This year during the Epiphany season I am not using the lectionary texts which show different aspects of who Jesus is being revealed. I am developing large themes that show areas in which Jesus shone his light to reveal something important to us. Last week I talked about Jesus shining the light on the law so that people could be freed to live by the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law which leads to legalism. Today I want to talk about Jesus shining the light on God’s grace.
One of my philosophies about life and about church is that it is much better to do a few things well than to do a whole lot of things halfway. If we are only going to do a few things really well in church, we ought to take our cue from the life and teachings of Jesus as to what those should be by focusing on things he talked about a lot and emphasized in the way he lived. Surely grace would be one of those areas.
I want to present as wholistic an understanding as I can of what Jesus taught about grace. So imagine that my sermon will be a circle instead of linear in nature. I intend to first highlight passages which present evidence of God’s grace in Jesus’ life and teachings, then passages which talk about the conditions for receiving grace, then passages which talk about the implications of grace for the Christian life, then back to the beginning point of never losing sight of God’s grace.
So imagine the clock on the 60 minutes show starting to tick and working around the circle, but – good news – I’m not actually going to take 60 minutes! Here we go with the evidence of God’s grace in Jesus’ life and teachings.
I want to begin with a reflection about the significance of the life of Jesus from the Gospel of John, the first chapter. John writes about Jesus, “From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John speaks of a sea change taking place in the person of Jesus Christ. Before him, right relationship with God was judged by obedience to the law given through Moses. But in Jesus, grace and truth came, with right relationship with God seen as a gift of grace, unearned and undeserved. It is a radical change to be able to talk about God’s amazing grace which saves even a wretch like me.
To people who had wearied themselves fervently trying to obey the letter of the law to earn God’s favor, what a breath of fresh air it must have been to hear these words from Jesus: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
What about the woman caught in the act of adultery, expecting her life to end in a flurry of stones, hearing Jesus say to the stone bearers, “Whichever one of you is without sin, go ahead and cast the first stone.” Then when all had dropped their stones and departed, hearing him say, “Woman, has no one condemned you?” “No.” “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” Amazing grace, a new day dawning.
What about Zacchaeus, the tax collector? He was an outcast among his fellow Jews for collecting taxes for the Romans and for taking advantage of his position to line his own pockets. Yet Jesus was not only willing to talk to him, he was willing to come visit his home and spend time with him without condemning him or looking down on him. In response Zacchaeus announced that he was going to issue refunds to those he had charged too much and give half of what he had to the poor and Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house,” even before he had actually followed through with any of that. Amazing grace.
Jesus was invited to the home of a Pharisee one day and he went there as well. Luke tell us that a woman who “was a sinner,” which I interpret to mean her morals were quite lacking, came over to Jesus and started making an outlandish display which I’m sure was quite embarrassing to the respectable guests and the hosts. She wept on his feet and dried them with her hair, then anointed them with ointment.
The Pharisee whose home they were in grumbled to others, “If he was really a prophet he would know what kind of woman she is and would order her away.” Jesus said to him: “A man had two creditors. One owed him $5,000 and the other owed him $500. Neither could pay, so he forgave both debts. Which one will love him more?” The Pharisee replied, “I suppose the one who owed him more.” Jesus said, “That’s right. When I entered your house you gave me no water to wash my feet, no kiss of welcome, no oil for my forehead. She washed my feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, anointed them with her ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” This is not at all the way things were in the old order. This is amazing grace.
Time would fail me to tell all the examples – the stories about the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to find the one that was lost and restore him to the fold; the story about the Father who goes out to welcome home his prodigal son who had squandered everything in a sinful life, and who goes out to bring home his resentful older son who doesn’t want the younger brother to be welcomed home; the statement that “the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost;” the promise to the criminal on the cross beside him that he would be with Jesus in paradise that day; the prayer from the cross that God would forgive all those who were doing this to him because they didn’t know what they were doing.
“From his fullness we all have received grace upon grace.” Jesus went around dispensing grace like it was free. Oh, wait, that’s what is amazing about it, right?
So as we tick our way around the clock, that brings us to the second thing to look at, which is the conditions of grace. Is God’s grace conditional on anything that we do? There are some pretty strongly worded things that I am putting under the next heading, the implications of grace. The only one I’m putting here is “believing,” accepting the gift of grace through Jesus Christ with gratitude. The ultimate answer to the question of whether God will save any Jews, Muslims, Hindis, Buddhists, or atheists is up to God alone, but for people who are convicted of the truth of Jesus Christ the bottom line is belief in him as Son of God and Savior of the world, the one through whom our sins are forgiven. The only requirement to join our church is profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The gas station can offer free gas, but unless you go get it you won’t benefit from it. Jesus tells a story of God’s invitations being sent out and many failing to show up because other interests/needs/desires were more important to them. They are left out not because they were not invited but because they failed to show up. So this is the one absolute condition that I would caution you against ignoring, that we believe in Jesus Christ and joyously accept the gift of grace he offers us. Salvation by grace through faith alone, one of the tenets of the Protestant Reformation.
The third area concerns the implications of grace for the Christian life. These are areas in which Jesus tells us to respond to the gift of grace by the way we live our lives. Strong consequences of not doing so are detailed, but if we turn them into absolute, literal requirements then none of us are still likely to receive salvation.
The strongest one, which I almost moved to the conditions section, is the instruction to be forgiving people. Take the Lord’s Prayer for instance. Matthew’s version reads, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” After the prayer Jesus continues the thought, saying, “For if you forgive people their trespasses, then your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive people their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer is also uncomfortable: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.”
Also in Luke’s gospel, Jesus teaches, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Jesus told a story about a man who owed an enormous amount of money and went to his creditor and begged forgiveness. The man agreed to wipe out his debt. As he was leaving the forgiven man ran into another man who owed him a very small amount of money and he demanded that he repay him. When the man begged for time, the other man had him thrown in prison for not paying his debt. When the man who had forgiven the huge debt heard this, he was enraged and changed his mind. We have been forgiven so much by God that if we fail to extend forgiveness to others for much smaller offenses we offend God. Jesus said, “God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Other teachings clearly show us that receiving the gift of grace should fill us with such gratitude that we are motivated to use our lives to produce fruit that will be pleasing to our Heavenly Father. One way to do this is through our use of the gifts and possessions we have been given. In the parable of the Talents, the one who buries his Talent rather than using it has it taken away from him. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man goes to hell because he did not notice and help the poor man, Lazarus, as he lay outside his door every day, while Lazarus is taken to heaven. The separation of the sheep and goats at the last judgment takes place based on whether or not you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner.
We can transform any of these into another legalistic form of works righteousness if we are not careful. But on the other extreme we can fall into the trap of thinking it doesn’t matter at all how we live because Jesus has taken care of it all. Paul was constantly accused of encouraging this kind of lawless behavior by his insistence on salvation being by grace through faith alone, a free gift that we cannot earn in any way, least of all by obedience to the law. So we have to find a balance.
When people asked Jesus if only a few people would be saved, his response was, “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” Now what does that mean? Is it like when the rich young ruler came to him and asked what he needed to do to be saved? He said he had obeyed the commandments all his life. Jesus said there is just one more thing – go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor; then come and follow me. The man went away sadly and Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
So is the point that it is very hard to get in and not many will be successful? That we need to try to fit ourselves through the eye of a needle or a very small gate? I don’t think that fits with Jesus’ style of going around dispensing grace everywhere he went. I think he was saying, “Look. If you want to succeed at something, you have to aim at something. If you want to get to heaven, aim for the narrow door – try to follow my teachings and live by my example. Forgive others, use what I have given you for good, help others who need it when you can. This is what the kingdom is like, so be training for life in the kingdom by living that way already.
Before his death Jesus told his disciples, “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And when I prepare a place for you I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to the place I am going.” They had listened to all those teachings, all those encounters, but they still didn’t get it. Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?”
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” Jesus is the way, the gate, the door. Follow him. Trust him. He didn’t tell them they were going to have to go search high and low for the elusive narrow gate and try to squeeze through; he said he was coming back and would take them with him so they could all be together. Jesus is the way. Keep your eyes on him.
And this brings us back full circle. We don’t want to forget about the conditions of grace or the implications of living by grace, but we never want to lose sight of the grace itself and its giver. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever lives and believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
“Everyone who drinks ordinary water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give will never thirst; the water that I give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”
“I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
“From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”
As we seek to live in the light, let us keep our eyes on those things Jesus continually shone his light on like the amazing grace of his heavenly Father for all of his children. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 25, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church