I don’t think you could find a more important word, a word more central to Christian faith, than grace. But of course it’s not a just a religious word. Grace is sewn into the fabric of our lives, in our words, in how we see some of the most important, special, and even the most ordinary acts and activities we experience or engage in.
We say grace before meals, giving thanks for God’s gift of food, strength, family, and friends. We are grateful for someone’s help. We are gratified by good news. We offer congratulations to those who have done well. We try to be gracious and offer welcome and hospitality to others. If you want to express appreciation for good service, you leave a gratuity. How about gracias? Thank you in Spanish. When our lives have been blessed, we may feel a deep sense of gratitude. In each of these words there is a hint of this sense of receiving or sharing freely gifts.
There are also those words that speak of the opposite of grace. If a person is lacking in grace, we might call them an ingrate. Public figures who go through a scandal may experience a fall from grace. A truly despicable person has no saving grace; they may even be thought of as a disgrace. Then when someone is completely unwelcome, that person is persona non grata, literally a person without grace.
Grace as a gift, as a special moment or person or character, as a charisma, leads into or comes from grace as an unearned gift, as a moment that comes from above, unplanned, uncontrolled, beautiful, powerful, transformative, heavenly. It’s the special sauce in life, in moments that rise above other moments. All this hints at the theological meaning of the word. God’s gift of goodness, blessings, forgiveness, and more. There’s so much tucked into and falling over the side of this word that it’s hard to keep it in sight.
Philip Yancey wrote an excellent book with the title, What’s So Amazing About Grace? In the foreword, he wrote, “Grace does not offer an easy subject for a writer. To borrow E. B. White’s comment about humor, “[Grace] can be dissected like a frog, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Yancey said that he would be mostly telling stories, that he would rather convey grace than try to explain it.
The theology to try to explain the concept of grace can be tortuous. There are atonement theories that try to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross provides salvation, the mechanics of grace if you will. As far as I am
concerned, many of these theories do more harm than good, and they certainly don’t look like the God we see revealed in Jesus.
By the Middle Ages, Christian faith had come to be very transactional. To receive salvation and make it to heaven, a person needed enough merit, based on good works. Things, good deeds and bad deeds were counted and weighed for and against one’s soul entrance through the pearly gates. Money counted and was weighed most of all. Martin Luther reacted to this and helped to set off the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers focused on faith, not works. “For by grace are you saved by faith, not of works.” (And to be fair, the Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed turned more toward faith.)
The bywords of the Reformation were sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura. Faith alone, grace alone, scripture alone. We are justified solely by God’s grace. We do not earn our salvation. Some of the theological underpinning of the Reformation came from John Calvin. Among other things, Calvinism speaks of total depravity – we are completely unable to do any good at all by ourselves – and irresistible grace. Don’t you love that? If a person is among God’s elect, they will not ultimately be able to refuse God’s grace, said Calvin. Not everyone agreed with Calvin’s views, of course, and a competing theological system that places greater emphasis on human free will, on our cooperating with God’s work of grace, is called Arminianism.
As I said, the explanation can kill the thing. I’m guessing that few if any here are wondering about atonement theories and Reformation theology.
Our scripture reading is about God’s grace. The son asks for his inheritance, which is tantamount to saying, “I wish you were dead.” The son runs off and spends it all on wild living. When the money is gone, so were his friends; he winds up with a job feeding pigs to survive, which is as low as it gets for a Jewish kid. When he comes to his senses, he realizes he could do the same at home—without the pigs, of course—and perhaps have a chance of recouping his life in the future, if his dad will let him show him that he’s sorry. But as for now, knowing he’s unworthy to be called the man’s son, he will ask to work as a servant at his father’s house. He turns home, fearful of his father’s reception but desperate to have a chance to redeem himself and prove himself worthy.
As he nears his home, he sees a figure coming toward him—no, running toward him. It couldn’t be his dad, though it looks like him. He’s smiling, he’s grinning. It is his dad. As his father comes close enough, the son can see he’s been crying, tears are running down his cheeks. When they
meet, without hesitation his dad embraces and envelops his boy in a smothering, gripping hug, kissing his cheeks, his forehead, his hair. The son’s heart opens, breaks, and his pain and shame and fears drain from him as tears and gasps, sobs, pour from him. How is this possible? Why didn’t he know his dad loved him this much?
The father had made the mistake before his son left not to show him his heart and his love and had vowed hundreds of times that if ever given the chance, if the Lord would just return his son to him for even a day, he would never make the mistake again—he would show him his heart, his love.
The rest of the family has met them by now. Having seen the father run for his youngest son, they too came quickly. Around the pair, were the mother, sisters, servants, and his older brother. In front of all, the son declared what he had practiced saying many times, “I am not worthy to be called your son. Treat me like a servant; permit me to come home. Let me live again.”
But the father would hear none of it and in his own way proclaimed a much greater truth, the everlasting story of divine love, of extravagant welcome and reconciliation, of love that has the power when it can be revealed and utilized to overcome all trespasses, harms, and pain: “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” Do you see how poor the son was? His clothes were in tatters. He had sold the ring he had left with and was barefoot. “Get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
That is God’s grace, loving and welcoming us no matter what. The grace of God means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. There is nothing you can do to make God love you less. How many people are starving to hear that? How many people are thirsting for that kind of grace, that kind of love and acceptance? How many people are facing difficult lives and long to be offered this? Grace is a gift. But like any gift, it is up to us to accept it.
Offering grace to another person is more than giving them a break or trying to be understanding of somebody going through a tough time. I mean, it is that, but it’s more. It’s knowing that at some level we’re all broken people. It is living not by a ledger sheet, figuring out who owes whom, but living with freedom to love again or more and better. Choosing one’s own path toward reconciling with someone who has yet to ask for it, opting to say sorry first, being willing to chart a higher purpose between you and someone else, these are freeing and empowering. These are grace.
Letting someone go in front of you in traffic, permitting another person to finish her story, ascribing dignity to someone else’s view that is nonetheless a bit out of whack, being gracious, being graceful or grace-filled, is a life that brings new life. Be gracious. Rise to another level of a spiritual life.
Sometimes we think it’s not right if someone gets away with something. They should know what they did wrong. They should pay the consequences. Then we give ourselves the job of righting the wrong or making sure that person is fully aware of how, when, where they broke code. It’s not easy to let go. It’s not easy to be gracious, but it is better. It is possible.
Live like Christ, who was full of grace and truth. Follow Christ’s lead to bring more light, more mercy, more heart, more kindness, more possibilities, more faith, hope, and love to others.
Can the church say Amen?