Sunday, January 28, 2018


A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, January 28, 2018, the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. “Grace Notes” sermon series.

Texts: Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 1:4-11


Every year, I go on a 7 day silent retreat during which I speak only to God (and my assigned spiritual director for 30-45 minutes a day).  My first retreat—fifteen years ago—I arrived with my agenda in hand; I had a plan!  It didn’t take long for me to realize that God’s agenda was different than mine, that God knew what I needed better than I.  There came a moment late in the week when, all at once, I realized something quite astonishing:  I was carrying around an extraordinary weight of guilt about some very destructive things I had done in my life—and I was assuming that this heavy, dull, throbbing pain was something I had to carry forever as punishment.  Imagine my astonishment to realize that, even though I regularly taught and preached (and thought I understood!) God’s grace and mercy, I hadn’t fully embraced these gifts. Oh, I spoke about how God loves us all no matter what all the time, but without even knowing it, I’d resigned myself to believing there were parts of me that God could never love.  God’s agenda for me that week was to open my eyes and to invite me to step into a new freedom—the freedom of realizing that even at the very moment I did the things I am most ashamed of—even those parts of me that felt most unlovable—even right then and right there, God was loving me. God never stopped loving me and God’s steadfast love and mercy sought to release me from the weight of sin and shame that clung so tightly. //


Some of you may have seen the 1986 film The Mission, depicting the establishment of a Jesuit mission in the remote Guarani tribal lands of South America. Robert DeNiro plays the character of Rodrigo Mendoza, a former mercenary and slave trader—known by the Guarani for his brutality to their people—but now seeking redemption among the Jesuits.  In one of many powerful scenes in the movie, DeNiro’s Mendoza is making the difficult journey up the cliffs to the mission with a group of the Jesuit brothers, carrying a large mesh bag filled with the armor he had worn in his former life. He was determined to carry it up with him, an intentional burden and penalty for his sins—refusing again and again to just let it go.  It is heavy; he stumbles under its weight.  His overwhelming struggle is difficult to witness.  When the Jesuits finally near the mission there is tension as the Guarani recognize Rodrigo Mendoza; they seem puzzled by his appearance and the burden he is carrying.  One of the tribe swiftly moves over, takes out a knife, and holds it to Mendoza’s neck… A tribal Chief speaks to a trusted Jesuit who evidently explains the situation.  Immediately, the Chief speaks to the one holding the knife and, instead of Mendoza’s neck, his burden is cut free, the weight he’d been carrying is tossed off the cliff into the river below. Rodrigo Mendoza dissolves into tears. //


United Methodists among us may know the story of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience.  “In early 1738 John Wesley was at a low point, having just returned from his disappointing missionary efforts at the colony of Georgia in the New World.” He felt like a failure and a disappointment to God. “Wesley reluctantly attended a group meeting on the evening of May 24th on Aldersgate Street in London.”[i]  He writes, “About a quarter before nine, while [the leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ. I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[ii] He goes on, “I felt that God loved me. I experienced that God loved me. It was no longer something that was in my head, but it’s something that I felt in my heart.” 

All of the stories I have shared this morning are experiences of God’s grace, specifically, God’s justifying grace.  Last week, we reflected together upon the “first movement” of God’s grace, what we call prevenient grace, God’s presence even when we’re unaware of it, God’s presence nudging, beckoning, inviting us into a closer relationship. The next movement of grace—as articulated by John Wesley—is called justifying grace. “Justification,” said Wesley, “is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins, and ... our acceptance with God.”[iii] Justifying grace is the assurance of forgiveness and acceptance that comes when we turn toward God and open our hearts to receive God’s saving and liberating love.  It is often described as a doorway or a bridge, a crossing over into a new life.  It’s that moment when you know and feel that God’s love for you is more powerful than anything else in your life and, because of that, you know that whatever you’ve done or not done, whatever your faults and failings, whatever it is that you think you have to carry around with you forever, can be released, carried away like old armor in a rushing river.  //


In Western popular music, a “bridge” is a contrasting section of a song appropriately found in the middle; it’s a connecting place, a distinctly different moment, a turning point, between the beginning and the completion of the song.  Justifying grace is like that; it’s a connecting point between the opening stirrings of awareness of God and an assurance that our “completion,” our wholeness, is discovered through life in God.  The “bridge” of justifying grace is a turning point that can be experienced at various times throughout our lives as God opens our eyes and hearts to cross over into even deeper experience of divine mercy and love.


John Wesley was clear that justifying grace is not something we earn and is not reserved for folks who are all tidied up. My personal experience of justifying grace shared this morning was a new awareness that even when I was right in the middle of making things a mess God was loving me. Rodrigo was liberated from his burden not by his own act, but by the act of mercy shown to him by those he had brutalized and enslaved.  John Wesley had been trying to get everything right and do all the right things so that he might have right relationship with God and yet it was in a moment of despair and surrender that his heart was able to receive the gift of God’s tender love and mercy. Wesley is clear that that justification is not our work, but the work of God, it is what God does for us through the Son.[iv]


The only role we play is to respond to God’s amazing love and mercy with an open heart, to allow that love and mercy to carry us across the bridge from an old life into a new life in Christ, to cross the threshold into greater freedom and into participation in God’s way of love in the world.  That leads us into relationship with other people, with the people of God, with the church.


In the church, the sacrament of Holy Baptism is a moment when we celebrate the gift of God’s justifying grace and have the opportunity to commit or recommit to our life in Christ. The familiar opening words (UMH p. 33) define the rite beautifully:

Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation

and given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.


When a baby is brought forward to receive Baptism, the grace at work in the child is God’s prevenient grace, the grace that enfolds that baby long before she is able to understand it, and also justifying grace, the steadfast love and mercy of God that is more powerful than sin and that will cover this child throughout her life. The family members who bring a child forward, are asked to reaffirm their own Baptismal covenant, to cross over from an old life (renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and repent of sin), to a new life (accept the freedom God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression), and to live that new life guided by the way of Jesus Christ (serve Christ in union with God’s diverse church). In fact, every time we celebrate a Holy Baptism or Confirmation, we are all given the opportunity to remember God’s steadfast love and mercy in our own lives and recommit to a life that is both fueled and guided by God’s amazing grace.


Our Gospel today is Mark’s characteristically succinct account of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” (Mk 1:10)  Succinct as it is, there’s a lot going on in this line of scripture. I want to focus briefly on a couple of words that really illuminate the story and give it greater depth and meaning for our own experience.


The phrase ‘just as’—euthus in the Greek—is better translated “immediately.”  This is the first of 41 times Mark uses this adverb in the Gospel. The word “immediately” expresses both a moment in chronological time (what the Greeks called kronos) AND “immediately” also expresses what we might call an opportune time or a “full” time (Greek, kairos)—a time when the space between heaven and earth is bridged, a “thin” place where the Kin-dom breaks into our time.

Euthus—immediately—when Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are ‘torn apart’ (Greek, skizo) and the voice of God declares Jesus identity saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:11)  —An  aside: The Greek word, skizo, appears only once again in the gospel of Mark when the temple curtain is “torn apart” when Jesus takes his last breath from the cross. (Mk 15:38)  In that moment, it was not God’s voice, but the voice of a centurion who declares the identity of Jesus: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mk 15:39)[v]


A kairos moment in chronos time, a moment when the heavens are torn apart and Holy Spirit shows up and alights upon a person in a particular way, a moment when a person’s true identity as a beloved child of God is revealed…this is what happens—not just at Jesus’ baptism, but at every Christian baptism since.  In baptism, God draws near in an intimate way and our truest identity is affirmed.  As we pass through the waters—at whatever age that happens—we cross over into a new life, a life forever enfolded in God’s love and mercy…no matter what.  


Jesus—beloved Son of God—passed through the waters, suffered death on a cross, and rose from the grave to show us that the very worst the world can do (and the worst that we have done or will do) is no match for the liberating, life-giving power of God’s love.  Justifying grace is experienced in moments when we finally get it—that the bridge is always there, the way has been made, God has done this amazing thing for us through Jesus, and that all we have to do is open our hearts and minds to hear the voice of God naming us:  beloved… beloved… beloved.  And then step into the new life of relationship and freedom that awaits…





[iii] Ibid.