On the porch: the entrance

April 18th, 2023

This article is the third in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

Wesley’s fantastic image of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace as the porch, door, and room of a house serves well to illustrate the journey through the Word and Table liturgy. The first portion of the service, the Entrance, is the porch, and prevenient grace calls us there. What is it about a porch that might suggest what the Spirit may be up to as a congregation gathers? 

Porches are liminal space between world and home: translated into worship, the places from which we are gathered and to which we are gathered. What does prevenient grace do, how does it function in beckoning us to the banquet? And who are we who are beckoned? Acts of worship and words about such grace from Wesley offer some insights to consider.

What does prevenient grace do that is figured in the Entrance? For starters, it is grace as a quickening, enlivening power, enough to rouse us from our spiritual slumbers. This is grace that begins to turn the lights on inside us. Soon, a Prayer for Illumination will transition us from Entrance to Proclamation and Response. 

Speaking of response, Wesley insisted that grace makes us response-able. Worship is grace in action, and wherever God acts, response is called forth. All kinds of responses that train us for life in the world will be made this hour: And also with you. Thanks be to God. I believe…We believe…Hear our Prayer. We lift them to the Lord…. The Spirit can use those page-printed, ritual responses from time immemorial to inscribe the heart with what they mean. 

Prevenient grace is “the grace that goes before.” It presupposes more to come. We’re only on the porch and have yet to enter the door. A universal, all-embracing invitation has gone out, so the Entrance part of the service creates a spirituality of welcome, enablement, confession, anticipation, and joy, all at once. As one of Charles Wesley’s hymns puts it:

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast,
let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
for God hath bid all humankind. 

Martin Luther always put priority on God’s saving action. Only after God acted could humans respond in praise and thanks. Lutheran orders often begin with confession and forgiveness, acknowledging who we are before God (we’re sinners!) and only then, after hearing good news of forgiveness, do we have something to sing about: absolution, then adoration. Some branches of the Reformed tradition, on the other hand, stressed that God’s very being draws praise from us, so worship should begin with a rousing, doxological hymn: Adoration of God for being God. The first question of the Westminster Catechism, a pillar of the Reformed tradition, asks “What is our chief end?” Answer: “To praise and enjoy God forever.” 

The Wesleys took a third route. Look at The United Methodist Hymnal 386, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown.” Though the hymnal puts its under “Sanctifying and Perfecting Grace,” the themes are prevenient, too. The hymn recounts the biblical story of Jacob and his transition from a night of doubt, wrestling, and pleading to know the divine stranger (vs. 1-3) to the first break of morning light in v. 4, and the acclamation that the Unknown is Love. There are hints of confession of sin and of God’s glory (primarily as mercy), but both are put in a wider ambit of Jacob’s need of God. The Unknown’s self-revelation allows Jacob’s coming to know himself in a new way. This coming to be, with the promise of more to come, is what prevenient grace creates in us. It gives us a spirituality for the Entrance, and indeed, all worship. The “you” who follows in these accounts is, with Jacob, wrestling with the Lord. The inner dialog in what follows centers around questions of faith and discipleship, gift and response, which are just the matters that occupy the Wesleyan soul. The eruption of joy in the hymn’s final verse reminds us that Wesley’s ethic was eudemonistic, that is, it aimed toward an end in happiness. To be happy was to be holy, that is, in communion with God and one another. Worship is about joy. And that’s where grace points us amidst the spiritual wrestling going on along the way. 

The local church you are worshipping with this morning enters the worship hour with a procession of choir and worship leaders. They follow a processional cross, an old antique Bible, and a banner, all borne by youth. The Bible is placed on the pulpit, the cross and banner to either side of the altar. You find yourself thinking how inspiring the procession looks, like pilgrims on a journey to a promised land. But you really are thinking about how your friend the choir director told you what it takes to get the singers arranged properly so that they locate themselves in the right configuration in the choir seating. Someone cared enough to organize a procession on an otherwise dreary Sunday morning. Couldn’t they have just filed in by the back door? It makes it seem like what we’re doing here is special, transcendent, worth the effort, a blessing to what will be a lowly, ordinary work week. A good and joyful thing. 

A greeting as we assemble makes perfect sense. Scriptural words best fit this high occasion (think of Paul’s apostolic greetings, especially II Corinthians 13:14). “Good morning” isn’t enough! The urge to be folksy, while well-intended, doesn’t really belong here if God’s prevenient grace has called us together for a unique celebration qualitatively different from any other gathering—the workplace, school, athletics, commerce, family—that will call us during the week ahead.[1]

One of the pastors leads in the Opening Prayer, the familiar “collect for purity.” It’s been used in worship since at least the tenth century, taken up in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Wesley knew it well and included it in his redacted prayerbook for Methodist use. We say it together:

Almighty God,
to you all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hidden.

Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Suddenly, the inspiring procession has given way to a terrifying invocation. You think: it’s embarrassingly denuding: all hearts open, all desires known, no secretsThank God no one else in the room can read my heart but God. I have desires and secrets I’d rather nobody know. You deny them yourself all the time. And yet, here you are, both gathered into one in the Entrance with your fellow churchgoers, and yet, all alone before God at the same time. 

Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. Relief! The Holy Spirit seems to shower you with grace at that moment. A comforting image. Isaiah, after all, got his cleansing by way of a hot coal on his tongue, brought to him by an angel (Isaiah 6:6-7). This is much more comfortable. But Isaiah’s call, and the prayer’s, are no less exacting. The cleansing shower—freedom from your imprisoning heart—begets a freedom for…. that we may perfectly love you…Forgiveness is not an end in itself, but a means for making you and this whole assembly perfect in love in this life. Surely, you will perfectly love and worthily magnify God in heaven. But here, on earth, this week, with the uncomfortable meeting at work on Tuesday afternoon, the doctor’s appointment and the PTA meeting on Thursday? How shall you? Not by your own efforts, which is why the Spirit’s inspiration that turns your heart of stone-cold secrets into a heart of flesh again makes your striving for perfect love possible. Maybe what will follow: Word, Meal, and Sending, are the very instruments the Spirit will use to create in you and everyone else here this morning a clean heart and a renewed spirit. 

The liturgy anticipates that we feel like singing again. This time with an act of praise. It was a Gloria on the Sunday falling during the twelve days of Christmas; a cascade of Alleluias during Easter. Here on an ordinary “green” Sunday, it’s a well-known gospel hymn. You feel linked, this time not with Justin in the second century, or Wesley in the eighteenth, but your grandparents in the early twentieth, who loved this song often sung at revivals. You momentarily wonder why there hasn’t been a revival at church in a long time. Do we have those anymore, or are they the piety of a bygone day? Didn’t the district youth rally a few months ago count? The bonfire at conference camp? A seniors retreat at Lake Junaluska? You heard about professions of faith. You think back to your own. Is this ordinary Sunday morning not a revival? Isn’t the Word about to be unleased from those antique pages into our ears, by that inspiring, hallowing Spirit? 

[1] See Hoyt Hickman, ed., The Worship Resources of the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989): 30.

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