What is grace? (Horizons 2)

Horizons Bible Study 2015-2016
Come to the Waters
Lesson 2 – Matthew 3:13-17

Fran and Shawn have brought the delicate baptismal gown that was worn by the babies in Fran’s family for three generations. They are a bit nervous before worship. Would Emma cry or scream?

The baptism goes smoothly. Baby Emma, alert and happy, delights the congregation. No one really thinks about the incredibly radical action that God, the parents and the congregation have taken.

Baptism in the Presbyterian Church is first about God’s tenacious love. Baptism proclaims that God reaches out to us with love and mercy before we can do anything to merit God’s favor. Like a helpless infant, we are totally dependent on God. Like the love of caring parents who, in amazement, watch, talk, coo, sing and sacrifice for this new life, God’s grace is a joyous, free gift.

I was once asked in a Sunday school class, “What is grace? I hear that word, but I don’t get it.” So much of our lives we are measured by what grades we make, what educational degrees we obtain, the employment that we get and how well we do in our lives. Depending on our parents, measuring up may take the upper hand over understanding and forgiveness.

God’s grace is many things: faith, hope, love, forgiveness. Presbyterians believe that God’s grace precedes our actions. God forgives so that we can turn to God. Like a warming fire, God’s grace works to ignite faith in us. Grace puts longing in us to grow deeper into relationship with Jesus and the Christian community. Have you ever had a moment when a hymn brought you to tears or you decided to get involved in inner-city work, even though you were scared to do it? That is grace working in you. Grace, over years and miles, transforms us to be more like Jesus. God’s grace helps us die to self-centeredness, self-hatred and the harming of other people.

Water refreshes, cleans, quenches our thirst, though it also can drown us. In baptism, water symbolizes all the aspects of water, including death. The Apostle Paul writes,

When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses… God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses erasing the record that stood against us…. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:12-14)

Jesus submits to the baptism of John to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus is obedient to God, even to death on the cross. In baptism, we respond to the free gift of God’s love and forgiveness and promise to die to the ways of sin and evil as we depend on Jesus. We promise to become like Jesus, even unto death.

The baptismal vows are sweeping, life-altering questions:

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God,
do you turn from the ways of sin
and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ
and accept him as your Lord and Savior,
trusting in his grace and love?

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple,
obeying his Word and showing his love?

When we say “yes,” we as Christians seek to live like Jesus, although no one ever perfectly follows Jesus. But what would be different in the lives of families and in our communities of faith if we increasingly lived out our baptismal vows? What does it mean to you to renounce evil and its power in the world? What does it mean to give your life to follow Jesus?

Here are some ways in which we might renounce evil. We would turn away from perfectionism, racism, bitterness and revenge. Complaint and gossip would end with us. We would be quick to welcome and include people, no matter who they are.

In accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, we gladly accept God’s forgiveness. We learn Scripture until we know in our bones what Jesus would do and pray for the strength to act as Jesus did. We would stand up to evil in this world.

A friend and her husband went out for dinner recently. The food was great, but a group near them was talking loudly, saying awful things about Muslims. Finally my friend could take it no more. She walked up to the strident group and calmly said, “I have some friends who are Muslim who are good and kind people. I would appreciate your toning down your comments in such a public place.”

To have the guts to do as my friend did, I have a ways to go in renouncing evil and trusting in Christ’s grace and love.

rosalind-banburyROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.