Fruitfulness on the Frontline 3 - Ministering grace and love
1 John 4:13-21, Luke 10:25-37
(No sound recording this week I'm afraid - the kit didn't work. We'll be back on air next week)
On the day we moved here we had a big good bye service in the church where we had been for the previous three years - and left directly from there, full of farewells and all the excitement and sadness that goes with a move. We drove across Kent and arrived here at the Vicarage, a house we had only really seen a couple of times, which was pretty much empty of furniture because the removals lorries were arriving the next day, in a village where we knew nobody, with the children having to start at new schools and facing a totally unknown future.
And there in the kitchen was this huge pile of food. Really wonderful, delicious food and lots of it. And there was a lovely card full of welcomes and treats for the kids. And I remember looking at it and finding tears pouring down my face. All that emotion from saying good bye to people that we loved was released and I knew we’d be ok here. We were welcome. People cared. This would be a good place.
That table full of food was an act of grace and love. It was more than just the food, nice as that was; it was the generosity and the welcome, and it spoke to my soul.
Today, in our series on Fruitfulness on the frontline we’re invited to think about Ministering grace and love. If this is your first Sunday here, or your first for a while, there’s an introduction to the series at the back of church. Briefly, it explains the word fruitfulness - which is about bringing God’s way of doing things to the world - and frontline, which are those places and communities where we spend our ordinary everyday time. And the key point we want to make is that it is on our frontline - at work, in the school playground, in the Book Club - wherever we spend our ordinary time - that we are called to be fruitful. The point of following Jesus isn’t to come to church really often or to pray loads. The point of following Jesus is to be fruitful on our frontline. And the reason we come to church and pray loads, is because those things are the means by which we can become fruitful on our frontlines.
And you can read and listen to the previous sermons in the series on the website. And today, ministering grace and love.
When we were with Mark Greene on the day away he went through the 6 ways of being fruitful and asked us - with our eyes closed - to raise our hand to the one that we were most comfortable and confident with. This, ministering grace and love, got by far the most raised hands. And I’m quite sure that’s right. We are, in all sorts of ways, very good at this. That huge hamper of food we were given was a taste of what this community is like.
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to add up the impact of all the cakes baked, flowers arranged, events run, neighbours visited, meals cooked, lifts given, cards written, phone calls made, kind words exchanged, sadnesses gently held and difficult decisions supported. Imagine each one of those acts of grace and love like a little light shining in the world. Imagine all those little lights shining out on our frontlines - here in Goudhurst, across the surrounding villages., in Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, London - wherever we spend our time. Each one of them an act of grace and love.
Many of us find it difficult to be a messenger of the gospel and to share our faith, but ministering grace and love - that we understand, that we can do. And all those kind acts and generous words are grace at work. And praise God for every single one of them. The small, often simple acts that bring God glory and claim some part of God’s creation as a place of grace and love, a place where Jesus is Lord.
Here’s a question for you to reflect on this week: Where are you already most naturally and most fully ministering grace and love? You might want to notice it, to thank God for the opportunities He is giving you and to ask for His blessing on the ways you are being fruitful on your frontline.
I wonder though if there are two risks for us to be gently aware of.
The first risk is the ‘gospel of try harder’. It’s when we think that being a Christian is all about trying really hard to be good. As if it’s only if we do loads of really kind things that God will accept us.
If you’ve got children at school they almost certainly have a reward system of some sort - house points, ipoints, stickers, marbles in a jar - whatever it is. There’s a risk that we think we need to collect lots of God’s house points in order to get the great reward of his approval, or his acceptance.
But what happens then is that these good things become a burden, and they’re not done freely - we start to expect a reward - from God perhaps, or from those we’re trying so hard to be kind to.
We love because he first loved us says 1 John 4. It’s always that way round. There is no reward system with God. Those acts of grace and love earn us precisely nothing at all. In a wonderful and freeing way, God is kind of indifferent to them all. Of course every loving act is a good thing - and of course it pleases God when he sees his children living the way he designed us to live, but our actions don’t change his feelings towards us at all and his love certainly doesn’t depend on how our heavenly scorecard is looking.
The second risk is the ‘gospel of nice’. This is when we think that, so long as we’re nice, we’re being good Christians. The trouble of course is that lots of people who aren’t Christians - people who reject God entirely, or who think Jesus was a figure of fiction - are also very nice. Being nice is not the heart of being a Christian. Nor is baking cakes, organising events or giving someone a lift, or any of those acts of grace and love which we are so good at.
The heart of the gospel is to follow Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is to confess - as the first reading says - that Jesus is the Son of God. It’s - as the second reading shows us - to be the kind of people who, when we want to know who our neighbour is, turn to Jesus for the answer. Being kind, doing acts of grace and love are responses, they are a result of, they are rooted in, what God has done for us, not the other way round. We love because he first loved us
And that is the antidote to these two risks and the doorway to a freedom in which ministering grace and love can be a joy rather than a burden. We love because he first loved us. The antidote is to make sure we know where to start from. Our tendency is to start with ourselves. What should I do? Have I done enough? Am I good enough? - and then we move to think about God. The gospel tells us to start instead with God. To begin with the awareness that everything we are and everything we have has been given to us. To begin with wonder and thanks for what we have received - that’s why worship; simply acknowledging that God is God - is so important. To see the world as gift, totally freely given. All that beauty, all that love, all that grace shown to us - so abundant, so generous, and so much of it.
That’s the place to start. And then we can move to questions about what to do with all we’ve been given, and how we’re going to use the time and the money and the gifts and all the glorious abundance that has been placed before us.
And then, as we find ourselves living like that, then we find that we are free. Then we taste what St John knew about when he wrote his letter - There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. We don’t need to worry whether we’re trying hard enough for God and we won’t think it’s just about being nice.
All those acts of grace and love are our generous response to the generosity we been shown. Nothing more.
A second reflection for you to live with this week: How can you pay attention to the abundance that God has given you? How can you live more fully with wonder and thanks for all you have received?
When we can lean back into God’s grace and love, knowing that he has given us all we need and more, then we can share what we have received in turn. Then we can be free to minister grace and love with God’s grace and with God’s love.
Share a story of a time when someone ministered to you with an act of grace and love. How did it feel?
In his book Mark Greene says 'Grace doesn't have to. But grace does. Grace is on the lookout for opportunities' and 'Love doesn't have to. But love does. Love is alert to possibilities'. What does this mean for you?
Where are you already most naturally and most fully ministering grace and love?
How can you pay attention to the abundance that God has given you? How can you live more fully with wonder and thanks for all you have received?