A few years ago, I was driving from Thousand Oaks, California, to Los Angeles International Airport for my flight home. It was a 40-mile drive, so I gave myself plenty of time to get there…I thought. It turns out I was using Minnesota standards. I was unaware, at the time, of what Los Angeles traffic could be like. It was an ugly, 2 ½ hour drive.
I came into the car rental drop off area fast. I was 45 minutes past the time when the car was due to be turned in. This was back in the days when you actually had to talk to a human when you returned a rental car. I waited anxiously outside the car until the Hertz employee finally wandered up. I said “I’m so sorry…but I know I’m late…how much extra do I owe you for that?” The person scanned my slip, looked at her little portable device and smiled and said “No, no charge. There’s a one-hour grace period.”
The slightly snarky pastor part of me chose that moment to pop out and I smiled and said “well, if it’s really grace, there isn’t a time limit, is there?”
The Hertz employee looked at me…confused…I said, “sorry. Never mind. And thank you very much.” And I took my receipt and walked to my gate.
A one-hour grace period? Yeah, that’s a human thing. And I’m grateful that it’s not the way that God works.
We continue our sermon series today; “Start with Why.” We are spending time these few weeks thinking together about motivation. What makes us do…what we do.
Every week at Trinity, we conclude our worship with these words from our mission statement: “Through Jesus’ love, we welcome, connect, learn and serve. Thanks be to God.”
So what motivates us to welcome…connect…learn and serve? What is our why?
According to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the “why” is simple: it’s grace. The grace of God. The grace we reflect. It’s simply…grace.
Of course, there is nothing simple about grace. Grace is one of the most difficult of ideas for humans to get their brains wrapped around. I recently read an interview with Phillip Yancey, a theologian and popular author. He was asked “Can you define grace?” He replied: “I don’t even try.” We can talk about grace…we can describe grace…we can share stories of grace…but trying to define it? I frankly don’t think that our minds and our hearts are big enough to do that.
In fact, I think that we resist grace. We resist it because it doesn’t fit into our world view. We live in a transactional world. Even our relationships are transactional. We will do things for someone…acts of love or kindness… but eventually, if these acts are not acknowledged, or appreciated, or returned to us…we grow tired of doing these things. And our relationship suffers. If we give a gift, because someone once gave us a gift…then it’s less a gift and more a transaction.
No, real grace is different. God’s grace is different. The first chapter of John says that all of God’s people have received “Grace upon grace,” with no limits. I think that’s an interesting phrase that we need to explore a bit.
I read the results of a survey that was done where random samplings of the population have been asked two questions. First, they were asked “What is a Christian?” Interestingly, people did not respond with words like love, compassion or grace. Instead, they usually described someone who is anti-something. They perceived Christians anti-logic, anti-science, anti-inclusive, anti-refugee, anti-lgbtq, anti-poor people and the list goes on and on. That’s painful for me to hear, because while I cannot speak for all of the different kinds of Christianity, I know that these perceptions do not represent our worldview.
This survey then asked a second question: “Who do you think Jesus was? The results are fascinating. Even people who did not call themselves Christians knew the stories of Jesus healing the sick, feeding the hungry, gaving water to the thirsty, welcoming and loving the stranger, and raising the dead…Jesus wasn’t known for what he was against, he was known for what he was “for.” Jesus was known for grace.
So the perception is, that Christians are against things, but Jesus is for things.
Can you imagine, if Christians who make up the larger church, of which we’re all a part, were known for being “for” the same things that Jesus is for? Can you imagine how that might cut through all of the divisions? How that might bring the broader church together, and how people would be drawn to the ministry of Christ’s church?
Our Gospel text says that from Jesus’ fulness, we have all received “grace upon grace.” I love that phrase: Grace upon grace. God’s gift of grace, this love, is so broad, so deep, so dynamic and so rich that we cannot understand it, and then God stacks upon it, more…more grace…and then more. It is a pool of grace that is never ending, always enduring. It is love that simply cannot be measured and that has no limits. It is love that always thinks of the other. It is love that always wins.
This is the Christian proclamation:
- That Jesus’ love and grace are for all
- That Jesus’ love and grace are never-ending
- That Jesus’ love and grace restores our relationship with God
- That Jesus’ love and grace bring forgiveness
- That Jesus’ love and grace bring eternal life
- That Jesus’ love and grace brings the gift of community
This is our proclamation. As people who follow Jesus, this is our “why.” The challenge for us is to align our lives, with our proclamation.
The more I have read about the life of Nelson Mandela, the more he has become one of my heroes. After speaking out against the racist, South African apartheid government, Mandela was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for his words and actions. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
He served 27 years, before the South African government finally bowed to international pressure and released him in 1990. 27 years! Upon his release, Mandela immediately went to work to negotiate a peaceful end to the apartheid system, and in 1994, because he was so loved and respected, he was elected president of South Africa; the first person of color to hold that office.
After 27 years of imprisonment, one might think that Mandela would hold something of a grudge. But that wasn’t the case. Following his release, he said “As I walked out the prison door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
And so, Nelson Mandela forgave those who imprisoned him. He let go of anger, and pain, and resentment, and he forgave.
Years after he had finished his term as president of South Africa, Mandela was asked why he could forgive. He replied that: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear.”
My friends, this is what grace looks like when it is lived out. This is grace upon grace, upon grace, upon grace. And when God’s grace is given this way, and when our lives are aligned with it, it cannot help but flow through us, and change the world around us to mirror God’s vision.
And let’s be honest: we don’t live in a particularly grace-full world right now. I’m not sure if it’s because of COVID, or racial tension, or social media, or political division, or all of the above; but it feels like our world reacts not out of grace, but out of anger, not out of grace, but out of suspicion; not out of grace, but out of pain and grief. The world needs the very grace that Jesus is talking about today. Grace upon grace upon grace. And God gives this grace.
But living and sharing that grace, is up to us. And this is hard. Because we know what’s going on inside of our heads and our hearts. We know the things we’ve done. We know the shadow side of ourselves. And it is really hard for us to believe that we are worthy of the unlimited love, forgiveness and grace that comes through Jesus.
And to be completely honest, we’re right. We’re not worthy. We’re not. We don’t deserve this grace. In this way, grace is fundamentally unfair.
- We deserve God’s wrath and we get God’s love
- We deserve punishment and we get forgiveness.
Again, Phillip Yancey says that “We don’t get what we deserve. The apostle Paul put it ironically, ‘The wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life.’ We work hard for wages, which vanish at death; we do nothing to deserve grace and get life eternal. If you want fairness,” Yancey says, “Christianity is not for you.”
The scriptures are full of unfair stories.
- It’s unfair that a human rights abuser like Saul receives forgiveness, and a new start.
- It’s unfair that a murderer and adulterer like King David receives forgiveness.
- It’s unfair that a thief, hanging on a cross next to Jesus is forgiven and promised eternal life, just minutes before his death.
Yes, grace is unfair…but God never promised you fair. No, God promised you love.
It’s simply…grace, and it’s because of Jesus. And because of this unfair, undeserved gift, we are free to live as God’s people, trusting in God. And we are free to serve the community around us.
Grace upon grace upon grace. It is for you. It is for our community. It is for the world. And the world…it desperately needs it; and God calls us to share the grace upon grace upon grace that we receive. And this, my friends, is our why.
Thanks be to God.