When I was eleven, my family moved from a rural area of Illinois to suburban New Jersey. There was a delay between our move and being able to move into the house my parents were buying in Cherry Hill. So, for a few months we lived in an apartment. Our apartment was one of four in the building and we were on the upper level. Across from us was an apartment occupied by the Panicola family, and below us were two other apartments. This was a big change from living in a small house set on several acres of land in Illinois. It was noisy.
Mr. and Mrs. Panicola had three kids all under the age of 5, Johnny, Linda, and Jimmy. Mrs. Panicola’s name was “Grace” though that seemed like an odd name for her. She was loud and she spoke in a funny accent. She would say, “Pok the car” and “bot-ul” for bottle. She called her daughter and me, “Linder.” I think she was from Long Island. As strange as she seemed to me, she was a beacon of friendship and acceptance to these Midwestern hicks who were far from home. Grace had grace, from her sense of humor to her strange to us but yearly plate of Italian cookies. She seemed delightful but far from graceful.
Anyway, from my religious upbringing, the concept of grace was not generally preached and instead it was all about “being saved” and taking Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. We wandered around a few churches in New Jersey and I would up a Methodist throughout high school.
So I wound up in the Reformed Church in New York State when I married Nick at age 21. I tell this story to introduce the concept of “grace” which is the theme of our gospel passage today.
There is a story about a minister named R. Lofton Hudson who wrote about a conversation he had with a friend who attended church only occasionally, and when asked, “What do you think of when I say the word ‘grace’? His friend’s immediately answer was, “Why, Grace is a blue-eyed blonde!” That sort of explains how church folks often have special words that are poorly understood by a lot of people. (Donald B. Strobe in a sermon entitled, “God is Not a Blue-Eyed Blonde.”) Or if I was describing my Grace, I would say she was a beer-drinking Italian beauty with black hair and blue eye shadow and a very loud voice.
We folks in the church often have our own theological terms which are not understood by most folks outside of the church and many people in it. A lot of us would fit into the situation described in an old limerick.
Three Methodist birds in the wood, Sang hymns whenever they could. What the words were about They could never make out, but they felt it was doing some good.
There is a hymn in our hymn book, “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing, “which contains a word we don’t really know the meaning of.
It goes, “Come Thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy Grace; Streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for sons of loudest praise.” So far, so good. But then comes the second verse which begins:
Here I raise mine Ebenezer: Hither by Thy help I’ve come; And I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Oops. What on earth is an Ebenezer? Most folks have no idea. But fortunately we clergy have books to look it up. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible says Ebenezer means literally “stone of help” and refers to a monument which the Israelites set up tin the Promised Land after a successful battle against the Philistines.
My point is that we often use strange words in church, or words take on a different meaning in theological language. “Grace” is such a word. Outside of church, we don’t hear it much unless someone is talking about an Olympic ice skater or the words we use when we pray before we eat.
But in church, we hear the word “grace” a lot. One of the favorite benedictions of the church is to say, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit be with you.” And in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel which we read today, the author says that in Jesus Christ “the Word became flesh,” an “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:16-17). What does the writer mean? What is “grace?”
Some churches seem to give the impression that “grace” is something which God has given to the church, and in turn is ladled out to deserving parishioners who say the right prayers or do good deeds. Some people see grace like a huge pot of soup, that is ladled into our bowls, sort of like Oliver Twist in the musical “Oliver,” asking with the bowl in hand if he can have “some more” as if there is only so much to go around, and you were lucky if you happened to get some, and unlucky if you didn’t. That was a childish view of grace. If we read the Bible, we will begin to understand that grace is not a thing, but rather a theological code word used to describe the completely undeserved and unlimited love of God.
Theological writer Frederick Buechner translates the word grace into everyday language. In his little book, Wishful Thinking, he describes grace this way:
“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. It’s not easy to love somebody or even love yourself every day.
The grace of God means something like this: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and wonderful things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. I love you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. So says God.
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it as a gift too. (New York: Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 33-34)
This reminds us of the famous words of theologian Paul Tillich, when he said that the Gospel can be summed up in this way: “You are accepted. Now all you have to do is to accept the fact that you are accepted.”
The Bible is a book full of “grace.” Because of the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh, we have received grace heaped on top of grace. Throughout the Bible we see an image of God who is filled with suffering, patient love. Yes, there are some stories which seem to portray a different sort of God, because it took a long time for God’s children to come to realize the extent of God’s love.
Throughout the entire Bible, the concept of God’s grace appears. My favorite Hebrew word, chesed, is translated as “mercy, loving kindness, divine favor, loyal love.” Christians believe that the final culmination of God’s favor came when Jesus came and lived among us, but in the entire bible, God’s grace is proclaimed. It’s no accident that the last verse of the Bible contains the words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” (Rev. 22:21).
This grace is given to us by the atonement earned for us on the cross. Grace is the gift of Christ to us which restores our broken relationship with God when we sin.
A child broke an expensive vase. The boy’s carelessness made him feel very guilty. His father came over and put his arm around the boy and said, “It doesn’t matter.” But his mother made a much more realistic and theological response when she went over to him and said, “It does matter…but it’s all right. I still love you, anyway.” There’s that pain on both sides, but the relationship is restored. In a legal context, forgiveness may be costly to the person making restitution. In a relational context, forgiveness is likely to be costly to both parties. The injured party who forgives must bear the hurt, pain, anger, and resentment which comes from the injury received. The guilty party must bear the pain of knowing that one has injured someone who loves them. That is grace. In the Bible grace is set in the context of a personal relationship with God, a God of mercy.
A great king was having his portrait painted. He said to the artist, “I hope you can do my face justice.” “Sire,” said the mischievous artist, “what your face needs is not justice, but mercy!” So, do we all… and that is what the life of Jesus is about.
This sounds too easy. Surely God does not forgive so easily. Surely, we need to suffer more for our sins. But if we look up the word “repent”, it means to “turn around.” Rather than preceding forgiveness, repentance follows it. Repentance is what we do after we have found forgiveness; it is the direction our feet take when we come to the realization that God is like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. God loves us and will never let us go.
Do you remember the old billboard on the highway that says, “Prepare to meet thy God!” What are we supposed to do when we see that sign? Inquire to see if God is registered at that motel? The implication is that meeting God is a real downer and nobody would want to do that except as a last resort, to avoid burning in hell. It seems to me the exact opposite of what Jesus taught. Jesus said that meeting God is not something to be feared but something to look forward to, the arms of a loving divine Parent who is waiting for us with outstretched arms.
In his book “The Vital Balance,” psychiatrist Karl Menninger contrasts the negative personality with persons whose attitude toward life is “yes” rather than “no.” He tells the story of President Thomas Jefferson and a group of companions who were riding horseback cross-country, and who had to ford a swollen stream. A wayfarer waited until several had crossed and then asked President Jefferson to carry him across. The president took him on his own horse and got him to the other bank. “Tell me,” asked one of the men, “why did you select the President to ask a favor of?” The man answered, “I did not know he was the President, all I know is that on some faces is written the answer, ‘No’ and on some the answer is ‘Yes.’ His was a Yes face.”
That’s the message that Jesus lived to teach and died to show, that God has a “Yes” face. And for that we say, “Thanks be to God for God’s amazing grace.” Please pray with me as we invite God’s grace to dwell in our hearts and extend it to others.