Stewards of Grace

by Andrew Stobart.

Reading again through the cards and letters we received this summer when we left my previous appointment, there was one particular note that prompted a lump in my throat. ‘Thank you,’ it read, ‘for the example you have left me of grace in the face of spite and hostility.’ Leaving aside for the moment all the other questions (and memories) that this raises, it struck me that this is the most precious affirmation I have received about those eight years. The tears it prompted are not just a product of the ‘spite and hostility’ that put ‘grace’ in such sharp relief; they arise from the profoundly humbling thought that my fumbling attempts to deal with a situation that brought pain and damage to my family and I were, at least for this one person, a window onto grace. Suddenly the familiar words of Paul to the Corinthians make new sense: ‘everything is for your sakes, so that grace may increase.’[1]

Paul – and, for that matter, the rest of the apostles and other early Christian leaders – had an expectation of ministry that wouldn’t fit well into a glossy magazine about vocational options. They knew nothing about ‘work-life balance’ on the one hand, or ‘dignity at work’ on the other. For them, striding after the risen Jesus into the treacherous terrain of our own humanity was nothing less than a vocation of death (and, only just so, resurrection). Of course, figuring out what discipleship means in any given context is never straightforward, and we wisely acknowledge our own propensity to mistake the direction of Jesus’ footsteps. However, it seems even Jesus was more pessimistic about the public acceptability of our ministries than we tend to be: ‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.’[2]

Grace, surely, is the key.

Or, perhaps better, our abundant God, whose life overflows in the grace of Christ, and whose calling to all people is rooted in the further gracious outpouring of the Spirit, is the key.

Understanding grace as abundance – or generosity, or overflow – should be, on the one hand, a fairly straightforward Christian reading of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the other hand, gracious abundance ought also to be a basic benchmark for the community that is created by the liveliness of Jesus. That neither of these is self-evident in the Christian Church today is one (good) rationale for the continued existence of the Wesleyan church.

First, a Wesleyan theology – literally, a word about God – proclaims without caveat that the character of revelation and of the career of Jesus and of the workings of the Spirit is all grace.[3] As a Methodist theologian has recently put it, God creates all things ‘in sheer and measureless freedom and grace’ and sustains all things ‘in absolute grace’.[4] Grace, in short, is what there is.

Secondly, a Wesleyan community puts generous overflow at its heart. In today’s culture, such a grace-filled community would be truly counter-cultural. Indeed, it is perhaps even a novelty within the Methodist Church, where we are often tricked by the scarcity of resources into the polar opposite of grace: fear and anxiety, clinging to what we have, distrustful of anything that looks like a prodigal waste. The use of music and song in the Methodist Church might be a particular worked example: to what extent do our hymns and musical traditions now contain grace ‘in monotone satiety’, rather than truly participating in the Wesleyan heritage of song that liberates grace ‘in superabundant and jubilant thankfulness’.[5]

The family of Jesus’ followers needs a Wesleyan voice, alongside all the other voices, to sing, persistently and eloquently, that God is grace, that grace is gracious, and that graciousness is participation in God.

This vision for Christian vocation – lay and ordained alike – was summed up by the apostle Peter, who exhorted his readers to be ‘good stewards of grace’.[6] The tears with which I began were caused by a situation in which God’s people had become gatekeepers for grace (which was kept safely hidden away), not good stewards of it. The wise steward, as Jesus infers, unbolts the storehouse to bring out the riches and to lay a table of abundance.[7]

This week, may we be good stewards of grace, ushering all comers into God’s banquet of abundant life.

 

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:15. This comes just after Paul’s dramatic claim in verse 12, ‘So then, death is at work in us, but life in you!’

[2] John 15:18.

[3] For an interesting recent article on this, examining Wesley’s understanding of free grace over against more Reformed conceptions, see J. Gregory Crofford, ‘“Grace to All did Freely Move”: Thoughts on Charles Wesley’s 1741/1742 Hymns on God’s Everlasting Love’, Wesley and Methodist Studies, Vol. 6 (2014), pp. 37-62.

[4] Tom Greggs, ‘In Gratitude for Grace: praise, worship and the sanctified life’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 70:2 (2017), p149.

[5] See Greggs, p162, who notes that singing is a particularly Methodist way to signify gratitude for God’s overflowing grace.

[6] 1 Peter 4:10.

[7] Matthew 13:52.

3 thoughts on “Stewards of Grace”

  1. “we are often tricked by the scarcity of resources into the polar opposite of grace: fear and anxiety”
    I have been thinking myself on how our experience of grace should affect our reflections on church life. There is such a strong sense of a shortage of ministers in the stationing process, and of the difficulty of finding the right people to serve in key roles, paid or voluntary. Andrew is not denying that there is ‘scarcity of resources’ but implies that there is some sleight of hand or spirit that keeps our attention on scarcity while distracting us from the overflowing grace of God. As a way of returning our attention to grace, song seems a good place to start. Worship should be the place where we shrug off the shackles of anxiety, and find our full attention drawn back it where it should be: doxology as the source of a response to scarcity. Thanks for this Andrew.

    Like

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