Meanderings

God’s Front Porch – Acts 16:6-10

I have noticed in the political news of the past week that
we are in a quandary with regard to our war on terrorism – what shall we call
it? Is it a war on terrorism or a war
against Moslem extremists? The latter is
more accurate while the former slips easily off the tongue. The latter metaphor is an ongoing war of the
“good guys” against the “bad guys” that has existed since the beginning of
time. A war, if that is a good metaphor,
that according to our Christian faith only God can win. How are we to speak of good and evil in civil
discourse?

The conversation came home to me as I watched three young
boys play tag in the swimming pool yesterday. Two of the boys were twins that conned the third child into playing
their game. First one would swim away
and when the odd child out would tag him would immediately “tag back.” After several minutes of “tag backs” the odd
boy out swim toward the other twin who unknown to him was standing on the steps
a.k.a. home base. These two twins used
every trick in the book to wear the other kid out. When he finally got frustrated and left the
game they pleaded for him to join the action again. They even promised to change the rules. That is until the game got started
again. Well I got frustrated and just
took my son home!

On the drive home I contemplated the evil manifested in
these twins and remembered the stories of three boys who joined the Wynnewood Park Methodist Church
in 1964. The word got around the
pre-school there that picking on one boy got you into a fight with all
three. Yes, the Bingham boys were a
terror in that church.

The brokenness of our lives is so obvious. The evil around us is so pervasive that we
falter under its burdens or ignore it to our peril. Today I want to introduce us to an important
word in the Wesleyan tradition … prevenient or preventing grace. It’s a word we all use on a daily basis isn’t
it? Prevenient grace is the grace that
“goes before” our actions to welcome us into God’s kingdom.

Let’s pay attention to the struggles of the early church and
one of her leading characters, Paul. The
council in Jerusalem wrestled with
Paul over the issue of what to do with the gentile converts. Did they really have to be circumcised in
order to follow Christ? Remember that
Paul was a Jew’s Jew, an Observant’s observant, and a Pharisee’s Pharisee – and
if you don’t believe me, just ask him! A decision was reached, announced by
James, and Paul carries the message to the churches.

Paul shifts gears from conveying a church decision back to
his mission of proclaiming the arrival of God’s soon-coming kingdom:

Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia: They went through the
region of Phrygia and Galatia,
having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia,
they attempted to go into Bithynia,
but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia,
they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia
pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia
and help us." When he had seen the
vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia,
being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them (Acts
16:6-10, NRSV).

Paul sets out in his usual “go unless you get a no”
manner. The entire Trinity has to
intervene before God’s will for the mission begins to unfold. First, the Holy Spirit has to forbid Paul to
preach in Asia. Then the Spirit of Jesus intercedes to keep them from traveling to Bithynia. Finally, Paul stops long enough to hear God’s
call in the vision of “man of Macedonia.” This is one aspect of God’s preventing or
prevenient grace. God prevents us from
doing that which might bring us harm or not lie within our mission.

Another aspect of prevenient grace is best told be reminding
a little lesson in architecture. Once
upon a time in an un-air-conditioned time we summered on the front porch. It was the front porch where we paused at the
end of a day to be refreshed. We talked
to strangers as they moved up the road and welcomed them to stop for a drink of
something cold and refreshing. When it
came to dating, it was the front porch where early liaisons occurred (with
“nosy pokes peeking through the curtains”). You knew you were making progress when you were invited into the parlor
to meet the family. John Wesley used the
three-fold metaphor of porch, door, and house to describe the principle
doctrines of the people called Methodists. He said:

Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three,
that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account,
as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion
itself (John Wesley, “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained,” VI.4,
page 227, Volume 9 of The Works of John Wesley – Bicentennial Edition).

So what is Wesley saying? God’s prevenient grace beckons us onto the porch of repentance. It is on the front porch that we get to know
God better and that knowledge helps us realize the full extent of the messed-up-ness
of our lives. As we make progress in our
relationship with God we are led to the door of faith. Here the work of God’s justifying grace in
Jesus Christ unlocks the door and allows passage. There is no way we can pick the lock or charge
the door. It is God’s grace alone (sola
gratia) that permits entrance. Then
God’s sanctifying grace leads us into the house of holiness – a place in our
beings where we begin to clean-up, repair, and renovate in order to live more
closely in harmony with God’s will for us. The closer walk with Jesus Christ is described by Methodists as
perfection (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” Matthew
5:48, NRSV).

I remember a young couple who began worshipping with us at
New Beginnings in the Nashville UMC. We
began this service as a front porch kind of place where you could come as you
are and even drink your coffee while you worshipped. After about six months of worshipping with us
I noticed that they were “dressed up” for worship.  I asked them about it and they told me “they
wanted to give God their best” by putting on their best clothes. The front porch does not demand that we get
dressed up before we can meet God – grace cannot be earned! What I do know is that couple was making
progress in their relationship with God and it showed in all of their lives.

Today we come to feast at the Lord’s Table. For Wesley and the people called Methodist it
is a place of repentance, as well as a place of faith and holiness. Our United Methodist Hymnal states the invitation to the
table this way “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who
earnestly repent of their sins, who seek the news life, and who seek to live in
peace with their neighbors” (seeking the new life is my addition). So often I hear us say that we are taking
communion. Today I want to invite you to
receive communion as a gift. To do this
I invite you to extend your open hand to receive God’s grace in the bread and
the cup. This is not a grace we deserve
or earn. It is a grace offered to all of
God’s daughters and sons … “come taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm
34:8).  Amen and amen.

The following books are mentioned in this sermon.