When I was a very little girl, my mother decorated my room in pastel ginghams. She dressed me in yellow and pink. I wore pinafores and barrettes in my carrot-colored hair. I had lace trim on my dresses. I wore knee socks and patent leather shoes. In all of my littlest girl pictures, I was about as cute as I get.
And then I started dressing myself, and the pictures changed.
Of course, my mother reserved the right to dress me on Easter and other holidays. You can see how happy that left all of us.
When I was little and adorable, people bought me dolls. I had lots of Barbies. My Barbies did not sit around dreaming of whirlwind romantic entanglements or trying to get Ken to marry them. I did not have the Barbie dream house. I had the portable house roll-up Barbie thingie that was a little apartment with a murphy bed on one side and an office on the other. Barbie was not the secretary in the office. She was the Advertising Executive. She owned the agency. And when she went for a ride, it was not in the pink Barbie Dream car. It was in a plastic silver corvette toy that I had chopped into a T-top. When Ken came along, he rode in the passenger seat.
I was still pretty little when I quit playing with Barbies and started knitting them tube dresses on a little loom someone in the family bought me. Yeah, dolls really weren’t my thing. My brother bought them from me for a quarter, gave them buzz cuts and made them POWs for his GI Joes. We are just a normal American family.
For the last few weeks, I have spoken to you about grace. Grace is one of the focus points of United Methodism. We have told the story of the prodigal son, and today the stories that precede that tale, the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. The danger in the discussion of grace that we have had so far is that when we focus on the grace given to the lost and the prodigal, we can forget that we, too, have a role in constantly accepting and offering grace. Grace can become what German theologian and Nazi detractor Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” when actually grace is a many-layered thing.
John Wesley defined three types of grace in Christian life. I can, on any given day, recite the three types of Wesleyan-defined grace but defining them is not something I do on a regular basis. You have probably heard them all before. But can we remember them and what they mean? Can we identify which type of grace we’re living into or striving for? It is not the easiest of tasks, so I turned back to Wesley himself for the easiest way to understand the three types of grace we know in our lives as disciples. To demonstrate this in a way we can remember, I am going to play with dolls. I had to rely on the grace of the mother of the girliest girls, Hannah and Claire Searcy, for this dollhouse and these dolls.
The first kind of grace is prevenient grace, the grace that comes before you.
Here we have a house. It is a cute house, a welcoming house, with a nice front door. If you were a doll, I would imagine that you would feel welcome here.
John Wesley compared prevenient grace to the front porch of a house. It welcomes you in. You have an invitation. It is the grace that is offered free, for all. It does not, however, offer us to a free-for-all. That would be cheap grace. It offers us to enter into the kingdom, to come into God’s presence, to enter the house.
Prevenient grace is that invitation offered by God to all people to come home. Now, you can stand on the porch of this house forever and not knock on the door. Or, you can respond.
When you respond, you receive something that John Wesley called “Justifying Grace.” You’re in the kingdom. You’re down with the big JC. John Wesley compared justifying grace to the actual door of the house. You knock. You walk through the door. You’re in. Lots of Christians think of the walking in the door as the moment of salvation, that moment when we accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and our savior and accept God in our lives. And then they argue about whether you can lose that salvation or not. Wesley thought of it in a different way. He thought of it as the receipt of justifying grace. When we think about this, we often think that when you walk in the door, your sins are forgiven, you’ve put your lot in with God, and you’re good to go.
So let’s imagine what happens if all of these dolls were to make that decision. They walk up to the house. They feel welcomed. They respond to God’s prevenient grace, that invitation of the front porch. They knock on the door and are received. God’s glad to see them. God’s been searching them out like lost coins and lost sheep. So all the dolls respond to the prevenient grace offered by God, make the decision to enter the door, and there they receive justifying grace. Now they’re in the foyer, and we’re going to need to turn this thing around so that we can see what’s going on with the dolls in the dollhouse. Where are all the dolls? Crowded in the entrance.
I’m going to play with this metaphor a little bit. What happens when a bunch of people are crowded into the entrance of a house and more people keep coming in? It gets very crowded and uncomfortable. What has to happen to remedy the situation? One of two things has to happen. Either some of them have have to move out of the entrance or someone has to stop people from walking in that door.
Suddenly the people in the doorway, the people that have entered, start trying to control who else comes in. The Welcome mat is removed, and a different welcome is offered.
The Fire Department is called, and a capacity limit is set.
The door only becomes offered to certain people. Now mind you, this is not God setting the limits, it’s the people crowded in the doorway that are trying to set limits. In our little example here, the Disney princesses start telling the troll dolls that there is no room for troll dolls inside the house. The Barbies tell the Disney princesses to can it; there are room for little people, troll dolls, Barbies and that’s it. At least they can all agree that there is no room for the Bratz dolls. I think you can figure out where I’m going with this.
The better answer for the people crowded around the front door is to move into the other rooms of the house. That is what Wesley called “sanctifying grace.”
Sanctifying grace is God-given to people who are trying to follow Jesus. This is for the folks who answered the prevenient grace of the front porch by accepting the justifying grace of the front door and then moved out of the entranceway into the other rooms of the house. This is the grace offered to us as we work to mature as Christians, as we worship together, as we learn to offer grace to others, as we grow in our faith. It doesn’t mean we all live in the same room at the same time, but it means we spread out and expand and try to fully live into the home offered to all of us by God.
The big thing I think most Christians struggle with is this notion that when we’re in, we’re done. Once Jesus has found us as a lost sheep and we’re no longer lost, we’re just one of the 99 and we don’t matter so much anymore. But that’s not the case. We’re not done. While it seems that Jesus is telling us that God wants to find the lost, we have to remember that it is just as easy to be lost among the found. Thinking that we’re found and that’s it actually makes us lost because we’re not experiencing the fullness of God’s grace. We’re lost to the next step, jammed in the foyer trying to figure out how the Bratz dolls got an invite.
God calls us, not once, but over and over again to experience God’s grace. God doesn’t want us crowded in a doorway. God doesn’t want to lose us among all the found people. Rather, God wants to find us among the lost, the hurting, the trying, the struggling, the previously unwelcomed, the uncomfortable, the learning. God wants us to be tour guides to what we’ve learned inside the home God offers all people, free for all. God wants us to be sending invitations and giving tours to the Bratz and troll dolls of the world, those beloved children of God that have been labeled by people crowded in the doorway or watching from the street… those labeled as inappropriate, as unworthy, those who would not find a welcome elsewhere.
I think it is awesome news that God’s grace is more complex than it seems. Really, it’s still a simple matter of acceptance of what God offers. But it’s great news that God has more for us to do, more for us to learn, that we have a lifetime in this house to learn how to live. Jesus said, “My father’s house has many rooms.” May we accept all the levels of God’s grace, and learn to live in them during this life. Amen.