We use a lot of words in the church–words like redemption, atonement, incarnation, revelation, faith, hope, love, justification, sanctification, sacrament. But what do these words really mean? People who have never or rarely been in church may have trouble understanding words we take for granted. But it is also possible that even we, who have grown up within the church and are very familiar with such words, may be hard pressed to give more than a vague, canned definition of such terms.
Grace is one of the New Testament’s favorite words. It is certainly one of Paul’s favorites. But what is grace? What are we really saying when we refer to the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ? I remember the definition of grace given to me by my Junior II Sunday School teacher–a definition I later learned was standard in many churches: Grace is “the unmerited favor of God.” And so it is, but what do we mean by that? And is grace far more than any single definition or statement can possibly communicate? In this sermon, I want us to look at three aspects of grace. I want to make it perfectly clear that grace is far more than I will be able to communicate in these words. But my hope is that we will touch the essence of this most important word of our faith.
I. Grace is the time and space God allows for us to grow, change, and come to our senses. Sometimes grace is the waiting God endures for us to come home. Certainly, that is communicated in the parable of the prodigal son. We are told in that parable that after the son showed great disrespect for his father, disgraced his family, squandered his inheritance, and abandoned his faith, he “came to himself” and went home. And there he was met by his father who had been waiting for a long time, casting his eyes down the dusty road many a day, hoping for his son’s return. He had even fattened a calf hoping one day to celebrate his beloved son’s return. This is a parable which always tugs at our heart. For the most part, we hear this parable differently from the original audience who was offended by the extravagant kindness, generosity, and forgiveness of the father. Basically, we identify with this prodigal. We rejoice in his warm homecoming because, on this side of the cross, we understand that we share in his good fortune.
We realize our need for this time and space to come to our senses, to grow in Christian maturity, and to change according to the likeness of Jesus. We want such grace for ourselves. But we are not always desirous of such grace for others. When it comes to our own homecoming, we are happy that God is waiting with outstretched arms and a banquet table to receive us. But much too often, when it comes to others, especially those on the margins of society’s acceptance, we change roles and become the older brother, begrudging God’s favor for those we think are so different from us.
When I think of how much patience, time, space, waiting, enduring, forbearance, love, hope, and understanding it has taken God to get me to this less than spectacular point I am in my own faith pilgrimage, then it would be the height of arrogance and presumption on my part to begrudge God’s grace for any other human being. Central to the New Testament is the belief that grace, if it for any, is for all–the good, the bad, and the ugly among and within every one of us.
II. Grace is the power to cope and to live victoriously in spite of life’s difficulties, hurdles, and problems. In Paul’s letters, he speaks of his “thorn in the flesh.” Three times he asked God to remove this difficulty, and three times God’s answer was the same: “My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Cor. 12:7) What Paul is talking about is more than just knuckling under or biting the bullet or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps or whistling in the dark or becoming superhuman. Such talk is idolatrously blasphemous for those who know the grace of God.
What Paul is talking about is expressed best perhaps in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah: “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” (The word “renew” in this passage perhaps would be better translated “exchange.”) They will be able to plug into the divine power source and live remarkable, grace-filled lives.
I continue to be challenged and comforted by the life and writings of Etty Hillesum. Etty was from a family of assimilated and highly educated Dutch Jews. She was intelligent, earning a law degree and was studying literature and psychology when World War II broke out. With the Nazi invasion of Holland, Etty’s life changed. In an environment of increasing dehumanization and brutality, she struggled to maintain her humanity through prayer and service. Her journal entry for August of 1941 reads, “There is really a deep well inside me. And in it dwells God.”
As the Nazi persecution of Jews increased, Etty deepened her faith writing in May of 1942, “The threat grows ever greater, and the terror increases from day to day. I draw prayer round me lie a dark protective wall, withdraw inside it as one might into a convent cell and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected.”
Despite the ever-deepening terror, Etty Hillesum never lost her love of life and of God. “I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all. And yet–at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life and her arms round me are so gentle.” Five days before that entry, she wrote, “It is sometimes hard to take in and comprehend, oh God, what those created in your likeness do to each other in these disjointed days. But I no longer shut myself away in my room, God. I try to look things straight in the face, even the worst crimes, and to discover the small, naked human being amidst the monstrous wreckage causes by man’s senseless deeds. I continue to praise your creation, God, despite everything.”
Etty volunteered to accompany the first group of Jews being sent to Westbork concentration camp which was the deportation point for the transports to the death camp Auschwitz. For eleven months she worked tirelessly offering as much comfort to others as was possible. In the last pages of her journal she wrote, “One ought to pray day and night for the thousands. One ought not to be without prayer for even a single minute. We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”
On September 7, 1943, Etty Hillesum, along with her parents and her brother Mischa, one of Netherlands’ most accomplished pianists, were placed on a transport train for Auschwitz. Etty threw a postcard from the window of that train into a field where some farmers found and mailed it. Her last words to us are, “We have left the camp singing.” I would bet anything that Etty began the chorus. Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. She was 29 years old.
How do you explain such a life? Only one word is sufficient–grace. Etty Hillesum herself over and over in her journal credits God with her courage, love, and service. Over the years I have witnessed such grace-filled living among people I have served as pastor. I was privileged to accompany many of them through deep valleys with dark shadows. And I have seen courage, love, and compassion expressed in amazing ways. And when asked how they could respond so, their answer has been the same: “God has been my refuge and my strength.” Somehow, we are allowed to exchange our weakness for God’s strength and like Etty Hillesum, in the worst of times, we can do the best of things. That is the miracle of God’s grace at work in our common lives.
III. Grace is God’s acceptance of us. When I was a young boy, I was a cub scout. I remember one year that the scheduled summer jamboree had to be held in a school lunchroom (which also served as an auditorium) because of a last- minute massive thunderstorm. I had been playing in the woods with my friends most of the day. It gets very hot in South Carolina in the summer. Throughout the afternoon, I was barefoot and sweaty. When I came home to get ready for the jamboree, my mother said, “Good Lord, Ronny! Look at you! Go take a bath and get dressed. AND WASH THOSE DIRTY FEET!” I took my cub scout uniform in the bathroom but decided I could get by with a spit-bath. I washed my face, hands, and arms. Since I would be wearing my uniform, I didn’t think I needed to wash anything else. I got dressed and put on my socks and shoes over those dirty, sweaty feet.
Since we had to meet inside a building instead of outside around a campfire, the organizers had to come up with last minute activities. Some bonehead came up with the idea of having the boys stand behind the closed curtain on the stage. The boys were told to take off their shoes and socks, form a line behind the curtain, and to stick out their feet. Their mothers were then told to come to the stage and guess which feet belonged to their boy and to stand in front of those feet. I was mortified! The boys on either side of me moved about a yard away from my dirty feet when they saw and perhaps smelled them. On the other side of the curtain, I could hear the mothers talking and laughing as they tried to pick out their boy’s feet. Finally, the curtain was opened, and no mother was standing in front of me. My mother was way down the line standing in front of a good little boy who had clean feet along with another mother who was sure the boy was her son. The mothers, most of whom had chosen incorrectly, were then told to go stand with their own boys. I wondered if my mother would claim me as her own. I know all of this sounds funny now, but at that moment, I was so ashamed and almost in tears. I had embarrassed my mother. What would the other mothers think of a mother who would let their child go out in public so dirty and unwashed? Could she admit that this boy with such dirty, smelly feet was her own son? But she walked directly to me, put her arm around my shoulder with a love that said, “You are mine, dirty feet and all.” (I never again tried to get by with a spit-bath when a full bath was needed!)
Embracing each of us in those everlasting arms, God says, “You are mine, dirty feet and all.” And the initial response required of us to this grace is very simple; we must accept the fact we are accepted. We must trust we are God’s and allow God to hold us in those everlasting arms of unconditional love. Only then can we change–only then can we repent–only then can we grow in the likeness of Jesus. Contrary to much Christianity preached today, we do not repent in order to be accepted. We are accepted and we accept the fact we are accepted, and then we can change. It is that simple and that difficult. Accepting ourselves as loved unconditionally, sacrificially, and eternally by God can be the most difficult step in our Christian pilgrimage. We just can’t believe that such good news is for the likes of us. But it is for us and for everyone else in God’s creation. That is what grace is all about. And it is only as we accept such grace that we will be free to love others, to live victoriously and courageously, and to dance in the light–and even in the darkness.
I remember going to my paternal grandmother’s farm at least once a month when I was growing up. My aunt told us that my grandmother would look out every few minutes in joyful anticipation of our visit. After all the hugs and kisses which greeted us, we sat down to a feast where we shared in laughter and the most delicious homecooked food. Her cream corn and yeast rolls were indescribably tasty! We knew we were welcome, wanted, loved, cherished, and the source of my grandmother’s pride and joy.
Every time we come to this Table, God like a caring grandmother waits for us with outstretched arms and Table prepared to nourish our souls. Every time we approach this holy altar, we can come home to the grace of God poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So let us each come home today as we feel those everlasting arms hug us as God’s precious own. You are loved, dirty feet and all.
If we have experienced God’s grace, then we have no choice but to offer the world grace-filled lives. The grace of the New Testament is for all creatures, not just for a select few. There are many for whom God is waiting to come home. May the path to that homecoming be illuminated by our lives as we share that which makes us whole.
The grace of Christ attend you; the love of God surround you; the Holy Spirit keep you that you may live in faith, abound in hope, and grow in love both now and forever more. Amen.
Ephesians 1:1-10 (NRSV)
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful[a] in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ[b] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.