Signpost: Grace

Today’s reading is 2 Corinthians 5:17-21Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Ian.

Today we are temporarily departing from our preaching series on Mark, for what I am calling, ‘Signpost Sunday’—an opportunity to update the church on some things, and also for me to input to this as your vicar.

I have chosen this short reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, because it captures in these few words, the complete and utter transformation which comes to each of us, when we know God in Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives. The most significant and liberating message ever given to the people of the earth, is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of God’s grace.

Grace is a constant theme in the Bible, and it climaxes with the coming of Jesus. As it says at the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ (John 1:17Open Link in New Window). The word ‘grace’, the Greek word, ‘charis’, means ‘favour, blessing, or kindness’. All of us can extend kindness to each other, but when the word ‘grace’ is used in connection with God, it has a much more powerful meaning. ‘Grace’ is God choosing to bless us rather than condemn us for the wrong we do in our lives, which would otherwise get in the way of our relationship with him. Grace is God’s blessing to us, however unmerited this may be – the unconditional love of God.

I was blessed with lovely parents. My mum died in 2013, my dad in 2017. They were fallible like you and me, and had their own struggles and challenges. But as their child, I knew utter love. I may have told this story before. But it is one that is forever with me… Glass panels in some bedroom doors / Andrew and I playing /smashed / Dad’s reaction…

Dad’s unconditional loving response to this, was enough. I We weren’t shouted at, we weren’t punished …the grace and love of his response was powerful—and sufficient. We are forever thankful for such love, and it helped mould us and make us.

We can never earn our way back into favour, back into a whole and loving relationship with God, whatever we do. It is only, as the apostle Paul says, ‘…by grace we are saved, through faith, and this is not of our own doing; it is a gift of God – not the results of works.’ And…

‘If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation…old things have passed away… all things have become new.’

The Christian life is founded on this wonderful truth. Paul’s statement in these verses is dramatic—that we become new creations. This has huge implications for our lives.

The old things have passed away. We are in the loving embrace of God, and nothing can defeat or overwhelm the grace and love of God, as revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

I had quite a formal religious upbringing. We went to church with mum and dad, at Christ Church Swindon, usually a very formal service. My brother and I went to boarding school at 8, and had compulsory chapel every day—sometime uplifting, sometimes utterly tedious! I struggled for a long time in getting to the point of accepting the unconditional nature of God’s grace and love. It was not in fact until well after our marriage, when we went to church together, and after I had been persuaded to join a house group, that the penny finally dropped for me. In fact, I stopped going to the group due to processing all my stuff. But during this time, I finally understood that there weren’t hoops for me to jump through, I didn’t have to prove anything, I didn’t have to constantly feel inadequate or not up to the job when I compared myself to others etc. In the quiet of my home, I prayed a simple prayer to Jesus, saying sorry for the things I had done wrong in my life, thanking Jesus for what he had done for me on the cross, asking his forgiveness and to come into my life, and receiving the gift of his Sprit. In that moment, I knew that my life had changed forever. A huge weight lifted. I had been made new.

This is the grace of God—the free, undeserved goodness, favour and love of God for you and me.

Life is too often filled with striving and struggling, conflict and confusion… and what an 18 months this has been, with a global pandemic on top of all else.

Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘There is nothing but God’s grace. We walk upon it; we breathe it; we live and die by it; it makes the nails and axles of the universe.’

Would you like to know and receive more of the grace of God? I know I would. And what an incredible and beautiful thing it would be, for our church community to be one so filled with the grace of God, infecting and permeating everything we think, say and do, that this grace and love just spills out into overflowing into the communities we serve, the communities in which we live, and our workplaces and families.

This is God’s gift to the world, in Jesus Christ, and through his Church—powerful, beautiful and gentle. And this is what God has placed on my heart as we look to the future, that we clearly become a community of God’s grace and gentleness, for each other and for our neighbour. This means that our thoughts about each other, our words about and to each other, our actions between each other, are seasoned with God’s holy love, are marinated in the fruit of the spirit, and became a veritable feast of hope, joy, light, life and meaning for all those we meet along the way, as well as for ourselves.

Last Monday, at a PCC Extra, we started the process of discerning God’s new purpose and vision for St Matthews over the next few years. It is timely. This past period has been one of constant fire-fighting, with many people living and working outside their comfort zones under great pressures. It was hard to see the wood for the trees! Many still, continue to live with the consequences and burdens of this time. But we are emerging7mdash;and we are adjusting, re-gathering, re-connecting, re-opening, and we are re-building… There is a real Holy Spirit filled hope in the air. God is at work.

By the grace of God alone, and in the power of his Holy Spirit, not through our own efforts, and not motivated by our own fears or ambitions, as we live lives of faithfulness, God will build something new… we shall be, both individually and together, ‘a new creation’.

This new vision process is being facilitated by Chris Bradley, a faithful Christian brother, with professional experience of leadership and organisational development both within the church and in the secular world. We’ re in good hands, and the process will rightfully take several months. I ask you to respond to a call to pray earnestly throughout this process. The emerging vision and plan will frame and encompass what we do as a church for the period ahead.

In the meantime, we also continue with our commitment as a church to outreach via the Alpha Course. It is wonderful this autumn, to be able to meet in person again, over a meal together. Alpha is a God sent opportunity for anyone to ask big questions of life and faith. Our commitment to this as a priority, continues with vigour and enthusiasm. Please pray for our current Alpha, and also for our plans and hopes for the next Alpha which will start in January.

We are also trying new things. In addition to trialling a re-introduction of an early service twice a month, there is the 4pm Service, a more informal, café style of church. We are praying about connecting with the large numbers of young people in our communities, who need the grace of God as much as anyone. It has been an utter joy to meet new folk at this, Alpha and our other services.

Our ongoing commitment to discipleship and outreach is reflected in our continued support for Children, Families and Youth ministry. Thank you for your support, financially and practically. It is really tough emerging from pandemic, as we seek to re-connect and re-build. Thank you to John, Laura and all those who, at relatively short notice, so joyfully and willingly supported our Harvest Fiesta weekend, when we met neighbours and friends from the community and simply enjoyed making connections.

Please take John Stilwell into your hearts and prayers, as our CFY minister in this season.

How do we stand strong and firm in the message for God’s grace for the world, while the pressures and demands of the world seem to crowd in? We ground our understanding of God’s grace in biblical truth—God’s holy word in the Bible. This is why Home Groups and Bible Study Groups are so important—for friendship and support and also for encouraging biblical learning, to help us go deeper, and grow in wisdom and understanding. This is an essential underpinning of the Gospel of Grace. And there is a postscript to my earlier story here.

Do you remember I said I stopped going to the home group? For various reasons, I never went back, as the groups went through a big re-organising. Deborah and I in fact took on leading a new group. But somehow, in the busyness of life and a big church, I never had a conversation with the old home group leader about why I stopped. It was not until a few years later, when we were leaving Knowle to go to Cambridge for theological training, that I sat down with Peter, and he quietly mentioned this. I confess I was mortified. Life had cracked on for me, and I really hadn’t given it a thought. I explained to him that the time in his group had in fact been life-changing—that my encounter with God because of those groups discussions and reflections, had turned me upside down and inside out—and that I actually gave my life to Jesus Christ as a result.

I thank God I managed to tell him, and that he so gently raised it. It was more healing and wholeness for him and me. Peter very sadly died from cancer a few years later. But he knew and knows the Lord. Learning the truth of God from the Bible is life changing.

There is much else that St Matt’s is embracing and taking forward—our commitment as Christians to care for God’s creation, at a time of real crisis in our world; our commitment to diversity and to fuller engagement with our parish context and communities; and the responsibility for us all to be looking out for the needs, concerns and wellbeing of each other, our neighbours and friends. Do you know, I have been surprised at how many people don’t know each other at St Matt’s, even though they might have been here for many years. And we have a relatively small congregation. Go and say hello!

We are also committed to maintaining our unique church building as a Christian place for of sanctuary and service for the community. We are facing some financial and practical challenges here, which I am confident, by the grace of God, we shall overcome.

Much is being lovingly and joyfully given and received. But we remember too, that many are still living under great stress and strain, anxiety and fear in these times. This is why I place this brief update in the context of God’s grace. As the Lord said to the apostle Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9Open Link in New Window). In other words, let’s totally surrender our lives to Jesus. Depend on him, be guided by him, have faith in him and his purposes for us, listen to his voice, follow his ways, and know the joy of being a community of God’s grace and gentleness.

Let’s pray:

In thy word, Lord is my trust,
To thy mercies fast I fly;
Though I am but clay and dust,
Yet thy grace can lift me high. Amen

Thomas Campion

There will be a video version of the service.

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