Compelling Grace, Part 2. How Loving Others Points to God.

For a worldview or religion to be compelling you would expect it to nurture good relationships. This is especially true where offence is involved. Where there are relationships, there are hurting people, for people hurt people. We are human. If a worldview or religion is true, we should expect that it will help us relate to one another and navigate the nasty quirks of our humanity.

Does Christianity provide a compelling vision for relationships including a method of dealing with offence? Some would say “no, Christianity is all rules which makes people get all judgemental.” Others would say, “no, Christianity is all forgiveness which turns people into doormats.” So which is it?

Last week we looked at the compelling way God relates to us. To summarize, God’s relationship with us is based on His grace, not our performance. How are we to relate to others?

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. 2 Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. Ephesians 5:1-2 (NLT)

As God relates to us, we relate to others; with love and grace. Consider the following verses:

7 Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . .
10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. . . .
16 God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other because he loved us first.
20 If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? 21 And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. 1 John 4:7,10,16-21 (NLT)

We are to relate to others in the same manner God relates to us; with love and grace. There are some things we can say about this . . .

First, grace provides a compelling atmosphere for relationships. Some relationships are like sailing in a thunderstorm or like walking on eggshells. Fear is a constant. However, “perfect love expels all fear.” God drives out our fear for He does not treat us as our sins deserve (see Psalm 103), but rescues us, and relates to us, by his grace. What is true with our relationship with God can also be true in our relationship with others. Grace provides a great fear-free atmosphere for people to thrive in growing relationships. In marriage, in family, among friends, at the workplace, in teams, the experience of grace given and received provides a great atmosphere to live, work and play.

Second, grace provides a compelling response to offence. People often deal with offence by either “fight or flight.” Neither work well. The Christian is to do neither. Rather than lash out and risk an all out war, we are to turn the cheek. Some will say that is not at all compelling.  Won’t people will walk all over us and take advantage of our grace? Well, no, grace provides for a flexibility in responding to offence.

Suppose a spouse is abused again and again, and each time the abused spouse is expected to forgive the abuser as if nothing ever happened. Is that compelling? No. I call this “doormat grace.” Some would say this is the vision of Christianity in dealing with offence, but it is not. The Bible teaches the need for grace, love, and forgiveness in relationships, yes, but the Bible also teaches the need for wisdom. The Book of Proverbs is still in the Bible! We need not offer doormat grace, but wise grace. Grace toward offenders means wanting the best for them, it does not mean putting up with the worst for yourself. When you respond with grace, you do not seek the destruction of the offender, but neither do you open yourself up for destruction. The gracious person turns the other cheek instead of hitting back. The wise person also takes a step back.

Grace, when applied with wisdom, sounds like this: “I will not seek your harm, though I think you deserve it, however, I do not trust you and so have set boundaries so that you can not harm me further. There may be opportunities for changing these boundaries in the future, but right now I discern these to be appropriate for my own safety and well-being.” Grace leads to not seeking revenge. It does not lead to acting as if the offence never happened, that trust has never been broken. Wisdom considers trust. Grace considers the possibility of future relationship. Wisdom considers the possibility of future harm. Grace leads to treating people better than they deserve. Wisdom leads to not letting people treat you worse than you deserve.

Grace in relationships is compelling. It provides a compelling atmosphere for relationships and a compelling response to offence which includes flexibility in applying wisdom in responding to offence. Within Christian relationships there is space for growth, reconciliation, boundaries, and safety for oneself. Christianity when practiced in emulation of God, in the Spirit of Christ, and keeping in step with the Holy Spirit, provides a compelling vision for relationships, including a compelling method of dealing with offence. The manner in which Christians are to relate to others is really compelling. This is no surprise of course, for it comes from a real God.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

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Compelling Grace. How the Love of God Points to the Reality of God.

Is the manner in which God relates to us compelling? That is, does the relationship offered by God make us go “wow, that makes sense and is is consistent with a good creator God.” Is it consistent with what the Bible teaches about God, namely that “God is love” (1 John 4:8)?

Many would answer, no. Their impression of Christianity is that you try to keep the rules, then you go to hell when you die because you couldn’t. If that is it, then no, it is not compelling! However, that is not it! Many religions are based on performance, that is, your relationship with God is dependent upon how well you keep the rules. Many people, including many Christians, think that Christianity is based on performance. That, however, is not Christianity.

What does Christianity teach? What does the Bible teach as to how God relates to us?

Let us first go to the Old Testament.

We might be quick to point to all the rules of the old covenant law and assume that relationship with God was, and is, based on performance. However, look closer. Long before the law was given at Sinai, God continued in relationship with humanity. Adam and Eve sinned, which introduced death and separation from God. However, God stayed in relationship with Adam and Eve, and with humanity. Israel was called to be a different kind of people, a people who followed God’s lead. They often stumbled, and yes, bore the consequences. However, despite their poor performance, God stayed in relationship with stumbling Israel, and with stumbling humanity.

In the Bible we have a long record of relationship between God and humanity. Within this, to use literary language by way of analogy, the old covenant is a sub-plot which is essential to the unfolding of the main story. Yes, in the sub-plot Israel’s performance was tied to Israel’s future. If they rebelled against God, they would be exiled. They did rebel. They were exiled. But God stood by them anyway! Through Israel God was working out his plan for relationship with all of us. That plan was not dependent on anyone’s performance, but on God’s grace.

The old covenant law was not the main story, even of the Old Testament. The main story, from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s relationship with humanity, not through our performance, but by His grace.

. . . . God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 2 Timothy 1:8-10 (NRSV) 

Second, let us consider Jesus.

How do you begin your prayers? Is it “O all seeing, all knowing judge, who is ready to pounce on me for every sin”? Jesus, in teaching us to pray, taught us to begin with “Our Father.” The Lord’s prayer begins in away which reminds us that we belong. We begin prayer with a reminder that when we are praying in the presence of God, we are exactly where we ought to be. We belong, even when we are aware that belonging is not what we deserve. In teaching us to pray, Jesus reminds us that we relate to God, not through our performance, but by God’s grace.

Consider too, how Jesus related to people in the Gospels. We have Jesus being gracious to all, being known as a “friend of sinners” (see Matthew 11:19). Jesus did have harsh words, but he reserved his harshest criticism for the religious perfectionists who harped on performance of the law. Jesus modelled a grace-filled life. God relates to us in the same way people related to Jesus, not by our performance, but by his grace.

Consider too, the cross. We sinned; he died. He rose; we live. That is all grace. Eternal life is a gift made possible only by the grace of God.

Third, let us consider Paul, as an example of what the apostles taught.

Paul teaches about grace Ephesians 2:1-10;

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 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. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires 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 to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV emphasis mine)

Though we were in a mess, God rescued us. Paul himself, is an example of grace, since he messed up terribly in persecuting God’s people. If God’s grace can reach Paul, it can reach anyone.

So how does God relate to us?

The Bible teaches that God’s relationship with us is marked, not by the performance of perfect people, but by God’s grace for imperfect people. This is a compelling aspect of Christianity.

Grace provides a great atmosphere for our relationship with God. When a relationship is based on performance, it can be like sailing in a thunderstorm, scary. When a relationship is based on grace, it is like sailing with a good breeze on a sunny day. There can be adventure, enjoyment, and progress. Grace provides an atmosphere perfect for flourishing and growth. When we receive God’s grace, we do not come before Him like a distrusted employee before a cruel boss, or a hated criminal before a harsh judge. The Christian comes before God as a child welcomed into the presence of a good, good father. The Christian experience of grace is therefore consistent with how God would relate to us if “God is love.” The manner in which God relates to us is consistent with a good and loving God. Grace points to the reality of the God we meet in Jesus, God as revealed in the Bible.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)

The Compelling Man. Is Jesus Evidence that Christianity is True?

Who is Jesus and why should we care? Some would say that we should consider Jesus apart from any religious ideas, without asking the “God question.” Let us do so for a moment. Before we ask whether God exists, or, if Jesus has anything to do with said God, what can we say about Jesus? Here are some things:

  • Jesus was a man of compelling activity. He went about doing good. Life changing miracles are ascribed to him, but even if your worldview is not open to miracles, you can at least say that the earliest witnesses knew him to be a man of good works for many people.
  • Jesus was a man of compelling teaching. He is described as teaching “with authority” and “not like the teachers of the law” (see Mark 1:22). He was not educated, yet was recognized as having better teaching than the educated and sophisticated teachers.
  • Jesus was a man of compelling ethics. His vision for behaviour was focused on love long before the Beatles sang “all you need is love.” In contrast to the religious leaders of the day, Jesus pointed out that the divine rules existed for the sake of humans, rather than humans existing for the sake of the rules (see, for example, Mark 2:27).
  • Jesus had a compelling presence. He was known as a friend to sinners (see Matthew 11:16-19). Despite his profound teaching and capability, things which can often make people inaccessible, he was a man of the people. People enjoyed and longed for his presence.
  • Jesus issued a compelling challenge. Whether telling the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” (see John 8:11) or, as happened far more often, challenging the religious leaders, the status quo had no chance.
  • Jesus issued a compelling life-changing and world-changing call. Where it was expected, even hoped for, that Jesus would call people to pick up a sword and fight the Romans, instead he called people to pick up a cross and follow (see Matthew 16:24-26). His call was to the way of  understanding, love, grace, and forgiveness.
  • Jesus had and continues to have a compelling impact. Even if you do not believe in God, or that Jesus is God, you cannot deny that Jesus has had a huge positive impact in the lives of individuals, in entire societies, indeed upon the world. Yes, Christians at times have a negative impact, but the impact of Jesus has been profoundly positive and enduring.

Seeing all that is compelling about Jesus, it is no surprise that Jesus can be fairly described as the most compelling person in the history of the world. We have not even considered the “God question” yet.  Let us now do so.

In Mark 8:27-30 Jesus asked the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”, followed with “who do you say that I am?”. This is perhaps the most important question ever asked. Peter answers “You are the Messiah,” which shows that Peter was beginning to recognize that Jesus was from God in some special way.

We can also ask “who does Jesus say he is?”. Consider;

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” John 6:51
“I am the light of the world” John 8:12
“You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” John 8:23
“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.” John 8:42
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,” John 11:25
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:6-7

In case there is any doubt that Jesus had a very high opinion of himself:

For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. John 5:18

In case we think that John is putting words in Jesus’ mouth, let us consider that the “high Christology” of Jesus is consistent with all the New Testament witnesses. That is, all the New Testament writers affirm, or are in tune with the belief that, Jesus is God the Son. Take for example the opening of the Gospel of Mark, which is the most “down to earth” of the four Gospels;

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ” Mark 1:1-3

This reference to Old Testament prophecy in Mark is not in mere anticipation of a Messiah, a man anointed by God to rescue the people from oppressors. That is not what the prophecy in Isaiah is about. This is anticipation of God, Himself, coming. The Gospel of Mark is about God coming to us, it is about Jesus.

Jesus taught that he was from God, that He came from God in a special way which could not be said of anyone else. But do we believe him? If a person we considered evil, like Stalin, said the kind of things about himself that Jesus said about himself, would we believe him? Given his life, you’d say “Nope!”. Likewise, if you said the kinds of things about yourself that Jesus said about himself, would anyone believe you? Again, “Nope!”. But when Jesus says it, with his compelling activity, teaching, ethics, presence, challenge, call, and impact, plus the eyewitness testimony of people saying “he was dead but lives!”, well that is different.

Consider also, if God were to come to us as one of us, if He were to become incarnate,  especially the kind of promise-making-and-keeping God we find in the Old Testament, what would He be like? We would expect Him to have compelling activity, teaching, ethics, presence, challenge, call, and impact. Because He is love, we would expect a rescue. Because He is powerful we would expect victory over death. Jesus fits!

Who Jesus was, who people experienced him to be, adds weight to who he said he is. Of course Jesus is the most compelling person in history. We would expect that from someone who is “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23), “Lord” (see Romans 10:9), and the “Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” (see John 1:29). He is the great God solution to the great human problem of sin and death.

Jesus is the most compelling person in the history of the world, even without the God question. Add in the God question, and the God answer to the human problem, Jesus is even more compelling! Jesus is compelling evidence that God is, and that God is love. Being a compelling man, Jesus is yet more compelling evidence that Christianity is true.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)