One of the many things that encourages me is when I hear someone share their testimony – what God has been up to in their life. However, I have known some people who almost put down or diminish their testimony, saying that for them they didn’t have a dramatic conversion experience, and their testimony isn’t very good. I think we have to be careful because the conversion experience is not the be all and end all…the fact that God is ‘in’ and a ‘part of’ their life is!!! Maybe it has never occurred to them that they just might have been in a better place to begin with and God didn’t need to do quite so much work in their lives! That in itself is an act of grace. Whereas for others, before coming to faith in Christ, their lives might have been in a complete and utter mess. Whatever our starting point, salvation is always by grace.
Paul knew this all too well. His testimony was that he was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man; there was nothing that could commend him to God. He goes on to say that he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and from a place of unbelief. The challenge then for we who have come to faith is that we are no longer in ignorance; neither do we act in unbelief. No wonder Jesus said “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)
When I read about how Paul was before he came to faith, I don’t know about you…but I can really associate with him. He even describes himself as being “the worst of sinners.” Paul had blown it. He had sinned in words (blasphemy), deeds (persecution of believers) and thoughts (insolent and aggressive – a man of violence). He couldn’t have got it more wrong if he had tried. And so here in our first reading he bares his heart…and he does that because he has had a personal encounter with Christ and stepped in to the fullness of his grace. “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” That is something we are invited into.
I know few Christians who really ‘get’ grace. I know that when I came to faith I struggled to understand grace too. Each day in prayer I said “Lord, I don’t understand grace. Please help me to understand.” I prayed this prayer for weeks, and weeks, and weeks. I prayed that prayer for so long; but I never gave up. I was still surprised though when one day I heard that still small voice. I believe God said to me “Do you really want to understand grace?” My response was rash and impulsive…I dared to say “Of course I want to understand grace!” After all, I had been praying that I might understand for weeks. Even God’s response was grace-filled. Once again I believe I heard him say “Mark, do you really want to understand grace.” And this time…I sat up and took notice. After some careful thought my response was more measured, more considered…I said “Yes Lord, I really do want to understand grace. Please show me.” God presented me with a picture, and it was a picture that literally brought me to my knees; it was a picture of me as I really am – a sinner. I wept to see the extent of my sinfulness; there was nothing that could commend me to God either. Perhaps in my arrogance I had thought that surely there must be something in me that would give me a tick in the box! God then said to me “This is how you are.” Now if that had been the end of my experience, I would have been crushed. We all have a testimony, and my testimony is one of being found by God, one of being awakened by grace. God’s grace always overflows. And in his grace, he then showed me another picture in which I was stood there as white as the snow, wearing a white robe. He then said “This is how you are in my Son Jesus.” My heart leapt for joy; God had found me, God had reached out to me and called me.
The point is, the lengths that God will go to in order to find us are beyond our greatest imaginings – they are extraordinary. We are reminded of that in today’s gospel reading in which Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. God always carefully seeks out the lost, and he does that until he finds us. And in that finding there is such great joy. Jesus said “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
I want you to know that no matter what experiences you may have had in life, no matter how unworthy you might feel, no matter how bruised your bones are…that God’s grace is sufficient. May you know the Gospel truth, the good news – that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And that is something I want to shout from the rooftops. He came into the world to save people like me, and people like you even if there is nothing in us that can commend us to him. May you know deep joy in your heart and spirit, and the fruit of that encounter with the grace of God that is faith and love. But may you also know how heaven rejoiced when you came to faith and each time you come before God with a humble and penitent heart safe in the knowledge of his love and grace. One of the many reasons why God’s shows his grace is that “Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”
Like Paul, we are presented with a choice. A choice of how we might respond to God’s love and grace. How do we respond to God’s gift of grace? Like Paul, do we “thank Christ Jesus our Lord”? Like Paul, is our heart cry “To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever”?
As we gather round the Lord’s Table this morning, let’s come with humble, penitent, grateful and joyful hearts. As we have received grace from God, let us give grace to others. Amen