Existence and Grace
Testament Reading: Habakkuk 2:1-4
Testament Reading: Galatians 3:23-28
Mark 2:13-17; 2 Corinthians 12:1-6
the risk of over-simplifying, let me say this: insofar as there is a
single gospel of grace among the New Testament writers, something that
with all their differences, I do not take for granted, I think it may be
put as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians: "No flesh [may] boast in the
presence of God" (1:29). On the one hand it would be effrontery of the
worst kind, not to mention the poorest possible taste -- as if in the
presence of Freud some freshman psych major should brag about his grasp of
the subject. But we do in fact boast in the presence of God -- rather as
Jack Horner did: "What a good boy am I!" And we may hope that God's
reaction is simply to smile indulgently as Freud would have and to look
forward to the day when we will grow up.
How do we boast
before God? By reckoning up our imagined credentials and supposing that
God owes us something on the basis of them, some recognition, some reward,
some consideration of seniority at least.
Jesus found such an
attitude implicit among many of his colleagues when they expressed
skepticism about his ministry among notorious sinners. His parables of the
Laborers in the Vineyard and of the Prodigal Son are aimed at deflating
such pretensions, at demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that God
owes no one anything. And that he is willing to give freely
everything to everyone as long as they are willing to receive it.
The delusion works
both ways: the righteous are confident that God is so impressed with their
resume that he is eager to have them in heaven. The wicked, on the other
hand, know too well their record is not impressive -- at least not
positively! No resume but a rap sheet, as long as the long arm of
the Torah, perhaps! The same false assumption deludes the righteous with
false hope and fills the wicked with needless despair. If God wants me to
be like the righteous scribe, like Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, I can
forget it right now! Jesus means to set the record straight. For him God
will save the repentant, period. His grace has no limit. There is no
statute of limitation on the offer of divine grace.
Yet a free gift is
surprisingly hard to accept, as you know. Think back to certain social
occasions. Someone gives you something, but you do not believe in grace.
You instantly say, "Aw, you shouldn't have!" And you mean it! Through your
mind at that moment is running an inventory of things or favors you might
do in order to set the balance right! You don't want to "owe them one."
But that's the whole point: if it was a gift, you don't owe
them one! Can't you get that through your head? It's a gift! It's
Even so, the wicked
must try with all his might to do what one would think to be the simplest
thing: accept a gift! "No, I'm too far gone! God can't forgive what I've
done! Others maybe, but not me!" I spoke to a man once who had badgered
his girlfriend into getting an abortion against her own moral scruples. He
realized later what a terrible thing he had done and was tortured by
guilt. God, he knew, had written him off forever. I only tried to hold out
the gift that Jesus said God is in the business of offering. He could be
But it is equally
hard for the righteous to accept a gift from God, because the righteous
thinks he can pay and would rather pay! God smiles
indulgently and says, "Your money's no good here, friend!" That's
disappointing because we'd like to impress everybody by flashing that role
To think that God
reckons your good works as legal tender of some kind is a gross category
mistake. It's not that good deeds aren't important to God, even required
of you by God. Indeed God expects you to do your duty, but to do it is the
expected norm, not some extra favor you are doing for God or the rest of
The word of grace
then is hard for the sinner to accept because it sounds too good to be
true. It is hard for the righteous to accept because he sounds too
good for it to be true!
So Jesus pressed
beyond the limits of the charmed circle of the righteous to proclaim this
gospel to the irreligious. He did this so they would hear a message which
might otherwise have remained safe and irrelevant in the theological
But I would like to
suggest that to approach the impious and irreligious with the gospel of
grace is not only a method of communicating the gospel of grace. It is
that, but I would go further and say that to do it is in some sense
integral to the gospel of grace.
The more of your
life you spend among your fellow church members, your coreligionists,
birds of a feather, the greater the danger you run of boasting. The more
seriously you take your Christian obligation, the more good works you are
apt to find yourself doing.
People are going to
start asking you to serve the church in this or that capacity. And good
soul that you are, you will do it. And, perchance, be proud of it!
You are going to be
growing and maturing spiritually, and people are going to see what a fine
Christian you are! And pretty soon you will start seeing it, too!
You see, the very
existence in the community of Christ, the community of grace, begins to
tempt you into behaving in a way antipodal to grace! That shouldn't
surprise us! It's exactly how Jesus' pious contemporaries fell into the
So you need to have
some other public before whom your religious brownie points count for
nothing! Do you think it cut any mustard with the publicans and whores
that Jesus was a holy rabbi? No doubt it was an obstacle he had to
overcome! Doubtless his very piety was an object of suspicion. His very
religiosity had become a demerit, not a merit! It made a stereotype that
he had to disarm. It made it more difficult, not less, to convey
God's grace to them!
The more religiously
active or devout you are, the more you need healthy contact with publicans
and sinners! Don't shed your righteousness to do it! That would be a
terrible error. But the exposure will serve to evaporate that cloud of
phoney sanctimoniousness you might otherwise develop among the camp of the
Theology sounds a
good bit more convincing in a seminary lounge than if you are forced to
explain yourself among profane or agnostic friends. The latter, of course,
present the real test.
The righteous may
ask concerning you, "Why does he eat with publicans and sinners?" Your
response should be, "So I don't turn into one of the blind guides and
But it works the
other way, too! You live in the secular world, You live among the random
sample of humanity cast your way by your job, your customers, clients,
professional associations. But here, too, you may be a slave to a scheme
of salvation by works! Isn't it true? Aren't you always under their
scrutiny as they compare your job performance, your salary, your
performance compared with younger employees in the firm?
Aren't you aware of
how you come off as against other mothers who seem to keep the house clean
and to get good meals ready and to attend reading groups
and to get the kids to thousands of activities after school? And maybe
work a paying job to boot? This isn't religious? This isn't the Puritan
work ethic with a vengeance? This isn't salvation by works?
This is why you need
to come to church! One new member told me recently that he didn't quite
know what some of the members did for a living. And furthermore he didn't
want to know! He didn't want to have to get past the stereotypes.
He wanted to form his judgment on the basis of what he saw and heard. Who
cares who in the house of God is a high-powered financial advisor and
who's a Human Needs client? This new member had arrived at a key Pauline
insight, just as the Apostle himself put it in 2 Corinthians 12, "If I
wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth.
But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in
me or hears from me."
Leave the resume at
home! Let us accept each other here, of all places, for what we are!
Christian love may even commit us to going farther and accepting each
other despite what we are! We must put aside all worldly rank and
distinction that would make something more than mere humanity the most
valuable thing about us! "There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither
slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in
In Christ, in
Christian fellowship, we regain and reaffirm the simple fact of common
humanity. That is one of the things the New Testament means when it speaks
of Christ as the Second Adam. He is the one who levels all to the common
denominator as if being daughters of Adam, sons of Eve, were all that
mattered to make us precious in the sight of God. Because it is!
So eat with the
publicans and sinners lest you become something worse than them! A
self-righteous hypocrite! But take your place here in the worshipping Body
of Christ where your worldly glories or failures make you no better or
worse, no closer to nor farther away from God than anyone else.
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