Who We Are: Inspired by God's Grace and Love

September 11, 2022 Pastor: Rev. Matt Wilcox Series: Who We Are

Topic: Grace & Love Scripture: Psalm 36:5–10, John 4:9–12

If someone asked you what this church is all about, what would you tell them? Imagine it is a new neighbor who just moved into the area. You’ve hit it off as neighbors, and they tell you that they’re looking for a church to join and they somehow heard you go to First Pres. They want to hear about the church. What do you say? Maybe you default to memories, and you talk about what you have done over the years and how the church has been a part of your life. Or, maybe, you let your neighbor know you haven’t attended First Pres very long but mention a few things you’ve really enjoyed so far. But what if they asked you for a little more info about what our church is known for or what we believe or what is most important to us here at First Pres? That’s a question that might be a little trickier to answer.

For some of you, I know music will be the first thing that you share. You’ll tell your friend about the beautiful music that is created in this place. Others, maybe you’ll talk about how warm and welcoming our family of faith is. Over the past year, we’ve had several people decide to become members here and the welcoming atmosphere is always mentioned. Missions and community service might be what comes to mind. You could talk about how we help with Habitat for Humanity or our Hope Bags project or the PASS program. I’ve only named three things (music, welcoming, missions) but there is so much more you could say. It’s a hard question to answer on the spot, isn’t it?

Well, that’s the point of our new message series. For the next three weeks, we are going to talk about Who We Are as a church. This is no easy task. First Pres has been a community of Christ-followers for more than 150 years. Every one of you hearing me speak right now has a personal experience of our church that could be anywhere from decades-long to about 30 minutes if this is your first time here. And, as we’ve already established, all of us love this church for different reasons. So, we need a starting point from which to really explore Who We Are as a church. That starting point is a single sentence, a statement. It’s on our website and printed on our bulletins every week. But more important than where you read it is what it communicates about First Pres. That statement is this: Inspired by God’s grace and love, we seek to be a community that follows Jesus.

Each week will take a part of this statement and explore it’s meaning for us as a church here and now. This week we start with the first part: Inspired by God’s Grace and Love. With every part of this statement, we’re going to notice that there is a verb and a noun. An action that we are supposed to take that is in response to a reality or person we hold as valuable and central to Who We Are as a church. We’re also going to hold each part of this statement beside a biblical text to help us frame how we understand these realities that we hold so dear. As we start this morning with a look at God’s love and grace and our own inspiration, let’s turn to 1 John 4:9-12.

In this short but powerful passage of Scripture, we are offered the definition and culmination of God’s incredible grace and love. Love is a very common term in Christian circles but something that is far richer and more complex than I believe we might realize. Love is so much more than an emotion or a feeling. When we consider or speak of God’s love, it is not about how we feel. It is about what God has done. Dwight Moody Smith, a late New Testament scholar, articulates this in a wonderful way. He says, “The love of God is not conceived in the abstract but based upon his concrete, historical deed in the appearance and death of Jesus Christ.”

This was, in many ways, the primary message John was sharing in his letter. Unlike other New Testament letters, this one is not authored to a specific city or individual. It is believed this letter circulated to multiple communities of Christ-followers and John was intent on ensuring that the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was not ignored or forgotten. At the time of John’s writing, there was a growing line of thinking that sought to undermine and reject the idea of Christ’s humanity with an emphasis left only on the spiritual. Sadly, Christ-followers were being persuaded by this dangerous doctrine and were walking away from following Jesus. John was seeing the truth of our Savior being diminished and eroded and had to take action. One of the realities John sought to clarify was the undeniable dynamic that exists between the love of God and the person and work of Jesus Christ.  

Knowing what we mean when we say “God’s grace and love” are critical in terms of our identity as a church. Grounding our definition of God’s love, not in ways we feel or want to feel, but in the actual and expressed activity of God provides a crucial clarity. We are going to talk about inspiration in just a moment, but when First Pres is associated with or spoken of in the same sentence as God’s grace and love, it should be due to our actual activity and our desire to serve any person, in any space with a willingness to endure the costs and sacrifices of that service. John reminds us that God’s love was not responsive or reactionary to what we’ve done. No, God loved us first. That is not only a truth we believe but should also be one we live, as individuals and as a church. After all, we claim that we are Inspired by God’s Grace and Love.

So, if God’s grace and love are the nouns and the reality of this part of our mission, then it is “inspired” that serves as our verb and our action. We proclaim that we are Inspired by God’s Grace and Love and just as it is critical for us to understand what we mean when we speak of God’s love, so too must we understand what we mean when we say we are inspired. Inspiration is something we hear a lot about in conversations regarding art or music or even the beauties of creation. Inspiration can be understood as a guiding sound or a brilliant light or an example to follow. The Merriam-Webster dictionary traces the origins of the word inspire to a Latin word that literally means to breathe into. And I feel that is the perfect way for us to understand this word as it appears in our statement of mission and identity.

When we claim that we are Inspired by God’s Grace and Love, we are saying that it is the staggering, powerful love of God that fill us up, that fills who we are as a community of Christ- followers. It is the air we breathe. In other words, inspiration is something we engage in with God. It’s a part of our relationship with our Heavenly Parent. I love the way Rachel Held Evans described inspiration. She said, “Inspiration is not about some disembodied, ethereal voice dictating words or notes to a catatonic host. It’s a collaborative process, a holy give-and-take, a partnership between Creator and creature.” And Rachel offered this incredibly important reminder: “Inspiration, on both the giving and receiving end, takes practice and patience. It means showing up even when you don’t feel like it, even when it seems as if no else is there. It means waiting for the wind to stir.”

I wish that inspiration was as simple and effortless as breathing. Sadly, most of us know that’s not always the case. Sometimes it can feel like we have a block that is keeping us from what inspires us or, to use the breathing etymology, we might be in a place where it’s hard to take a deep breath. That’s why Rachel Held Evans’ words ring so true for me. Yes, inspiration is a gift and not really something we can control but, at the same time, we do play a role in whether or not and by what we are inspired. That’s why connecting the verb “inspired” to the reality of God’s grace and love is so important to our identity as a church.

As a church, we want to be Inspired by God’s Grace and Love. That means that we want this place and this community of Christ-followers to breathe in the supernatural and astounding truth of God’s activity and affection. We want life-giving breath to fill us up. The breath that we use to sing songs of praise. The breath we use to speak the word of God. The breath we use when we weep with one who struggles. The breath that sustains us when we are weary and feeling defeated. The breath that calms us. Our desire is for the love and grace of God, above and before anything else, to be that life-giving breath.

This doesn’t mean we ignore other aspects of God’s character. We will still strive for justice and compassion. We will marvel at the strength and power of our Creator. We will not ignore our calling to be stewards and disciples. We will continue to strive to know our God in all the Lord’s holiness, goodness, providence, righteousness, sovereignty, and mystery. But our driving inspiration, our motivation in all we do as a family of faith, comes first from the love and grace that God has put on full display. A love and grace, as John reminds us, that is tangible and historical and personal in the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

And, friends, as we will come to find with each part of this statement, whether or not this is a reality and truly a held value for our church is up to you. Printing a statement like this on our bulletin or putting it on our website, are honestly little more than aspirations. Whether or not we will be known for being a church that is Inspired by God’s Grace and Love is up to each and every one of us. Will our neighbors see us as people who remind them of Jesus? Will folks who walk into this place for the first time be able to get a sense that our identity as a church is shaped by what God has done and continues to do here and in this world? Will our actions, our programs, our mission efforts, our words…will our congregation, will each of you in your daily lives, be a testament that we believe we are Inspired by God’s Grace and Love?

Let’s pray.

More in Who We Are

September 18, 2022

Who We Are: We Seek to Be a Community
2 Service Times

Service Times

8:30am Traditional Service

11am Contemporary Service