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Grace is God's call to us to be in a personal relationship with him. Grace means that we are fully known and loved by God in all our humanity. It enables us to feel accepted, affirmed, loved, and it helps us to mature as Christians in our walk with God.
In response to God's invitation we want to reciprocate, to give more of ourselves to God, and this would probably mean giving more time, talents, gifts and our own selves to God.
What a wonderful life if this was like a Walt Disney cartoon, and we could skip down the path of life hand-in-hand with God, flowers blooming on either side, animals applauding and birds singing about our heads.
Unfortunately life isn't like that. Obstacles - sometimes from our former life - come across our path, and we can't always avoid them or easily overcome them. This makes it very important for us to know how to deal with these obstacles when they occur.
Faith is the step of opening up to God's invitation and having ongoing trust in God's leading. Sin is the opposite - when we sin we deliberately build our lives around our own self rather than God. This means that we separate ourselves from God. Both the Old and New testaments speak of this separation because of sin. The writer of the later part of Isaiah (59:2) says, '...your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear', whilst in Romans (6:23) Paul writes, 'For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.'
Even in the life of grace we encounter sin. The First Letter of John opens the second chapter with, 'My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous...' But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's explore the topic of separation from God a little before we come to the remedies for sin.
Obstacles are not sent by God. The Letter of James (1:13) tells us, 'No one, when tempted, should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.' The next couple of verses (1:14-15) show that in many cases sin comes out of our own desires because we are 'lured and enticed' by them to a life that is separate from God, a life leading to death. James exhorts us not to be deceived by our desires.
Sometimes the Devil is referred to by people as a joke or merely an influence. Others believe that, just as Jesus and Paul spoke of Satan in real terms, so the devil is the personification of evil. Whether or not you believe the devil is personally trying to distract you away from your relationship with God, or whether you view these events as the world casting obstacles in your way, the possibility of separation from God is a serious reality here.
Just after Easter I went on a personal retreat, staying with the family of my spiritual director. One day, walking alongside a lovely creek in the bird wetlands near his home, he asked, 'And how does the devil get at you, Jill, in your day-to-day life? What does he do to interrupt your life?' This is a question which brings you up short no matter how beautiful, how distracting your surroundings are.
The devil gets at me through good works - throw a good work my way and I find it very hard to resist. Sometimes study leaves me learning about God instead of knowing God. There is a need for reflection, to see how this study furthers me on my Christian walk. Overbusyness and no time to reflect certainly lead to separation from God. And separation from God is a sin!
Now I want to talk about the world. God saw his creation as good (Gen 1:31), and it's my belief that we were created to share his joy in it. I think this is still true today, despite the mess we've made of the world. We've exploited it when we should have been God's stewards.
The pursuit of power, materialism and success at any price are summed up in the phrases:
Thou shalt not get caught,
Why shouldn't I? Everyone else is doing it.
And so we need to ask ourselves:
There is light on the horizon. Jesus says (John 16:33), 'In the world you face persecution. But take courage: I have conquered the world.'
It's all right for us to be different from the rest of the world, and to look after God's creation.
The sinful desires of the flesh separate us from God. Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians (5:19-21), spells these out in great detail, but adds that his list is not exhaustive - in other words, we have to watch very carefully for those worldly issues which separate us from God.
The story of the prodigal son shows lots of examples of the desires of the flesh overcoming usual respect and consideration. The prodigal son got fed up at home, and started wondering about the things he could do if his father were dead and he had come into his inheritance. These things became so important to him that he forgot propriety and went to his father and asked him to divide the estate there and then. While life was easy he continued to enjoy a lavish lifestyle, but when the money was gone he discovered how empty it all was - without relationships with family and friends, without respect or loyalty. This was separation and isolation at its worst.
How fortunate it was that when he finally decided to return his father was watching for him, ready to restore him fully to his former position as beloved family member. And it was this that showed up how guilty the older son was in his smugness. May we avoid this sort of attitude, and may we know how fortunate we are that God comes to meet us, always more than half-way there to forgive and restore the loving relationship when we turn back to him.
Temptation in itself is not a sin. Jesus himself was tempted in ways that are very alluring to most of us, yet the letter to the Hebrews (4:14-15) tells us he did not sin. Paul assures us in his First Letter to the Corinthians (10:13) that God is faithful and we will never be tested beyond our ability to withstand it, and there will always be a way out. It is not God here doing the testing, but God being our protector.
As I was thinking over this talk, and praying over it, I felt very 'called' to tell of an episode in my own life of which I'm not at all proud. It's our practice to take such leading seriously because we believe that it comes from God and that it comes for a reason even if we cannot see what that reason is. Yet I tried to wriggle out of it because of my pride. Pride can really separate us from God. Anyway, I'm going to tell you the story because it links in well with how we can deal with sin in our lives.
I have been a widow since my husband was killed in a plane crash some ten years ago. At that time we had been married for 27 years, but for the last 18 years of that he had had a series of affairs which had been fairly public knowledge. There are a number of reasons why I lived with this situation, still living with my husband and feeling married and yet insecure on a number of fronts. Part of the reason was my marriage vows, part the fact that we had 3 young children when this began.
My husband wanted the first woman to live with us as a threesome, but I wouldn't have that. Then he wanted me to start a relationship with the husband, but I wouldn't have that either. In the second relationship there were times when I worked with the husband, and one night we heard our spouses talking on an open intercom. The extent of their relationship was obvious, and we felt hurt and lonely. We started a relationship also, and this went on for several years.
When my adultery started I was a churchgoer, and I realised that this relationship would offend people if they knew of it, so I stopped going to church. My marriage was better, I think because my husband no longer felt so guilty, but I was separating myself from God. In the middle of all this I became very sick and nearly died twice in one year from massive infection. Despite my children, I wouldn't have cared if I had died.
Altogether I was out of the church for about 15 years, and in the 9 years since then I have experienced real healing - I'll tell you about it as we look at the ways of remedying sin in our lives. Our sins - our obstacles to grace - are a bit like a child covering its eyes and thinking it can't be seen.
The first of the remedies for sin is what A Prayerbook for Australia calls "Reconciliation of a Penitent". The First Letter of John (1:9) tells us that if we confess our sins God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In the Anglican church confession can be done in a very formal fashion, or it can be very informal, with everything in between possible! Search for a priest you will be comfortable working through this process with. Just remember that this person will understand, because we are all sinners one way or another - it is part of our humanity. Also, God is on our side and will be there to meet us.
Certain elements are common to the various ways of making our confession. The first is that we have to be repentant - that is, turning right away from the things we have been doing that separated us from God. If you want to make a confession the person hearing your confession will help you with all of this.
The second is that we have to be ready to say what these bad things were without any excuses - my story says how hurt and lonely I was, yet my sin was plainly and simply adultery, and that was what I confessed. God knows the circumstances anyway, and what I am turning away from is the sin itself.
The third common element is the absolution said by the priest who is hearing the confession. Making a confession leaves most people feeling very vulnerable, but there is something very powerful in having to find the words to do it, and in hearing the comforting words of absolution. At my second confession the priest suggested, as we chatted about what I was going to confess, that instead of confession we made it a healing rite, and that is what we did - again, a very powerful service.
The fourth element is our new life, our changed life - again the person hearing your confession could chat with you about this. On this last visit my spiritual director brought up the affair I had had, even though he knew it had been confessed and absolved. He pushed the issue along for a bit, then said, 'Confessed, forgiven - do you feel cleansed?" He knew the answer was 'no' because of the way I had been responding to his opening up of the issue - so we prayed about it. Some issues are a bit like a broken leg - even once the plaster is off the leg still has to become strong again. Since the first time I made a personal confession to God before a priest and received Absolution the General Confession during the communion service has always been a lot more meaningful to me.
Prayer is a very useful way of dealing with sin. Jesus told the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane to watch and pray so that they wouldn't fall into temptation. After my husband's accident I was the one who told most of the women who had been in his life of his death. I wanted them to know before his name was published by the media. I ended up with much righteous resentment towards these women - perhaps a bit like that older brother in the story of the prodigal son. After I had come back into the church I was at a healing weekend run by Canon Jim Glennon. Canon Jim told me that the best way he knew to deal with righteous resentment was to pray for those people - you couldn't feel resentment towards those you really truly pray for. This has been excellent advice in all sorts of situations across the years since then.
A life of prayer means being disciplined or it won't happen, but it doesn't have to be too formal - different personality types have different ways of praying and worshipping. Something that calms you and settles you is important, and I find it helpful to include the everyday things that are happening, like children playing outside, or traffic going past, so that they don't become distractions. Somewhere in the prayer it is good to examine what is separating us from God at present, and deal with that issue. We need to make time to listen to God.
Spiritual direction is a great help when we want to reflect on our lives and grow in our relationship with God. It can be quite a search to find the right person - a wise member of the clergy or a lay person - for guidance. A spiritual director is not a problem solver or a counsellor - a better description would be a listener and encourager who will teach discernment through prayer and Scripture. Sometimes people use the word mentor.
It is also good to have a soul mate, or a prayer partner, to share our journey with.
Sometimes symbols like a cross can help to keep us focussed, and poems like 'Footprints' certainly help me to remember - when I don't feel that God is near - that I am really being carried by him. I even have this poem on my favourite coffee mug.
The final remedy is frequent and regular contact with other Christians. The writer to the Hebrews tells us to meet together and encourage each other (10:24-25). We cannot survive in a world that is hostile and indifferent to Christianity without the support of a genuine Christian community.
Through all of these remedies, of course, our reading of the Scriptures and our reflection on them is essential.
It is possible to grow in mastery over sin and to live the life of grace, but we do this not in our own power or in the terms of this world, but in the victorious power of Jesus who proclaimed, 'I have overcome the world!' and 'I am with you always even unto the end of the age'. Don't forget, we don't have to be perfect, just do our best.
Will you trust in Jesus,
Step out in faith, and
Talk given at an Anglican Women's Retreat