Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Who We Are: Covenant and Grace

One of the great challenges facing most churches is that of identity.   With churches seemingly on every corner of every block, people on the outside might wonder what the difference is from one church building to another.  And, as we live in a time where churches are defined more by that which they are against than what they do or hold as sacred, we also find that the people inside the churches sometimes wonder what the differences are from one building to another.

Last week and this week, I wanted to take some time to focus on what it means to be a people who not only believe in the Good News of the grace and mercy of God shown in the person of Jesus, but also what it means to be a particular people: United Methodists.  To do that,  I am going to briefly focus on the distinctiveness of the United Methodist Church, our structure, and how it hinges on two particular ideas:

Covenant relationships
God’s great grace

We begin with the idea of covenant relationships.
A covenant is a formal agreement between two parties in which each assumes particular responsibilities.  Our church has at its heart these kinds of relationships.  These are not to be overlooked or taken lightly, as they define our relationships to one another, to the larger community of faith, and in how we work to respond to God’s grace. 

Our denomination is one that builds much of its understanding of our congregational relationship and structure on the idea of upholding our covenants, our vows, and our words.  It may not sound like a big deal, but if we approach the idea of discipleship with this in mind we quickly see how binding these can be on our life, our thinking, and our actions.

We continue with the idea of God’s grace.

Whereas a covenant is the relationship we establish with God and one another, grace is that on which covenants are built.  Grace is also a gift given by God and by you and I to one another.  And as much as we might over-utilize the word in church, grace is one of those things we simply can't do without.

In the United Methodist Church, we have very particular understandings of grace.  So what are our understandings of grace?
They are threefold.
1.      Prevenient Grace:  Prevenient Grace (preventing grace): the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses.  Prevenient Grace also awakens us towards repentance and faith. 

The United Methodist Book of Discipline (2004) defines prevenient grace as "...the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our 'first slight transient conviction' of having sinned against God. God's grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith."

2.      Justifying Grace:  God reaching out to the believer with accepting and pardoning love.  A change of heart can and does occur under the prompting of grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  (conversion and assurance)

3.      Sanctifying Grace:  draws us on towards Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart “habitually filled with the love of God ad neighbor” and “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”

This coming Sunday, I will be talking about that particular understanding of grace.  I hope you will come and be with us!

- Grace and Peace
Rev. Charles Ensminger

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