The Optimism of Grace: An Address to the 2013 Graduates of the SNM

DSCN1087
Dr Dave Restrick, former Academic Dean of the SNM, interpreted into Portuguese.

Seminário Nazareno em Moçambique

30 November 2013

Opening remarks

Rev Margarida Langa, Rev José Moiane, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the administration and faculty, District Superintendents, Pastors, members of the Class of 2013, distinguished parents, friends and guests, all protocols observed –

It is my honor today to greet you in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. I am also happy to bring you greetings from Dr Filimao Chambo, Regional Director of the Church of the Nazarene, Africa Region.

We come together on this grand occasion to honor the hard work of our graduates. Our congratulations go to them and to their families. Graduates, you have persisted through a rigorous course of study. Despite temptations to quit, despite moments of discouragement, you stayed in the race. Today, you cross the finish line, and we salute you.

I.  Introduction: The Optimism of Grace

You are heading into a lifetime of professional ministry. Even as you officially launch into that sacred vocation, storm clouds are gathering. Jesus said in Matthew 24 that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and today we hear war drums in Mozambique that beat ever more loudly. At such a time when fear threatens to paralyze us, what word of comfort would God have His children hear?

The shadow of the cross fell ever more darkly across the little band of disciples gathered in the Upper Room. According to John 14:27, Jesus comforted his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (NIV).

Today, instead of sipping from the poisonous cup of fear, let us drink deeply from the cup of Christian faith. As followers of Christ who belong to the Nazarene family, we know that the holiness message we preach is the hope for Mozambique, for Africa, and for the world. What is this message? It is the optimism of grace. Let us reflect this morning on that optimistic grace in three commands:

 1) Let God’s grace transform you.

2) Let God’s grace transform the church.

3) Let God’s grace transform society.

II. Let God’s grace transform you.

Let us talk about the first command: Let God’s grace transform you. In theological terms, we call this work of God in the human heart sanctification. It is the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit that begins when we ask God to forgive us our sins. When we ask divine help in abandoning our sinful ways, God adopts us into heaven’s family. The transformation of our whole outlook on life is remarkable! The sinful things that once attracted us seem cheap and ugly. Now we hunger for the deep things of God. The Apostle Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Sometimes we focus on radical conversion stories, on individuals who knew nothing of God or the church yet who came later in life to faith in Christ. We rejoice in those stories, and give God the praise. Yet sometimes we forget that God’s grace is active just as much in the child who grows up in the church. But here we must be careful. We are not interested in just having good, moral children. We must introduce them at a young age to Jesus Christ so that they, too, will come to know Him in a life-changing way. We must not assume that just because a child attends church and has done so all of her life that she has a firsthand experience of the saving power of God. We can show the Jesus film all over town to strangers, go door-to-door evangelizing yet neglect to ask our own children: “Would you like to follow Jesus?” Our invitation to one and all – outside the church and inside – is to follow Christ.

In the church, we can sometimes make assumptions about people. Though I had grown up in the Church of the Nazarene, I had never been baptized. My pastors never spoke of it, and when as a teenager I asked my pastor to baptize me, he replied: “We don’t believe that baptism saves us.” So after receiving a call to preach, I obtained a local preacher’s license, then several district licenses. Not once did anyone on those boards ask me the simple question: Have you been baptized?  Later during Seminary, the Nazarene congregation where I attended announced a baptism service. Having been saved as a child at age 7, finally 14 years later, at age 21, I was baptized. Sometimes I wonder if I could have been ordained as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene without ever having been baptized.

With that experience in mind, I ask our graduates as well as all present today: Have you repented of your sins and asked God to forgive you? Have you come to understand that to be a Christian is not just to go to church or to be a moral person, though those things are important? Rather, have you consciously claimed Christian faith as your own and invited God’s grace to transform your life? If you have, then you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. What’s more, having done so, you should obey the Lord and be baptized as a sign of your decision to follow Him. If you have not yet made that life-transforming decision to follow, then I encourage you: It is not too late!

Six women and six men made up the graduating class of 2003.
Six women and six men made up the graduating class of 2013.

III.  Let God’s grace transform the church.

We’ve been looking at the command: Let God’s grace transform you. We saw that when we decide to follow Jesus, God forgives us, adopts us into heaven’s family, and begins a cleansing work in our lives. But let’s look at a second command: Let God’s grace transform the church.

On the Africa Region, we are all about Holiness Revivalism. If you go to our website, it is the first thing you will see. The word “Revivalism” is an acknowledgment that God’s grace is active not only to transform individuals but also to transform the community of faith.

As Nazarenes we like to quote 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. We speak about the God of peace who will “sanctify you through and through” (NIV). The Greek pronoun is humas and is a plural pronoun. We believe that God entirely sanctifies believers, filling them with God’s perfect love. However, 1 Thessalonians is addressed not to an individual but to a group of believers, the church that is in Thessalonica. Through Paul, God is saying: “I want you, church, to be set apart for my work! I want you, church, to be pure, clean.”

There’s an Ivorian proverb that says: “Dirty laundry is washed in the family.” I certainly understand the intent of the proverb. When we have differences in the church, we don’t go off to the local judges to air those differences. We take care of them among ourselves. But may I suggest to you that people outside the church – those who have yet to come to Christ – are watching how we treat each other? Jesus reminded his disciples in John 13:34-35 (NIV):

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

 When we allow God’s transforming grace to operate in the church, we will not jockey for position. Likewise, we will not sweep under the carpet misdeeds of ministerial colleagues as if they don’t matter. If you take a dirty mop and try to wash a floor, you’ll just end up with a dirty floor. But if you keep the mop head clean, the floor will be clean as well. In the same way, God cannot use the church as a cleansing agent in society if the church itself is dirty.

I remember a conversation with one of our ministerial students in another part of Africa. He told me that he was on the Board of his local church, and that there hadn’t been a detailed treasurer’s report given in a board meeting for years. Finally, a new pastor was installed and with him, a new treasurer. At the very first board meeting under the new pastor, the treasurer gave a detailed finance report. The long-time board members were so pleased that one of them spoke up: He said: “So today we’ll start being Christians.”

Graduates, you will be going into pastoral ministry. You must allow God’s transforming grace to continually operate in your heart. But as shepherds of the flock, you are also entrusted with the spiritual condition of the church. Let us not cover up sin! Instead, let us be the first ones to call the church to repentance, to seek the Revival that the church so desperately needs.

A full chapel came out to support the graduates.
A full chapel came out to support the graduates.

IV.  Let God’s grace transform society.

Have you ever dropped a stone in a pool of water? What happens when you do? Where the stone lands in the water, it makes ripples. The larger the stone, the larger are the ripples. Soon, the ripples will spread far out over the water. In the same way, when we let the grace of God transform our lives, when we let the grace of God transform the church, then it can’t help put ripple out and change society.

We see that so clearly in Acts 19. God’s transforming grace was at work in the lives of the believers in Ephesus. People were getting saved, and when they did, they brought their sorcery scrolls and burned them publicly. God’s transforming grace was work at work in the church. Paul was holding daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, and people were hearing the word of the Lord. There were miracles, people getting healed, people delivered from evil spirits. And like that stone dropped in the pond, the whole of society began to feel the effects of the Revival! We know this is true because the sale of statues of the goddess Artemis took a plunge. Demetrius the silversmith had to stir up a riot against Paul and the believers, he was so troubled by the dip in his sales. What was happening? God’s grace was spilling over and touching even those outside the church.

There’s a lesson here, graduates: When God’s church is on the move, expect Satan to counterattack. As long as God’s people are content to pray within their four walls and worship God in private, the devil won’t bother you much. But when the grace of God that transforms individuals, when the grace of God that transforms the church starts spilling over and changing the world, the alarm bells start going off in hell.

We’ve known all along that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has social implications. You can’t read Matthew’s Gospel without knowing this. Jesus calls us to be salt that preserves a rotten world (5:13). Likewise, Jesus calls us to be light that shines in darkness (5:14-16). Or what about yeast? Jesus says we should be like a little yeast that works its way through the whole batch of dough (13:33).

The truth of the matter is that Matthew mentions the word “church” (ecclesia) just one time. But what about the word “kingdom” (basilea)? It appears dozens of times, so many times that some Bible scholars call Matthew “The Gospel of the Kingdom. The most famous instance of kingdom language is the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Where is God’s will to be done? Is it to be done in the church? Of course, but that is too narrow. God’s will is to be done inside the church and outside it. God’s will is to be done “on earth.” The Shaker proverb reminds us: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” And so we shine God’s light into every corner of our society.

I’m a proud third generation Nazarene. My grandfather came to Christ as a young man in the 1920s and began worshiping in a Nazarene congregation in the northwestern USA. My father was raised in the Church of the Nazarene and my 5 brothers and I grew up in a Nazarene congregation in New York State. I love the optimism of grace that permeates the Wesleyan message. But if I may offer an observation, our idea of grace is still not optimistic enough!  We believe that God can transform the individual and we preach it. We also believe that God can revive the church, transforming it, and we long for that anointing upon God’s people. But too often we have stopped short of the full ramifications of holiness doctrine. Too often, we have hesitated to apply the implications of sanctifying grace to our world. Our denominational mission statement – “Making Christlike Disciples in the Nations” – though inspiring, is too limited. One may ask: And what are these Christlike disciples supposed to do, besides make more Christlike disciples? May I suggest that we need a revised mission statement? Our mission statement should be:

“Making Christlike Disciples who Change the World”

V.  Conclusion

On this high occasion, the 2013 commencement exercises of the Seminário Nazareno em Moçambique, I once again congratulate you, the graduates, on a job well done. Academically, you have laid a solid foundation for your ministry. May this be just the beginning as you continue to study and learn for the rest of your lives. Yet may you never forget: Without the grace of God evident in your ministry, your labor will be in vain. Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? Are you allowing God’s transforming grace to have free rein in your heart and life? Are you justifying sin in your life, or are you confessing it and forsaking it once and for all? And what about the community of faith where you worship? Are you tired of playing church? As a people, let us be hungry and thirsty for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, for the cleansing of God’s people that only the Lord can give. Then sanctified wholly – both as individuals and as the people of God – let us change our world for Jesus Christ.

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