all
adopted children. We are all chosen!
Problem is that we may begin to believe another script about
ourselves. Our understanding of our worth, our chosen-ness, our reflection of
God’s image, is distorted by what the Bible calls sin. When we don’t know or
understand God’s grace and God’s plan for us, we can begin to believe that we
are something else altogether. We can begin to believe that our worth is bound
up in things like success, wealth, power, and control. We start to search for
meaning in material things and medicate the pain of our loss of identity with
addiction, anger, and despair. Sin moves us farther and farther away from who
God has called us to be.
And yet, God still does not give up on us. Even when we
don’t know God or have walked away from God, God still pursues us. Prevenient
grace is God’s way of calling us back to himself. It’s a reminder of the truth
that God is always moving toward us.
prevenient grace as God “wooing” us—much like one lover “woos” another into a
relationship. That’s a great word, “woo.” How does God “woo” us?
Well, think about this. How did you “woo” your spouse or
your boyfriend or girlfriend? Let me talk to the guys for a minute, because
I’ve been there. Did you approach her like a lawyer, building a case for
yourself? Did you present her with a four-point plan and a Powerpoint
presentation outlining your good qualities and how dating you would offer a
wonderful plan for her life? No! (well, maybe did…I’d love to know how that
turned out!). If you were really wooing her, you’d want to be close to her, get
to know her story, tell her your own story. You’d enlist mutual friends to tell
her about your good qualities (most people get introduced to each other via
mutual friends). You would know that you can’t force her into a relationship
with you, you want her to choose you freely.
It’s an imperfect metaphor, so work with me here, but I
would argue that God pursues us in the same way. God does not come at us with
four-point plans, arguments, and flip charts—God comes at us with a story, his
story, and with an unconditional love. God reveals his love for us through the
beauty of creation, a love letter designed for everyone. God comes to us
through the witness of others who love him, who tell us about his love for us.
God never forces us into a relationship with himself—it is always offered as an
God chooses us, leads us, calls to us. I find it interesting
that the Greek word that is translated as “chosen” literally means “spoken
forth.” God has spoken us forth and has spoken for us. We are “spoken for” to
use the old language of betrothal!
But the invitation is not enough to save us and make us
whole. We have to accept it in order for that new relationship to begin.
Prevenient grace, when we become aware of it, convicts us of the reality that
we are not what we were meant to be. Prevenient grace makes us aware of the God
who is inviting us and reminds us that we are not worthy of that relationship
because of the sin that separates us from God. Prevenient grace can begin to
turn us toward God, however, and prepare us to accept God’s invitation. Next
week we’ll talk about justifying grace—the grace that we experience when we say
“yes” to God.
Another important thing to remember, too, is that our
salvation isn’t for us only. God wants us to be whole so that we can
participate with him in the salvation and redemption of the whole creation.
God’s grace comes to us always on its way to someone else.
John Wesley used the metaphor of a house to describe God’s
movement of grace. In that model, prevenient grace is the porch. When we were
buying our new home, one of the criteria for me was that it had to have a
porch. When I was a boy, my grandparents had a wonderful screened porch on
their old farmhouse, and I used to love to sit out there reading a book or
listening to the Pirates game on the radio, watching the cars and the people go
by on the road out front. From the porch you could see people coming, you know
who is pulling into the driveway by the barn. I could hear my cousins calling
me out to play ball from the porch.
It’s on the porch that we greet people for the first time,
it’s there that we observe the world going by in front of us. It’s on the porch
where hands are shaken, conversations held, and lemonade shared. A porch
invites a new relationship.
One of the reasons I love being a Methodist pastor is that
we have a theology of God’s grace that meets people where they are. As we
talked about last week, we celebrate an open communion, which extends the
invitation of God to everyone. We want everyone to be invited into a new
relationship with God, to step on to the porch and get to know that God who
loved them enough to die for them. We extend an open invitation because we
believe that God will meet anyone who will respond to his offer of grace and
In the same way, we not only baptize those who are old enough
to confess their faith in Jesus Christ, but also infants. Infant baptism is a
sign of God’s prevenient grace – a reminder that God is at work in the life of
this child even before the child knows who God is. Parents take vows, promising
to love this child and raise them so that he or she will know how much Christ
loves them and respond to his grace. Confirmation is the time when we invite
those baptized young people then to step through the door of justifying grace
and accept the relationship that God has been offering them all along. For
Methodists, baptism is always more about what God is doing through his perfect
grace, than it is about our often inadequate and halting response. We don’t
claim our baptism as a sign of how righteous we are, but as a mark of a grace
and love that we cannot possibly earn, only receive.
No matter if you’ve been a Christian (or even a Methodist)
your whole life, or whether you are coming here for the first time and
wondering what all this about, I want you to hear today the good news that God
is extending an invitation to you – an invitation to a new life. You have been
chosen. You are spoken for. You are not a mistake. You are beloved.
This is the message we Methodists should be taking to those
around us, particularly those whose image of God has become distorted. We have
been called to approach people with grace, not judgment, with invitation and
not condemnation. Prevenient grace is a doctrine that teaches us that God is
always and everywhere pouring out his grace on people, even to those who don’t
yet acknowledge or love him. If God is doing that, we must be doing the same. If
we have experienced God’s grace, we are always looked for ways to share it with
Methodists have nothing to boast about or feel superior
about, because we are all about grace. Grace is what defines us. We are chosen
people—Christians are a chosen people–not because we are pious and perfect,
but because of God’s unconditional, unmerited, and unbounded grace. We don’t
burn Korans to protest 9/11, we don’t hate people who aren’t like us, we don’t
see faith as a formula, and we don’t assign people to heaven or hell. We trust
instead in God’s grace for us and for the world, because God is the one who
chooses God’s people. We proclaim that grace through our worship and our
service, and we join God in offering it to the world, praying that the world
will respond to God’s invitation to be whole again.
My prayer is that we are no longer a people who are defined
by a lack of identity, but a people whose identity is all about grace!