Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
Ash Wednesday, March 8, 2000
(Part I of VII part series: "God's Amazing Grace")
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
"GRACE" -- is the overarching term for all of God's gifts to humanity, all the blessings of salvation, all events through which are manifested God's own self-giving. Grace is -- a divine attribute revealing the heart of the one God, the premise for all spiritual blessings. Grace is the favor shown by God to sinners. It is, if you will, the divine goodwill offered to those who neither inherently deserve grace or can ever hope to earn it. It is God's divine disposition to work in our hearts, our wills, our actions, so as actively to communicate God's own self-giving love for all humanity. (Paraphrased from Thomas C. Oden's The Transforming Power of Grace, p. 33).
Grace is universal. Grace is relational. Grace is corporate and is initiated by God. But, unfortunately, for those who need things neat, clean, organized, and well-labeled, defining grace can frustrating to pin down. Just as the Holy Spirit flows freely in our lives, the nature of grace is its liveliness, it's presence in the experience of life, and its amazing delight in the open spaces, ragged edges, and endless possibilities of life and faith.
Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff, describes grace to this way:
We can never talk about grace itself because it shows up in this particular thing or that particular thing....Grace is not something isolated in itself that stands apart from others things. Grace is a mode of being that things take on when they come into contact with the love of God and are suffused with God's mystery. In that sense, the whole world is related to grace. (L Boff, Liberating Grace, trans. John Drury, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), p. 29.
The whole world is related to grace! Imagine that! "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" as the Apostle Paul calls it, is Christianity's best gift to the world. It is a spiritual nova in our midst exerting a force greater than vengeance, stronger than racism, stronger than hate. But, sadly to a world hungering for grace, the Church Universal too often presents ungrace and dis-grace. Too often we resemble grim folk who scare unbelievers away because of our severity and lack of hospitality; because of our rules and regulations and our captivity to traditions which have worn huge holes in the soul of the Grace clothed Body of Christ!
We become what we say we've left behind. H.L. Mencken once described a Puritan as a person with a haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy. Today, many people would apply that description to all too many joyless and uptight Christians of every denominational stripe and condition. We, Christians cover grace with ashes not only individually, but we also communicate ungrace to the world through our lack of unity. Mark Twain used to say that he once tried an experiment of putting a dog and cat in a cage together. After some adjustments, they got along. So he added a bird, a pig, and goat. Again after some initial adjustments, they got along. Then he put in a Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic, and within minutes there was not a living thing left. (Quoted in Phillip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 1997, p. 33). The world is watching what we do. Will they know we are Christians by our love or will they know we have become culturally captive by our unlove, our lack of integrity, our stories of ungrace?
In his book Many Mansions, Dr. Harvey Cox, of Harvard Divinity School tells of his conversations with Buddhists at interfaith conferences. One of his Buddhist friends made the comment once that he can always tell the Christian theologians because they are the ones who never smile. Pressing Harvey he asked, "Why is it that the followers of the most joyous spiritual leader in history, Jesus, aren't smiling?" What answer could you provide?
In this world -- and in Christ's church -- where ungrace has taken root and cast ashes upon our greatest asset in Christ Jesus, we need to take account of the amazing gift God has given us and be embraced by this gift of grace! Spiritual Growth can no longer be reduced to spreadsheet operations. Bean counting and number crunching which pretend to measure personal maturation by focusing on techniques or quantifiable returns rather than spiritual empowerment and growth as God's graced ones, must end. For when the church becomes culturally captive and goes directly against the stream of Christian teachings of grace, we lose our greatest gift - God's Grace! In this era when performance-oriented religion has replaced the profoundly subtle humility of grace-guided spirituality and action, the church is in danger of losing its soul! And in the 40 year old words of Helmut Theilicke, in his classic The Waiting Father, "the devil succeeds in laying his cuckoo eggs in a pious nest... (for) the sulphurous stench of hell is as nothing compared with the evil odor emitted by divine grace gone putrid." (Found in Theilicke, p. 133). Ultimately, we cannot let the devil succeed in quenching grace. We cannot allow divine grace to emit odors of putrid despair.
For all our problems in Christian faith, for all our missed opportunities to embrace God's grace, for all our maddening tendencies to replicate the ungrace of the world, and misdeeds of casting ashes upon God's amazing grace, we hope against hope, we continue to grow hungry for love, for meaning in our lives, for grace to heal us.
It is true what said by the dying Country Priest in George Barnanos' novel by the same name, "Does it really matter? ...Grace is everywhere!" The question is, how do we and how will we be a part of the movement of 21st Century Christians leading us back to recognize, to receive, to embody, to share, to live unconditionally in God's Grace? God knows, we need to be embraced by Grace. In his classic Faust, Goethe writes: "what you have as heritage, take now as task, for thus you will make it your own."
In the coming weeks, we will take back our heritage of God's Amazing Grace as task and thus claim it as our own. Through preaching and prayers and questions left with you week in and week out, we will explore God's Saving Grace, God's Healing Grace, God's Precious Grace, God's Teaching Grace, God's Delivering Grace, and God's Eternal Grace. For now...so be it.
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