Guidance and Grace
John 15.26 – 16.4a; 12-15
We’ve been talking about spiritual practices for a few weeks now as a series for Lent. A spiritual practice is something we do intentionally to make space to keep company with Jesus and learn to know him better. Today, we’re talking about guidance or discernment as a spiritual practice. If you look at Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline, you’ll see he has grouped some spiritual practices or disciplines as ‘Corporate Disciplines’.
Corporate disciplines are things we do together. Worship is a corporate discipline; that’s pretty easy to see. But Foster labels the last two spiritual practices that we’ll look at as ‘corporate’. They are guidance and confession.
How are they corporate? Let’s look at that as we come to them. Today, it’s the corporate spiritual practice of seeking God’s guidance.
We need God’s guidance. Sometimes the direction we should take in life just isn’t clear. Perhaps you think of seeking God’s guidance as more of an individual thing. I’d invite you to consider what Foster says: we need to have more direction on searching for God’s guidance in partnership with one another.
We’ve done this already, when we discerned he way forward for our strategic plan, and our vision statement. We sought God’s guidance to come up with priorities for our life, things like increasing a sense of community with the fellowship and reaching out to the neighbourhood outside our walls. We formed our Vision Statement:
Living God’s mission
as disciples of Jesus
united in the Spirit
There’s another obvious case in point for us right now. Is worshipping in the round a good thing or not? Should we continue with it beyond the six month mark?
How do we determine that? Do we listen to the most deafening supporters, or to the loudest complaints? Do we end up doing what we’ve always done? This is often how decisions are made by congregations.
My genuine hope is that whatever we decide about worship in the round, we’ll have learned a great deal about discerning God’s will together through this exercise.
You know, if the people of the early Church had decided on controversial things the way we often do it today, the Christian faith may not have lasted.
We read Acts 15 today. It’s a pivotal New Testament passage which—amazingly—is not in the Revised Common Lectionary. Let’s set the scene. Five chapters earlier, in Acts 10, poor unsuspecting Peter has a vision from God. Oh oh… Three times, a sheet comes down from heaven with all sorts of unclean animals on it. Things like pigs and prawns and oysters. ‘Arise Peter, kill and eat!’ comes the voice from heaven. Peter wouldn’t. He’d never eaten those things before, they were unclean. Then the punch line came: ‘You must not call unclean what God has called clean.’
Then three Gentiles came, people who Peter had always considered unclean. Coincidence? I think not. Peter goes with them to the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius. The Holy Spirit doesn’t even have the manners to wait until Peter has finished proclaiming the good news about Jesus before it falls upon the Gentiles and they speak in tongues and praise God. There’s nothing for it but to baptise them and welcome them into the family, just as we welcomed L and R today.
It was never a foregone conclusion that Gentiles like us would be admitted into the Church of Jesus Christ without first becoming Jews. People were going about saying just that:
Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.
If these people had had their way, the Gospel would never have got to Britain, let alone Australia and Samoa! It wouldn’t have gone there because this was not the Gospel.
Peter needed to tell what had happened to Cornelius to counteract what these people were saying. But Peter had a problem.
How should he speak to the blokes back home in Jerusalem about this? They’d seen no vision. They weren’t there when Cornelius and the others were swept up by the Holy Spirit. What if they complained? What if they said, ‘We’ve never done this before’? What if they said, ‘God doesn’t change his mind’? All simply spiffingly terrific debating points.
What did the pillars of the Jerusalem Church do? They came together in a meeting which has been called the Jerusalem Council. They listened; and listened, and listened. They weighed things up. Then they looked for God’s guidance using a particular reference point. That point of reference was not to ask ‘What have we always done?’. It was not ‘What will upset the least number of people?’. It wasn’t even ‘What will make life easier for us?’. The reference point was What is God’s gracious work right now, in the present day?
So again, this is what they did: they listened. They listened to what God is doing right now in their time, and they didn’t limit what God can do now by what God did in the past. In fact, they looked at what God had done in the past with new eyes, and saw references in the scriptures to God’s grace being poured out upon the Gentiles. They had never understood these references before, but now they had opened themselves to what God is doing in the present, the scriptures became clearer.
To summarise: they listened to the implications of the good news of God’s free grace given in Jesus Christ, and followed those implications. If God’s Spirit had come upon Gentiles, what were they to do with this sign of God’s new work? They could have turned a deaf ear, but they followed. And that’s why we’re here today. Was that an easy process? I doubt it. Was everyone happy with the result? Sadly not. Was it worthwhile? Very much so—just take a look around.
That’s how the people of God are meant to wrestle with things together. Listen to the voice of the Spirit and to one another; then discern the way forward according to what we know and understand of the gospel of grace, with a new understanding of the message of grace in the scriptures.
The leaders of the church in Jerusalem met in the Jerusalem Council. Today, the Uniting Church is governed by councils, each one of which has its own responsibilities.
When a council of the Uniting Church meets, it meets to seek the will of God and that to work together to discern the guidance of the Spirit of truth. This is not so easy; it means listening to one another and to the voice of the Spirit with openness and humility. When this congregation meets next week for our Annual Meeting, let’s keep this in mind. Then we can discern the will of God for our life together.
Can you see how the spiritual practices we’re talking about are linked?
- If we pray daily, casting our cares upon God because God cares for us;
- if we fast from something important to us, whether food or something else, in order to direct our desires towards God;
- if we worship God with our whole being, asking that he might be glorified in our life together;
- if we study the scriptures so that we may have our minds conformed to the will of God and the way of Jesus;
- if we do some or all of these things, then we can be freed in our spirits to seek God’s guidance together.
I’ve spoken about seeking God’s guidance in a corporate way. Perhaps you want some help in seeking God’s direction as an individual. How do we go about that?
Well, it’s remarkably similar. We look at what God is doing in our time, and what doors are opening to us though our circumstances. We listen to what God is saying in the scriptures; we search the scriptures for some clarity. And we also listen to other members of the Body of Christ. We get help from people who are wiser in the things of God than we are. We see where the Spirit of truth is opening doors for us to walk through, and where the doors are closing.
You see, we aren’t really ‘individuals’. We are part of the family of God. We have brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in the Faith who can help us.
I hope we’re putting at least some of these spiritual practices into practice. If we are, we can be ready to give Jesus space in our lives so that he can guide us in the way he wants us to go. He wants to guide us as a community of faith, and guide us as parts of the Body.
The only question left is: ‘Will we allow ourselves to be guided into God’s future?’ I pray that we will.