My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): Embodying the Means of Grace

Monday, September 9th, 2019

I began this series by posing the central problem we face in our cultural moment, namely, the inability to frame a moral argument. Today, in Part II, I propose the first of three solutions to this problem.

John Wesley understood that there are times when you cannot “make an argument” to the surrounding culture. But, precisely when a culture cannot hear an argument, it cannot easily dismiss someone who quietly embodies it. The embodiment of truth, wholeness, and human flourishing is one of the most powerful testimonies to God’s existence in the world.

As Christians, we begin by remembering that moral values are intrinsic to persons, not to things. So when we talk about kindness, faithfulness, generosity, fairness, justice, etc. those are not simply values which are hanging out there in disembodied space, but are embodied in God himself and then in us as persons, created as those created in the image of God. Ethics, therefore, is personal, flowing from the very nature of God who created us in his image and made us image bearers in the world. Even Aristotle knew that there must be some external fixed point, the so-called “Unmoved Mover” or “First cause,” which later Aquinas identified as God in Aristotelian ethics. In classical Scholastic theology the Latin phrase described God as the norma normans sed non normata–the norm of norms which cannot be normed, i.e. an objective being who is objectively outside the material universe, but has personally entered it in the person of Jesus Christ as the full embodiment of truth and righteousness.

Even Aristotle understood that when we do not embody the virtues, there will be a gap between our lives and genuine human flourishing. In that gap is where we find depression, anxiety, fear, rage, and so forth. In the recent tragic shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on July 28th someone, in the midst of the shooting, screamed the question to the active shooter: “Why are you doing this?” to which he reportedly replied, “Because I am very angry.” Active shooters leading to tragic deaths, as we have seen recently in Dayton and in El Paso, are just one of many signs that we are not flourishing as a culture. Therefore, as Christians, when we embody the virtues and the means of grace, we will flourish as a community. This is why Paul says in Philippians 2 that we are to be “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life . . . ” (Phil. 2:15, 16a). What does it avail us if we win a nasty political fight over the definition of marriage if our own actual marriages are falling apart?

Wesley taught that God has provided many ways, or “means” of grace, which enable us to grow and to incorporate the life of Christ within us on a daily basis. Wesley defined means of grace as “outward signs, words or actions, employed by God, and appointed to this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey . . . prevenient, justifying or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, Sermon no. 16). Wesley suggests, for example, that the public reading of Scripture, receiving the Eucharist, prayer, obedience to God’s Word, denying oneself, and works of piety are all given to us by God as ways of promoting sanctification in our lives.

But, for our purposes here, I want us to see the means of grace not only in personal terms, i.e. helping us to mature spiritually and grow in personal holiness, but also we must see the larger missional power, the public witness, of the embodied means of grace when embodied by the church. If the world meets someone who is prayerful, who does works of piety—selflessly serving the poor, or on Sunday doesn’t just sleep in, but puts themselves and their families in the midst of the baptized community of those who follow Jesus, it has a powerful effect. It is missional. G. K. Chesterton famously said that even “those who reject the doctrine of the incarnation are different for having heard of it.” The very idea that God became one of us has a powerful force upon the human psyche. It challenges our imaginations and forces someone to reassess God’s whole relationship with the world. In the same way, a church which embodies the means of grace invades the imagination and forces the society to consider that there just might be a loving God who rules and reigns the universe, and has a true transformational influence on those who belong to him. If we are not ourselves transformed by the gospel, then the world has every right to simply see us as merely using religion as demagogues or charlatans serving a political agenda. We lose our witness when we embody so much of the brokenness which the world is experiencing.

Brothers and sisters, authentic embodiment is the necessary foundation for public proclamation. Our culture is very uneasy with strong moral statements. In today’s climate, ethical statements come across as inherently judgmental. To love someone today means, in the wider culture, to affirm whatever it is someone happens to say or believe. Likewise, to disagree with someone in today’s emotive climate is almost defacto to say that we do not love that person. This climate is actually yet another sign of our inability to frame a moral argument, because we now live in a culture of self-invention (i.e. nothing extrinsic to yourself can be used as a standard for evaluation of a right or wrong course of action). Richard Dawkins, the zoologist who has gained fame as an outspoken atheist, voices, without realizing it, the culture of self-invention when he refers to our existence as a “blind, unconscious process which Darwin discovered . . . and which has no purpose.” This new view seeks to separate the created order from any moral framework. Camille Paglia, the popular author and activist, wrote, “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.” Thus, we now live in a cultural climate where all meaning is subjective and is an arbitrary extension of human autonomy.

This culture of self-invention is unleashing objective, observable chaos, and the decline of human flourishing. The polls cited earlier prove that the wider culture is aware of it, but they have no idea why it has happened or what can be done to address it. This presents a huge opportunity for the church to embody the means of grace and thereby to truly embody human flourishing in such a profound way that the world will take notice. We were not designed for immorality. Brokenness is always, even unknowingly, attracted to wholeness. There is an inherent attraction to embodied holiness, order, light, and human flourishing. Therefore, we must understand that embodying the means of grace is not just about our personal spiritual growth, but is actually missional and a powerful embodiment of our public witness to the world. Indeed, it is the absolute prerequisite for gaining a cultural permission slip to, once again, engage in a moral argument.

This is why every reader of this article should consider becoming part of a Wesleyan band of discipleship (see http://discipleshipbands.com) so as micro-communities, we can more effectively learn how to embody the very presence of Christ in our midst.

Comments

  • David Player says:

    Penetrating insights and prophetic suggestions to return to vital discipleship and witness. I appreciate you Timothy. Keep following close to Christ and running a good race brother.