Saturday, July 14, 2018

“When Sea Monsters Praise God”


              After taking some vacation time last Sunday, I return to the pulpit this Sunday (July 15th) at Christ United Methodist Church.  This weekend we continue our sermon series on the congregation’s eight favorite hymns.  Each Sunday the proclamation focuses on one these top hymns and the scripture which undergirds it.

This Sunday, we will focus on the hymn, How Great Thou Art.  For my proclamation, I have paired this hymn with Psalm 148.  In the Book of Psalms in the Bible, there are several different types of psalms for use in different situations.  This psalm is a hymn of praise, which the early Hebrews would use liturgically, in communal worship.[i]  The structure of psalms of praise is usually threefold:

1.      An opening invitation to praise God.
2.      Reasons for praising God.
3.      A recapitulation of the invitation to praise God.[ii]

Psalm 148 begins with a simple, straightforward invitation:  “Praise the Lord!”  However, the scope of the psalm’s invitation is extended beyond the expected people of Israel—or, even human persons in general.  Instead, Psalm 148 extends the scope of invitation to all of Creation, both living and non-living alike.  That is, Psalm 148 calls upon “everything that is…”—that is, everything that has being—to praise God.  This extended invitation is divided into three parts. 

The first part of this elaborated invitation focuses on praising God from the heavens by the beings and objects that inhabit the heavens.  Verses 1-6:

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
   praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
   praise him, all his host! 

Praise him, sun and moon;
   praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
   and you waters above the heavens! 

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for he commanded and they were created.
He established them for ever and ever;
   he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” 

Notice that both animate and inanimate heavenly bodies are invited to praise God.  Animate beings, such as “his angels” and “all his host” are invited to praise God.  Similarly, inanimate creation, such as sun and moon and shining stars are invited to praise God.

            When I hear the first verse of How Great Thou Art, as presented in The United Methodist Hymnal, I am reminded of Psalm 148 and its invitation for all heavenly bodies to praise God:

“O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
  consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
  I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
  thy power throughout the universe displayed.”

Then, the refrain:
           
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!
  Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!

In the second part of this elaborated invitation to worship, the focus of Psalm 148 shifts from the heavens, down to the earth.  Verses 7-10:

“Praise the Lord from the earth,
   you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
   stormy wind fulfilling his command! 

Mountains and all hills,
   fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
   creeping things and flying birds!” 

Again, as with the heavenly invitation in verses 1-6, the invitation to praise God is extended to both animate and inanimate Creation.  Notice how closely these verses mirror the Creation story in Genesis 1:  “sea monsters” (Gen. 1:21) “all deeps” recalls “the deep” in Genesis 1:2.  Similarly, the invitation to “fruit trees” is mirrored in Genesis 1:11, while “wild animals and all cattle, and creeping things” reflect Genesis 1:24.  Finally, “flying birds” invokes Genesis 1:21.  As with the heavenly invitation, so also the invitation for the earth includes inanimate Creation, “fire and hail, snow and frost, [and] stormy wind.” 

            This invitation to the earthly realm is also reflected in the hymn, How Great Thou Art. From verse two:

“When through the woods and forest glades I wander,
   and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
   when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
    and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze;”

Then, the refrain:
           
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!
  Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!

            In the third and final part of its extended invitation to praise God, Psalm 148 finally shifts its focus to humans.  Verses 11-12:

“Kings of the earth and all peoples,
   princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
   old and young together!” 

In these verses, the psalmist is very careful to be inclusive.  All peoples are invited to praise God.  Men and women; old and young; the powerful leaders and everyday folk, alike.  Everyone is invited to praise God.

            In its final two verses, Psalm 148 shifts to the second component in the normal structure of a hymn of praise.  In these verses, the psalmist gives reasons for praising God:

“Let them praise the name of the Lord,
   for his name alone is exalted;
   his glory is above earth and heaven. 
He has raised up a horn for his people,
   praise for all his faithful,
   for the people of Israel who are close to him.

In verse 13, the psalmist urges all of Creation, including humans, to worship God because of God’s sovereignty.  God has created all that there is, both animate and inanimate life.  And, as Creator, God rules all of Creation.  In the psalmist’s vision, all of Creation praises God in its own manner; that is, its own voice.  Further, as Biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr. points out:  “Because God rules the cosmos, God’s praise is incomplete without the participation of every voice, human and nonhuman, in heaven and in earth and in all creation.”[iii]

            The third component of a hymn of praise—the recapitulation of the invitation to praise God—appears at the end of the psalm (verse 14b).  Here, the psalmist recapitulates his simple, introductory invitation to all Creation to “Praise the Lord!”

            The hymn, How Great Thou Art, originated as a poem written by the Swedish poet Carl Boberg in 1885.  In describing his inspiration for the poem, Boberg describes a summer thunderstorm which came up very quickly.  He and his companions had to hurry for shelter before the rain began.  However, the storm was short-lived and soon the sky began to clear.  Now, safely at his home, Boberg opened a window facing towards the sea.  From the open window, he heard birds in the forest and church bells ringing in the distance.  And, this was the inspiration for his poem.  Several years later, the poem was set to an old Swedish folk tune.

            Over the years, new verses were added by others and the hymn evolved.  In The United Methodist Hymnal, verses 3 and 4 were added by the British Methodist missionary, Stuart K. Hine. 

He wrote verse 3, after visiting a Ukrainian village.  While in the village, Hine was going to visit the home of a Protestant Christian couple, Dimitri and Lyudmila.  As he approached the house, they heard Lyudmila reading from the Gospel of John to a house full of visitors.  Many of the visitors were dramatically moved by the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and the promise of forgiveness.  So, in response to the reading, these visitors began to verbally repent from their sins.  Not wanting to interrupt, Hine stood outside the house.  But, as he waited, Hine wrote down the phrases which he heard the penitents uttering.  These phrases became the third verse.

“And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
  sent him to die, I scarce can take it in;
  that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
  he bled and died to take away my sin;  (Refrain)”

            The fourth verse was inspired by another experience which Stuart K. Hine had.  Towards the end of World War II, he visited a Russian refugee camp in Sussex, England.  In the camp, he met a man who had been separated from his wife.  The man explained that before their separation, his wife had been a Christian, but he himself had not.  After the separation, the man experienced a conversion to Christianity.  Now, he longed to be re-united with his wife, so that he could share his newfound faith with her.  However, he doubted that he would ever see his wife again.  So, instead, he looked forward to that time when they would be re-united in heaven and share eternal life together.  After hearing his story, Hine penned verse 4:

“When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
   and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
   Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
   and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!  (Refrain)”

            While the verses added by Stuart K. Hine and others are important, the hymn How Great Thou Art is one of my favorites because of Carl Boberg’s original words and the way they mirror and promote the expanded invitation from Psalm 148 for all of Creation—both animate and inanimate—to praise God.  (Similar invitations are included in Psalms 8, 96, 98, and 104. 

By expanding the invitation to all of Creation to praise God, Psalm 148 and the hymn, How Great Thou Art, transform our attitude towards the rest of Creation.  Rather than seeing the rest of Creation as belonging to humans for the taking, this broadened invitation reminds us that all of Creation belongs to God who is sovereign and that all of Creation joins humans in praising God in their own voices.

            Psalm 148 and How Great Thou Art  have the effect of elevating the rest of Creation to the same level as human persons in the sight of God.  All of us are God’s good creations and our praise for God is incomplete when the rest of Creation cannot join with us. 

There have been times in history when Christians have forgotten this important insight from the psalms.  Some critics actually hold Christianity partly responsible for the environmental degradation which has occurred since the Industrial Revolution.  In his famous essay, Lynn White, Jr., who was a devout Presbyterian himself, wrote that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” for the present ecological damage[iv] because Christian scripture and tradition place humans at the center of creation and give them dominance.

While White’s observation may be historically valid, it clearly comes from a misreading of scripture, such as Psalm 148, as well as other passages.  Interestingly, another verse, penned by the British missionary, Stuart Hine, addresses White’s concern.  Although the verse was not included in The United Methodist Hymnal, it probably should have been:

O when I see ungrateful man defiling
This bounteous earth, God's gifts so good and great;
In foolish pride, God's holy Name reviling,
And yet, in grace, His wrath and judgment wait.

Then, the refrain:
           
“Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!
  Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee;
  how great thou art, how great thou art!”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, July 15th.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[i] In addition to hymns, or songs, of praise, there are other categories of psalms, such as psalms of lament, royal psalms, and prophetic exhortation psalms.

[ii] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Commentary on the Book of Psalms in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 4, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (10 March 1967): 1203-1207; reprinted in Louis P. Pojman, ed., Environmental Ethics, Readings in Theory and Application, 2d ed., (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998), 19. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

“Have You Not Heard?”


            After taking last Sunday off, in order to participate in a 4-day bicycle ride, I return to the pulpit for the 8:30 am service this Sunday (July 1st) at Christ United Methodist Church.  This weekend we continue our sermon series on the congregation’s eight favorite hymns.  Each Sunday the proclamation focuses on one these top hymns and the scripture which undergirds it. 

Sunday we focus on the hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings.”  This hymn was written in the 1970s by Father Jan Michael Joncas, a Catholic priest serving in Minnesota.  Originally, when he composed the hymn, Father Joncas intended for the verses to be sung by a trained cantor, with the congregation responding with the chorus.  The chorus goes like this:

“And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
 bear you on the breath of dawn,
 make you to shine like the sun,
 and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”

In an interview, Father Joncas explained that he wrote this hymn for a friend, whose father suffered a fatal heart attack, and the hymn was first sung at the funeral service.[1]  Father Joncas based his hymn on Psalm 91, although that particular psalm does not explicitly refer to eagles.

            I have always associated this hymn with a different scripture passage, Isaiah 40:28-31.  So, my proclamation is grounded in that passage:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40 is one of the most pivotal chapters in the scriptures.  It marks a key transition from the first part of Isaiah (chapters 1-39) to the second and third parts of Isaiah.  In the first part of Isaiah the Babylonian victory over Judah and Jerusalem is looming but has not yet occurred.  Now, in chapter 40, the crushing defeat has already occurred as a punishment for Israel’s sins.  Jerusalem “has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2c).  Yet, against this background, chapter 40 offers a resounding word of comfort and hope—from its very first words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your Lord.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a).  God is about to do a new thing in the world.  God will return to the world.

This leads to a familiar Advent passage for Christians, when we prepare to celebrate Christmas and God’s Incarnation through the birth of Christ.

“A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

(In reflecting upon the importance of Isaiah 40 as an Advent passage, note that Isaiah 40:1-5 forms the scriptural source for scene 1 in Handel’s masterful cantata, Messiah.)

            As Isaiah 40 continues, we move into a series of questions:  “Have you not known?”  “Have you not heard?”  and other, similar questions.  These questions are not accusatory.  Neither do they offer the faithful new information.  Instead, the questions are intended to remind Israel of what it has already known but may have forgotten in the pain and suffering of defeat by the Babylonians.  The passage’s “…final purpose is to lift up, to increase strength, to bolster and rejuvenate (40:28-31).  The appeal here is not to something unknown or insufficiently grasped, but precisely to something Israel has known and heard and been shown from eternity…”.[2]

            The reassurance and encouragement found in Isaiah 40:12-31 comes to a climax in our four verses at the end of the chapter.  In these four verses, God focuses on the faithful’s weariness and exhaustion:

1.      The passage begins by reminding Israel that God never faints or grows weary.

2.      Instead, God gives power to the weak and strengthens the powerless

3.      Even though youth—who should be at their strongest—may faint and be weary.  And even though the young—who, again, should be at their strongest—will fall down exhausted. God will remain strong.

4.      Not only will God remain strong; those who are faithful to the Lord will have their strength renewed.  They shall mount up with wings like eagles.  They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The scriptural scholar Christopher Seitz observes:  “It is a difficult but essential discipline to learn how rightly to assess our degree of weariness and exhaustion in the walk of faith.  Sometimes these twins are directly responsible for our inability to hear God, and for misunderstanding how God is actively at work.”[3] 

I believe that this is a critical insight into the life of faithful discipleship, which our scripture addresses.  Could it be that weariness and exhaustion are especially prevalent among the faithful in twenty-first century America?  Could it be that the harsh pace of contemporary life—with all of its demands and activities and all of the information which we must process—generates such fatigue that we no longer have time or energy to hear God speak or perceive God’s Presence in our lives?

In my ministry, I find myself frequently referencing this passage of scripture as I provide pastoral care to those who are sick and face physical challenges, as well as when I seek to comfort those who grieve the loss of a loved one.

In Isaiah 40:28-31, we are reminded that God is always with us, and that God seeks to renew and strengthen us.  Even when we are overcome with weariness and exhaustion, God is there, seeking to strengthen and renew us.  Even when we are “sick of being sick” or we just cannot bear the thought of another session of physical therapy or another round of chemo treatment, God is there, seeking to strengthen and renew us.  Even when we are overcome by grief at the death of our beloved, God is there, seeking to strengthen and renew us.  Those who trust in God shall renew their strength.

Or, as Father Joncas wrote in his chorus:

“And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
 bear you on the breath of dawn,
 make you to shine like the sun,
 and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, July 1st. During our 8:30 am service, I will reflect on the hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings” and the message of strength and renewal in Isaiah 40:28-31.  However, I will not be preaching at our second service at 11:00 am.  That service will be a celebration of our church’s Fine Arts Camp, which was just completed.  At the 11 am service, the proclamation will be provided by the campers, who in their performance will reflect on the importance of recognizing that each of us is created in God’s divine image.  Come and join us at either service at Christ United Methodist Church, located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1]Darlene J. M. Dela Cruz, “Response to ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ over the years humbling for composer,” Catholic News Service, 30 December 2013.  Accessed online at http://catholicphilly.com/2013/12/news/national-news/response-to-on-eagles-wings-over-the-years-humbling-for-composer, 29 June 2018.

[2] Christopher R. Seitz, Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 40-66 in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 6, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[3] Ibid.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

"Fresh Every Morning"


               This Sunday (June 17th), we begin our summer sermon series, which is built around hymns from The United Methodist Hymnal.  Earlier in May, we asked members of the Christ United Methodist congregation to share their 3 favorite hymns and to tell us why these particular hymns were especially meaningful to them.  A total of 64 hymns were lifted up as favorites. 

            We are taking the top 8 hymns and focusing on one hymn for each of the next 8 Sunday’s of the summer.  Our sermons will focus on each of these hymns and the scripture which undergirds and grounds that particular hymn.  We begin the series this Sunday with the hymn, “Morning has Broken.”  This hymn’s lyrics go like this:

“Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

“Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

“Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise ev'ry morning
God's recreation of the new day”[1]
           
            The lyrics to “Morning has Broken” were written by Eleanor Farjeon, an English poet and children’s author.  She wrote the hymn in response to a request that she write lyrics giving thanks for each new day, which could be set to the Scottish tune, “Bunessan.”  The song was originally published in 1931.  In her other writings, Farjeon was the creator of the Mary Pippin series of children’s stories.  Born on February 13, 1881, Eleanor Farjeon came from a very literary family.  Her father was a novelist and two of her brothers were also authors.  Although her father was Jewish, Farjeon converted to Catholicism in 1951. 

            The United Methodist Hymnal lists Lamentations 3: 22-23 as scriptural foundation for “Morning has Broken.”  In this third chapter of Lamentations, we encounter a different speaker from the first two chapters.  This speaker is a “strong man;” perhaps a soldier who is committed to defending women, children, and innocent persons.  Just as previous speakers in Lamentations, this “strong man” has survived catastrophe.  As Kathleen O’Connor, a scriptural scholar, writes:  “The strong man is hopeful, reliant on theological traditions of divine mercy, and confident that  Yahweh has seen his suffering.  His arrival at hope, however, is through a convoluted journey, a tortured struggle, in which hope is asserted in the face of contradictory experience.”[2]

            Chapter 3 opens with the speaker lamenting how God has turned against him:

I am one who has seen affliction
   under the rod of God’s wrath; 
he has driven and brought me
   into darkness without any light; 
against me alone he turns his hand,
   again and again, all day long.  (Lamentations 3:1-3)

            Yet, after 20 verses of lamenting that God’s anger and wrath torment him, suddenly the strong man’s outlook is reversed.  He remembers God’s steadfast love and mercy.  This restores his hope and confidence.  In verses 22-23, the strong man re-claims God’s love –and then addresses God directly:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end; 
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.”  (Lamentations 3:22-23)

This is a powerful theological reflection.  The strong man affirms that even when God seems to have turned away from him, God’s love is still constant; still present.  Even in the strong man’s darkest nights of the soul, God’s love and mercy come again, new and fresh in the morning.  Eleanor Farjeon captures the power and assurance of God’s love coming new and fresh every morning.  I especially appreciate these lines from her hymn,

“Born of the one light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise ev'ry morning
God's recreation of the new day”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, June 17th.  In addition to reflecting on “Morning has Broken,” we will also celebrate Father’s Day, as we recognize and give thanks for our fathers—as well as others who have been like fathers to us.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.



[1] The United Methodist Hymn, No. 145.

[2] Kathleen O’Connor, Commentary on Lamentations in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 6, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.


Friday, June 8, 2018

"Sanctifying Grace"

This Sunday (June 10th) at Christ United Methodist Church, we will conclude our three-week reflections on God's grace.  Pastor Bob Neben, our minister of visitation, will be preaching on Wesley's third form of grace, "Sanctifying Grace."


  If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, as we reflect upon God's profound love for us and the infinite possibilities to grow closer to God through God's sanctifying grace.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Next Sunday (June 17th), we will begin our summer worship series, devoted to hymns of the church, which members of our congregation have selected as their favorites.

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

“Justifying Grace: Crossing the Threshold”


            This Sunday, June 3rd, we continue our three-week series on the Christian understanding of grace.  As we noted last week, for the purposes of this series, we will simply define grace as “God’s free and unmerited love, which seeks out every person and assists us in developing a loving relationship with the Divine.”  Grace is pivotal within Christian thought because it forms the grounding for our understanding of God’s relationship with human persons—and with all of Creation. 

            John Wesley, the founder of United Methodism, suggested that there were three different forms of grace, corresponding to different stages in the Christian’s spiritual journey:

1.      Prevenient Grace.  Prevenient grace is God’s initial love, which seeks us out and invites us into a loving relationship.  It is God calling us—even luring is—into a relationship.

2.      Justifying Grace.  With justifying grace, God gives us the confidence and courage to completely put our faith and trust in God.

3.      Sanctifying Grace.  After we have entered into a relationship with the Divine, sanctifying grace is God’s nurture and encouragement as we grow in our relationship with the Divine.

In order to explain his three-fold distinction of grace, Wesley used the metaphor of walking up and into a house.

a.       Prevenient Grace.  Walking up onto the front porch of the house.

b.      Justifying Grace.  Opening the door and crossing over the threshold into the house.

c.       Sanctifying Grace.  Once inside the house, exploring all of the rooms. 

Last week, we began our series by examining “prevenient grace.”  We saw that prevenient grace is God calling, welcoming us into a loving relationship with the Divine.  This week we continue our reflections by reflecting on “justifying grace.”  In the proclamation, I will use Romans 4: 1-5 as the foundation for my reflections on justifying grace:

“What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

In this passage, Paul is trying to demonstrate that the covenant which God made with Abraham was always intended to include both Jews and Gentiles.[1]  To understand the context of Paul’s claim, we must refer to Genesis 15.  In this chapter, God promises Abraham, who is currently without a male heir, that his descendants will be more numerous than all the stars in the heavens.  “And he believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). 

The claim that Abraham’s belief—or, faith—was reckoned as “righteousness” refers to Abraham’s membership in the covenant with God.  In other words, Abraham’s faith in God and belief in God’s promise meant that Abraham had entered into covenant membership with God.  As scripture scholar N. T. Wright writes, “Abraham’s faith was the sure sign that he was in partnership with God; and God sealed this with the covenant…”[2]

In the next verse (v. 4), Paul uses the metaphor of bookkeeping to develop his argument.  He notes that for someone who works, the wages from that work are not reckoned a gift, but rather the money which is due for the labor performed.  Paul’s point is that Abraham received covenant membership not because of any work, or accomplishment which he performed.  He did not earn covenant membership through obeying God’s Laws or any other sort of good works.  Instead, he entered into covenant relationship with God because of his faith.

In verse 5, Paul switches metaphors, moving from a bookkeeping metaphor to the metaphor of a law court and his understanding of covenant.  Those who trust God, without relying upon their own good works, are received into covenantal membership with God.  At this point, a caveat is in order.  It is easy for Christians to see their faith as a sort of substitute or alternative form of work, even if they recognize that God’s gift of covenant is free and unmerited.  That is, justification by faith is not something we do or gain.  Instead, it is more of a state that we find ourselves in, when we wholly and completely trust in God.

This is where Wesley’s concept of God’s justifying grace proves helpful.  For Wesley, even trusting God is not something which we can do without God’s love and assistance.  Justifying grace is God’s free and unmerited love which seeks us out and assists us in trusting God so that we can become covenant members with God; entering into a growing relationship with God.  Justifying grace gives us the confidence and courage to completely put our faith in God.  Justifying grace gives us the strength to turn to God and accept God’s love and reconciliation. 

Sometimes we refer to a “leap of faith.”  In some sense, justifying grace makes the “leap of faith” possible.  Yet, we must be careful in how we use this term.  A leap of faith is not unthinking, but rather carefully considered and rational.  Further, a leap of faith is not groundless, but rather based upon our experience of God’s Presence within our lives.  The leap of faith is more a state in which we realize that—just as Abraham, before us—we believe and trust in God’s love and care for us. 

For Wesley, this moment of realization that we really do trust God marked the point when we crossed over the threshold of God’s house.  In Wesley’s personal life, this moment was profoundly and poignantly transformational.  It was the threshold of a new life, with new possibilities.  As United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder writes, “That is justifying grace, turning toward a new future.”[3]


If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, June 3rd, as we explore God’s profound love for us, demonstrated through justifying grace.  During the proclamation, I will share several fascinating illustrations of how justifying grace has been experienced in the lives of individual Christians.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.


[1]N. T. Wright, Commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kenneth L. Carder, “A Wesleyan Understanding of Grace,” Interpreter Magazine, November-December 2016.  Accessed online at http://www.interpretermagazine.org/topics/a-wesleyan-understanding-of-grace, 19 May 2018.