Hang around almost any church in America and it won’t be very long until you hear something said about the grace of God. It’s one of the most cherished and fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith and yet this grace is a scandal.*
Grace is Much Deeper, More Earthy
You see, though salvation is by the grace of God, grace is much deeper and more earthy than a few hymns and a doctrinal statement. The grace of God is rooted in and finds its grandest expression in the incarnation of God… in the Son of God, this Galilean born in Nazareth among a barn, born to a mother whose unwed pregnancy stirred enough scandal all by itself.
We know him as Jesus, the Messiah. We believe in him. We pray in his name, sing praises about him, and apparently we’ll even rent out entire theaters to watch movies made about him. I guess you can say that we love the stories told about Jesus, the ones in the Bible. In fact, every preacher knows that he or she can’t go wrong in preaching about Jesus. After all, we’re Christians… We have a friend in Jesus, who all of our sins and griefs to bear
We adore Jesus and we adore all those stories we’ve read about Jesus in the Bible. We hear the stories of Jesus driving out demons, healing a leper, feeding five-thousand hungry mouths, eating lunch with sinners and tax-collectors, forgiving a woman caught in adultery, washing the feet of his friend-become-enemy named Judas Iscariot, and even promising paradise to the condemned criminal as Jesus himself was being crucified… And our hearts melt! When Jesus spoke from the cross and said, “Father, forgive them…” (Lk 23:34), we hear his grandest expression of love and mercy. For even as he was dying a cruel and shameful and death he didn’t deserve, he never abandoned the character of God’s grace.
The Apostle Paul wrote that even as we were “sinners” and “enemies” of God, Jesus died for us to save us (cf. Rom 5:8, 10). We love it, cherish it, stake our faith upon it. When it comes to us, we’re never beyond the reach of God’s grace and mercy. It’s not that we think we’re somehow deserving of God’s grace. We just know how much we need the grace of God, so we relish in knowing that God loves us and is merciful to us from the boundless riches of his grace.
But what about the other person whose sins are different than ours, whose struggles are more apparent than ours, whose life is much more of a mess than ours? What happens when we encounter a homeless veteran who only knows how to numb his pain with lots of drugs and alcohol? What happens when we encounter a flamboyant LGBTQ person suffering from AIDS who’s angry towards Christians because of the rejection he or she encountered among the church of their youth when they were struggling with their sexual identity? What happens when we encounter our Muslim neighbor whose ideological outlook on life appears unAmerican? What happens when that family whose skin color differs from ours, whose language isn’t American English, moves into the neighborhood bringing with them their culture from back home?
This is where the test of how well we really embrace the grace of God is proved. But truly embracing the grace of God is not something all Christians have an interest in doing. Some will go to great lengths to evade practicing the same grace they revel in as believers. When it comes to showing mercy, loving one’s neighbor and even their enemy, and practicing hospitality with the stranger whose sin is reviling, some Christians turn to their ever handy and favorite ad hoc proof-texts from the Bible. With their favorite proof-text in mind and coupled with a big dose of utilitarian reasoning, they dismiss the example Jesus lived – this life we are called to follow Jesus in living. I even heard one Christian point to King David from the Old Testament, as though we’re called to follow David rather than Jesus… as though the example of David is greater than the example of Jesus.
This is malarkey! When we resort to such evasive tactics, we become like the Pharisees and other religious authorities of Jesus’ day who knew their Bibles well but missed the very heart of God revealed in Jesus. The grace of God, which is most palpably expressed in the life Jesus lived, must transform our character so that we learn to think, speak, and act with love and mercy towards others regardless of what condition or decisions they have made in life. When it doesn’t, then the scandal of God’s grace apparently becomes too big of a scandal for even us to embrace.
* This same article was originally published in Connecting 29 (June 4, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.