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On Grace, Gratitude, And Going For The Goal

October 30, 1988 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | I Corinthians 15:3-11

The Apostle Paul was a genius. Indeed, he was so much of a genius that I am convinced that even if he had not become a Christian, still we would know of him and of his thought today. Such a magnificent intelligence and such a powerful personality inevitably would have left its mark upon the ages. We frequently hear Paul set forth as the example of missionary service, or the example of sound theology, or the example of effective evangelism, or the example of superb teaching. However, today, I would like for us to think of Paul as a shining example of Christian love.

Of course, we have to admit that we have cheapened the word “love” by our use of it. We use it so frequently, so casually, or so erroneously that many times the word is counterfeit. We say, for example, “I love brussel sprouts.” (Frankly, I regard that as a contradiction in terms!) Or we say, “I love my car.” (We forget that one cannot love an inanimate object.) Or we say, “I’d love to knock your block off.” (We turn a very positive word into something profoundly negative.) Yes, let’s be honest enough to admit that the word “love” has been robbed of much of its meaning in our time.

However, I believe that the experience of the great Apostle Paul may help us to recapture some of the meaning of that marvelous word “love.” Here is what I mean…

In the first place, Paul is an example of Christian love because he accepted God’s grace.

He says in 1 Corinthians 15, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” In order to grasp the full meaning of those words, we need to understand the context in which they were written. The Corinthian church was broken apart by a number of discords and arguments which were important, but which we do not have time to analyze today. In any case, Paul wrote this letter in an attempt to straighten out some of those problems, and, in order to establish his authority to speak to those matters, he described how he came to be an apostle. He pointed out that after Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared first to Cephas (we commonly call Cephas, Peter). Jesus sought out Peter. Remember, please, that Peter was the one who had denied Christ—not once, not twice, but three times. It is a beautiful thing to think that Jesus, after He came back from death to life in all of His risen glory, would seek out the very one who had specifically and deliberately denied Him. He was more concerned about the hurt in Peter than He was about the hurt in Himself which had been caused by Peter. That is grace.

Then Paul went on to say that Jesus appeared also to James. Now James was the brother of Jesus. You will remember that in the Gospel of John we are told that James scorned Jesus, and in Mark, it says that James tried to keep Jesus from going into His ministry. So here Paul tells us that the resurrected Lord went to one who had called Him “crazy,” and who had tried to prevent Him from fulfilling His mission for God. James had sinned against Jesus, yet Jesus sought him out and blessed him with His presence. That is grace.

But having pointed out these two glaring examples, Paul went on to mention himself. He said: “I am an apostle, but I am the least of the apostles because I persecuted the church.” Paul then lays out the evil of his past and he says, “How amazing it is that Jesus, who went to a sinner like Peter who denied Him, and a sinner like James, who scorned Him, would have so much grace in Him that He would come to me, the chief of sinners, the one who persecuted His church.” Paul is utterly dumbfounded by the extent and the nature of that loving grace—and it leads him to say: “I am what I am because of that grace.”

That is the Good News of the Gospel. Peter, James, Paul—none of them deserved to be loved by Jesus Christ. In fact, exactly the opposite was true. But Jesus loved them anyway, and because they accepted His grace in their lives, they went on to become significant servants of the Lord. You and I do not deserve God’s grace in Jesus Christ either, but still He gives it. All we have to do is accept it—but we do have to accept it.

Charles Allen tells of the case of a man named George Wilson. In 1830, he was convicted of robbing and killing a government employee. He was sentenced to be hanged. Later, President Andrew Jackson, in an act of mercy, pardoned him. But Wilson did a strange thing. He refused to accept the pardon and no one seemed to know what to do. His refusal was carried to the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall, the greatest Chief Justice we ever had, wrote the opinion. He said: “A pardon is a slip of paper, the value of which is determined by the acceptance of the person to be pardoned. If it is refused, it is no pardon. George Wilson must be hanged.” And he was.

The point is this: Jesus Christ comes bringing God’s pardon to us, but we must accept it in faith and obedience. If we do not accept the offer of His grace, then we will never know the joy and the strength and power He has promised to us. Paul did not deserve that grace, but he accepted it. He said: “I am what I am because of that grace.”

Next, Paul is an example of Christian love because he was filled with gratitude.

He wrote to the Corinthians: “God’s grace toward me was not in vain.” It filled his life to overflowing and consequently his heart overflowed with gratitude. The grace of God, you see, is a very powerful thing. It bothers me that so often we speak of grace in sugary tones. We sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” Of course, grace is very, very sweet. But in singing of grace in those terms, we forget the power that is in grace. If we were standing by Niagara Falls and heard the roar of that cataclysm of water as it crashed down to the rocks below, we would never say “My, how sweet the sound.” We would never say that of such a roaring, powerful flood of water, yet, that is what the grace of God is. It is unstoppable. It is irresistible. It is life transforming. It is the flood-tide of all the loving passion of God flowing into our lives.

Look what it did for Paul. It has been pointed out many times that Jesus left eleven apostles to minister to the Jews and only one to minister to the rest of the world—but that one was Paul. He traveled innumerable miles, preached innumerable sermons, endured innumerable hardships until at last he had dotted the Roman Empire with churches. He describes himself as “one untimely born,” as one who came to the task late, but this one man, Paul, like some spiritual Atlas, lifted the Roman Empire to God. It took seven ages to build the Roman Empire. Paul evangelized it in just twenty-five years. And looking back over what he had done, he put no pride in himself, but said: “What I have done, I have done out of gratitude for God’s grace to me in Jesus Christ.”

I was interested to read in the newspaper the other day that one of our Orlando hospitals is gearing up to become a center for heart transplants . Of course, God has been in the heart transplant business for a long time. In other words, God, by His powerful grace, reached down into a person like Paul and he took out that stony heart, that stern heart, that calloused heart, and He replaced it with a heart of love. He does the same for us. And when we have experienced the transplanting, transforming grace of God in our hearts, we will inevitably and invariably be overcome with gratitude.

The point is this: “When we accept God’s grace in our lives, then we are going to be filled with a sense of gratitude. No longer will we live only for ourselves. We will begin to live instead for Jesus and for others. That is what Paul meant when he wrote: “God’s grace toward me was not in vain.”

Then Paul is an example of Christian love because he was willing to give so much of himself.

He put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15: “The grace of God which is with me, enabled me to give myself away in ministry to you so that you may believe.”

My friends, that is the secret of the history of the church. Christ loves the church. Make no mistake about that. We often speak of Christ loving the world, or loving the sinner, but Christ also loves the church. Paul wrote: “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it.” He founded the Church. He taught the Church. He inspired the Church. He died for the Church. Occasionally, I will hear someone say: “I love Jesus, yes, but the Church, no. I want to be alive with Jesus, but I don’t want to have anything to do with the Church.” That is very shallow and very ignorant. You cannot be a part of Jesus without loving what Jesus loved—and Jesus loved the Church. And it is because the Church has been so loved by Christ that the Church has become the greatest agency of love in the history of the world. It is the Church that binds up the brokenhearted. It is the Church that reaches the lepers that all the rest of the world despises. It is the Church that goes to captives—there are no visitations in our prisons other than those by Christians and members of immediate families. It is the Church that started hospitals and schools and havens for lost children and places where older people will be cherished. It is the Church that began hospice to minister to the dying. It is the Church that went out in compassion to the insane and the incurable.

I have traveled this world from the crowded Khan el Khalili souk in Cairo to the splendid Winter Palace of the czars in Leningrad to the massive Buddhist shrine in Seoul, and I have never yet seen a hospital established by atheism. I have never seen a ministry of compassion undertaken by those who do not love the Lord Jesus Christ. The Church is the greatest agency of compassion in human history because, being loved by God, it must love the world God loves. “We love because He first loved us.” By the grace of God the Church is what the Church is, and His grace toward us is not in vain, so we work all the harder that the world may believe.

That is so true of this church. We have experienced the grace of God in this place, and our gratitude leads us to work harder and to give more that the world around us may believe. Let me restate for you some of my dreams for this church.

I dream of our being a church which turns out ministerial students in significant numbers. At present Ed Bonner, our Minister to Youth, and I are engaged in conversation with some 16 of our young people who are considering the ministry—and there are several who are not-so-young who are considering the call. These are some of the most capable and dynamic people you could ever imagine. I can hardly wait to see what God is going to do in their lives and what they are going to do in His Church.

I dream of our being a church with an evangelism ministry that is bringing at least 200 converts, first-time commitments to Christ, into the church each year. Given our present efforts and results, that is not an unreachable goal.

I dream of our being a church which not only ministers to the needs of the homeless, but which solves the problem of homelessness in our city and which provides housing opportunities for the less fortunate among us.

I dream of our being a church which leads the fight to eliminate pornography and obscenity from our city beautiful, thus providing our children with a healthy and wholesome atmosphere in which to grow.

I dream of our being a church which develops a Presbyterian campus ministry to the thousands of college students at U.C.F., Rollins, and Valencia.

I dream of our being a church which sends missionaries to the widest reaches of the earth. Presently we support six missionary couples. I dream of the day when the six shall become twelve.

I dream of our being a church which dares to expand our sanctuary, retaining the identity and the aesthetic appeal of this magnificent room while making it possible for more than 2200 First Presbyterians to worship together at one time.

I dream of our being a church where 2,000 attend Sunday School each Sunday by mid-1990, thus enhancing our spiritual growth as a congregation.

I dream of our being a church with a recreation program and facilities to provide for the health and to meet the needs of people of all ages—young and old alike.

I dream of our being a church which helps to lead the renewal of the Presbyterian family in the United States of America. We are one of the churches which, by the power of God’s Spirit, can make a difference, and therefore, I believe we must make a difference. God has set this church as a beacon of light at the heart of this city to be renewed and to be renewing. PTL is not going to do it. The 700 Club is not going to do it. Neighborhood Bible studies in a local restaurant or in somebody’s den are not going to do it. Television evangelists are not going to do it. Religious lobbying groups in Washington are not going to do it. Churches like this church, are the only places where God’s renewal can begin, and that is precisely what I expect of this church.

By the grace of God, we are what we are. His grace toward us is not in vain. Therefore, we shall work harder and give more that the world may believe.

So…

I have been touched recently by the efforts that are being made to locate lost children. You see signs on the road, or television commercials, or the sides of milk cartons and pop bottles. And when I see those I think of how long God has been seeking His lost children. God is calling us in this church to be the agents of His love and His grace in seeking and saving the lost of this world. So I ask you: What is your relationship to the church? If you are not a member here, then why not? If you are a member here, are you seeking to serve in the life of this church and are your gifts to the church in gratitude for God’s grace which has transformed your life? Today I set before you the path of life and the path of death, the path of love and the path of indifference, the path of giving and the path of holding. In the name of Jesus Christ, choose life, that you might live a life of love, thus giving and living forever…

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