(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.
Pride is putting ourselves, our wants and desires, before God, others, and the environment. Pride literally has an ‘I’ in the middle. When pride takes hold — when the I becomes dominant — we are faced with choices. Me or God. Me or you. Me or the environment and we face these kinds of choices many times every day. For example, choosing to spend time doing what I want instead of taking time to spend with God, or watching what I want on the telly instead of what my sister wants, or buying water in a plastic bottle rather than using a reusable cup. When we put ourselves first, there is never a good outcome for our relationship with God; there is never a good outcome for our relationships with others; and there is never a good outcome for the environment in which we live.
When left unchecked; when pride slides out of control; when it is taken to its ultimate conclusion; the results are devastating. They are horrific. For example, take today’s Bible Reading. It is a story of pride spiralling out of control, and it literally leads to a horror story with murder, gore, and distress. Herod and Herodius put their own needs first, then Herod was proud before his dinner guests. He refused to lose face and back down at Herodius’s daughter’s request.
Think how sick his marriage was that his wife should manipulate him like this. Think how sick she was to use her daughter as part of her diabolical scheme. Think how sick he was to refuse to back down. Therefore, perhaps it is not so far-fetched to describe pride as a sickness? One of my all time favourite songs was by the band Delirious, and it is called Obsession. The lead singer Martin Smith sings the line, “I carry pride like a disease.” We all carry pride like a disease. We all put ourselves first, before God, others, and the world around us.
Out of control pride ultimately breaks relationships and worse, it seeks to destroy and eradicate the other. Pride taken to its conclusion has no place for God. Pride taken to its conclusion means others become subjects or conquests or dogs to be eaten, colleagues to be stepped on, or partners or wives to be sidelined. Pride taken to its conclusion means the world around us can be raped of its resources; trashed, used up, burned, mined, cleared, and trawled.
The opposite of pride and antidote to pride is humility — to humble yourself. A member of a church of which I was once part , used to start every prayer, “All the problems in the world start with me.” I will never forget that. Before I point the finger at anyone else I remember that I am the problem with the world. Why? For I carry pride like a disease.
So where does humility come from? How can we be humble? Well, firstly, it starts with recognising that we carry pride — admitting to ourselves and to God that we have the tendency or the ability to put ourselves first. Then, it is about choices. There is the well known, anonymous quote, that life is a series of choices. Each choice represents a moment of opportunity. We need to be conscious of those choices. I know that many of the many choices I make each day are subconscious an I am not aware that I am making the wrong choice, therefore we need to become conscious. This is what it means to gain a conscience or to be mindful — it is to be aware of the morality of our choice.
Humility is being mindful of our choices — seeing those choices as an opportunity to put God, others, or the environment first — then choosing that option, however, we cannot do it on our own. Thank God his Spirit can live in us and guide us in all truth!
Repentance is admitting and committing. It is admitting we have put ourselves first, and committing to put ourselves last. This is why the confession part of our worship is so important. It is not just about saying sorry and being forgiven. It is making a decision; a commitment to putting God, others, and the environment first.
So, let us get on our knees and say, “I am sorry God for my sin, for putting myself first, for not loving you or my neighbour, and not being a good steward of creation. I am sorry for not worshipping or honouring you. I am sorry for the trail of broken relationships I have left in my wake. I am sorry for trashing your precious creation. Therefore, right now, I resolve to put you first. I commit to being your servant and to putting others first. I set my heart on looking out for your creation. Holy Spirit, cleanse me, make me new, and guide me. Amen.”
I will finish with two quotes. The first is from another favourite Delirious song. Its inspiration is Isaiah 6: Verse 5 when Isaiah sees the Lord. Martin Smith, the composer of the song, wants revival to come — a renewing and restoring of our relationship with God, others, and the world.
Lord send revival, start with me.
For I am one of unclean lips.
For my eyes have seen the king
And your glory I have glimpsed
Send revival, start with me.
The second quote is is from Philippians 2:1-7.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.