June 2002 – 13 years ago. I had just graduated from seminary, and I was attending Annual Conference to be commissioned for Probationary Ministry, which would be a three year process before I could be ordained. Parading on to the Bishop’s podium with the other candidates, we answered questions before the entire conference. One of the most memorable was: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass yourself or to interfere with your work of ministry?” And the answer is supposed to be, “No, Bishop.”
After three years of probationary status, I was recommended for ordination in 2005. Paraded back out onto the Bishop’s Podium, we answered a different set of questions. This time it included the historic questions passed down from John Wesley’s days:
“Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?” The expected answer to both questions is “yes.”
This question stems from Wesley’s concept of “salvation by grace,” and centers on the third understanding of Grace – Sanctifying Grace.
Two weeks ago, we experienced Prevenient Grace-God’s YES to us through the baptism of a baby, and then we experienced Justifying Grace – our YES to God through the baptism of a mature teenager.
Last week, we held a service of lament and for our brothers and sisters of Emmaunuel AME who were killed from a place of racist hate. This morning, we will look to see those places of Sanctifying Grace, where God is helping us move on to perfection in love.
Sanctifying Grace is God’s grace continually working in us as we deepen our faith to pattern our lives on Jesus. We are not yet what we shall be – we are constantly becoming. We grow in our knowledge of God and commitment to serve God. We believe that through Sanctifying Grace we are transformed into a greater likeness of Jesus, and therefore, or God. This was one of the more controversial teachings of the early Methodist movement – that it was possible to realize Christian perfection in this life, which meant perfect love, having the mind of Christ. The Wesleys taught that as we open our lives and our hearts to the love of God, our spiritual practices invite us to be more loving toward others. It’s Vertical axis/horizontal axis. Our spiritual connection to God, places us in loving connection to others. Wesley would call it Personal Piety & Social Holiness. Inward holiness, activates an outward response to do good works. This love changes the way we live our lives. Through the Holy Spirit, we manifest our gratitude in our service to God and our neighbor.
It asks of us, “Are you part of the healing of the world?”
John Wesley was known – and ridiculed – in his day for his belief in the doctrine of Christian Perfection. But John Wesley insisted that while none of us can be perfect by our own ability or will, we believe that through Sanctifying Grace we are transformed into a greater likeness of Jesus. Through Sanctifying Grace we are blessed by occasional moments, fleeting instances, of knowing and living in God’s perfect will.
There is a practice in the Pacific Northwest UM Annual Conference. At all of our annual conference meetings, the clergy sing the Bishop’s Hymn to our Bishop patterned after our scripture this morning, I John 3. It is a hymn that holds a powerful promise for a in sanctifying grace and moving onto perfection.
Beloved, beloved, we are the children of God,
and it does not yet appear what we shall be,
but we know that when Christ appears, we know that when Christ appears,
we shall be like Christ, we shall be like Christ, we shall see God face to face.
Some of the events of this past week in our country not only make me proud to be a U.S. citizen, but also give me hope, that we are held in sanctifying grace moving us on to perfection.
Following the devastating news of more racial violence in the historic church of Emmaunuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, we have experienced a week of hope, a week of Sanctifying Grace, a week of moving on to perfection in God’s grace in this country. So I want to list just a few of those moments:
We have experienced Sanctifying Grace in the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday, June 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 that federal subsidies for health insurance premiums could be used in the 34 states which did not set up their own insurance exchanges. This will protect access to healthcare for people who need it.
Just 24 hours later we experienced Sanctifying Grace in the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday morning that marriage is a legal right for ALL people. The Supreme Court made same-sex marriage just marriage in all fifty states. LOVE WINS!
We experienced Sanctifying Grace in the tipping point to finally take the Confederate Flag down in various places across the South. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. The governor of Alabama also ordered the flag to be removed from the state capital. Retailers of items bearing the Confederate flag image are removing it from display and sale. Yesterday morning, June 27th, 2015, Bree Newsome climbed the 30 foot flagpole to to expedite it’s descent. She was promptly arrested when she reached the ground and the flag was raised again, but Bree Newsome remains my hero.
We have experienced Sanctifying Grace in the Episcopal Church electing its first African-American presiding bishop, choosing Bishop Michael Curry of N.C.
We have experienced Sanctifying Grace as our church released the life of Nels Bjarke (age 96) back to the heart of God yesterday.
We have experienced Sanctifying Grace in President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who preached on grace in the African American tradition. If you haven’t listened to President Obama’s eulogy I encourage you to do so. Here are a few of his words:
Rev. Pinckney embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long — that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.
The killer’s acts drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.
He didn’t know he was being used by God. Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. He could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.
He could not imagine how the city of Charleston, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.
Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. (Applause.) The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but he gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.
For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, now acknowledge as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.
By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.
But I don’t think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.
Clementa Pinckney found that grace.
Cynthia Hurd found that grace.
Susie Jackson found that grace.
Ethel Lance found that grace.
DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace.
Tywanza Sanders found that grace.
Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace.
Myra Thompson found that grace.
Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us. May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home.
There is much to be done in income equality and racial justice and so many other places, but today, we celebrate that Hope and Grace abound!!
I John 3:2
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like Christ, for we will see God as God is.
I John 4:11-13
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.