At age seventeen, she learned that she had diabetes and that it was of such severity, she would probably not live many more years. In spite of that prognosis, she had taken good care of herself in the ensuing years, living far longer than anyone had expected. But now, at age 58 she was dying.
She was one of the finest people I ever knew: loving wife and mother, active in the church and community, fun friend who loved to dance and send out birthday cards, a person who prayed constantly for others, someone whose faith was central to her life. But in the hospital ICU, moments before she died, she told me, “Pastor, I’m such a terrible sinner.”
As I probed that statement, I learned of no sin left unconfessed on her part, just a gnawing sense of inadequacy, of failure as a human being now haunting her on her deathbed.
I talked with her about God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor and love, given to us through Jesus. She was too weak even to open her eyes. And yet, as we discussed grace—as I tried to give it to her in her last moments--she seemed to recognize it, to see it, to remember it like a forgotten friend.
Often in the frenzy of daily life I forget grace. I can get so concerned about what others think of me, see in me, or judge about me, that I forget that Jesus Christ already was born for me, already lived for me, died for me, and rose for me. I can become so obsessed with whether I’m contributing, producing, taking care of my family and friends, and being a responsible person that I forget that performance isn’t the measure of a life. I forget that if we let grace soak into our lives, God’s grace will flood in us and from us.
Last week, we said that solid relationships are built, first of all, on our commitments and promises to others, all of which are built on God’s commitments and promises to us. Those commitments and promises are what the Bible means when it talks about covenants.
The next ingredient in the Bible’s recipe for our relationships is grace. Grace, which in the New Testament Greek is charitas, from which we get the English word charity, is the power that makes it possible for us to keep our covenant promises. As we have been charitably graced by God, we are to grace others.
But grace isn’t something we can generate. In our second Bible lesson for tonight, Paul begins his joyful letter to the church in the city of Philippi, written as he was being imprisoned for his faith in Christ, by telling the church there how grateful he is for them because, “you hold me in your heart…you share in God’s grace with me.”
Then he writes, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Paul’s prayer was that the grace of God, already something that the Philippian Christians enjoyed, would grow in them, so that through them, the whole world would experience what it means to be accepted and loved not for what they do, but solely for being children of God.
Paul had reason to believe that his prayer would be answered. A few years before, on what scholars call his “second missionary journey,” he and his companions had started the Philippian church. People who had once been hostile, unknowing, or indifferent toward the gospel of Christ had been transformed by God’s grace. They had been changed so much, in fact, that when they learned that Paul had gotten into trouble with the law and was imprisoned, they sent him a financial gift. Grace begets grace, it seems, setting off a chain reaction of love that can transform people’s lives. Paul knew that.
Grace then, isn’t an abstract philosophical concept. God didn’t stand far off in heaven and tell us, “I love you.” Instead, God got involved with the human race:
- God wrestled with Jacob.
- God gave Israel a covenant and a promised land.
- God chastised David when David fell into sin and restored David when he repented.
- When God came to the world in the person of Jesus, He wept for the dying, fed the hungry, healed the hurting, forgave the sinful.
- God went to a cross, suffered, and died, then ate fish on the seashore with the disciples after He rose from the dead.
God calls and empowers us to do the same with the people with whom we share our lives: our spouses, friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and even the people with whom we are part of Christ’s body, the Church. And grace, when shared, transforms the way we live our lives.
Pastor Roger Sonnenberg retells the story of a “husband and wife who no longer loved each other. The man had grown paranoid over the years and had become extremely demanding of his wife. He even prepared a list of rules and regulations for her to follow. At times, he even insisted she read them out loud to him so that she understood them exactly as he meant them so that she would obey them to the letter…. After many long years, the husband died. Shortly afterwards, the woman fell in love with another man and married him. This man was totally different. He loved her, making no demands at all. He did everything he could to make his new wife happy, always affirming her with accolades and [gestures of appreciation.] One day as she was cleaning house, [the woman] found one of the old lists of demands made by her first husband. With tears in her eyes, she began to read the list, but then suddenly realized she was doing everything her first husband's list demanded. This time, however, she was doing what she was doing to please her husband, not because of demand or obligation.”
How can we create grace-filled, assuring, life-giving relationships with others?
- We begin with the God we know in Christ, the God Who came right down into our lives on Christmas in order to give grace to us.
- Then, we ask God—actually ask God—to help us display grace, to live grace, toward others.
- And then, we actually dare to give grace to others.
Ginger Johnson Broslat tells about going to what’s called “the world’s largest nativity scene” at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. (Where our youth group will be going this summer for the Week of Hope mission trip.) The nativity scene was made up of large crystalline sculptures that are brightly illuminated. As Broslat notes, “In sharp contrast to this impressive display, the humble story of Christ’s birth…” is retold, “reminding all…of the humility of our Savior, born in a…stable.”
“But,” she says, “in the eyes of a two-year-old, a baby in a crystal blanket is just as much baby Jesus as one made of construction paper and cotton balls in Sunday School. Any way you look at it, baby Jesus is reborn every day when the heart is touched by the story of his birth.” She then explains: “At the end of the presentation spectators were invited to take a closer look…Brooke [the two-year-old]…ran over to the manger, her eyes wide, fixed on the baby. As she gazed, her little body dropped to its knees and her mouth opened in awe. She held her hand to her heart, eyes sparkling with joy as she looked up at me and whispered, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know.’”
That is the message of Christmas and the message of grace: God came into our world in the person of Jesus to give us grace, His unmerited favor, and He can help us to live out that same awe-inspiring grace in our everyday lives and in our everyday relationships. We turn to God in repentance and ask for His grace. We ask God to help us share grace. And then, we dare to share grace with others.
May we rely on God to help us to do just that in all our relationships.