Third in a Series (February, 2003 POL)
Title: Accepting Others
I don’t know when I have struggled as much with a biblical text in the process of preparing a message as I have this week, with this text and with this message.
My job this week is to come to a deeper understanding of the enormity of God’s grace.
And my job this week is to know how best to communicate this biblical truth to you.
We are wrestling with how we can come to a full understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of the salvation which is ours in Him.
At one level, it is so easy to understand.
Jesus put His finger on this when He urged the adults of His day to have a simple, childlike faith. In fact, He made it clear that unless we become as little children, with the transparency of trust that marks the life of a child, we cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot understand the Gospel. This is the Good News of God’s gift to us. His grace is the story of His unmerited favor.
At another level, just as we seem to be capturing the essence of this truth, we find ourselves so subtly distorting it into a kind of quid-pro-quo transaction. The simple, sure, transparent reality of the Gospel slips through our fingers the more adult we become, the more sophisticated we are in the cold, hard analysis of how life really works. No longer are we children. There is no such thing as a “free lunch.” We know that we have to earn whatever we have. That which is of value comes from good, hard work. We brace ourselves for “pop quizzes.” We write our term papers. We prepare our final exams. Our class ranking is so important to get into the university or the graduate program of our choice. Life is so competitive. We work hard to be worthy.
It’s the name of the game. We learn it from childhood. We know what it’s like to be in the lineup when the two captains are picking their teams. We stand a little bit taller and, with direct eye contact, exude charm in the hope we will be chosen first, or at least avoid being picked last. As a result, the whole concept of grace becomes foreign to us. We relate better to works righteousness. After all, we have had to earn everything else in life.
At one level, our text,
It can be seen as simply another statement of the Gospel, so frequently articulated throughout the New Testament that we can sit back and prepare to yawn our way through this message.
But then we stop and confront God’s Word in the context of what we are now doing in this sanctuary throughout this entire service of worship.
Today we have received 94 new members into the life of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Some of these have joined by transfer of letter. They have been active in their faith in other communities and are now part of this fellowship. Some have joined by reaffirmation of faith, acknowledging that they have drifted away from the Lord and now they are coming back to Him. Some are joining by first-time public confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Some of these have been baptized as infants and are now confirming the vows taken for them in the covenant of baptism, followed by the loving prayers of parents, congregation, pastors and God. Some have never had the benefit of that kind of covenant dynamic and are the kind of fresh blush of new spiritual reality to be baptized as adults in that outward sign of the inner working of God’s grace in their lives.
Today we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper.
We come to a common table, each with our own individual stories, both in our histories and our ongoing and temporary realities. Only God can see the infinite combination of life stories gathered in this room. Little can we comprehend the backgrounds of ethnicity, geography, family of origin, gender, age and life experience. It is mind-boggling to look around this sanctuary and see so many people, some who we think we know, and others with whom we are only slightly acquainted, along with those who are total strangers. Then we join a covenant group of eight or ten or twelve people. Over a period of months, we get to know each other better. And we are astounded at how little we knew that person with whom we had a friendly, social relationship, until, finally, we covenant to go deeper in the study of the Bible, in the sharing of our lives, and prayer for each other in those matters of life’s survival.
For a moment, we look beyond this sanctuary and realize that throughout the United States and in hundreds of countries of this world, with thousands of languages, millions of people are gathering today to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in Worldwide Communion Sunday. It is going on in Gothic cathedrals and in store-front churches of the barrios. It is happening in the wood-framed chapels with corrugated steel roofs and in a camel-hair tent worship centers.
Oh, to be able to see it from the perspective of God as millions of men, women and children humbly kneel before the crucified and risen Christ, eating of the bread and drinking of the cup in memory of what His sacrifice on the cross has done for us.
It is only as we see this text in this larger context that we are able to relate to the case study that Paul gives us, re-enacted so often in the history of the Christian church.
Every so often I find myself struggling to fully comprehend the enormity of God’s grace and how to communicate it to you.
I take great relief in this biblical case study of Peter, the one who Jesus called “Rock Man,” who had the kind of faith upon which Jesus was determined to build His church. Thank God for the biblical record of Peter’s life. How exaggerated it has become in 2000 years of church history. I am so glad that I can be reminded it was Peter who ventured out on the water at the command of Jesus, only to take his eyes off of his Lord and begin to sink. How reassured I am when I read the Bible and am reminded that it was Peter who, the night of our Lord’s betrayal, scoffed at the notion that Jesus should die on the cross, determined to protect his Lord, only to fall asleep during our Lord’s agony at Gethsemane. Peter denied Him three times during His trial before the high priest, Caiaphas. How relieved I am to know that it was Peter, a circumcised Jew, who ate only kosher food and wouldn’t think of associating with Gentiles, who God had to confront with that vision of unclean animals and hear God declare, “What I have called clean, you dare not call unclean.” He then humbly adjusted his thinking so that he could go and share the Good News of the Gospel with that Gentile, Cornelius.
I don’t feel so bad when I realize that it has taken me years to comprehend the impact of the Gospel upon my life. Then I realize that maybe yet I’ve not fully comprehended it. We may observe Peter the day Titus didn’t need to be circumcised. Gentiles didn’t need to become Jews to accept the Gospel, and even he, Peter, was free to sit down at the table in Christian fellowship, conversation and food with Gentile as well as Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. Watch him as he comes to Antioch and does just that. Then those men who claimed to come from James arrive in Antioch, and Peter draws back and separates himself from the Gentiles, afraid of those who belong to the circumcision group, drawing other Jews with him, even dear, whole-souled, generous Barnabas. At this point, Paul had to confront him, his hypocrisy, his fear, his intentional or unintentional refusal to embrace the Gospel in the full acceptance of brothers and sisters in Jesus who were very different from himself.
Let’s read this. Hear the words that Paul uses to describe the vacillating struggles of Peter, which so closely parallel my own and perhaps your own struggles to understand the Good News. Paul writes:
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs.
“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” (
Paul is driving a stake through the very heart of the tendency of each of us to revert from the Gospel, the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, to the bad news of salvation by works.
I am reassured by this case study. If Peter had a hard time getting a handle on this and took quite a while to understand and flesh this out, it helps us understand our struggle. It also helps us come to a deeper appreciation of the enormity of God’s grace.
Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this is to address two of the great temptations each of us faces in the Christian life.
Temptation one is the temptation to try to earn the favor of God.
The biblical reality confronting this is there is never enough that you and I can do to earn the favor of God. The Bible tells us that all of our self-styled righteousness is as “filthy rags.” What we need is to be clothed in Christ’s righteousness. We are privileged to receive the gift of His grace. This is the gift of His unmerited favor.
William Barclay puts it in these words: “First, there is the temptation to try to earn the favour of God, and to God man can never give; from God he must always take.”
Temptation two is the temptation to achieve some accomplishments that will cause us to compare ourselves favorably to others.
This temptation is one in which those of us who have received God’s grace and begin to live according to His will begin to think that somehow we are better than others. We begin to glory in our own accomplishments, seeing them to our advantage and looking down on others, seeing to their disadvantage wherein they have not accomplished some of what we have accomplished. In the process, grace becomes law.
William Barclay says this: “Second, there is the temptation that the man who has some little achievement to show will compare himself with his fellow men to his advantage and to their disadvantage.”
He then concludes with this statement: “The Christianity which has enough of self left in it to think that by its own efforts it can please God and that by its own achievements it can show itself superior to the normal run of men, is not true Christianity at all.”
To put it bluntly, our faith has nothing to do with our works.
A few minutes ago, we put the question to each of the new members, “Do you trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation?” We did not ask, “Do you partially trust in Jesus Christ and partially trust in your own good works?” We made it absolutely clear that the criteria for being a member of Christ’s church is to trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation. Thank God for the good works that come. But let’s not turn this Good News into bad news by beginning to compare ourselves to others or we will begin to spiral downward from the freedom which is ours to luxuriate in God’s grace to a humanly devised scheme that denies His grace and ultimately depends on our human effort, in which we then begin to compare ourselves to others, breaking down the oneness in fellowship which is ours at the foot of the cross. That is why I so often use the phrase, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross!”
Now Paul makes this magnificent statement:
“If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (
All week I have been trying to get handles on how to somehow get this message across.
Let me try to do it by sharing a story and quick analogies as we come to the table.
In 1958 I led a small group for 35 days through Europe and the Middle East. On Sunday morning we attended church in Cairo, Egypt. What a joy it was to be with brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, those Coptic Christians, living in great sacrifice and some persecution in a culture dominated by Islam. There were about 20 of us in the group. We met with the pastor in his study before church and then went in and were part of a wonderful worship service with 300 or 400 Egyptian believers. It happened to be Communion Sunday. We were seated in the first several rows of the church. At the end of the sermon, the pastor stepped down to the communion table, declaring this was open communion. You did not have to be a member of that church. All who put their trust in Christ alone for salvation were welcome to participate.
Much to my amazement, two members of my group, Baptist preachers from the southern part of the United States, got up and, drawing quite a bit of attention to themselves, walked out of the sanctuary. I was stunned. At first I thought they might have gotten sick. What had gone wrong? I questioned them later. They said that they did not believe in taking communion with people who believed in infant baptism, were not Baptists and had not been baptized by full immersion as adults.
Stop and think. We all do this, do we not? We tend to major in minors and forget the oneness which is ours in Jesus Christ.
The first-century issue was, “Shall the Gentiles have to become Jews before they can be fully Christians? Do the men have to be circumcised? Do the Gentile Christians need to observe the Old Testament laws?” The answer was “No!” to this kind of legalism, although it took quite a while for that to be fully established.
Today, we have our own ways of setting up these barriers that break fellowship and produce a twenty-first century kind of legalism. We can elevate ourselves by our style of worship and whether or not the minister wears a robe. Some groups pride themselves by not allowing smoking, dancing, drinking and card playing. Others pride themselves that they are not bound up in these legalisms. Some allow alcoholic beverages used in moderation; others say total abstinence is the way to go. Some proscribe a woman to cover her head and not use makeup; where others feel themselves superior because they are not locked into such specific legal standards. Some of us can think we are better because we are faithful in worship, involved in a covenant group, active in adult education, engaged in servant ministry. Not only that, we tithe minimally 10 percent of our income to the Lord. So we elevate ourselves in such a way that again it becomes prideful, feeling ourselves as better than others. In this way, we break fellowship with those who are simply clinging for survival to the cross of Jesus Christ, forgetting that we, too, are also clinging to the cross.
This table is open this morning, open to all who have repented of sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
Another image comes to mind as we come to the table. Picture two people with two hefty bags. One is burdened down with a hefty bag full of sin. That person can’t believe that he or she is good enough to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. If you are that person, bring that bag of garbage and throw it down at the foot of the cross. The Bible says that Jesus paid it all. He bore your sins in His body on the cross, that you may die to sin and live to righteousness. You are clothed in His righteousness.
Then there’s that second person. That one has a hefty bag filled with good works. You have bought into the spirit of our day that “there is no free lunch.” You have to buy everything. Therefore, you feel pretty good about yourself as you come to the table. I beg you, before you eat of the bread and drink of the cup, throw that hefty bag of good works down at the foot of the cross. See all your accomplishments for what they are, the fruit of God’s work in you, not your way of earning His favor. You, too, need to come in the spirit of “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”
Much more subtly, most of us in this room have two hefty bags on our shoulders – one of sins we can see disqualifying us and one of good works that we could see qualifying us. After all, the world adds up debits and credits. If the pluses are larger than the minuses, you are solvent. If the minuses are greater than the pluses, you are bankrupt! That’s not the way it works in the Kingdom of God. Nothing we have done is unforgivable, and nothing we have accomplished gives us enough merit.
I have been thinking about the wonderful ride we Southern Californians have been having the last few weeks with our Angels. How surprised and thrilled some of us are to see how well they have handled themselves against the Yankees. The fact is, none of us is on the team. The fact is, any satisfaction we are getting out of this is vicarious satisfaction. The ones who have paid the price of success and failure have been the Angels, not us fans. Some of us are only “good times” fans. Yet some of us follow Jesus the same way we do our sports teams. We wave His banners in good times, but when times get tough, the stands are empty. He is the One who has taken action on our behalf, vicariously taking our place, justifying us by His grace, unconditional merit for the good times, the bad times and the in-between times.
One other analogy may help. Remember that Vietnamese man who set sail for Catalina. His mainsail broke, and he was adrift at sea for many weeks. He couldn’t save himself, could he? No matter how good a sailor he was, he was lost at sea until, ultimately, he was spotted and rescued by sailors of that U.S. Navy vessel. He didn’t earn his salvation. It was freely given. He, in fact, didn’t have enough money to buy an air ticket home. The sailors took up an offering on his behalf. That’s what it is to be rescued by God’s grace.
Or there’s that child who was adopted from the orphanage by two parents, not blood related, who welcome that child into their home and raise him or her as their own son, their own daughter. That’s the New Testament analogy for what it is to be rescued by Jesus, to be adopted into the family of God, not based on our works or our own merit, or even our own blood ties, but God’s initiative.
As we come to the table, let me conclude with this.
A man was visiting some of the beautiful old churches in Germany. At one church he was intrigued by the carved figure of a lamb at a point near the top of the steeple. He learned that when the church was being built, one of the craftsmen fell from the scaffolding. As the other workers rushed to find him, fully expecting he had died from the terrible fall, they were shocked to find him shaken up, but alive! As he was falling, a flock of sheep was passing by and he landed on top of a lamb. Though the lamb was killed, it also broke the man’s fall, and he was saved.
In recognition of that amazing event, the other craftsmen carved the lamb and placed it on the tower at the exact spot from which the man had fallen. It was a reminder of the time a man was saved by a lamb.
If we are in Christ, then we too have been saved by the Lamb. God sent His only Son to break our fall, to absorb the punishment for sin that was rightly ours and to give us new life. That’s grace. That’s God’s unmerited favor.
Let us come to the table declaring with the Apostle Paul, “‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me'” (