(There but for the grace of God go I)
Have you ever had the experience where your friends have been invited to a party and you didn’t get an invite? You feel let down, left out, and a bit jealous of your friends all having a good time while you remain at home. You question why they didn’t invite you as you try to stem the rising bile of bitterness and resentment welling up inside you. If you’re like me, even at fifty years old, I find my self acting like a sulky child and saying, “I didn’t want to go to their stupid party anyway!”
Or, occasionally, you may get an invite to something very special, for example, a wonderful wedding or to a smart dinner with the governor. You excitedly place your invitation — the one with your names in bold print on the front — in a prominent place on the mantelpiece and your thoughts are excitedly consumed with what you will wear, the wonderful experiences that have yet to come, and how many days and minutes you have left to go.
Invitations matter don’t they? They carry weight and importance. To be invited to something means you matter and have worth in the eyes of the sender.
Jesus, in his teaching, talks a lot about invitations, and what our attitude should be to them. In telling his parables or stories he makes the point that we should express both humility and generosity. For example, when we are invited to a wedding banquet he says we shouldn’t sit down at the place of honour — i.e. next to the bride and groom — in case someone more important than us has been invited. Instead, we should sit down at the lowest place, so that we may be asked to come and sit closer to the top table. In other words, our attitude must be one of humility. Jesus goes on to tell us that when we throw a dinner party, we shouldn’t only invite our friends, family, or rich neighbours but invite the poor, marginalised, broken, or hurting. In other words, our attitude must also be one of generosity.
One of the pervading attitudes of our culture is that we don’t think that others are deserving of our love and support. We look at the circumstances of others — especially those that fall into the category of poor, marginalised, broken, or hurting — and label them as lazy, negative, self-obsessed, or in need of a good kick up the backside.
But here’s a thing. God sees every second of our lives lived, and experiences it as the present. God does not see us as who we are in the here and now, but who we have been, and, more importantly, who we will become.
The truth is that we do not know what someone else has lived, the pains they have endured, the traumas they have experienced, and the losses they have incurred — all of which have shaped their emotions, their character, their attitudes, their sense of self-worth, their sense of safety and security, and yes, their current circumstances.
I once worked in a prison with young offenders, and when I heard some of their stories of lack of support, lack of a loving family, absent parents, and the abuse and neglect they had suffered, it became abundantly clear that if I had lived their life and experienced their experiences, I would be exactly where they were; I would be the one in prison.
There is a proverb we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It may come from a mid-sixteenth-century statement by chaplain to the king, John Bradford, who upon seeing a group of prisoners being led to their execution, exclaimed, “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” In other words, it is a statement of humility, that it is only by God’s grace that we are not living the mistakes, crimes, pain, or suffering of others.
The gospel, or good news of Jesus Christ, is an invitation. It is an invitation to a new life found in Him, and a new way of life inspired by Him. Christians are called to model God’s way of life and extend God’s invitation to all. It is a way of life marked by a combination of both humility and generosity.
A life that experiences the love of God is a life that begins a process of transformation. Christians, as Christ’s ambassadors, are called to be conduits of Christ’s love. As God’s Spirit lives in us, we extend God’s love to others. As we are witnesses to the difference Christ has made in our own lives we become excited by the possibilities of transformation in the lives of others. No matter where someone is in their life journey; no matter what mistakes they have made; no matter what circumstances they find themselves in; there is an open invitation by God to his banquet. There is an invitation with their name printed in bold on the front, and we are the ones to do the inviting.
This week, you will no doubt encounter those that are poor, marginalised, broken, or hurting. Journey with them and extend God’s love to them. Try to see them as the summation of their whole lives, and, importantly, through God’s transforming love, see who they might become in Him.
Does God have a plan for the world, for our nation, for our community, for our friends and neighbours, for our families, and for you? Well, a plan is the method from which we get from A to B. I believe that God has a hope that we will get from A to B but that the plan is written together.
I am asked, occasionally, in my professional capacity, this question, “Does God have a plan for my life?” And surprisingly, the answer I give is often, “No”, however, if you ask me, “Does God have a hope for my life?” then the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” Let me unpack this.
The future is not yet written — not by God, not by you, and not by me. It is written what God hopes for the world, and God, being God, is unlikely to be ultimately thwarted! However, God does not lay down a single path for each of us to follow, and if we deviate from that path, God does not give up and say, “Oh well, you’re off the track, I want nothing to do with you.” In fact, our Christian life bears witness to a God that is always adapting with us, journeying with us. When I asked God if I should marry my wife, God did not say, “Yes, she is the only one for you and if you decide not to or she turns you down then your life is ruined.” No! God asked, “Gavin, would you like to marry her?” to which my reply was, “Very much so!”
Or take Jesus, for example, the Son of God. Have you ever wondered why he always seemed to dodge the direct question, “Are you the Messiah?” I think, perhaps, it is because he would only be the Messiah if he achieved what the Messiah came to do. The proof of the pudding was and is in the tasting! If he had fallen to temptation in the wilderness, if he had not been obedient to the Father, if he had not allowed himself to be tortured and killed, and if he had not risen from the dead, then no, he would not have been the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the one to whom we fall on our knees and proclaim, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
I will say it again. The Christian is the one who determines the hope of God and joins in with God to realise that hope. It is a partnership. It is a journey. It is a relationship. We are not robots obeying a master. We are invited to be co-creators with our creator God. The Spirit never stops working in and around our lives, and if we live by the Spirit and are guided by The Spirit, then we shall wend our way through life as if we are following a predetermined plan but, in reality, it is a thrilling voyage of discovery and creativity where we join hands with God and God says, “Come on! Let’s see where this goes!”
So what are God’s hopes for the world, nation, community, neighbours, families, and for ourselves? Perhaps this is where the four strands of authority, on which the Anglican church stand, can help. They are: Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and the Holy Spirit. One thing that makes the Anglican Church the place in which I made my spiritual home is that it holds all four in balance. It can be that a particular church or denomination places more emphasis on one authority over another. For example, an evangelical church will favour scripture, a liberal church reason, a Catholic church tradition, and a pentecostal church the Spirit. When it comes to discerning what God’s hopes are we need to hold all four in prayer.
We need to spend time with scripture to discern a) the trajectory of the narrative between God and creation, what we call the big story or the grand metanarrative — how it all began, and God’s hope for how it will end. We can learn how Jesus fulfilled his mission and the Father’s hopes for him and emulate him. How does Jesus hope we might live and have our being in the future? And how did the disciples understand what God’s hopes were for them and for their future?
We need to use our God-given intellect. How can we discern, for example, how our understanding of the concepts of inclusivity, equality, and diversity have developed positively. Can we discern a trajectory and plot where we may be in 5, 10, or 50 years time?
We need to learn from the church. How has the church adapted and grown in the past, as it has sought to be guided by God over the last 2000 years? Where has God been leading it? Can we spot or discern a pattern for its future growth and being?
And importantly, where is the Spirit leading? When we listen to God, what is God saying to us? Who are the prophetic voices of God in today’s wider church? What is the still, small, voice of the Holy Spirit saying to us?
You may well be sitting there thinking, “But isn’t it your job, Rev Gav, to discern what God is saying to us?” and the answer is, “Yes,” and, “No.” I would be extremely wary of any church leader that says, “This is the way. God has told me and you all have to follow!” Many a garden path has been followed with such leadership. Yes, it is partly my job to listen both to God and to you. But we must discern together. We are all the body of Christ. When God speaks to us, it is unlikely that any one of us will have the answer in isolation. When someone comes up to me and says, “God’s told me that…” I may well reply, “Well, he’s not told anyone else… yet!” Or, when someone approaches me and says, “We should do this…” then I will hold it with others and pray and ask for discernment as to whether it is, indeed, the God-inspired thing to do.
So, it is right and appropriate for you to ask, “Well, Rev Gav, what do you discern God has been saying to the whole church?” and I do have suggestions, and hopefully you will echo these, as predominantly, they have come from you all.
Firstly, I think the church has been slow to embrace environmental care. As stewards of creation, a creation which God thinks is, “very good,” God hopes we will do all we can to protect and nurture the world in which we live — as both individuals and as a church. I believe it is God’s hope that we will be at the forefront of making and proclaiming positive change in this area. It is important because God thinks it is important.
Secondly, I think God is reminding the church of its wealth both financially and in terms of resources, and hopes that we will be committed to the poor and the homeless. I do not know how we do this, but it is on God’s heart and always has been. I have a hunch that God will lead us to programmes that benefit those that are left behind; the marginalised and the broken both here and abroad
Thirdly, and perhaps three things is enough for now, God hopes for us to be a church for all — to orient ourselves to be inclusive and welcoming to all no matter what colour, social background, sexual orientation, gender, intellectual capacity, age, or status.
You may disagree with me, or perhaps you could add a fourth, fifth, and sixth hope, however, these are the three hopes that I believe God has for our church.
My hope and prayer is that, under the guidance of God, we will listen to him and follow him as a whole family, and be the church that God hopes we will be.
Before I begin, I would like you to think of something for which you hope. What do you hope for? Spend a moment bringing something to mind.
When we hope for something we desire or expect something in the future to come to pass or to happen, and to be human is to hope. We have hopes in every area of our lives, for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for our church, for our community, for our nation, and for our world. The only thing that limits hope is our imagination, and our imagination is limitless.
So is it right to hope for anything and everything? If you are a sports fan then you know all about hope. If you are a gardener then you know all about hope. In fact every creative act where the outcome is not 100% certain or known provides the opportunity for hope to exist. As soon as you can imagine a future that you want to come to pass, hope fills the void until it either comes to pass or does not.
Therefore, hope is in everything. It is in every creative endeavour, no matter how small. What is surprising to realise or become aware of, is that much of our hope is out of our control. The infinite number of variables, paths, and decisions mean that the outcomes of that which we desire to see come to pass, are rarely certain. If it was, then football leagues would be pretty boring! Therefore, we try to stack the odds in our favour. As we work towards the desired future outcome we do things and act in ways that make that desired outcome more likely. For example, if we are a football team, we buy better players; if we are a gardener, we get better compost; if we are a painter, we work to develop our skills, and so on.
However, there is always that aspect outside of ourselves over which we have no control. For example, we have little or no control over the weather; it is very difficult to predict exactly how football players will perform together on any given day; and it is very difficult to direct every brush stroke on a page or whether our inspiration will wax or wane.
One of the remarkable things about the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity — our God, the God in which we trust, and the God whom we worship today — is that God is a God of hope.
In other words, God, being creator or creative, means God imagines a desired future and wishes to bring that to pass. Every act of creation by God is exactly that — God imagining and then setting about to make it happen. “Let us create human beings,” said God. And what should they be like? “Let us create them in our image,” said God.
The question we can ask is, “What is it that God desires for the future of the world? What is it that God desires for our nation? What is it that God desires for our community? What is it that God desires for our church? What is it that God desires for our friends and neighbours? What is it that God desires for our families? And what is it that God desires for ourselves?” Because, in the same way that hope exists for us, in every area of our lives, hope exists for God.
The testimony of God, that we read in the Bible, is of a God that has never given up hope, no matter what happens. God is eternally and infinitely hopeful.
Therefore, the task of the Christian and the Church is to align our hopes with God’s hopes, and for us to join with God to see those Godly future desires come to pass.
It is quite possible to live a life without God, and when it comes to hope, without God, hope can only be placed in determinism where fate is ultimately the outcome of an unknowable chain of actions or stimuli, or it is placed in humanity, for example, our own abilities, skills, determination, and character.
The determinist says, “whatever will be will be. I have no control over the future and I am subject to the forces of science and nature.”
The humanist, in this sense, says, “humanity has the wherewithal to accomplish whatever it desires if only we apply ourselves.”
The Christian theist, however, says, “God is sovereign, God has a hope for the world, and we are to align ourselves with that hope.”
Our hope is not in random determinism or in humanity. The book of Lament in the Old Testament contains this phrase, “The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:24). Our hope is in our Lord Jesus Christ who lived, died, and conquered death. Today, whether you are hope-full or hope-less, may you turn to Jesus and find your hope in him.