Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, July 7, 2002, Pentecost 7, dedicated to the memory of Hugh Hadley who died yesterday and to all who died to make and keep this nation free and always to the glory of God!
(Part 2 of 7 in the Summer Sermon Series: "Seven Lost Keys to Understanding the Misunderstood Jesus")
Ephesians 2:1-10; John 1:1-17
Last Sunday, I opened this seven-part sermon series addressing Law. I pointed out that often Law is misunderstood in the church as a negative reflection on ancient Hebrew scripture texts. Jesus was not opposed to Mosaic Law. Jesus, in his own words "came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill the law." Today, we look at Grace which is "the free and unmerited act through which God restores the estranged creation to Godself." Grace IS the message of God in Jesus Christ - and that is why Grace is amazing and transformational in Christ! During Lent and Easter 2000, I spent seven sermons unpacking "Grace." I invite you to pick-up copies of that series. However, today, may the amazing transformational grace of God touch us as we open ourselves to God's word.
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.
Grace is many things. Grace is universal. Grace is relational. Grace is amazing. Grace is transformational. Grace is God's. Grace is God's unconditional expression of love in which God declares, "You are mine in sin or sorrow. You are mine in brokeness or abundance. You are mine and I love you. I forgive you, no matter how far you venture into sin, sorrow, brokeness or abundance, for you are mine."
Grace is not an invention of the New Testament. Jesus and the Apostle Paul didn't arrive on the scriptural scene and create grace. Grace appears in the world and in the words of wisdom writers, poets, and prophets. God acts graciously throughout scripture. In Proverbs 14:31, we are told that showing loving-kindness to the poor is grace. The Psalms speak confidently of God hearing prayers, healing and rescuing the weak and oppressed and forgiving sins (Psalms 6:2, 41:4, 9:13) - the grace of God! Even when the vocabulary of grace is absent, God's actions are suffused with grace. God loves Israel despite its puny numbers (Dt. 7:6-9) and rescues them in the howling wilderness even when they break covenant with God (Dt. 32:10 and Ezekiel 16:8).
However, the gracious acts of God reach their fulfillment in Jesus and in the community of love found in the New Testament. Luke 2:40 tells us that divine grace rests upon the baby Jesus who subsequently grows in grace (Luke 2:52). The Gospel of John begins with words that define Jesus as "the Word" and the embodiment of Grace and truth! Throughout his ministry, beginning with reading the scrolls of Isaiah in Nazareth's synagogue, (Luke 4:16-21) Jesus' unwavering commitment to radical, inclusive love and grace defined the essence of his being. In fact, these commitments to love and grace were his undoing and brought his death - and ultimately his resurrection.
At the core of Jesus' grace in action was his commitment to the poor, the oppressed and the economically disenfranchised. The passage from Luke 4:16-21, sets Jesus apart in his public ministry. Reading Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus takes the words of the prophet as his own and declares his mission is to "preach good news to the poor, release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to free the oppressed from their bondage of debt." With this prophetic springboard, Jesus sets forth his purpose in public ministry as one of justice for all God's children. Justice and grace embrace in the words and person of Jesus. Therefore, in Christ, Grace is not without cost, for it demands justice, too.
Leo Tolstoy grasped this delicate balance between grace and justice in his writings. In one story, "Master and Man," Tolstoy recounts the tale of a businessman obsessed with greed, whose last hours are spent in a terrifying blizzard. This graceless man has insisted, insanely, that his servant press on through the storm. Now he and his servant and their horse are trapped. His servant and horse quietly await their final fate while the master rages at the storm. At last, in this frozen hell, the master finds a spark of human warmth within himself. As his last act, he places his body over that of his simple servant and in dying finds life.
In Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular, Dr. Robert Coles comments: "(Tolstoy's story) tells us of life's redemptive possibilities: reminding us that those who by secular standards have a lot can be in a terrible spiritual jeopardy and indeed can be spared hell only through the mediation of the a humble one, even as Jesus himself lived a humble life . . . The book of our lives is open - even until the last breath. With these haunting stories, Tolstoy admonishes us - but also invites us - to risk the saving grace of brotherly love . . . " (Coles, Harvard Diary, New York: Crossroads, 1988, pp. 102-103.).
Grace is a gift. It is a free gift. It comes, often when we most need it and least expect it. First, our challenge is to accept the gift. To open ourselves to the gift and take it in. Once received, through no power or particular action of our own, we are called upon to do nothing with this gift. But, as we are transformed by it, we are challenged to extend Grace to others. I love Paul Tillich's words on grace found in The Shaking of the Foundations. He writes of Grace's power and gravity:
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions (and addictions) reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes, at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying:
"You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now, perhaps you will find it later . . . Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted."
If that happens to us, we experience Grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed . . . And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual proposition, nothing but acceptance. (P.Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations,SCM Press, 1957, pp. 161-163).
Nothing but acceptance. To simply accept the fact that we are accepted may be the most difficult piece of the puzzle of Grace to embrace. In accepting grace, we may find our place of misunderstanding the nature of grace. We may not be able to see and feel the paradise of grace in our world askew.
In the early days of this country, Ogalala, Nebraska was once described as the dry, treeless, heartless heart of America. In the those days of westward migration, many would-be settlers lost their farms and lives there due to a lack of water. On one abandoned sod hut, someone discovered a sign, left by a westbound settler. The sign read, "This would be a fine country if it just had water." Someone had written on the sign in reply, "Yeah, and so would hell!" Neither sign-writer knew that just beneath the dusty wagon tracks lay the Ogalala aquifer, one of the largest underground rivers on this planet. Its resources are great enough to bury all fifty states a foot-and-a-half deep in water. This High Plains aquifer is sometimes called the "Sixth Great Lake." It is an amazing underground sea, holding as much water as Lake Huron, plus one-fifth of Lake Ontario. But, until its life-giving contents are brought to the surface, the settlers go without water and the scorched plains feel like hell on earth.
The same could be said for the reservoir of God's grace - which is limitless and abundant. The gift of God's grace resides in each child of God, just beneath the surface. Jesus Christ came to tap that reservoir in each of us. But, as long as it remains submerged, paradise is postponed and the human condition feels too much like hell on earth. (This story is drawn from Clyde Fant's The Misunderstood Jesus, Peake Road Press, Macon, GA., 1999, pp.25-26).
I invite you now to come to the Table of Grace. I do not believe, as do our traditional Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, that God's grace is mediated through Holy Communion. However, I do believe, in the celebration of Holy Communion we remember and share God's gift of grace in Christ Jesus. Grace is, after all, what God is, and holy communion helps us remember God's gift and sacrifice of love given in Christ. God, acting out of God's deepest being on our behalf, is Grace. As you come to the Table of God, as you come to the Table of Grace, come just as you are. In Paul Tillich's words, "Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. (This day) Simply accept the fact that you are accepted." Amen.
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