r m p






Existence and Grace


Old Testament Reading: Habakkuk 2:1-4

New Testament Reading: Galatians 3:23-28

Texts: Mark 2:13-17; 2 Corinthians 12:1-6

At 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 grace!

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 forgiven.

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 of bills!

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 us.

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 hothouse.

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 same trap!

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 saints.

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 hypocrites!"

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 Christ Jesus."

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.




Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design