“Prevenient Grace: Pre-ven-i-what?!?”
January 15, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
View, print or save PDF: sermon-01-15-17-prevenient-grace
January 15, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
Inspired by several friends, I’ve decided to take on the Open Books Reading challenge for 2017. I suppose it’s sort of a new year’s resolution – I want to challenge myself to read things that I normally wouldn’t read and to push my boundaries and comfort level. I figure I have a whole year to do it, and it averages to about 1 book a month, so it feels manageable. Here are some of the books I’m going to read:
- A book by or about a person from Southeast Asia
- A book set in Minnesota
- A horror novel
- A nonfiction book about science
- A book by or about someone who is transgender
- A steampunk novel
The thought of reading a horror novel fills me with dread. And I had to look up what a steampunk novel is. I had no idea. It’s a subgenre of science fiction that is inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. Having looked up the definition, I still have no idea what a steampunk novel is, but I’m going to read one. I expect I’ll learn a lot from reading about the perspectives of people that are different than mine.
But, then I started thinking – maybe we could use a similar challenge for ourselves at church! A list of faith reading challenges, to expand our ideas and push our boundaries. Sometimes we benefit from reading things that resonate with what we already believe, other times we benefit from reading something we disagree with. The Speaking Christian book by Marcus Borg has been a bit of both. It really resonates with some people, and it has pushed against the beliefs of others. So, what if, in this new year you challenge yourself to read something that really connects with your faith AND something that really challenges your faith?
What if you challenge yourself to read one of the gospels from beginning to end in one sitting? We hear the gospels differently when we read them in their entirety and not just bits and pieces of them. Or, to read the same gospel from two different translations, to see how much they can vary? What if you challenge yourself to read one of John Wesley’s sermons? They are amazing sermons. But, they are also difficult to read because they were written in the 18th century. I’ve asked people for input and have started putting together a faith reading challenge list, and I’ll be sharing it soon. I’d love to hear your recommendations of must reads! Maybe you love to read. Maybe you don’t enjoy it at all, but in the age of audible, you don’t have to read. You can listen to these books, too!
I think we are always trying to push the boundaries of what we know, to expand our experiences and to grow in our faith. We are lifelong learners!!! So, for the next 6 weeks, we are going to tackle something new. We are going to talk about grace.
You might think, “grace?!? What’s new about that?” We sing about grace, pray about grace, I preach about grace, we use the word grace every Sunday– but that doesn’t mean we can necessarily put into words what we mean when we talk about grace.
As United Methodists, we have a very distinct understanding of grace that came from the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley. It’s unique. So, we are going to dive deep. I hope you come away from this 6 week series knowing more than you ever thought you wanted to know about John Wesley, theology, and grace.
What are the reasons we’re going to do this?
- I know you are up for the challenge.
- Wesley’s understanding of grace is foundational to who we are as a church.
- With the topsy turvy storminess of our current political and cultural climate, it’s going to be more important than ever for us to be grounded in grace this year.
Here’s the Peanuts cartoon from Thursday’s Star Tribune:
Theologically, Snoopy and your favorite dog, cat, hamster, rabbit, or snake, are all off the hook! But we aren’t. We aren’t off the hook. We need to know something about grace and baptism and Moses and everything else.
So, we’re going to know something about grace. Maybe you’ll be discovering it for the first time, or maybe you’ll be rediscovering or refreshing your understanding of grace? Either way, I’m excited about it!
GRACE. At the UMW retreat this fall, someone shared that they learned the following acronym to remember the definition of grace when they were in confirmation.
That tells us something about grace, but it’s hard to boil down a definition in five words that start with the right letters! Others have tried as well, so now we have:
Which, gives a person pause. I’m not sure that this makes things any clearer. Carnal entrapment?!? And, then there’s this:
Each of these definitions covers some aspect of what grace is.
John Wesley had a lot to say about grace. It was core to his beliefs, and also the source of tension with other theologians at the time that had different understandings of grace. For Wesley, grace is “the love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” “The love and mercy given to us by God because God wants us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it.” That doesn’t fit into an acronym, but it tells us something important.
Wesley understood grace “as God’s active presence in our lives” and he talked about three aspects of grace: Prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. Each week, we are going to dive deep on one of these. Today, we start with prevenient grace.
Pre-ven-i-what?!? Prevenient grace. It could also be called “preceding grace”, and it comes from the word “pre-venio” which means to “come before.” So, prevenient grace is the grace that “comes before.” God’s grace is present in our lives, and it comes before us. It comes before we are even aware of it. It’s why we baptize babies in our tradition. We believe that God seeks out every human being, before they are even aware of it.
We don’t need to know how to crawl or walk or feed ourselves, we don’t need to understand or know the concept of God, for God to be present and working in our lives. God takes initiative with every human being. That’s prevenient grace.
It’s kind of a big deal. With the assistance of the Holy Spirit, “the outreach of God’s grace to people everywhere can counteract the effects of evil. This ‘supernatural assistance’ is available to Christian and non-Christian alike.” , which means that 200 years ago, Wesley was open to the idea of eternal life for non-Christians. It also means that people that you believe are beyond redemption – well, God never gives up on them. There is always the possibility for redemption and transformation in their life.
Welsey was arguing against people who were saying that not only was that not possible, but that there were Christians who were also not going to be among God’s elect. Calvinists believed that God predetermined, at the beginning of time, who would be saved and who would not be saved, and there was nothing a person could do about it. Didn’t matter what you believed, or how you lived, if God had already decided that you weren’t among the special elect – you were doomed, no matter what. For people who believed that was how it was with God, then grace wasn’t there for all people. Grace was only for the few, and the few who received it – they had no choice. They couldn’t refuse it. They couldn’t resist it. They couldn’t say “no thanks, don’t want it.” As long as you were convinced that you were part of the elect, it was a doctrine that brought people comfort and security. But, imagine what it meant for those who felt outside of God’s care and concern?
Romans 8 was the scripture passage that supported this view of God. We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified.
But, Wesley referenced Jeremiah, who said, “Before you were created in the womb, I knew you” and Jesus, who said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw everyone to me.” Wesley argued, “No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that God’s mercy is not over all his works, that the Judge of all the world is unjust.”
Wesley believed that God offered love (grace) to everyone. And, everyone, in their own way, would have the opportunity to embrace it, or refuse it. We have choice in the matter. But, we’ll get into that more next week.
Wesley says, “Everyone has good desires…although the generality of men stifle them before they can strike deep root or produce any considerable fruit. Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later…enlightens every man that cometh into the world…Everyone…feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace he hath.”
Methodist theologian, Theodore Runyon, writes, “Wesley likened the process of salvation to a house. Prevenient grace serves as the porch, justifying grace as the door, and sanctifying grace as the rooms of the house where we are called to dwell.”
I love prevenient grace. And, I love porches. It’s not as catchy as an acronym, but sometimes an image helps us remember more than words ever can.
Prevenient grace is the porch. It’s the love of God that greets you, welcomes, you, embraces you… before you’ve had a chance to even make it to the door. Even if you don’t make it in the door, the Spirit has placed a chair on that porch beckoning you to have a seat, where you can know God’s love and mercy.
Remember that, the next time you see a porch. The next time you think things are hopeless beyond redemption. The next time you need a reminder of the love of God that is always before you. Amen.