When Dr AR Bernard visited City Harvest Church on Jan. 18 and 19, he brought two messages: the first, a teaching on the grace of God, and the second, a timely reminder about focus and discipline. City News spoke to him after the first sermon.
Dr AR Bernard, senior pastor of the megachurch Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, New York, is one of New York’s most influential personalities, having made many prestigious power lists put together by publications such as New York and Ebony magazines. He served former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, and is now on the transition team for New York’s 109th mayor, Bill de Blasio.
Bernard is also City Harvest Church’s advisory pastor. For many years, in particular the last three, he has brought many messages—each one perfectly timed for the season CHC is going through. City News spoke to him after he taught a powerful message on grace.
City News: Why did you pick this message for this period?
Dr AR Bernard: When I come to a city or church, I spend the first day or few hours trying to get a sense where things are spiritually and what the needs are. So this way I can make a surgical survey and really zero in on what I’m sensing spiritually. So I feel that this issue of grace is timely. I think it culminates in what I said at the end (of the sermon), that is, let grace and your lifestyle live together.
You taught from the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:2) in which Jesus tells her “Go and sin no more.” How do you convey that message to people who are young in their faith?
They begin to understand that Christianity is a lifestyle – it’s a way of life. And it has certain boundaries to keep us in the freedom that Christ has given us. And they know when they’ve done something wrong, they feel guilty. They know the guilt. They know the feeling of being accused, of condemnation and guilt. So, you live a lifestyle that’s morally pure, that’s clean. And you grow in the understanding of the promises and benefits of living in this state of grace.
You also taught us to love our spouses “for no reason”. How do you do that?
Just get rid of all the reasons. I don’t love her because she’s pretty, even though she is; because she has nice hair, even though she does. All those things don’t matter. Well, they do matter—they’re just not the reasons why. If you make those the reasons then those are conditions. And when conditions are not met, the relationship goes into crisis.
You said that the message of grace has been preached but not taught. What’s the difference?
Preaching is intended to inspire. So it can be without explanation. Teaching, by its very design and nature, is about explaining, and giving full understanding. When we begin to see Jesus’ ministry, His actions and His words, in light of Him bringing grace, everything changes in the way we view the Gospels.
“Wow, that’s why He did that”, “Wow, that’s why they got mad with Him. Grace did not make sense to them.” And it does not make sense to unbelievers, because they still think they have to do something in order to gain God’s favor or qualify themselves for heaven. Even though Jesus alone can save. “Oh, if I fast more, if I pray”—those things are good, because they help to really deny the flesh, deny selfishness. But you can’t get any closer to God than being in Christ.
But the merit-based system of law is with us so we feel guilty if we’re not reading our Bible—it’s important to do those things but that’s not the measure of God’s love for us. If we had more time we could get into that: it’s not our love for Jesus that’s going to bring Him back, it’s Jesus’ love for us. We cannot add to what Christ did on the cross, we cannot. We can only enjoy it, appreciate it, be responsible with it.
You said during the sermon, “It’s grace that brought us to Christ and makes us love him.” As parents, we cannot make our children come to Christ—only grace can. How can we help them?
Tell them, “The fact you are born into a Christian home; the fact that you are exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that is God, graciously pulling you to His son Jesus. And that’s a gift that makes you very, very special.” Kids like being special. Adults like being special. (laughs)
Grace and lifestyle – how can they work together?
If you’re living a lifestyle that’s incompatible with God’s moral law, then grace and lifestyle would conflict. Grace is designed to keep you, to protect you, to elevate you. If you live a life that’s going to undermine that, destroy that, then grace and lifestyle are not living together. So when temptation and sin come, you say, “No, I don’t want to frustrate this grace, this wonderful grace that’s in my life.”
That’s why Jesus told the story of how two people who were in debt, one owed more than the other. And He asked the question, which one do you think was loved the most? And they answered, the one who was forgiven most, and He said, “You rightly answered.” But the key is the degree to which we understand we’re sinners that evokes the greatest degree of love.
When they asked him “Who are you, hanging out with sinners?” He said, “The sick need a physician. You don’t need me as you think you’re well, you think you’re okay.” Which is a deception because they were just as sick as the others. But they were self-righteous.
What if people heard the message today but think “Oh, but I’m all right”?
They’ll find out. Remembers, after every word is preached, the Lord works with that word with signs following. So everyone who heard that message today, the Holy Spirit is going to work in their lives and their relationships through that message.
Look how many people came to the altar (during altar call). That’s not magic. That’s the spirit of God. And what will they do? They’re walking away from a lifestyle that they knew was wrong.
If someone comes up to you and says “Do you think I’m sinning?”, they’re sinning! Because the fact they’re coming and asking this question, they’re responding to the guilt that they feel.
What are some of the boundaries you personally practice to maintain your freedom?
I’m not going to allow myself to get into a situation that’s questionable, that can tempt me. I’m not going to live a lifestyle that brings into question my ministry, my integrity , my salvation, my relationship with Christ. I want to be consistent with what I preach to the best of my ability—no-one is perfectly consistent, but reasonably consistent. [I will] be careful how I manage my money, be careful how I manage my time, be careful how I manage my relationships. I’m careful how I manage my mind, my experiences.
Tell us a little about what you’re doing with and for the new mayor of New York.
[As a person] he’s sincere. He’s a liberal so we don’t agree on all issues. He’s been in politics all his life; he was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. I’m on his transition team so I’m advising him as to who would be the best candidates for the positions in his administration. I’m advising him on issues. His wife and I are hosting a immigration forum when I get back to New York, and we’ll have a panel of people from MSNBC, CNN, to talk about immigration and how it’s affecting very specific communities that are not really talked about. Most importantly, we have a friendship.
Dr AR Bernard’s sermon on Understanding Grace is available for purchase at The Ink Room.