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The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg

The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg is the Immediate Past President of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, and was Moderator of the 210th General Assembly. He is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Presbyterian Church (USA)


Grace

Matthew 2:1-10

October 27, 1996

On this Sunday when we celebrate the Protestant Reformation, I want to lift up the one word that is the most important word in the Protestant vocabulary. It is the word "GRACE". From the Protestant perspective, if you want one word that says it all, one word that describes the essence of the news, it is the word "grace". And today, on this Reformation Sunday, I simply want to remind you of the richness of this foundation word.

Grace! We read of it in Scripture, we sing of it in church, we hear the word in sermons, but what is it? Perhaps most of us would respond that the closest synonym for the word "grace" is the word "love". And we are right, of course, but there is a danger here, for "love" is a very slippery word today and can mean a variety of things.

You see, the word "grace" is needed because it refers to a special, specific, distinctive kind of love -- the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the Christian community, there is a sense in which we can never talk about grace in the abstract, for grace, in the Christian context, is very specific; it is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is defined by WHO he is, or better, by WHAT he does. He is the one who transforms grace from an idea, an abstract concept, into a reality. He embodies it, he incarnates it. He defines it.

And when we look to him, we discover that "grace" is closely akin to the word "free." The Latin picks this connection up in its word "gratia" meaning grace, and "gratis" meaning free. So let's connect these two words and use one as the key to unlock the other.

I. GOD'S LOVE FREELY GIVEN
In the first place, GRACE IS THE LOVE OF GOD REVEALED IN JESUS CHRIST WHICH IS FREE -- ABSOLUTELY GRATIS!

Now, if there is one thing which Paul tried to drive home over and over again, it is this point: God's gracious love is free. In Ephesians he writes: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, but the gift of God." [Ephesians 2:8] It was hard for his readers to understand and accept because most of them came from a religious background which underlined the importance of keeping the law to merit the love of God. It was hard for Martin Luther to understand and accept because he was told by his church that he could become justified before God and cleansed of guilt by doing certain things to make himself more pleasing to God: become a monk, pray more, fast longer, go on a pilgrimage, and he did all that. But it didn't work. No matter how much he did, he felt he hadn't done enough. But then, in reading the book of Romans, he discovered that while he could do nothing about his problem God had done everything. In other words, he had discovered the reality of grace, God's love freely given in spite of our unworthiness.

It was hard for Paul to accept; it was hard for Luther to accept; and it is hard for us to accept because we are nurtured in a culture in which you work for what you get, and you get what you earn, and you don't get something for nothing.

And that is precisely opposite of what grace is. It comes from the gracious freedom of God, and is freely given to all humankind. It is entirely undeserved, unconditional; you can never work for it, or ever earn it. It is a gift rather than a reward, and no moral or spiritual merit badges will win it. The idea of grace and merit are mutually exclusive and completely contradictory, and must be torn apart in our thinking. Grace is the free, undeserved love of God which comes to us even in the depths of the most heinous sin, the most horrible despair, or the most total alienation. It is God's unconditional acceptance of you and me even though we are totally unacceptable. It is a gift; it is freely given. That's the gospel! Thanks be to God!

II. GOD'S LOVE THAT SETS US FREE
But let me push it a bit further and suggest that GRACE IS THE FREE LOVE OF GOD REVEALED IN JESUS CHRIST WHICH CAN SET US FREE. It has the power to give new life, to liberate you, to set you free from whatever imprisons you and keeps you from being the person God intended you to be and live the life God wants for you.

Now, certainly there is a sense in which the experience of grace is once and for all. Once you've accepted it through faith, trusting in it, once you've discovered it, or it's discovered you, you'll never let it go; it is with you always. But there is another sense in which we are always rediscovering it, every day encountering new reflections of it which keep transforming us and freeing us.

Let us describe it this way: Because of that free, unconditional love of God -- because of grace -- we find ourselves free from that burden of guilt that has weighed upon our hearts -- such is a moment of grace. Because of God's grace, there are times when we are set free from the need to be someone we are not, free from living according to other's expectations of us, free to accept ourselves because we are accepted by a loving God, the ground of being, free to be ourselves: such is a moment of grace.

There are those beautiful moments of reconciliation, when the gulf between persons is bridged and we can listen and share and commune, when life touches life at its deepest level, when reunion occurs -- such is a beautiful moment of grace. Because of God's grace, there are times when the old insecurities and feelings of inferiority and self-contempt that have imprisoned us are suddenly dispelled: such is a moment of grace. There are times when after many stale and stagnant years, you start growing again, living again, seeing things in color again: such is a moment of grace.

Yes, no matter who you are, no matter where you are in life, no matter what your history or hang-ups may be, or how heavy the load you carry, "His grace is sufficient" to set us free. That's what Paul discovered, and that's what we can discover too.

III. LOVE GIVEN FREELY -- WITHOUT PATTERNS
Finally, may I suggest that THIS GRACE OF GOD IS UNPREDICTABLE, WITHOUT SET AND PRESCRIBED PATTERNS.

That's the trouble with it, and it's also the glory of it. We can't make it happen. There is no formula for it. It is not under our control.

God is free to give evidence of it when and where and how God wills. We cannot domesticate it. It comes sometimes when you are least expecting it, popping up in the most unlikely places. Someone has said: "Grace is insidious. When you think it will come from the right, it comes from the left. When you think it will come from the left, it comes from the right."

Who would have thought its highest and fullest expression would have come in a little baby born in a smelly barn of peasant parents! What a shock!

Who would have expected it in such an unlikely spot as an ugly cross outside the city gates? What a surprise!

Yes, you may discover it reading the Bible -- many Christians have. But you might find it first reading something else, and later find its fullness in the Bible.

You may discover grace in your prayers -- many Christians do. But, you might discover it also talking to a friend.

You may discover it in church around the Lord's Table in a broken piece of bread and a cup of wine -- many Christians have found it there. But you may also discover it drinking a cup of tea or coffee with someone at a kitchen table Monday evening.

You may encounter it in your church -- I trust you do. But you may discover it in a sense of wonder as you walk through the beauty of God's creation.

You may discover it, or it may discover you, when your heart is bursting with joy. But you might encounter it when your heart is heavy with sorrow or despair or self­-disgust.

Yes, it's focused in Jesus Christ; but still it's all around us; we're surrounded by it. So look for it, listen for it, and sometimes when you least expect it, it is as though a voice were saying "Yes" to your life. "You are loved, you are affirmed, you are set free." Accept it, embrace it, trust in it, and let it penetrate every fiber of your being and let it make a difference in every aspect of your life.

If, in some way, something like that has happened to you, then you have been struck by grace. 'AMAZING' is the only way to describe it, and 'GRATITUDE' embodied, lived in a grateful and grace-­full life -- is the only appropriate response!


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