Grace

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on September 12, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, we’re so grateful that you are a gracious God, that your love is exceeding, that you are slow to anger, that you are merciful and kind, Lord, and we know that this is not the way that many people perceive you, and we know that sometimes even among ourselves we struggle to remember these things about you, Lord, but I pray that you would continue to bear with us, that you would continue to be patient and gracious with us, that you would continue to be ever-loving toward the world, that your nature would push us and drive us and call us to participate in your mission of love so that we can be love to our communities, our neighbors, our families, so that we can build and create out of that love every moment of every day, Lord, so that our lives can be part of making the world better instead of being part of oppressing people and hurting people.

Open our eyes and our ears more and more to that every day, Lord. Help us to continue to be grateful and to remind ourselves to be grateful and to express our gratitude about the way that you love us so that we can remember to be like you, so that we can remember to reflect the love of Jesus, so that we can remember to pursue you and listen carefully for the Holy Spirit and those movements of love in our lives everyday.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

We’re going to do things just a little bit differently this morning, because what I want to preach about — what I want to talk about this morning — is directly related, is going to be directly related, to our Lord’s Supper meditation. I think it’s important to remind ourselves periodically about the nature of the Lord’s table, the nature of communion, and the nature of what it is that we remember when we do those things.

So, welcome this morning, again, for tuning in with us. I think I had the mic off in the beginning, but thank you for joining us, and thank you for being here, and I want to remind you up front that the Lord loves you, and the Lord is not waiting for you to be a better person in order to share in that love and to accept that love and be part of God’s kingdom.

That’s what we’re going to talk about this morning. We want to talk about the word “grace,” but I don’t want to talk about… I don’t want to examine what grace is in the Bible, so we’re going to get that part out of the way in the beginning and talk about the definition of grace, because what I really want to talk about is how grace seems to function and what I think that implies for us as Christians in the way that we approach God.

Grace is a gift. If you examine the words that we translate into grace, you get this sense of giftedness. You get the sense of something being given freely as a gift, and the nature of a gift is that it’s undeserved. The nature of a gift is that you didn’t earn it. We don’t have our children earn their birthday gifts. If we can give them birthday gifts, then generally parents give them birthday gifts.

There are some things in our culture where we sort of do it backwards. Christmas is a good example. We try to use Christmas gifts as a way of convincing our children to behave throughout the year. Right? Santa’s watching you, checks his list, he checks it twice; going to find out if you’re naughty or nice. That kind of thing.

So we do use gifts that way, but those aren’t really gifts, then. They’re not really gifts if they’re earned. They’re payment. They’re wages. A worker gets paid for the work that he does, and we use that as a way to convince people to do things. Sometimes we don’t call them wages. Sometimes we call them rewards, but they’re the same thing. Functionally, they’re compensation for our actions. They’re compensations for our behavior. They’re compensation for our accomplishments.

Grace is not a compensation. When we talk about grace in scripture, it’s not given because we earned it. It’s not given because of works. It’s not given because we deserved it, and that’s true of anywhere that you’re going to find grace in scripture. Godly grace is given as a gift.

This is why we talk about people being gracious. Gracious people are people who do things for us that we don’t think we deserve or that we objectively don’t deserve, and it’s one of the reasons why we are so resistant, I think, to the idea of grace as Americans. As Americans, we don’t like the idea of not being independent. We don’t like the idea of not being an individual who can do everything for ourselves, because that’s what we’re taught by our cultures in the West — that we have to be self-sufficient. We have to be everything for ourselves.

We have to be our own tax person. We have to be our own financial advisor. We have to be our own money maker and provider. We have to be our own homeowner and landlord. We have to be our own everything. We have to be our own personal trainer. We have to be our own dietitian. We have to be knowledgeable about everything. Otherwise, we fall short somewhere.

For many people who are underprivileged, it’s a luxury to have other people do these things for us, and we’re taught that that’s not how it should be. Or, I’m sorry, we’re taught that it is how it should be — that we should be able to afford for other people to come in — but the reality for many people is that that’s not the way that they live, and we’re stopped from asking for help. We’re shamed when we ask for help…[the audio seems to have dropped]…ask for help, because we should be independent and self-sufficient, and because of that, we fail to grasp the graciousness that we find in scripture, because we fail to grasp grace even in our own lives from other people. We resist it. We feel shame when people are gracious to us and give us things we don’t deserve.

More than that, we become embittered when people show grace to others, because we’ve been taught that justice is not gracious. There is no justice in grace. There is no justice in mercy. Justice is punishment and consequence, and when we view justice that way, there’s no room for grace, so we then become bitter when we think somebody deserves something and they get something they don’t deserve. When others are gracious to others, we become spiteful.

So that’s what grace is. Grace is the free gift, and we find ourselves often in our cultures, here in America, resistant to that grace, and that’s the way I want to approach this topic and the way that it functions in scripture.

If we look at John chapter one, we find John’s introduction to his gospel and the introduction of Jesus as the Word. In John chapter one, in verse 14, he writes,

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received [grace upon grace]*. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

John 1:14-18, NIV
*my words; NIV says, “grace in place of grace already given.”

Now, what’s interesting to me about this, concerning grace, is the way that he emphasizes, repeatedly, the grace that comes through Jesus Christ. Not only does he come full of grace and truth, but through him we receive grace upon grace. Your translation might say grace in place of grace already given, or it might say grace and more grace, or something along those lines. The idea is that it piles on. It’s just stacked on — grace and then grace and then grace — and when it gets replaced by something, it’s just replaced by more grace. And then he says that Jesus brings grace and truth — that they come through Jesus, in verse 17 — and then Jesus reveals God.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

John 1:17-18, NIV

That’s one paragraph. Those aren’t separate thoughts. This isn’t like Proverbs, where we’re going to say one thing and then we’re going to say something completely unrelated. This is one thought. Grace and truth come through Jesus. Nobody has seen God, but Jesus reveals God. In other words, it is the grace and truth, the reception upon grace upon grace that comes through the Son, that reveals the Father, that reveals the nature of who God is.

This is in keeping with what he says in John 3:16, which most of us know. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, etc. Grace and truth come through Jesus, and we receive grace upon grace, and he is full of grace and truth, and in that, it is revealed to us: God.

So God is a God of grace, and that means that God is a God who gives freely, and Romans corroborates this. If we look over at Romans chapter 3, Paul speaks along these same lines. Paul talks about the way that we’re justified but not just justified through our actions, or rather, not justified through our actions, at all, but justified through our faith. In Romans chapter 3 and verse 21, it says,

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26, NIV

He says in verse 24 that we are justified by his grace.

All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:24, NIV

This is different than what you might have heard growing up or might have heard taught to you on the street, or if you’ve been part of many Bible studies, this might be different than what you’ve been taught. Or, you might have heard these words but never had anybody linger here, because it’s often overshadowed by the expectation that you will be or do something specific, but Paul says that the thing that brings Jews and Gentiles together — the things that bring those Jewish believers who accept Jesus as the Messiah and those Gentile believers who accept Jesus as the Messiah — the thing that brings those two groups of people together is that grace that they have both received through Jesus that is their redemption. It is that grace that justifies them. It’s not something that they earned. The Gentiles don’t earn it by becoming like the Jews, and the Jews don’t earn it by becoming like the Gentiles.

We receive our redemption through Jesus by faith in Jesus and as a gift — a free gift of God — that makes us who we are, that brings us in, and more than that, he talks about righteousness. That word “righteousness,” man, I don’t like that word. Righteousness doesn’t mean anything to people, anymore, and I don’t think it ever really did mean anything to people before. We tend to imagine righteousness as “rightness” or goodness, but that’s so ambiguous. Righteousness in the Bible comes from words that mean justice and equity. Righteousness in the Bible is about justice, and he says over and over again in this passage “the righteousness we have received” and “the righteousness of God.” In verse 21,

Now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Romans 3:21-22a, NIV

And if we replace the word righteousness with justice and equity, we get a very different sense of what Paul is saying here. This justice that’s been revealed to us — that’s been made known to us — this justice is given through faith in Jesus Christ and to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance, he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.

You might be thinking to yourself, “How is it justice that they went unpunished? How is it justice that they were then atoned for without punishment?” Yet, he says, in verse 26, he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

This is God’s justice: God’s justice is God’s grace, and God’s grace is a gift freely given. He left the sins unpunished so that he could give real justice by allowing grace through Jesus Christ for the redemption of everyone, or as John put it, he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believed in him would not perish but have eternal life. That’s God’s justice. God’s justice is God’s grace, and God who has no grace has no justice, in the Biblical sense, and the implication there for us as people who claim to be followers of God is that we have to have justice graciously for the people around us.

In other words: being merciful, and we all know Micah — that passage in Micah that says, “This is what I desire from you: love mercy, do justice, walk humbly with your God.” If we’re going to take those seriously, then we have to accept grace as a reality, and if we’re not going to accept grace as a reality that comes from God, we can’t take God seriously when it talks about this stuff in Romans, when it talks about grace and truth coming through Jesus in John — we have to throw out half the New Testament, at least, if we’re not going to take the grace of God seriously.

And that doesn’t just mean for others. It does mean not being bitter when other people receive grace through others. It does mean not being spiteful when we think somebody deserves punishment and then don’t get it, but it also means you have to receive grace for yourself. You have to be willing to allow grace to come to you as something undeserved — as a gift — and not berate yourself or be resistant because you think you’re not worthy.

Grace is about allowing people the dignity to be human and the joy of being human without the expectation that they will conform to your expectations. He continues in Romans chapter 3 and verse 27:

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.

Romans 3:27-31, NIV

It is the law that justifies by faith that renders boasting excluded. He says why is boasting excluded? Boasting is excluded because we are justified by faith and because all have sinned, which is what he said in verse 23. Because everybody has sinned, nobody gets to boast. You can’t boast of your own forgiveness. You can’t boast of your own redemption. You can’t boast of who you are, that you’re better than anyone else. You can’t boast in anything, and in another place, Paul says, “If I boast in anything, I’ll boast in Christ.” There’s nothing else to boast in, because everything we have is a gift of God. Everything we have — if we’re going to call ourselves saved, if we’re going to call ourselves redeemed — it all has to be grace. That’s what Paul keeps reiterating here, and he says for the Jews and the Gentiles, those who received the law and those who didn’t receive the law, both are justified through faith. Both are saved through grace. Both received redemption through Jesus Christ by the grace of God.

The Jewish Christians were coming into Rome, and they were saying to the Gentile Christians, “You can’t do things the way that you’re doing them.” They were trying to pressure them into conformity. They were saying, “Your expression of Christian faith isn’t good enough to justify you before God. You have to do it this way. You have to look this way and act this way and carry these traditions, including circumcision, if you want to be acceptable to God,” because that’s what God had told them to do in the Old Testament.

Paul comes in and says, “You can’t expect somebody else to look like you and say that that’s what saves them,” and how many of you have heard that? How many of you have been part of communities of Christ that said salvation can be yours if — if you look like us, if you do what we do, if you do it the way we tell you to do it, if you believe what we tell you to believe — then you can be saved, then you can be welcomed, then you can receive the grace of God. But that’s not grace!

It’s not grace if you have to earn it through what you do, so Paul says real grace — the grace of God that’s revealed to us as the justice of God — comes through belief in Jesus. He says that doesn’t mean that we throw everything else out. It doesn’t mean that we can justify doing whatever we want, just like it says later in the New Testament: you can’t just have faith and not do any works. But, the works come with the faith. They’re not the reason for our salvation. We’re not saved because of what we did. We do what we do because we know Jesus.

The love of God is supposed to reign in our lives because we know God, not before we know God, and if you go into Christian communities and they tell you you have to do these things before you’re acceptable to God, they aren’t preaching what Paul preaches here in Romans 3, and they aren’t representing the kind of Gospel presented by John. You are acceptable to God right now, and the only thing you have to do is want that. God loves you right now, and I don’t know how many times I’ve preached the “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” passage.

God doesn’t wait for us to be acceptable in order to come after us, because grace says, “I’m going to give you dignity and worth now. As a human being, as an image bearer of God, you have it now.

So when we come to the Lord’s table and we talk about this being the Lord’s supper — we talk about this being communion — and then we put all of these restrictions on who’s welcome, we take it upon ourselves to turn this gracious invitation of the Lord into something earned. We take the grace out of it, and we turn it into something a person has to be worthy of before they’re welcome at the table of the Lord.

Christ tells this story about people who are invited to a banquet, and they refuse to go, so he goes out into the street, and he compels people to come in. He says, “I have this banquet prepared, and I want to share it with someone. Somebody will come in and eat this food, and if you’re not going to come, I’m going to bring everybody else.” And, yes, I know that there’s this one version of that where there’s this passage where somebody gets thrown out because they don’t have their banquet clothes on. I know that that has to be wrestled with, but when I look at scripture as a whole, I cannot justify blocking people from the Lord’s table because of one little verse. I can’t justify letting that passage override what we just read in Romans and in John. I can’t let that passage define who God is in the face of all the passages that say that God is gracious and just, that God is merciful and patient.

Yes, there might be people who come into communities of faith who ultimately reveal themselves to not be the kind of people who should be there, and Christ talks about false teachers, and the Bible talks about deception and people who come in and try to disrupt and create dissension… That’s true, but Jesus ate with Judas at the Lord’s supper and made it very clear that he was well aware that Judas was going to betray him to the leaders of the church and to the cross, and he still dipped his bread in the same bowl as him.

If anybody has ever told you that you don’t belong at the Lord’s table because of anything but you believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and you want to be here, then I think you should ignore those people. I think God invites you to the table of the Lord, regardless of whether or not Christians want you to be there, regardless of whether or not your family wants you to be there, regardless of whether or not your friends think you should be there… Human beings don’t get to decide if you’re worthy of grace. Grace doesn’t even care if you’re worthy.

So this morning, I invite you to the table of the Lord. This morning, I invite you to come and partake of the bread that represents Christ’s body and the fruit of the vine that represents Christ’s [blood]. I invite you to come to the table of the Lord and be part of the banquet of God and receive through faith the redemption that is God’s justice that comes by the grace of God and is revealed to us through Jesus Christ, because that is what the communion is for.

Prayer for the Bread

Please pray with me for the bread.

Lord God, we are so thankful for Jesus. We are so thankful for the revelation that comes through him of your love and your grace. We are so thankful that your justice is not our justice — that your justice is revealed through your grace and mercy and not through punishment and consequence. We are thankful for those writers and scriptures who challenge us — who challenge the perceptions not only of modern Christians but Christians from the past, as well. We’re thankful for writers today and theologians and pastors and laymen who come to scripture earnestly seeking you and find love and redemption and peace. We are thankful that all of this is revealed through the brokenness of Jesus’s body — through the suffering that he endured.

We mourn that the world is that way. We mourn the fact that it took such things and continues to take such suffering for our eyes to be opened to the grace that is given to us, but we are grateful every time we see it and every time somebody comes to see it, so I pray, Lord, that you would bless this bread. I pray that you bless us in the taking of it. I pray that you would bless the invitation. I pray that the people who hear the invitation would feel free to respond and not be ashamed because of the things they have been told in the past.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Prayer for the Juice

Please pray with me for the fruit of the vine.

Lord, in the same way, it is mournful that Christ’s blood had to be shed, especially in the way that it was, in order to reveal to the world the oppression and the hate and the violence that existed. It’s not that we don’t know it exists, Lord, but that sometimes we are unwilling to oppose it — unwilling to follow you in your righteousness, in your justice, in your equity; unwilling to follow you in your grace; unwilling to extend that grace to others for fear of what it might do to us, like Peter denying Jesus.

So, it hurts us, Lord, that we had to watch — that we did watch — as Jesus was crucified — that we did nothing. It hurts us that we continue to do nothing. It hurts us that the world is still full of that same violence and death — of that same kind of injustice. Yet, we are grateful, Lord, that you reveal it to us more and more every day, and we hope that this fruit of the vine, every time we take it, pierces our heart, not only to cleanse us, Lord, but to convict us to act — to convict us to move, not just to invite people with our words but with our lives into the grace of God.

Please bless this fruit of the vine, Lord, to be a moment of conviction every time that we take it.

We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

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