Means of grace

Bishop David Bard asserts that during this time of the ongoing pandemic, “Such a moment asks that we think more deeply about the means of grace.” He shares about online communion …

Grace. Paul, in Ephesians, writes, “for by grace you have been saved through faith.” While not all Christian theologians center the idea of grace in their thinking, John Wesley, to whom we United Methodists trace our beginnings, thought and wrote extensively and profoundly about grace. For Wesley, God’s grace, God’s gracious love for us and toward us, is at work in our lives even before we are aware of it, always beckoning to us to enter into a relationship with God that will change us, that will transform us in love. God’s grace beckons, and God’s grace transforms.

While God’s grace is a gift, Wesley wondered if there were ways we could place ourselves in the way of grace, put ourselves in positions where we were more likely to experience God’s grace and its transforming power. In other words, Wesley wondered if there were genuine “means of grace.”

In his sermon of that title, “The Means of Grace,” Wesley argued that there were. “The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret of with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper. … And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men [and women].”

In his General Rules for Methodist Societies (found in our Book of Discipline, ¶104), Wesley expanded his list of the ordinances of God: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence. As United Methodists, we believe in two sacraments, baptism and communion, which adds another to the list on the means of grace, baptism. In other of his writings, Wesley would also add “Christian Conference” to his list of the means of grace.  “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers? Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough? Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it?”

Our current situation has put a strain on the practice of the ordinary means of grace. Gathering together was suspended in the interest of public health due to the coronavirus pandemic. As we have begun to gather again, we understand that this same concern for public health, the common good, and the well-being of others requires that we maintain distance, wear masks, avoid some typical ways of connecting, and be cautious about singing. We continue to struggle with communion during this time, and I will write more about that in a moment. At a time when we need means of grace, of connecting more deeply with God’s profound love, our ordinary means have sometimes been absent and indeed have been changed. Such a moment asks that we think more deeply about the means of grace.

A few years ago, Bishop Rueben Job refreshed our thinking about John Wesley’s General Rules for Methodist Societies in his brief but powerful book, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. In doing so, Job also offered fresh thinking about the means of grace.  Job re-worked Wesley’s general rules into “three simple rules”: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. This last rule is another way of discussing the means of grace, and Bishop Job wrote: “This simple rule will be constructed differently for each of us because each of us is unique. But there are some common elements for all of us, such as a daily time of prayer; reflections upon and study of Scripture; regular participation in the life of a Christian community, including weekly worship and regular participation in the Lord’s supper; doing some act of goodness or mercy; and taking opportunities to share with and learn from others who also seek to follow the way of Jesus.” (p. 55-56)

During this pandemic and the changes it will bring to our life together in the church, we need fresh thinking about the means of grace. I look forward to the time when gathering together in worship in person becomes unproblematic. Even then, however, we will want to continue to offer opportunities to connect with people for worship on-line. Given the differing schedules in people’s lives, electronically connecting in worship needs to be provided as a means of grace. We will want to continue to consider how we might make e-worship meaningful and grace-filled. The same could be said for Bible study groups and other small groups for learning, prayer, and support.

We need to keep thinking in new ways about communion. As I’ve made clear, The United Methodist Church officially discourages the practice of on-line communion, believing that it inadequately represents the tangible, bodily, and communal elements central to the sacrament. I have also written that we are followers of Jesus, who challenged traditions and rules when they seemed to stand in the way of grace. We are followers of Jesus in the stream of John Wesley, who took to the fields to preach and ordained Thomas Coke. So, I recognize extraordinary times invite extensions of grace that might not be needed in ordinary times. The longer this pandemic stretches on, the longer we need to be cautious about in-person gatherings, the more profound become the arguments for sharing in communion in new ways. If we are going to offer communion by way of the internet, how might we make it as incarnational and communal as possible? For instance, delivering elements to people seems more communal and incarnational than mailing them out or just asking people to find what they have, though the latter practices may have their place. And if we begin to think about on-line worship as a means of grace, might we have to think more thoroughly and deeply about a permanent change in our stance on on-line communion?

If we want to think in fresh ways about means of grace, let’s consider adding some possibilities. As Bishop Job suggested, there are means of grace beyond those we believe common to all who practice Christian spirituality. Allow me to offer some possibilities that seem particularly important during this challenging time.

Self-care is a means of grace desperately needed in this stressful time as we navigate new ways of working, educating, parenting, and staying healthy. Take time to engage in activities that bring delight that feeds your soul, that allows you to savor the moment, that enable you to simply to be in the presence of God. I need to walk or ride my bicycle. I need to find time to listen to music, and maybe sway a little with it. I need to read things not directly related to my role as a bishop or the daily news – novels, stories, poetry. I need to watch movies. I need to connect with family.

In this time of grief and loss, where many are grieving the loss of family or friends, where we all are grieving the loss of familiar activities, where we grieve the persistence of racism in our society, lament could be a means of grace. Read the Psalms, and you will find that giving voice to our pain and anguish and our deep desire for a newer world often lead into the praise of God, into the acknowledgment of God’s grace, goodness, and God’s steadfast love.

Finally, let me suggest that extending Christian conversation into the public sphere might be a means of grace. Bishop Job offers that doing good is itself a means of grace. In one sense, all three simple rules are means of grace – do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. When we avoid harm and do good, we not only give grace, but we receive it as well. Our hearts and souls are further shaped by goodness and love. Extending Christian conversation into the public sphere is doing good. What if more of our civic conversations, particularly in this polarized election season, were seasoned with salt and intended to minister grace to the hearers? Voting itself is an extension of public conversation in a political democracy. I suggest that voting, too, is a means of grace – a time when we make a statement that is part of the on-going conversation that is democracy, a time when we seek to do no harm and do good.

In a difficult time, when so much of our lives have been interrupted, when we turn on the news to hear about an on-going pandemic that has now directly affected even the president, to hear about floods and fires and hurricanes and abuses of power and peaceful protest to focus attention on injustices and purposeless rioting and looting, we need more grace in our lives. Our faith promises that God’s grace is abundantly present, and while we cannot guarantee just how it will come to us, there are certain things we can do to place ourselves more in its path. We call them means of grace.