Westminster Presbyterian Church 

Washington, D.C.

"Rethinking Grace"

 Preached by Ruth Hamilton, Co-Pastor
Sunday, March 22, 1998

 

2 Corinthians: 12

 6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me,
7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.
8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,
9 but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Polls show that Americans favorite hymn is "Amazing Grace". 

Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

 This hymn about grace is a hymn about how we are saved--and that is a favorite topic. Soteriology, it is called in the academic world. Sort of a subcategory of theology, it is thinking about God but specifically thinking about how God saves. The words of this hymn are not just about how we are saved in the ultimate sense, for the hereafter, but how we are saved daily on the Way. Grace figures in both.

 But how does grace figure in? How do we understand and experience the work of grace? I would like to lift up three models, three primary ways we can understand the work of grace. A popular phrase in the church today is that Theology matters. Of course it matters, thinking itself matters. Because the way we think about the world directly relates to how we act in the world. Theology, as with all thinking, has consequences. And the way we think about grace, how we are saved, our soteriology, has consequences.

 The first model is reflected in the line of the hymn: Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come...tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home...

 Sometimes when driving through the city you will see a delightful sight. You will see a group of children, walking in pairs, with usually a woman in front and another in back. And when you look closely, you see that the children are not holding hands but they are holding onto a rope and they have been taught to hold onto that rope so that the teacher can lead them on their walk through the city with all its delights and dangers.

 In our first hymn [Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing] this morning we sang of this image, Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the Lord I love, bind my heart now like a fetter...

 Scripture uses many images to describe this experience of grace. God is the parent and we are the child, sometimes harshly disciplined but always loved. God is the master and we are the slaves. God is the shepherd and we are the sheep who go astray, whom God must come and find and carry us home. So many times in life, this rings true for us

. We feel as helpless as children, as lost as sheep, we would like someone just to tell us what to do, take away all our responsibility and live as a slave, we make so many mistakes when we get to make our own choices. 

The Hebrew for grace literally means "to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior". The Greek for grace is charis, from which we get our word "charity". This understanding of grace has its own consequences. It is when we accept our inferiority to God or even to the divine image in us that we can sing--amazing grace... that saved a wretch like me. This is what Calvin referred to as our total depravity. 

It is out of this thinking that Christians came to understand the crucifixion as Christ's atoning act for our sinfulness. Christ took on our wretchedness in order to save us from it. It was the only way Christians could understand why God would abuse his own child in this horrible death on the cross. It was an act of charity, God stooping down to save us all. Some feminists have concluded that it is this kind of thinking that leads to child abuse and the abuse of all positions of power. 

Ellen Charry, Assoc. Prof of Systematic Theology at Princeton, said at a seminar on Friday that this system of thinking has not provided us with a self that is spiritually noble enough to counteract the debilitating forces of culture. She joins others in claiming that Christian thinking about salvation has stayed too focused on Good Friday. She believes that this emphasis on a theology of the cross and the wretchedness of humanity, that is, Christianity's failure to provide a more noble spiritual self, is the reason behind the widespread resentment toward Christianity today.

 The first obvious response to this failing is to turn to an emphasis on the resurrection. And that is our second model for understanding grace--to use a theology of glory and an understanding of grace as the great reverser of conditions. I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see. Here, grace is the healer. Grace destroys death, the ultimate sickness. Grace is the victor in the battle.

 Many of you are enjoying the madness of March's college basketball tournament. March Madness is not only a clever use of consonance but as the commentators so often point out-- part of the madness are the numerous upsets that happen in the month. The unseeded teams that come from behind, that shock everyone, that make that unbelieveable game-winning three pointer with a second to go. This is the great theology of the victorious underdog, David against Goliath, Popeye against Bluto (sp?) and grace is the can of spinach that shows up at just the right moment.

 This is liberation theology at its best, the Song of Mary, God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, God has sent the rich empty away. The weak become strong.

 And you begin to see immediately the consequence of this way of thinking about grace. Grace has become a weapon. A weapon for battle, whether it's a battle against cancer, a battle against injustice, a battle against evil. In this model, grace always has an enemy. Grace in this sense always implies a loser. It is a Yes that always implies a consequent No. 

It is just such a theology of glory that fueled Nazi Germany and every other kind of ideology that would make itself king. This is what Paolo Freire was the first to so astutely point out--that the oppressed, that is the underdog, so internalizes the oppressor that once the oppressed gain power, they will without reflection and vigilance become oppressors themselves. So we begin to hate the underdog teams that start winning all the time!

 The apostle Paul wanted to be healed. He wanted to be able to boast about his great spiritual experiences. Wanted to be rid of the thorn in his flesh, what it was we don't exactly know, it was something that kept him from being too elated. But the answer he got to his prayers was this--My grace is sufficient, for my power is made perfect in weakness. People twist this around to justify grabbing more of the world's power, to justify reversing their conditions of weakness into positions of power, yet the answer to Paul's persistent prayer was really more like the old prophetic saying: Beat your swords into plowshares, your spears into pruning hooks.

 Lay down your sword and shield, down by the riverside, where life flows by. The world may invite you to war, but you don't have to go. What a difficult, almost impossible idea to imagine. 

What would grace mean if we had no enemies, what would grace mean if there was nothing to win? Would it mean peace?

 It would mean another way--a third way-- to understand and experience the saving work of grace. The way comes not from a focus on either the cross or the risen, glorified Christ, but rather from a focus on the incarnation itself.

 The proclamation of Christianity, the fact that we claim, is that God has not stayed far away, God did not set the world in motion then stand back to watch, nor did God simply call a people and give a law, a manual for use, no, the proclamation of Christianity is that God drew near, and that in Jesus of Nazareth, God became flesh and pitched a tent alongside ours, full of grace and truth, John says.

You probably know Elder.............., she is a lesbian and she had started the process toward becoming an Inquirer regarding ministry of Word and Sacrament in the PCUSA. After a year of seminary study and fulfilling various requirements, and in light of the defeat of Amendment A, ...came to the decision to remove herself from the Inquiry process. She shared a moving statement with the Session and the Presbytery committee about why she made the decision. Her choice was based in large part on a theology of incarnation and embodiment. As a whole person she must be able to live with integrity and she feels that a direct confrontation with the denomination is not what she wants or it needs at this point in her life. That she would rather spend her time studying and working positively toward the fulfillment of her calling. That the defeat of A may have been an invitation to war, but that she doesn't have to go. It was a very difficult decision to make. 

Our final hymn today is the great tune, Lead On, O king eternal. Those of you who know the original text might remember that although it points to images of the march and the battle, it does so to point out the irony that in Christ, any victories that are won are won by acts of kindness and mercy, not by swords and guns. I chose the text today written by Ruth Duck in 1974--because she captures some of the sense of this third way of thinking about our salvation. The journey is our home. 

Can we affirm that there is a saving grace in the walk of life itself? In this image, Jesus is not primarily master or healer, but Jesus is brother, the firstborn of all creation, but our brother none the less, the one who said to the disciples , "I no longer call you servants, I call you friends." 

The walk of Christ is a beautiful one, it is so beautiful when you look at it, and when Christ invites us to follow him, he means for us to join him on the journey. It is not a journey whose destination is the cross. He says rather, pick up your cross daily and follow me. That is, that this journey is full of little deaths, Judith Viorst called them, necessary losses, and to continue the walk means a willingness to let go of many things, many parts of ourselves. But the walk is less about death and more about life, and the fullness of it. Again, John said, from Christ's fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 

In this image, grace is not so much a cry for help, or a shout of victory, as much as it is a song of praise and thanksgiving. So we say our grace before meals. And when we've been walking for 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we'll have no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun.

The hurting child in us will need the image of grace that comes from the good shepherd. And when we experience oppression and injustice, we may find the image of battle to be helpful.

But as Christ's friends, as citizens of the earth, as those who believe that the realm of God is in our midst, for us, grace may never mean more or less than Jesus invitation: Follow me. This is enough. This grace is sufficient.

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