Grace

The_Amazing_Race_14_logo My wife Therese likes the TV show called “The Amazing Race.” Teams composed of two people travel around the world, competing to complete various legs of the race faster than the all other teams. Typically, the last team to complete each leg of the race incurs a penalty, perhaps even elimination from the race.

Based on my limited viewing, I’ve noticed how much emotional drama lies underneath the actual activity of racing. Sometimes, the members of the team are marriage partners trying to maintain or renew their relationship. Sometimes, they’re aging athletes trying to prove they still have what it takes to be competitive. Sometimes, they’re people with a special life experience who are trying to boost awareness or improve understanding of a cause near and dear to their hearts.

Inevitably, teams make costly mistakes. One will misread a clue, and go miles and hours in the wrong direction. Another will engage in a grueling physical challenge that proves too exhausting. Then, you’ll see them running, sweaty, muddy, or even bloody to the end of their journey, and hear the host of the show say, “I’m sorry to tell you that you are the last team to arrive.”

Sometimes, though, that’s not the final word. The game has built in certain pre-determined legs at which the last team to arrive is allowed to continue the race. Sometimes, after a word of judgment, the last team to arrive hears something like, “I’m pleased to tell you that this is a non-elimination leg,” and you will not be leaving the race.”

Every time I’ve heard those words, the team reacts with smiles, sighs of relief, even tears of joy.

Most of us can relate to that feeling. At one time or another, we have been racing through life, trying to make the right decisions and accomplish important things. One day, we look around, and realize we’re at the back of the pack. We incorrectly evaluated the circumstances; we arrived at the wrong conclusion. In a panic, we’re backtracking to where we think we ought to be, and we’re late getting there. Then, if we were very lucky, we were surprised by the good news that we were going to get another chance.

Grace is like that. It’s knowing that you should have been eliminated, but weren’t.

Grace is at the heart of today’s lectionary readings, which include two of the best-known texts in the New Testament. The first verse of scripture many of us committed to memory was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

For those of us who grew up in Protestant homes, Ephesians 2:8-9 was not far behind: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not as the result of works, that no one should boast.” For those who first heard these words, and all who have heard them ever since, they have announced the good news that although we should have been eliminated from the race, God did not send us packing. God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ made a way whereby we don’t perish, but are saved from ourselves.

Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, explained to his readers that the word “grace” has a double connotation in the New Testament. On the one hand, it represents the mercy and forgiveness of God; on the other hand, it represents the power of God in humans.[1] Our text from Ephesians – originally part of a first century baptismal liturgy – contains reminders of this duality. If verse eight is about the first part – the mercy and forgiveness of God – then verse ten is about the second part – the power of God in Christ’s disciples. The ones to whom grace has been extended are called to live out their baptism through works in which they, in turn, extend God’s grace to others.

John Buchanan tells a sweet short story about grace as the essence of God’s heart, and how that grace often is reflected in our children.

A father named Christopher is with his five-year-old son David on one of those sunny spring days that make your heart sing. They are planting small shrubs beside the house, and talking to the next-door neighbor.

“Look, Daddy! What’s that?” asked David, pointing to the ground. Christopher stopped talking, and looked down. “It’s a beetle,” he said. David bent down to look closer, impressed and pleased with the discovery of the colorful, delicate creature. The neighbor lifted his foot, and stepped on the insect, giving his shoe an after-twist in the dirt. “That ought to do it,” he laughed.

That night, before Christopher turned off the lights in his bedroom, David whispered, “I liked that beetle, Daddy.” Christopher whispered back, “I did too.”

On the one hand, it was just a beetle. On the other hand, as the story suggests, “We have the power to choose … how we will respond to everything that crosses our path from beetles to human beings.”[2]

If we examine our lives, then we will realize that God displays grace in at least two ways. Sometimes we experience grace as the powerful mercy and forgiveness of God. And sometimes we experience grace as the power of God within us, enabling us to be Christ’s agents of healing and peace in ways we never imagined possible.

In the words of St. Francis, may our prayer be:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, II.IV.

[2] Christopher deVink, as quoted by John M. Buchanan, Sermons for the City, “And Mercy Shall Follow Me,” chapter 12, p. 87 ff., Franklin, Tennessee: Providence House Publishers, 1996.

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~ by JohnH1962 on March 17, 2015.

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