Good morning Christians, Seekers, and Friends:
We live in a bubble of grace. While we may not always recognize it, each and every cell in our body—each and every hair on our head is not only surrounded by, but made of, God. Will you do me a favor? For just a minute will you close your eyes – and I mean just a minute mind you, as preaching to you all with your eyes closed, would be a little disheartening. But just close your eyes and think about how you are surrounded by, and made of, God. And now, keeping your eyes closed for just a few seconds more, I want to read you something from our Book of Common Prayer:
What is grace?
Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.
Okay, now you can open your eyes (please don’t fall asleep on me just yet haha!). Let’s hear that again: Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved. If we are to look up the noun grace in our dictionaries, we would find something like this for the definitions: Grace is approval, support, or liking for someone or something; grace is an act of kindness beyond what is due or usual. In the book of Genesis we hear it this way when God looks upon God’s world and all of God’s creatures, including human beings, “God sees that we are good.” And, God sees and believes that we are good – even when we might not necessarily be “good” in our own or others eyes. God’s love, mercy, and goodwill towards us isn’t something we’ve earned or something we deserve. It is grace – the grace we live within each and every day of our lives. In today’s gospel Jesus makes this point in this way; “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” In other words, Jesus chose us BEFORE we did anything at all – before we took our first breath, before we learned to talk, before we did anything at all. God’s grace and love has swaddled us since before time and forever through no action or accomplishment on our part. And we were made to bear fruit – to help one another, to live our lives with and for others, and to spread the good news of Jesus Christ: We are all God’s chosen children and, although we are human beings with all our shortcomings and limitations; we are loved, and we are forgiven.
While grace is a core principle of the Christian life, we don’t often use this noun is our daily life or in speaking about our Christian faith. So, I thought it might be interesting to think about how we most often use the word ‘grace.”
For Christians, we may think first of the practice of saying ‘grace’ before meals. This is something that has been a personal practice since childhood – and, oddly enough, something that Jeremy really cottoned onto when we first started dating. As a Christian and a priest in the secular world, you can sometimes clear a room just by telling folks what you do for a living. So, while I was upfront with Jeremy from the very first about being a priest and how my call carried through to all aspects of my life, when we went out to eat, I would often hesitate to pray grace out loud in a restaurant. But it was Jeremy, raised outside of the church community, who started our practice of saying grace even in public. So, Jeremy and I say ‘grace’ together before each meal every day, as I am sure many of you do. And the grace we most often say is one handed down from my family of origin: “Bless us o Lord and these thy gifts and us to thy service. Make us ever mindful for the needs of others through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Modeled after Jesus’ own prayers before a meal, the saying of grace really is a prayer of gratitude for the food and nourishment that we have been given and thus is, indeed, a recognition of God’s grace.
The second place, and maybe the first association that we probably think about in terms of the noun grace is what? Yes, in terms of the hymn Amazing Grace written in 1772 by John Newton. Newton, the captain of a ship of enslaved human beings, who would later be ordained a priest and work with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery in the British Empire, recalls in this hymn his experience of receiving God’s saving grace on May 10, 1748 – almost 273 years ago to the day. The reason that this hymn comes so immediately to mind is that, according to Jonathan Aitken, a Newton biographer, the hymn is performed at least 10 million times annually. And while we may find it challenging to talk about grace – being as we are, so attached to our “faith through works” theology, this song helps us express our awe of, and gratitude for, grace. We recognize its miraculous quality that saves us in our most wretched – most broken and most reprehensible states and has the power to transform us—or perhaps better said, re-form us into the children of God that we were meant to be. Undeserved and unearned, God’s grace is with us throughout our lives and in the next world too.
Looking back at the definition of grace given to us in the Book of Common Prayer we might note that the definition of grace seems to encompass most, if not all, of what we might consider the Christian life. Through God’s grace, our sins are forgiven, our minds are enlightened, our wills strengthened, and our hearts stirred. And this is important to note because what it means is that we only need to be willing to receive God’s help and love to live the Christian life. We who are part of God’s ‘good’ creation, through Jesus Christ, are made a part of God’s own self. As Jesus tells us in today’s gospel: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide, or live, in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will live in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and live in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
And Jesus’ commandment that we are asked to follow is simple: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Just as Jesus had explained the essence of the law and the prophets in love of God and love of neighbor, he also does in today’s gospel. His new commandment given here is really just a clarification of how we are to love others. We are to love each other A WHOLE LOT – even self-sacrificially—although I don’t think Jesus is asking us to necessarily give up our own life here. When he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” what I hear Jesus saying is that he was willing to and, of course, will give up his life for his friends. He is also making it clear that he is issuing in a new, intimate relationship with God. Those who believe in Jesus are not servants but friends with whom he has shared all things – including the role of sibling and membership within the body of God. And one thing more—he has done all of this so that we can share in his joy and so that our joy may be complete.
I know this has been a difficult couple of years friends. But, even in the moments we didn’t feel it – or recognize it – we have been living in God’s love and surrounded by a bubble of God’s grace. And God’s Holy Spirit has been with us – and will be with us—through it all. We are part of God’s good creation and we are members of God’s own body forever—at our worst and at our best–God’s grace is all around us and within us too! I know this may sound too good to be true—but it is – if we but open our eyes to all the glorious ways God is working in and through our lives. When we do, then our joy will be complete! It isn’t supposed to be hard, it isn’t supposed to something we do all by ourselves—that’s what makes grace so amazing!
Live in love. Walk in grace.