Going Deeper 7-7-19

From the final chapter of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, these admonishing words: Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.  If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  So let us not grow weary in doing what is right...  Thus far our text.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.
What?!  Back-to-back “wake-up call, fire-and-brimstone sermons”?  I thought we understood ourselves as a grace-centered community.  Last week our focus was on Jesus’ challenging reactions to would-be followers: "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God…" and "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."  As a kind of spiritual barometer to measure our discipleship, we also used Paul’s lists of sins we ought to no longer do in comparison to the fruits of the Spirit which ought to characterize our lives as children of God.  
I think most—perhaps all—of us who were here felt like we fall a ways short of being what some call ‘fully-devoted’ followers of Jesus.  At that point I came back to grace and to what I consider to be the core, foundational truth of our faith: God has forgiven all of our sins—the evil we think, say, and/or do (also known as “sins of commission”), as well as the good we fail to do (aka “sins of omission.”)  We do not seek to avoid sin and do ‘good works’ in order to be saved.  We are saved purely and solely by grace.  Not everyone believes and teaches that… but I do, with great conviction.  We do not contribute a thing to salvation; nothing.  It is all gift.
Now, with that said, what needs to be said next is quite clear:  We do seek to avoid sin and do ‘good works’ because we have been saved by grace.  Listen again to this absolutely foundational text for our understanding of the Gospel… from Ephesians 2: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  
Grace, a gift received through faith, saves us, not our works.  But it doesn’t stop there.  As children of God we are called, urged, admonished, encouraged, and instructed to commit ourselves to participating in the ongoing transformation of our lives.  As children of God we are called, urged, admonished, encouraged, and instructed to become more and more fully what we already are.  Throughout the scriptures those who are saved by our gracious God are called, urged, admonished, encouraged, and instructed to honor and obey God in response.  Just how well are we doing with that?
You may be wondering why I just repeated those words- called, urged, admonished, encouraged, and instructed—three (now four) times.  Well, I have done so to make a point.  These are words right out of the New Testament, words which are used by Paul and Jesus and others to address people who are already Christians, who trust that they/we have indeed been saved by grace through faith, not by doing a certain set of good works or performing a certain set of rites and rituals.  
My point is to notice a couple of words not used by Paul in this context: command or demand.  And this is very, very important.  While our salvation is purely a gift of God to which we contribute absolutely nothing, what is to follow is something we must participate in if it is going to happen, and that is, again, the ongoing transformation of our lives.  I use the word “must” with some hesitation.  
The fact of the matter is that we do have a choice.  We are not forced, and we are not to force others.  All we can do is—you guessed it—call, urge, admonish, encourage, and instruct.  We cannot demand or command.  God gives us free will even after conversion.  Never, ever, has or does our Creator treat us like puppets or robots. I’ll tell you what—not only is this extremely important theology, it is also exceedingly difficult to effectively preach and teach with a proper balance.  
A very fine-- perhaps even blurred line-- exists between calling, urging, admonishing, encouraging, instructing on the one hand, and demanding and commanding on the other hand.  Using guilt and fear to move people is always tempting, and throughout history guilt and fear have been used to produce some very impressive results.  
As your pastor, I have been strongly committed to not using that kind of pressure to try to move people to do things… even those things I believe to be very important.  I remain committed to the ideal that our transformation, our living and serving more and more fully in the way of Jesus, our both supporting and participating in our mission and ministry here at Zion, is to be motivated by love and gratitude, not with guilt and fear providing the motivation.  
Yes, that is the ideal.  But sometimes I wonder if I have been too idealistic.  I’ve practiced things like calling, urging, encouraging, and instructing.  But what I seldom have done—and in truth fail to have the courage to do—is admonish.  Honestly, I’m afraid I have been a little too soft and gentle, and not nearly as firm and honest as a Pastor needs to be at times.  It’s one thing to err on the side of grace and kindness, but it is another thing to avoid challenging people and trying to hold them accountable.
As saints who are also still sinners, we do need wake-up calls sometimes.  We need to have someone who cares enough—and has enough courage— to give us a slap upside the head once in a while… no, probably not literally.  I mean, what else can we say Paul is doing in our text?  And what else can we call the kinds of challenging responses we heard from Jesus in last week’s text, as well as many other texts?  Again, I think I have been a little too wimpy.
I can think of two areas where some admonishing is called for: our calendar and our pocketbooks.  As we look at how we spend our time, how high on our priority list are disciplines which help nurture our faith and our children’s faith…  such as gathering regularly around word and sacrament for worship?  How often do we bring our children to participate in our youth and children’s ministry?  How inclined are we to engage in our various efforts to serve each other and our community?  How much time do we spend in prayer and in the word, on our own and with others?    How inclined and prepared are we to witness of our faith to others, or to even reach out and simply invite others to check out our family of faith.  I think it is time for some admonishing, for a wake-up call.
And while I am admonishing/‘venting’—perhaps some of us need to think about the adequacy of our financial support of this congregation.  Are we coming anywhere close to practicing the kind of truly radical and sacrificial generosity we are called to, or are we merely contributing our leftovers?   Just how committed are we to “work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith,” as Paul admonishes us to do in our text?
How are we feeling about now?  A little beat up, perhaps?  Maybe a little upset, or defensive?  Maybe a little guilty?  Of course, I will end with grace.  We are forgiven of all of our sin, even our inadequate discipleship, our far-too-often minimal engagement in our transformation and our collective efforts to follow Jesus and live more fully in His way.  We continue to be forgiven.  Thank God for grace!
I close with these words of Paul from Ephesians 4: But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.  I hope and pray that we are so increasingly grateful for our Father’s infinite grace, are so filled with an increasing love for Jesus, so growing in the Holy Spirit, that we will commit, today and every day, to growing in our determination to obey and follow… not out of guilt or fear, but moved by gratitude for grace and love for God.  Amen.