‘ For surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you’. Ephesians 3:2
Our covenant service today is about our response to God’s grace, about our decision to respond to the grace made known to us in Jesus. Saint Paul says that his commission is to make God’s grace known to us. At the Epiphany when we read of the Magi, Gentiles, non-Jews, coming from the East to worship the infant Jesus and Saint Paul reminds us, ‘this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ’ (Ephesians 3:8)
Our covenant is not like a legal contract, for that would suggest we were equal partners with God. God’s promise to us rests not on any legal agreement but on grace; it is a gift, it is free. God’s love of us for no reason at all is the single most important thing in the whole Christian faith, but it is so hard to accept something so simple. Accepting grace can be a painful lesson to learn; accepting the fact that we are saved by God’s grace; that God loves us for nothing runs against our personal pride. We feel we should be doing something to earn what God gives us.
Within the Protestant tradition, and within the community in which I grew up, there is a very strong work ethic, the feeling that you should always be doing something. But why all the frenetic activity? To earn God’s approval? God doesn’t ask for constant activity. Salvation is not something we earn. God’s promise to us rests on his grace, it does not rest on how many things we do.
It is very easy to lose sight of God’s grace, to feel that if only we did more or we tried harder, then we would somehow be closer to God. The Letter to the Ephesians warns us against such attitudes, “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”. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
God loves us for nothing; something that is not easy for us to accept. It challenges our natural pride; it makes us think about our faults and failings. If we are not worthy of God’s love in our own right; if we haven’t earned it, if it has to be given to us for nothing; then there must be a whole lot wrong inside us. This is not an easy thought when we feel that we live upright, decent and respectable lives. Yet the question we must answer is whether or not we accept this grace, this free gift to us. We cannot earn our own salvation, it comes only by grace.
Encounters with grace can be disturbing; encounters with God can be disturbing. Do you remember when Jesus first meets with the fishermen in Saint Luke’s Gospel? They have been fishing all night and caught nothing and Jesus tells them to try again, so they do, and pull in a huge catch. Saint Luke tells us, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’“
Like Simon Peter, we can be afraid when we meet with God, afraid of what he sees in our hearts, afraid of what changes he might expect from us. We might wish that God would go away, or like John Wesley, the author of the covenant service, we might feel a sense of God changing our hearts.
On 24th May 1738, John Wesley wrote in his journal,
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Wesley had been like all of us, counting on his own efforts, thinking that salvation could be achieved through work, but had found himself spiritually exhausted, thinking all his effort had been in vain. Only when he opens himself to grace, is he changed; only through grace does he become the person God wanted.
The Wise Men come from the East seeking the infant Jesus because their religion has been insufficient for them, they believe there is something more and they find their answer in Bethlehem: God’s grace meets them in the child.
God’s grace meets us every day and every day we may choose whether to respond. The covenant service is a declaration that in the coming year we will be open to that grace, but it is a choice we can only make for ourselves, it can only be our response for we are the only people who know what is in our own hearts.
God knows what we are like. He knows every thought and every action. He knows ever word and every deed. We cannot escape God. The only question is whether we accept him, whether we accept this free gift, whether 2013 will be a year filled with a sense of God’s grace.