He had been involved in ministry for a while and was reliable and dependable. Not only that, but he was also very skilled and passionate in what he did. He became the backbone of the team who looked up to him for leadership even though he was not the leader of the team. Then he broke the news to us, that the girl he was dating was pregnant. The leadership of the church attended to the matter with the stipulated provision. Some of it was hard but had to be done. Some of the rigidity made a few members resentful of the church leadership. But the leadership of the church committed to being there even though they looked bad. The leadership of the church continued to extend a hand of fellowship and care even when it seemed they were cruel. After a season of not being involved in the ministry or its leadership, the young man was restored back to service in the church.
This is a scenario that has been seen churches, fellowships, and college Christian Unions. But the ending is not that familiar. In many places has ranged from being brought to the front of the congregation for public confession, and then being stripped of any responsibilities they had. In the rather extreme circumstances, the members have been excommunicated from the fellowship with a warning for people not to have any association with them, sometimes according to a bible verse, “released to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that the soul might be saved”.
Today I begin by sharing one of the practices of a LIFE Community from the book of Ephesians. And this is the practice of grace. Grace in its biblical definition has been said to be God’s unmerited favour shown to us through the person and the work of Christ. But grace on the basis of God’s unmerited favour also becomes a value that is practised in the church as a way of living out the LIFE of Christ. Read Eph 2: 1 – 10.
A Gracious Community recognises where it has come from (1 – 3)
When I worked in Uganda in the early 90’s, it was still the time of Tukutendereza. This was the revival that spread throughout East Africa, regenerating the church in a way that has not been seen in the recent years. It raised hard-core believers who did not entertain a speck of sin. One of the defining marks of the movement, at least in Uganda, was the “Walking in the Light” sessions. I attended one of those. For me hearing the stories of what people did was incredible. At one point I felt people were trying to outdo each other in how bad they were. At a certain point I realised that my testimony was very boring unless I cooked something dramatic. And yes I also felt that they were indeed prime candidates for salvation.
Yet we all needed to get saved, none more than the other. V 3 says, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of God’s wrath”. All means all, regardless of how good or bad you were. Yet when a community loses sight of the fact that all of us were sinners and the objects of God’s wrath, and none more than others, there is a temptation to categorise people – the good and the not so good. And when we have categories of people there is a temptation to lack grace for the not so good, let alone the bad ones. And so when there is a case of one who has fallen into sin, there is less understanding of how and why they fell. There is a lack of grace. A gracious community understands that all of us were in that category without exception. At the end of a church service, still in Uganda, a member of the church walked up to me and greeted me. Then he asked me to my face, “Uchalokoka – Are you still saved”. He had analysed me and concluded I was either backslidden or not fully saved. When a community lacks grace, it is judgemental and critical of people’s shortcomings. It becomes a community carrying people with pain – a hurting community.
A Gracious Community recognises what it cannot do (v 4 – 10).
A pastor who shepherded me in my early days of faith once shared with us how zealous he was for the gospel. He was so zealous that when he would preach on the street in Mombasa where he was based, he would force any person who gave him audience to kneel down and get saved, hammering them with the bible. Another group of evangelists made it their mission to go to arboretum and target Indians having a good time. They would then set up their speakers right next to them and preach the gospel, preaching brimstone and fire and eternal damnation in hell.
I wonder how many people gave their lives to the Lord from that. But I know how Jesus won me. V 4 says, “Because of His great love for us, God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. A gracious community knows that the greatest gift ever given to them was not earned. It was a combination of God’s love and mercy, culminating in His gracious act of salvation. We could not save ourselves and neither can we sustain ourselves. It is only “He who began a good work in us who can bring it to a perfect finish at the coming of Christ” (Phil 1:6). When a community lacks in grace and understanding of this, it becomes a community defined by legalism rather than faith, where what you do or don’t do matters above else. Failures are not tolerated and indeed become a stain in that community and hence the need to excommunicate them. But when a gracious community knows that it is justified by faith and saved by grace, they are able to see the One who is at work in them and also in others. This community heals the wounded and comforts the broken-hearted. This community practices the words spoken of God in Isaiah 42:3, “He will not crush the weakest reed, and a flickering candle He will not put out”.
A Gracious Community recognises the Purpose of Grace
But I need to be careful and say that grace is extended to the willing, those whose hearts desire to walk in the ways of righteousness and truth. Grace operates in the arena of weakness so that the power of God can be seen. Paul says in 1 Cor 12: 9 recounting what God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. For those then who may take grace for granted, Romans 6: 1 – 2 asks, “Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound”? The response is clear – “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer”?
A gracious community knows how to extend grace but also knows that when grace is taken for granted, then they must make a call on that situation. A gracious community knows that when grace is abused the value of it in the community is threatened. And so we must challenge those who would take for granted grace by keeping on sinning. We must point out to them the sin and challenge them to return to the ways of holy living. A gracious community must treasure the gift of grace given to them by challenging those who misuse it in the same measure that they would extend it to one another in difficult circumstances.
We must value grace. We must also live out the values of grace as a community at large. We must value grace in our marriages, with our children, with our neighbour and in our fellowships. It must become a mark of a LIFE Community. Somebody asked a question in reference to the song Amazing Grace, “What is so amazing about grace”. I go back to the words of that song that has resounded over the ages,
T’was grace that brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home