Saving Grace: Born on the Journey from Unbelief

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

March 12, 2000

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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 rock and our salvation. Amen.

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Riding in Europe on a train with passengers from Greece and Germany, Dr. Diane Komp, a Pediatric Oncologist and teacher from Yale University School of Medicine, began to answer questions about whom she was and what she was doing in Germany. A Greek auto mechanic and a German widow listened in disbelief as she told them she was a physician going to speak with medical students and faith and medicine. The widow responded that her doctor didn't believe in God and the auto mechanic added that his doctor only cared about money. Reflecting on this and many shared impressions, Komp sat down and wrote the amazing stories of children who converted her through the miraculous grace, faith, hope, and love they demonstrated through their battles with cancer.

Born anew on the journey from unbelief, Dr. Komp writes: "Over the years I have come to the conclusion that dramatic conversion to disbelief is rare. More often, faith dies of disuse, atrophy, a failure to be exercised. Such was my experience. (Early on) I settled for an ersatz-existentialist's resolution and decided not to attempt to find meaning in suffering. I only sought to fight against it . . . My journey begins with derailment but does not end there." (Diane Komp, Children Are...Images of Grace, Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI, 1996, p. 16).

Dr. Diane Komp was saved by God's grace. She experienced God's redeeming grace through the effect of children on her life. God was able to minister to her unsure heart through her young patients' hearts untroubled. God's grace is just like that. For God's grace is something you can never get but only be given. As you know, there is no way to earn grace or deserve it or bring it about in anyway anymore than you earn good looks or deserve the taste of strawberries and cream or bring about your own birth. God is in and through it all.

"A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace...A crucial eccentricity of Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There is nothing you have to do. There is nothing you have to do. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, pp.33-34).

There is only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you make the decision to reach out and receive it. Saving Grace requires decision. The offer of salvation is addressed to every hearer, every human, but it must be received. For us, the one making the offer is the Risen Christ, speaking through the power of the Holy Spirit. When we as listeners respond to Christ's call of healing and accept His gift of grace, God saves.

But, I wish the giving and receiving of God's grace was so straightforward. Instead, it often feels more like our first dance and this dance of grace between God and humanity feels awkward. The steps are unclear, the rhythm is off-beat and it is difficult to know who is leading and who is following! Whether difficult dance or unopened gift, a decision to engage and respond is always a part of God's saving grace. And the reality is that the gift of salvation is often one that is left on the table, untouched and unopened. Words like, "I don't need Jesus Christ." Or "I certainly can do this myself" have echoed across the eons. Imagine a gift so beautifully wrapped and presented collecting dust right in the middle of the dining room table! This seems impossible, but it's true. All too many of us choose not to open the gift - perhaps because call demands response; perhaps because receiving demands sharing in turn with others; perhaps because we haven't advanced that far on our own journey's from unbelief.

In his book Bread and Wine, Italian author Ignazio Silone tells the story of a violent revolutionary hunted by police. In order to hide him, his comrades dress him in the garb of a priest and send him to a remote village in the foothills of the Alps. This village has not had a priest in years. Word gets out that one arrived. Soon a long line of peasants appear at his door full of stories of their sins and broken lives. But, the atheist "priest" protests and tries to turn them away, to no avail. In the end he has no recourse but to sit and listen to the stories of people starving for grace and forgiveness. In time as he listens to them, he is transformed. As he serves them, he is saved! They gift him with grace by trusting him with their lives and in the end he discovers that the real revolution happens within the human heart - his own and others.

If we trace the roots of the word grace, or "charis" we find a verb which means "I rejoice. I am glad." God rejoices when we receive Grace. That is the transforming power of God. I know this because I have been there! I have felt the joy and gladness of God's Amazing grace. I have felt the transforming power of God.

More than 20 years ago, my life was a royal mess. I was abusing drugs and alcohol and had alienated my friends and screwed up several relationships. Raised in a religious family in which values and faith were lived in right relationship with God and other people, I had deviated far from what I knew to be the right way to live. But, I couldn't see straight. I couldn't hear other people's words to me. And I was numb to my own feelings.

One night in November 1977, I hit bottom. I dragged myself to a dark and secluded room and screamed at God, "If you are out there, prove it to me!" Suddenly, the room filled with a brilliant light! Then I heard the words, "God is Love... God is Love... I am Love." A cross formed on the wall in the brilliance of the lighted room. I was filled with a fullness of light and peace I had not known before and have rarely known since. That night I returned to God in Christ Jesus! That night, my life began turning too.

Most of my life has passed since that night. But, I am convinced that God gave me a gift that night and called me back from the brink of self-destruction and even death. I was transformed that night. I was saved by grace, that night. Over the years I have referred to that night as my "rebirth," my "peak experience" and my "conversion to Christ.' Many names, but one reality - turning from darkness to light, turning to God in Christ Jesus.

I learned something that night that I have applied to my life ever since. I learned that life is filled with choices. As the author of Deuteronomy says, "I have placed before you that choice of life and death, good and evil...Choose life so that you and future generations may live!" Ever since then, when I make decisions, I weigh the choice for life or death; for what my conscience tells me is good or evil. Needless to say, I have not always chosen the life-giving way, but I have stood in the balance to consider whether it was or was not life giving!

Did I deserve or earn a vision of God's immense and amazing love and grace? Absolutely not! That is exactly the point! I was resentful, self-destructive, wound tight with anger and unkindness and God entered my space and answered my challenge with unconditional love. Any presence of healing, forgiveness, and goodness I have felt in my life has come from the grace of God. It is and will always be my fervent prayer that the church and all of us who call ourselves Christians will become a community of grace, a nourishing culture of that grace.

Dr. Komp in Images of Grace writes of the grace she has come to know in her patients - all under the age of 18. She points out that developmental psychologists tell us children are less complete than adults and need experience to inform them about the way the world really is. Nevertheless, Jesus speaking centuries before the evolution of the catscan tells us that we should live with the childlike grace of little children. It is in childlike grace that God's love is revealed in Christ.

Henri Nouwen reminds us that God chooses to come to us face first, in the presence of The Incarnate Christ He writes:

How is the love of God made visible through Jesus? It is made visible in the descending way. That is the great mystery of the Incarnation...In the gospel it is quite obvious that Jesus chose...it is not once but over and over again. At each critical moment he deliberately sought the downward way. (Henri Nouwen, Letters to Marc About Jesus, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987, p. 41).

Dr. Komp says, "As I sit by the beds of these children, I have seen God's love made manifest in this descending way. I have seen Jesus Christ come repeatedly to bring peace and to link children's stories with his own" (Komp, p. 31).

Today's Gospel lesson tells of Nicodemus (in the words of the African-American Spiritual) "stealing away to Jesus" - coming in the night to meet Jesus for the very first time. Nicodemus, a teacher of the law and a member of the Sanhedrin, is not a follower and believer in Jesus and yet he seeks to understand how God's love and grace really work. Jesus said, "You have to be born anew. You have to experience rebirth and saving grace! Grace must become real for you, Nicodemus!" Offering him the gift of grace, Jesus points out that the Messiah is coming into the world not to condemn, but to save; not to destroy, but to bring new life. Like Nicodemus, you and I must "steal away to Jesus." On the journey from unbelief, we must be open to the power of new life, saving grace and the unfolding mystery of Jesus coming to us to reveal God's love.

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