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God in His Grace

When that Pharisee asked Jesus, "Which is the great commandment in the law?" Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." Had Jesus stopped there, the lawyer would have been happy, and you and I would have been given an easier theology. But Jesus went on to say, "And a second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"

It leaves us with an embarrassing concreteness to our religion. If you were to ask passersby on the street, "Do you love God, with your heart and soul and mind?" I suspect the vast majority would say, "Well yes, sure! Of course I love God." But if you got specific and asked those same passersby if they love the homeless, the hungry, the illegal immigrant, the poor, the shiftless, and the ignorant, you'd likely get a different answer. There was always a specificity to Jesus' ministry. He didn't go about "saving" people in some abstract sense; he saved people from specific sins. He ministered to each one according to his or her need.

He saved Zacchaeus from greed, Mary from prostitution, James and John from self-centered ambition, the woman at the well from meaningless relationships, Peter from elitist religion and Paul from legalism. He turned all those lives around; he did it through grace offered and grace received; most of all he met their specific needs through specific grace that yielded specific salvations. For Jesus, love was not an abstract noun but an active verb. So the codicil Jesus added to the Great Commandment, "despiritualized" the law and brought it down to earth.

A religious zealot on a bus once said to me, "Brother, are you saved?" Quite righteously I replied, "If I'm not, what are you going to do about it?" He said, "I'm going to save you." I countered: "No, you're not. Only God can save." Of course I was right, theologically speaking; yet there is a sense in which we can be saviors to one another's failings. When love gets specific, then we are carriers of the grace of God. When we're in trouble, and call a friend for help, the words we welcome is when that friend says, "I'll be right over!" The essence of Christmas is the Incarnation, God with us. Before the sun sets tonight you may meet someone who needs your grace. Will you give it? Will you love your neighbor as yourself?

During Advent we sing, "Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love divine; Love shall be our token, Love be yours and Love be mine---Love to God and all men, Love for plea and gift and sign." Many will not know the grace of God if they can't see it in you and me.

What is this LOVE THAT CAME DOWN AT CHRISTMAS? First, grace is love utterly undeserved, unmerited, unearnable, and unexpected. It is not a reward for good behavior or anything else. It is utterly unlike the little schoolgirl's definition of sharing as, "what you have to do when the teacher's watching!" In fact, grace is not anything you can do much about at all. Our text says, "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins." It's something initiated by God, not something sent by the persistence of our prayers

So often we hear the Gospel preached backwards: "Believe in Jesus Christ, keep the commandments, live a moral life, give up your bad habits -- and God will send you his grace." It's not that way at all. God has already sent the grace, -- and at Christmas we hear this story, this truth. God has already come down out of the abstract into the concrete -- that's the Gospel. The Gospel question, then, is "Have you accepted your acceptance?" It's not a reward for anything you've done or can do. Rather, it calls for your decision not only to love God in the abstract, but to do love in the concrete here and now.

Second, grace is divine mercy, not good luck. I find it curious that we call the prayer before a meal "grace." "Grace" before meals can be simply a recitation of our "good luck." "Thank you, Lord, for the abundance of this table, for our good health, our nice kids, our new car -- and oh yes, Lord, we pray for those less fortunate, Amen." Grace is not good luck. It is the shower of blessings that sustains our lives. Someone has noted that when calamity strikes us we're apt to say, "Why me?" But when we make a whole in one we think, "Why not me?" Christmas is our yearly reminder that all of life is lived within the gracious boundaries of divine love.

Third, grace is expensive. The grace of God is free, but never cheap. God paid a dear price for the grace we take for granted. It's easy to confuse grace with good fortune and our own hard work. When you tour the churches and cathedrals and art galleries of Europe, you can take only so much of them at once. You are almost overcome, strangled, choked by the endless crucifixes, Christ forever frozen in that awful moment of agony. They shout to us: GRACE IS NOT CHEAP! The "love that came down at Christmas" was no sentimental, "sweet little Jesus boy" love, not just "baby Jesus in the manger," not "Jesus meek and mild" love---but EXPENSIVE, AGONY ON THE CROSS, BETRAYED-BY-FRIENDS love.

Grace may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it. It was grace that the senior felt at the final football game of his high school career. His team trailed 12 to 7. In the closing moments of the last quarter he went out for a pass. There were no tacklers around him; the goal line was only five yards away. If he caught the pass, his team would win, and not only win, but go on to the championship games. The quarterback threw the ball, a perfect strike -- but it bounced off his chest and fell to the ground. The crack of the gun signaled the end of the game. It was all over. He had let down his team, his coach, his school. He went to the locker room, spoke to no one, showered and dressed, and walked slowly up the darkened ramp to go home. As he neared the top he saw a figure silhouetted against the opening. It was his father. He could not speak to his dad nor did his dad speak to him. He had come to walk with his son. It was an expensive grace for them both, but it was grace, the grace of understanding and of caring and of shared pain.

You see, just as Jesus' salvation was always specific to the need of the individual, so is grace. The situation defines what form grace must take. As Ecclesiastes said, "There is a time for everything under the sun." Sometimes it is just being there when someone is hurting. Sometimes it is to tell a friend the truth, even when it hurts. Sometimes, it is to be a good and willing listener.

There are two ways we can miss Christmas this year. First, by secularizing the season into oblivion. I don't need to belabor this; it's all around us and we see it daily though I often think of that man standing with his friend on Fifth Avenue in new York, his friend bemoaning the awful traffic jams that Yuletide brings. "Ah, yes," replied his companion, "but there is something astounding that it's all caused because a tiny baby was born in an unknown city centuries ago, in a stable and laid in a feeding trough -- traffic yes, but there's mystery here, too." But we can lose the mystery of it in the madness of it. Take time to hear the angels sing this year. The greatest gift was not wrapped in shiny paper but swaddling clothes.

Second, we can also miss Christmas by spiritualizing it, that is, by supposing it has to do only with a holy child, born long ago and far away. We spiritualize Christmas when we see it only as a tradition, a pious memory from long ago. The problem with that is that then we are apt to keep only the Great Commandment to love God with heart, mind, soul -- and ignore that companion commandment to do love, to love neighbor as self. If you and I simply come to the Christmas Eve services, immerse ourselves in their beauty, marvel at the music, thank God for our good luck -- we will return home unchanged, and we will have cheapened the costly grace of the Lord. Christmas Eve is not a show but a humble acceptance, not only of God's love to us, but of God's command to make love visible, to "exhibit the Kingdom to the world," to serve those God loves by housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and working for justice for all people.

"In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us...beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought love one another." When we finally do that, we'll know at last God in his grace. Amen.