The word “grace” in is prominent in both Bible passages read this morning. Grace is our great blessing as people of faith. It's also a challenge. I want to talk about the blessing and a couple of the challenges which this spiritual reality offers in our living.
The Apostle Paul, who lived in circumstances of risk and uncertainty, begins his first letter to the Corinthians with these words: “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give praise to my God for you at all times because of the grace of God which has been given to you in Jesus Christ.” And before he's gone much further, he's used that word grace again. You might call this Paul's standard greeting, even when he's writing from jail. He uses it in his second letter, and in most of his other letters. All of his theologizing and advice-giving and entreaties or whatever come after first saying “grace and peace to you,” and “I thank God for God's grace to you.”
Let's check out the word “grace.” Paul uses it mean God's love and abundance and care, which are personified and best known and shown to us in Christ. It's also God's favor, which has been extended to us. To live in grace is to live in a loved and blessed state or situation, as if you are being given a big hug—“just because” and no matter what else may be going on in your life. It means living with a sense of blessing. And Paul follows this with the word “peace,” which he means in the Jewish sense of “shalom,” a word referring to salvation. He goes on to underscore both of these in the very next verse—grace and peace from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. So--the biggest, most complete loving soul hug in the entire world from our being to your being—from us who have been embraced by this vast grace to you who have been embraced likewise. Got that?
Even so, it appears that the Corinthians had forgotten somewhat the grace in which they stood and had instead fallen to bickering and measuring themselves against lesser standards. The wonder of grace is often easy to forget or ignore. So that's the first challenge they, or we, face—forgetting.
Reminders of grace are great. When I lived at the Cove Apartments, one of our church members residing there came one day and said, “I'm practicing something this year. I want to greet church members I encounter in this way: ‘the peace of Christ be with you.'” So when we saw each other we would say that, or sometimes would say, “peace be with you.” Whatever, it was no ordinary hello. More like a blessing, something shared of our common grace and faith.
Along with many others, I visited David Cross when he was in his final months, in various rehab facilities. When I would leave, David—sitting in a wheel chair, not able to see very well, obviously not in the best of health--would reach for my hand and say, “the Lord be with you.” I would respond, “The Lord be with you.” This too was no ordinary way of saying “goodbye”—more, again like a blessing—again, a reminder of the grace in which we both shared.
Paul reminds the Corinthians and us that what we are about as Christians, whatever our life circumstances and the world situation, is first and foremost knowing God's grace and then sharing the blessing of this grace.
We can talk about grace or experience it; I would like to do the latter with you. So if you would join me in a short meditation… Allow to come into your awareness a time when you personally felt very cared about, or felt very special; felt quite loved and treasured… experience what that felt like, or to see the scene…who was present…perhaps hear what was said or what went on…. Take a few moments to simply experience these sensations of being cared for, of being so special…. Now, take a few moments to honor what you have experienced, and prepare to slowly refocus.
Such memories are a reminder that God whom we can know personally through Christ is constantly with us and does not leave or forsake us—in fact is far steadier than the humans around us.
We know God's grace and love in different ways. Some of us connect through meditation, some through experiences with Nature, some through loving contact with others, some through music, some through service to others, some through direct primary experience. John Wesley spoke of his heart being “strangely warmed,” and a surprising number of us have such direct experiences, as noted in a NYT Magazine article “Are We A Nation of Mystics” from some years ago.
Reminders can come in lots of forms. I remember one day seeing a truck with this bumper sticker: Good Happens. And I thought, yes, and that's just as true as the alternative statement, which one tends to see more of.
In the film The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, a young woman from a severely abused background and a journalist combine forces to solve a old missing-persons case. The young woman on several occasions finds herself reacting with misplaced anger and mistrust to the journalist, when he does something like simply ask for her help, or wake her up upon arrival, or deliver a bag to her hotel room. Even she, a stranger to grace, comes to see some of the goodness or grace which he represents, and together they make more good happen.
My friend Bob does occasional chaplaincy-type work at a local psychiatric hospital. The other day he told me about being with a patient to whom he had just given a small pocket Bible. The man just stood there and stroked it gently and wept. Bob is often struck by how people like psychiatric patients, who are up against it and have nothing left to lose, seem more open to grace-in-the-moment than many others. Bob himself speaks of feeling deeply blessed. Here's what's going on in his life: Bob's wife has been dealing with ovarian cancer for several years; he himself lost his job a couple of years ago and has been looking for how he might continue to work; their finances are somewhat precarious. Yet Bob feels quite blessed and graced. He feels God's presence in his and his wife's life.
So, in this uncertain world-as-it-is, we can each be open to daily grace and the state of grace or blessing in which we live, given our faith.
Bob, and David and my neighbor at the Cove, offer clues as to our second challenge: how do we live, once blessed? What are the ways we might know that we are living into our sense of grace? Paul spends a fair amount of time in Corinthians and his other letters speaking to folks who have accepted God's grace but aren't necessarily demonstrating it in how they live. He gets criticized for this. But one thing which seems clear about grace is this: if you and I are special creatures, blessed in the ways we have been speaking of, then acting or living just any old way doesn't make sense, does it?
Like Paul, the writer of Hebrews in our passage today links spiritual graces not just with a state of being or consciousness but how graced people “show up” in real life. The writer commends a life stance and associated behaviors which flow as a result of being grounded in grace. Here are some of the things he recommends:
You focus outwards—everything isn't about you and your own stuff. Being focused outwards, you are concerned particularly with supporting others who are trying to live some kind of a faithful life (that's my reading of “let brother love continue”). And you become attuned to injustice, to how things are with others who may be less fortunate.
You want to live authentically and with fidelity—that's the notion behind having an intact marriage bed—one where trust and togetherness is held in high regard. I believe the “marriage bed” analogy—the notion of authenticity and fidelity--can be applied generally to how you live generally as a Christian.
Your grasp on “things” in general is a little lighter and easier. Like regarding money or keeping score—or maybe even regarding food, since it doesn't satisfy the spirit or soul in quite the same way that divine grace does. Stuff in general is not such a big deal. It comes and goes while the Spirit of the Lord is appreciated to be forever.
You have confidence about meeting the genuine material needs which are yours--that the Spirit is with you as you seek to meet those needs, that the Lord indeed helps to provide.
You seek out people of good example in the faith, because you desire in your own gratitude to live an exemplary/positive life. (this is so at variance with our times, with our emphasis on anti-heroes and Not being a saint). Differently put, you're interested in role models and how people of real faith live. You're interested in how better to live your faith (rather than excuses for not living it).
You stand on two feet versus one foot, in terms of maintaining balance about different teachings. You're interested in what's key or core, not simply what's the latest and the greatest. That is, you're not blown about by every wind.
In these ways, you and I become open to the further influence of grace in your and my life and a way in which others experience grace, that hug which more people could use in this world. And as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, the Spirit of God is with us as we live in this way—God does not forsake us but continues with us to encourage us in these graces.
So then here is the simplest possible expression of it of what we are about. First, the challenge of allowing ourselves to be cared for and hugged-as-we-are by God, letting that hug permeate us. Second, the challenge of gratitude for gifts received--living like it means something—living like we are indeed blessed, and extending that sense of care, of a hug, to others. Nothing easier--or harder. Welcome to grace-full living.
As Paul would say, Grace and peace to you, in the name of God who created us, Jesus Christ who shows the love of God to us, and the Holy Spirit Who sustains and encourages us each day.
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