It’s been suggested that I periodically post a sermon I have preached on this blogsite. Because the sermon on grace that I preached this last Sunday, April 12, relates well to two passions of mine — one of finding God in all circumstances of life and two, of sharing God with those who do not yet know Him — I think this might be a good one to post. For those who are willing to read it (it’s longer than the normal post), I pray it will be a blessing!
GRACE HAS A NAME
Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2
It was Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. I was in CVS Pharmacy for a few items and as I walked down an aisle, I noticed ahead of me two people – their backs to me. A middle-aged woman was at the opposite end of the aisle looking side to side and a younger man with her was standing several feet behind her in front of a cosmetic shelf. He had a bag strapped over his shoulder and he was loading the bag with every bottle he could get off the shelf. Yep, shoplifting. Oops, a Kingdom moment. Looks like my Holy Saturday was about to be interrupted. I walked up and stood in front of him. Both his hands were full of cosmetics – giving renewed meaning to the phrase, “Caught red-handed.” His bag was gaping open and I could see it was filled with stolen items. By looking at him, I could also see he was seriously under the influence of drugs. But as I stood inches from him and he looked back at me, I saw not anger, not violence, but what … a guilty conscience?
“Young man, I’m a lady pastor and God has just busted you,” I said. “I’ll put them back,” he sputtered. I replied, “Sorry, but God let me see you because He knew I wouldn’t let you get away with this.” I put my hand on the strap of his booty bag and called for security. As two male employees approached us, so did his lady friend – with her eyes ablazin’! It was obvious who was in charge in this thieving duo. “Get over here. We’re leavin’,” she yelled at him. He began to step toward her, his bag still full but I touched his arm and he stopped. “God busted you,” I said again. “She’s a lady pastor,” he said pleadingly to his female cohort. Let’s just say she wasn’t impressed. She started screaming, “Get your hand off him! I don’t care if you is a lady pastor!” She began to push me and thump my chest with her fingers. And I saw shoppers leaving the store out of the corner of my eye.
As the employees emptied his bag, they threatened the young man with jail. I heard him say, “I ain’t afraid of no jail. I’m afraid God’s gonna’ send me to hell.” That’s when the woman walked away and I felt compassion welling up in my heart. I locked eyes with him and said, “I will pray for you.” “Please lady pastor,” he said, “pray for me.”
Now this story is not a lesson on how to handle shoplifters. In that regard, I think a wiser thing would have been to go to an employee to report what was going on as soon as I saw it. But in retrospect, I know that God did indeed let me see what was happening, led me in complete peace to confront this young man and even take his lady cohort’s abuse – just so I could hear him say, “I ain’t afraid of no jail. I’m afraid God’s gonna’ send me to hell.”
I have to tell you – that young man’s face has been sort of burned in my memory. Every day I pray for him – for the salvation of his soul. Isn’t that what the resurrection is all about? That God would come and rescue him from a life of drugs, theft, prison – perhaps even death. You see, somewhere along the line, that young man had been taught about God. My words, “God has busted you,” shot an arrow into his heart and he was convicted of his sin. He wasn’t cold and mean like his female friend – he was a God-fearer who knew He needed something that could only come from God. “Please, lady pastor, pray for me.” Wow.
Acts chapter 4:22-23: Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. Ah yes, GRACE: God’s unmerited favor in the face of our sin and depravity. That is what that young man in CVS needed – grace. That is what I pray for him to receive. God’s unmerited favor in the face of his sin and depravity.
You see, without grace, we are sunk. Literally sunk. Our sin drags us down. Do you know what it’s like to be dragged down? That young man in CVS had been dragged so far down, he was drowning in his own sin. He couldn’t get his head up above it. He was sunk. And only grace can lift you up and out when you are that far down. In the fourth chapter of Acts we read of a people who had been that far down and had been lifted up out of that deep, dark place by the amazing grace of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross and His resurrection. John Newton wrote a stanza of his famous hymn about that grace: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear. And grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”
Grace was a common theme with the Early Church. It’s mentioned 11 times in the book of Acts alone. The Apostle John wrote about it – in the first chapter of his Gospel, he said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Sounds like today’s Acts 4:33 – “a great grace was upon them all” – grace upon grace.
And grace was a subject about which St. Paul spoke as much as any single topic – he mentions it more than 100 times in his letters! To demonstrate Paul’s almost over-exaggerated emphasis on grace, did you know that out of the 13 letters Paul wrote and which are included in our New Testament Scriptures, he closed 12 of them in this identical way — “Grace be with you.”
Why do you think grace was so important to St. Paul and the Early Church? I would suggest to you that there are two reasons grace was such a BIG DEAL to them: First, they remembered well what great sinners they had been, how depraved, how lost they were, without grace. Didn’t Paul in one of the last letters, remember his previous depravity and pronounce himself as the “worst of all sinners.” Didn’t Paul used to be Saul, the Christian-killer? Yes, he remembered, they remembered: they couldn’t forget their life before grace. And the second reason Paul and the Early Church loved grace was that they understood grace is not a commodity, it is a PERSON. Grace has a name and His name is Jesus.
John speaks of this Person – this “Grace Person” – in today’s New Testament reading from 1 John. He says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and we testify to it.” You can just feel John’s excitement, can’t you – I KNOW JESUS! As the old song put it, “I’ll shout it from the mountain top! I want the world to know the Lord of Love has come to me! I want to pass it on!”
When was the last time you were EXCITED about knowing Jesus?! When was the last time you were so THRILLED to have a relationship with the Risen and Living Lord that you just couldn’t keep it to yourself – that, like John, you had to tell someone – to “testify” to it?
Then John goes on to herald Christ’s GRACE-giving Personhood later in the reading as he declares, verse 7: “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” Dear Ones, THAT’S GRACE! And verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” THAT’S GRACE! And again, chapter 2, verses 1: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” THAT’S GRACE.
You see, John’s excitement is not just about having known Jesus, having heard Him, seen Him and touched Him, but it culminates in the reality of having received Christ’s grace-giving forgiveness and cleansing from sin! You don’t really know Jesus until you have received His grace-giving forgiveness and cleansing from sin! Now, we don’t know John the Apostle to have been a notorious sinner before knowing Jesus. He was, according to our understanding, just an average guy – a fisherman, someone’s brother, a regular guy. We don’t know that he was some bigtime sinner. But John’s testimony nonetheless, is that you don’t really know Jesus until you have received His grace-giving forgiveness and cleansing from sin. To truly KNOW Christ, you must receive His grace. Grace has a name and His name is Jesus.
So first, John teaches us that we are to be excited about knowing Jesus and having a relationship with Him! Second, he teaches us that to truly know Christ, we must receive His grace-giving forgiveness and cleansing from sin. But then at the end of the reading, John adds a third dimension of this understanding of Jesus and His grace. In the very last verse of our reading, John says, “Jesus is the propitiation (the mitigation, the settlement) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Dear Ones, this is where John hits his point hard and drives it out of the park! John is saying, “Yes, be excited about knowing Jesus! Yes, be thrilled that you have received His grace and been forgiven of your sins! But don’t stop there! Don’t be selfish! This message is for the whole world!”
Now I want to come at this point by mentioning that there is specific way that John in his letters, addresses the people to whom he writes. We find it in chapter 2, verse 2 of today’s reading. Do you see it? He calls them “Little Children”. In 1 John alone, he uses the term “Children” 13 times! In 1 John 3:1, he says this amazing thing, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God.” John has a perspective concerning those who are in the reach of the Father’s love and grace – he sees us as children of God, if we will receive that grace-giving forgiveness offered us through Jesus Christ. It’s as if John views the Church as a huge family album and he knows that the faces portrayed in that album are not complete. There are faces missing from our family album!
This family album is to portray faces young and old, rich and poor, married and single, red and yellow, black and white. It is to portray faces of law-abiding citizens and prison-residing criminals. It is to include the celibate and the prostitute. The healthy and the sick. The home-bound and the home-less. You. Me. Your spouse. Your children. Your children’s children. Your neighbor’s children. Your enemy. And your enemy’s children.
There are faces missing from our family album. Grace is calling them, “Come home. Come home. Ye who are weary, come home. Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling – calling O sinner, come home.” Grace has a name and His name is Jesus. And Jesus is not satisfied with just my salvation and yours. He is looking, seeking the faces missing from His family album. And He is seeking them through you and through me.
John teaches us first, to be excited about having a relationship with Jesus! Second, he teaches us that to truly know Christ, we must receive His grace-giving forgiveness. And finally today, he teaches us that to know Christ is to share Christ. How do you share Christ? How does God seek the missing faces from His family album through you?
Let me close this morning by returning to my experience in CVS Pharmacy on Holy Saturday in light of today’s sermon. Every morning, I commit myself to the Lord. I am not special, but I belong to a very special Grace-giving God, and I want Him to order my day – to determine what and who crosses my path. I want to serve Him in the specific way He has gifted me to serve in whatever circumstances He places me. That day in CVS, he caused a hurting, sinful, broken young man to cross my path. I gave Him a message from God – one which offered Him the opportunity to remember God and to receive God’s grace and to turn His life around. That experience was not some random occurrence. It was for me, a perfect representation of today’s sermon. That day in CVS, I met a young man whose face is missing from God’s family album and who God loves and yearns to give His grace. It is my God-given assignment now to pray for his salvation and to see him in my heart’s eye, included in that great family album. I have found a name for that young man as I pray for him. I call him Abiah – it is Hebrew for “child of God.” Yes indeed, Grace has a name and His name is Jesus.
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.