Captured by Grace

[This message was delivered on 1/31/21 at Perinton Presbyterian Church, Fairport NY. The video of it in that service of worship can be found at Perinton Presbyterian on FaceBook.]           

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:4b-9, NIV)

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, “The Message”)

What would you see as the most dangerous occupation in the New Testament? I have my choice and I think I’m right. It is an occupation with which I am well acquainted. Does that give you a clue? I think the most dangerous occupation, the one most to be avoided, is religious leader. The New Testament sees being a religious leader as dangerous. Ouch! Jesus had the hardest time with the religious leaders and the religious leaders had the hardest time with Jesus, who wouldn’t fit into their neat religious categories.

I was born into a home of Christian faith. I always knew about Jesus. My mother nurtured me in the faith in wonderful ways. My dad never talked about faith and I think sometimes he went to church reluctantly, but he went because he loved my mom and wanted to be a good example to me. He mainly communicated love for me by playing baseball with me and coaching my Little League and Pop Warner teams. My mom took care of communicating the faith and she did a fine job. Believing in Jesus was as natural as breathing. This Jesus was kind, loving, and gracious.

Then in my teen years this religion thing got complicated. In my home church there was an emphasis on having dramatic conversion experiences. So I was born again. And again. And again. And again. My youth director encouraged us to go to Camp Pinecrest in the San Bernardino Mountains not far from Los Angeles. I could earn credit for going to camp by memorizing Bible verses. So I memorized all the verses he gave us. I think I went to youth camp free. At this Pentecostal youth camp I had a good time. There were plenty of good looking girls there and nightly meetings under a big tent, in which full manipulation was used to get us hormone driven teens to the altar. I went forward for, I think, four years in a row. One night was especially memorable. I arranged to be in the tent service when it began, then sneak out with a girl during the singing. We walked around the camp holding hands (and maybe a little more), which was strictly forbidden. Then we snuck back in just as the preacher ended. He was giving a powerful invitation to come forward and get right with God. I was nailed. Guilty. I ran to the altar with tears streaming down my face. My youth director came and put his hands on my shoulders and prayed with me. He was proud of me.

There was another matter that was bothering me even more. We had a code of conduct in our church. To become a member of my church meant signing this code which named five behaviors that were so sinful—so dreadfully sinful—we were not to do them: smoking, drinking any alcohol, social dancing, going to movies, and playing cards. If we refrained from those behaviors, we were in. There was nothing about racism or injustice in the code. We were taught that we were the only real Christians. Roman Catholics weren’t in the circle, with all their ritual. Mainline Protestants weren’t in; there was no emotion in their faith. Certainly Presbyterians weren’t in; they believed in things like education and science. We were in. We were safe. God was ok with us, as long as we didn’t smoke, drink, dance, go to movies, or play cards. In my religion there was a toxic cocktail of emotionalism, legalism, and arrogance.

I started thinking that this doesn’t make sense. For one thing, my mother was from Italy and we always had wine on the table at dinner. And we occasionally went to see movies, like “The Ten Commandments.” But we went to see it at a drive-in, so we didn’t actually sit with the sinners watching it in a theatre. The gentle grace of Jesus I experienced from my mother didn’t jive with the manipulated faith and harsh legalism in my church. I was troubled. Did Jesus ever condemn dancing, playing cards, or going to a good movie?

Saul, whom we know as Paul, was a religious leader before he was a follower of Jesus. His credentials were impeccable. His sash was filled with merit badges. His pedigree was impressive—he was best in show. He lists seven items: circumcised on the right day, the right citizenship, born in the right tribe, a Hebrew to the core, a Pharisee keeping the whole law, so zealous for his religion that he persecuted followers of Jesus, and flawless in attaining righteousness through keeping the law. He was a Hebrew Eagle Scout, a National Honor Society member, and was an altar boy all rolled into one. If anyone could earn God’s favor, it was he. God must have felt very lucky to have Saul on his team.

And then—boom! —everything changes. The risen Jesus reveals himself to Saul, and old Saul’s transformation is so radical, so thorough, that his name has to change too. Old law-keeping goody-goody Saul becomes captured-by-the-grace-of-Jesus Paul. He is saved, redeemed, and transformed—not by meticulous law-keeping, which he had worked so hard to do, but by the amazing grace of Jesus that found him, which he could never earn or merit. Something like that started happening to me, too. I wasn’t as devout as Paul, but I was better than most teens that I knew. If I broke the rules at times—and I did—it was in minor ways. I avoided the big sins.

In this new-found freedom Paul enters a journey of letting go of what he once held so tightly and pressing on toward living in this incredible grace found in Jesus. Paul will take all that he once valued: all his merit badges, all his Sunday school perfect attendance pins, all his Bible memorization certificates, all that he once used to prove to himself and others that God was pleased with him, and trash them. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish (or garbage), in order that I may gain Christ. . . .”  That word translated “rubbish” or “garbage” is more accurately the “dog dung” of “The Message.” I don’t like to use Greek words in preaching, but here I make an exception. The word is “skubala” and it literally means—what you probably are thinking it means. Refuse, dung, dog droppings, excrement. That is what all Paul’s tedious religious rule keeping came to be: “skubala.”

My story is similar. I was raised in this faith, knowing about Jesus from my mother’s knee. I worked hard at pleasing God and was good at it in the eyes of others. I was faithful in Sunday school and worship. I have been a religious leader for most of my adult life. And that is dangerous. Religious leaders can be enemies of God’s grace. I have growing sympathy with people that find Jesus more attractive and the Church less attractive, as the church too often communicates judgmentalism and harsh legalism, as it looks down at the kind of people Jesus loved to be with. As religion is popularly understood, I don’t want to be religious. I love the Church—the body of Christ—but I am often offended and embarrassed by churches and religious people. I am greatly troubled in this time that the Church is being used for partisan political purposes. I want the Church to work at being more like Jesus and less like religion. I want to be more like Jesus, who is ever reaching out to the unlovely, touching the untouchables, caring for the most needy. I have so far to go, but I intend to keep growing in grace.

That’s my story in short form. Like Laura and Julie, I was nurtured by loving parents that shared the good news with me. For that I am every grateful. But I was burned by religion and I don’t ever want to be that kind of religious person or leader. As “The Message” renders the words of Jesus, I want to leave that old religion behind. It never worked and never will. I have been captured by grace. I couldn’t earn it or merit it. There is not a thing I can do to impress God. The amazing grace of Jesus has come to me and I want to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

I didn’t figure this out or discover it. Jesus found me and showered me with his grace. And everything began changing. And it hasn’t stopped. I have been captured by grace. I am a captive of grace.

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