A sermon preached at St. John's, Portsmouth, January 2, 2000
We have survived Christmas, and the Y2K disaster was a very damp squib. So now we wonder what God has in mind for the year 2,000? The word I want to suggest is the word grace. "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14)
People love to sing John Newton's hymn "Amazing grace." But what does the word grace really mean? A good definition to begin with is "Grace is the giving of love without limit to those who don't deserve it." We can distinguish the sun as the source, and the rays of the sun being given all over the world. Similarly the love of God is the source and grace is all the particular expressions of that love that come and touch each one of us..
But then if grace is the expression of love, we wonder what love is. In modern English love has many meanings. We fall in love, we love Celine Dion, potato chips, surfing, and much else. I am going to define God's kind of love as "a genuine care from the freedom of the other at one's own cost." You can see that to some extent in marriage. A woman would enjoy a husband who really cared about her freedom. Loving parents may be tough at times but they long for their children to have the freedom they need to live their lives. Jesus said "if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). And a happy church congregation is where people genuinely care about the freedom of others. So my job is to help each one of you enjoy the freedom to love and worship God in your own way.
But how far is "love without limit" willing to go for the other's freedom? When she spoke at Queen's University a few years ago Virginia Mollenkott described it this way: "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more." Do you believe that, or do you think you need Brownie points to get God to love you a bit more? She then added , "and there is nothing you could ever do to make God love you less." Can you really believe that? As long as we are afraid our sin and failures might cut us off from the loving grace of God, we can never be free from the nagging guilt that eats away at our soul.
Does that mean anything goes? Do we love our children by letting them do whatever they please? Love includes the assigning of consequences. If we want our children to be free we have to assign consequences for behavior that would harm them or take away their freedom. The other day I heard of a father who rushed into heavy traffic to grab his little girl who was within inches of being killed by a truck. As he pulled her out, he said "never never do that again." If she stubbornly insisted on doing it again, he would make clear what consequences would be assigned. But leaving the girl to keep running across the road would certainly end any freedom she had.
If society is to enjoy any kind of genuine freedom we need a police force and judges and jails to assign consequences for behavior that would destroy us.
As humans the consequences we assign or don't assign may not be for the best. But in his reign as King of kings and Lord of lords the Son of God assigns the right consequences for certain kinds of behavior among nations, and churches, and families, and individuals. Those who sleep around or use each other's needles for heroin are likely to get AIDS. Dictators who oppress the poor and trample on the freedom of other, eventually get toppled. We may not understand some of the reasons for the disasters God allows in our world, but faith requires us to believe that our world is designed for our ultimate freedom. And when people do suffer the consequences of their bad behavior, Jesus does not stop loving them. As I said, "there is nothing you could ever do that would make God love you less."
Thirdly in the freeing of others grace is very costly for the gracious one. We defined it as "the giving of love without limit to those who don't deserve it." And when you love you always get hurt. Husbands are hurt by their wives, women are hurt by their husbands, Parents are hurt by their children, and children can be badly hurt by their parents. As humans when love gets too costly we always have the freedom to draw back. But God does not draw back from grace.
You remember the story of the prodigal son. The father gave the boy his share of the inheritance, and the boy behaved abominably. But every day the father was waiting and looking for him to come home. And when the father saw him afar off he ran and hugged him. He never said "son, why did you do this to me." He just gave him a great party. That father's love was very costly and the boy's elder brother did not like his father's graciousness. And the Pharisees certainly did not like Jesus' gracious love for sinners.
That gracious love of God did not begin when the Son of God took birth among us. You remember how our human story began when he wanted Adam and Even to come for a walk with Him, but they shrank away and refused his invitation. From the Old Testament to this day the Son of God has felt the hurt of humans rejecting him. And when you love totally, as Jesus did, and go about loving humans in our world, you are likely to get crucified. That is why the few hours on the cross on Good Friday are the visible expression of the continuing hurt of God as His love and grace is rejected by human sin.
Having experienced the grace of God, we slowly learn to become gracious. But our Christian life only begins growing when we finally decide that it is OK to be hurt. And that is especially true of learning to love others in our church congregation. We accept the fact that in caring for the freedom of others, we are going to be rejected, despised, and badly treated. And when it happens we do not get miffed and give up our loving.
As Paul said "By grace are you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). He also wrote "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1). As I preach among you, I am going to be inviting you again and again to rejoice in the loving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Not only the grace of forgiveness but the grace of being changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. He will keep loving you, even if you fail and behave abominably. But if you open your heart to his grace, you will in turn become gracious.
Then you can grasp the meaning of John Newton's hymn:
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound - that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
'tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home."