Why All This Talk About Grace?

We use the word “grace” in church all the time, but what does it really mean? And how does it affect our lives outside of church?

Read John 8:1-11, Revelation 21:1-7 here.

Listen here:

Has this ever happened at your table?  Mom or dad ask one of the family to pray before a meal, and they say it this way: “Will you say grace?”  And everybody bows their heads and folds their hands, and the person who got the assignment takes a breath, and says . . . “Grace.”

What is grace?  We use the word all the time in church.  I use it all the time in my sermons.  So, what is grace?  Unmerited Favor, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, goodness, love, redemption, pardon, healing, beauty, poise.

We see grace at work in the story we read from John about the Pharisees bringing the woman to Jesus. This story reminds me of taking ordination exams.  These are essay exams in which they give a situation, and you have to write a few paragraphs on how you would handle it, taking into account all you have learned in seminary about the Bible and theology, about our denomination’s rules and guidelines.  In my year, one of the scenarios was this:  A woman comes to you to talk about being baptized.  She wants to do it on a particular date because that is the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death, and she wants to be immersed, instead of being sprinkled from the font in the sanctuary, so suggests using the pool in her backyard.  What do you do?  I immediately considered it legalistically, like a pharisee would.  The rules about baptism in our denomination allow for immersion, and it’s ok to go to her backyard as long as we invite the church to be there, so no problem, to this woman I’d say yes.  Easy answer.  I got this one right . . . but I also got it very wrong, and because there were only two questions on the test, I failed the test because of this question.  Can you guess why?  I didn’t acknowledge that the woman was grieving her mother’s death.  Getting the polity right was only part of the issue.  Rightness doesn’t matter if there’s no grace.

In this story, Jesus sums up grace in one simple statement:

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Nobody threw any stones.  I’m actually kind of surprised.  Surely somebody would have been thinking, “Yes, of course, I’ve sinned, but my sin isn’t as bad as her sin.”  It’s fun to throw stones.  If anybody thought it, nobody dared say it.

We see all sorts of grace at work in this story.  The pharisees interrupted Jesus in the middle of his teaching, but Jesus is so gracious and doesn’t get angry with them.  Maybe that’s why he bends down to play in the dirt for a minute—to keep from responding angrily.  He’s also gracious about not asking them who the man was that she committed adultery with.  Both of the man and woman were guilty, and according to Jewish law, both of them were to be punished (Lev. 20:10, Dt. 22:22).  Maybe Jesus already knew who the man was.  Maybe the man was one of them. After all, they said she was caught in the act.[1]

Jesus gives grace and does it with grace.  Grace is forgiveness, but it’s more than just forgiveness.  Grace is undeserved forgiveness.  Jesus doesn’t say there is no sin.  If Jesus were saying the woman didn’t sin, he wouldn’t have said, “Go and sin no more.”  He says instead, “I don’t condemn you.”  These words are echoed in Romans 8:1 “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Through faith in Jesus, we get the same grace.

Jesus gives grace for the woman’s sin of adultery, and also for the pharisees’ sin of pride and self-righteousness.  Because Jesus loved them all, regardless of whether or not they loved him back.  Jesus loves us, too.  Even when we aren’t very good at giving each other grace.  The reality that we aren’t is one of the reasons that so many people think Christians are hypocritical and judgmental.

There’s been lots of speculation over the years about this story as people wonder what Jesus was drawing in the dirt.  Maybe nothing.  But I wonder if maybe he was writing that list that we read in Revelation 21:

“…cowards, faithless, detestable, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, liars…”  (Rev. 21:8)

In John’s vision, these are the people who get thrown into the abyss.  It’s a pretty tough list.  Maybe Jesus was thinking about how hard it was going to be to do the work on the cross of redeeming all of these.  We might hear this list and think it doesn’t apply to us, but I doubt that anybody can say they’re completely exempt from everything on that list.  That third thing: “the detestable”[2]  is a pretty weird word in Greek:  ebdelygmenois  (ev-del-Yg-men-oos).  It also means to stink.

So here’s something you probably don’t think of when you think of grace:

Grace Smells GoodSin smells bad, but Grace smells good[3].

We sometimes say that Jesus makes us clean, or a more churchy way of saying it is that we’ve been washed in the blood of the lamb.  Jesus makes us smell good. Jesus died on the cross to take away the bad smell of our sin.

Jesus conquered sin and death.  We need grace because none of us is without sin.  All of us are stinky.  All of us need Jesus.  None of us is worthy of throwing a stone.  That’s where we get that old saying, “Those who live in glass houses . . . (shouldn’t throw stones)

. . . are gonna need a lot of windex.

ct-sta-glass-house-st-0621-20150619Those who live in glass houses need an extra measure of grace.  Maybe today’s glass houses are like reality tv shows.  On one of these reality TV shows, there’s a guy named Wesley who’s in a wheelchair because he got shot, and he’s lost the use of his legs.  In the episode, we see that he’s totally transformed from the life he was living before.  He was a drug dealer before.  Now he runs a gym to help people with disabilities to overcome their challenges. But Wesley’s still very much weighed down by his past because he doesn’t understand why the guy shot him.  He knows who it is because the guy, whose name is Maurice, did some time in jail for it, but as far as he knows, he’d never met Maurice before that night, so it seems totally random and senseless.  Sometimes life is that way, but the producers of the reality show arrange for Wesley to meet Maurice face to face.  It’s been eight years since the shooting, but it still takes a lot of guts and encouragement and grace for them to show up to that meeting.[4]   Both of them have had time to think a lot about what happened, and so they’re willing to trust each other enough to talk, and to give each other grace, which makes it ok for Wesley to then ask the hard question, “Why did you shoot me?”  As they talk further, they’re able to understand each other, and even forgive each other, and Wesley even says to Maurice, “Thank you. You made me better.”  It was a powerfully healing moment for both of them, the sort of moment in which we can almost hear God saying, “Look, I am making all things new.”

We tend to think of John’s vision in Revelation as a description of heaven, or of something that happens in a far distant future, but God doesn’t say, “I will make all things new.”  He says, “I AM making all things new.”  Now.  It’s happening.  That moment between Wesley and Maurice was the new heaven and new earth coming together.  The kingdom of heaven breaking through.  Wesley and Maurice using the power of grace to overcome the evil that had been a part of their lives in the past.

One of the reasons that moment is so powerful and so full of grace is that it unlocks more grace.  Jesus told us to forgive one another, and he also said,

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

If you haven’t thought about this before, maybe it’ll need to sink in awhile. Grace is forgiveness, but it’s more than that.  And it must be received and given.  Which isn’t always easy.  In fact, it’s often quite hard.  It was really hard for Wesley and Maurice.  But it’s something God calls us to do.  And when God gives us challenges, we see another meaning of grace at work – favor.

When I was a kid, everybody wanted to be the teacher’s favorite.  And you knew you were in favor with the teacher when she gave you the special jobs, like taking a note to the office, or raising the flag on the flagpole, or washing out the paint brushes.  I remember feeling special whenever I got asked to do one of these jobs. God shows his favor this way too, by calling us to do hard things.

In the Old Testament, we see God’s favor in calling Moses to lead the people out of Egypt, and in choosing David to be the next king, and in sending Nehemiah to rebuild the walls around the city of Jerusalem.  When Nehemiah hears that the walls are broken down, he’s in Susa, the capital of Persia, a long way from Jerusalem.  So Nehemiah prays about it for several days, and while he’s praying, he’s fasting (Neh. 1:4), confessing his sins and the sins of the people of Israel, asking God for mercy and grace, and for favor with the king, so that he will let Nehemiah go to Jerusalem.  The king grants his request, and even sends him with soldiers and supplies (Neh. 2:7-8).  Bonus!

“And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.” (Neh. 2:8)

God is gracious. God is goodness, and kindness.

There’s no way I can say enough about what grace means, so I’m doing my best and trusting God to take care of the rest.  I borrowed some help from the writer Frederick Buechner.  Here’s what he says about grace:

“The grace of God means something like: 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 terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. 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 is a gift too.” (Frederick Buechner)[5]

What Frederick says is like what John saw in Revelation, where God shows John a vision of how God is redeeming the world through grace upon grace upon grace.  Remodeling this, renovating that, making all things new, not throwing us in the lake of fire, but instead sending us his son Jesus to show us his amazing, self-sacrificing, faithful, loving-kindness.  Giving us grace as much as we need, as often as we ask, and especially as we share it.

Maybe the greatest explanation of grace is what the voice says in Revelation 21:3:

“God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

Even though we don’t always act like it or acknowledge it, because of Jesus, God is here.  So maybe we can understand grace this way. On our five fingers: G.R.A.C.E.  We’re holding it in our hands because God is holding our hands. Let’s reach out a grab it, give thanks to God, and share it!

Amen.

 

[1] Warren Wiersbe. BE Bible Study Series, accessed on www.biblegateway.com Accessed on Aug. 2, 2019.

[2] In the NRSV it says “the polluted” and in ESV “the detestable.” In the NIV it’s “the vile,” and in the NLT it’s “the corrupt.”

[3] Leviticus 1:9, Ephesians 5:7, 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

[4] https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/07/karamo-brown-queer-eye-season-4-gunshot-victim

[5]  Frederick Buechner. Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (p. 289). HarperCollins. Found at https://www.pktfuel.com/the-gift-of-grace/ on August 3, 2019.

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