How does one proclaim a doctrine that most everyone who is listening has not only believed but also experienced? How does one stay away from the contrived and from the trite? How does one infuse new life in a doctrine we would hardly challenge and in people who already believe it? How, in other words, can one do justice to the doctrine of salvation by grace in a sermon? How does one preach this doctrine of comfort?
And which verse or verses should I proclaim? John 3.16, Romans 5.6-8, Romans 8.1-4, and Ephesians 2.8-10 spring to mind immediately. And there are others!
Then it struck me. We have used the phrase “salvation by grace” so often that we easily assume that we—and those we address—know what it means—and that we all mean the same thing! But this is not the case.
So rather than go the route of proclaiming why or that we should believe we are saved by grace, I realized the better thing to do is proclaim what we mean when we say we are saved by grace. More to the point, what is this grace by which we are saved? And for this I have chosen two verses from the Old Testament. It is my hope that the infrequent use of these verses will shed new light on the doctrine we hold so dear—this doctrine that I call the doctrine of comfort. So turn with me to Isaiah 55.1-2.
[Read Isaiah 55:1-2.]
Here we have a clear, concise picture of what grace is. I have chosen the word “rich” to function as an acronym to explain what grace involves. I have also chosen one Old Testament character, namely Naaman, and one New Testament personage, namely Peter, to illustrate grace. I will also allude to a few other biblical characters to show examples of un-grace or the resistance of grace. And I have chosen the word “dirt” to function as an acronym to explain what happens when grace is resisted.
The first thing grace involves is recognition of need. In being gracious to us, God brings us to a point where we recognize our need. So, to exiles in Babylon, accustomed to slaving away and starving away, Isaiah hollers, “Hoy! Everyone who thirsts… and you who have no money.” To the exiles in Babylon there would have been no ambiguity. Their parched throats and rumbling stomachs testified to their decrepit state and probably heightened their sense of need. They were the ones who were thirsty and poor. And this is the first thing grace does—bring us to the point where we recognize our need.
We see this in Naaman. A mighty warrior, he was plagued with leprosy, on account of which he was disqualified from doing what he did best, namely command the Aramean troops. This disqualification gave him stark evidence that he needed something, namely a cure.
This is in stark contrast with Herod Antipas. Residing in his extravagant palace, Herod was unable to recognize the very embodiment of God’s grace in front of him when Jesus stood bound in his presence. Unable to recognize his need, he looked to the dispenser of grace and asked for an amusing miracle.
Not so Peter! When people were offended at Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, Peter told Jesus he would not leave Jesus because Jesus spoke the very words that gave eternal life. Peter knew that above all we need life. He recognized that, beneath the veneer of our self-sufficiency, resides the barrenness of death that cries to the living God to bring resurrection. It is an emptiness that yearns for meaning that only God can provide.
If we approach grace like Herod we live in a state of delusion, needy but denying with every breath our dependency and incompleteness. Need denied leads to delusion. If, however, we approach grace like Naaman or Peter we get to experience the next factor in grace.
After calling our attention to our need, God graciously invites us to have that need met. The second step in grace is an invitation. So, to the exiles with cracked lips and empty bellies, Isaiah says, “Come to the waters… come, buy wine and milk.”
Jesus alludes to these verses in John 7.37-39 when he says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” It is an invitation to have that deep yearning satisfied.
Naaman, aware of his illness, listens to the invitation from his servant, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” And Naaman accepts and goes with the servant girl to Samaria to meet Elisha.
The rich man in Mark 10 heard Jesus’ invitation loud and clear. Make no mistake; he knew that he needed something. He asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” From the way Mark tells the story, his request seems to have been genuine. His response also is truthful for Jesus does not reprimand him. Jesus does not say, “Yeah, right! You sinner! You could not have kept the commands.” No! Jesus tells him, in effect, that what he lacks is a relationship with Jesus. And Jesus invites him to remedy this. However, the invitation proves too costly for the man and he walks away from Jesus.
Peter too heard much the same invitation. Jesus asked him also to leave everything and join him as a disciple. Standing in the fishing boat, Peter held in his hands the tangible means of providing for his family. And Jesus asked him to leave it all—the nets and the boat. Jesus invited him to be his partner in something larger than life—the task of baiting humans with God’s grace. And Peter was hooked!
If we listen to God’s invitation and reject it, we remain like the rich man, aware of our need and aware that it has not been met. We may go other routes—routes that are not as costly as Jesus’. But none of these will satisfy for we were created to respond positively to the costly invitation of Jesus. Like the rich man, we will remain insatiate. God’s invitation, if rejected, leads to insatiation. If, however, like Naaman and Peter, we accept the invitation, we progress deeper into the realm of grace.
After giving the invitation, Isaiah goes on to say, “You that have no money, come, but, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” We live in a capitalist society. We know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Right? And we know that, when we buy something, that something always has a price tag.
Imagine the exiles listening to Isaiah. Standing there with blistered hands holding the strings of empty purses they hear him invite them to buy food and drink. What would they have thought? Would they not have considered this an insult? It would be like going up to a homeless person and saying, “Why don’t you just buy a house instead of sleeping on the street?”
But then Isaiah hits them hard with the third factor of grace. The exiles are to buy without money and without price! This is a contradiction and so is grace. Grace is that glorious contradiction in which God says that our future is not going to depend on our past. Our misdeeds, our sins of the past are not going to count for or determine our future. There is not going to be a cause and effect relationship between what we have done and what we will be.
Naaman balks at the contradiction. Elisha tells him to do the absurd—to wash himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman sees two things wrong with this approach. First, it was too easy! Should he not need to do some trying thing to prove his need? Should he not have to undergo some ordeal? And should Elisha not need to say some magic words and do some magical things? This washing business was too easy! Second, the Jordan was a filthy river. The rivers near Damascus were cleaner. How could he become clean by immersion in such a filthy body of water? The immensity of the contradictions weighed heavily on his mind and he almost walked away. But he listened to his servants and went ahead and obeyed Elisha.
In the Gospels we see the Pharisees and scribes also similarly scandalized by Jesus. If Jesus were from God, then surely he would hang out with the proper people. But Jesus fraternized with thieves and prostitutes, with Gentiles and Samaritans. So in Luke 15, they complain and say, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In response Jesus tells them three parables of contradiction in which a shepherd abandons ninety-nine sheep to find one sheep, in which a woman searches for a lost coin and throws a party that would cost more than all the ten coins she had, in which a father runs shamelessly to welcome a wayward son who had wished him dead. The Pharisees and scribes are unwilling to accept this fundamental contradiction in God’s dispensation of grace and, like the elder brother of the third parable, remain outside the realm in which the contradiction of grace is celebrated.
Peter also faced such a contradiction. Prone to spontaneous outbursts, he was an unstable presence among the disciples. One instance he was receptive to God and confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. The next instance he was receptive to Satan and points Jesus away from the cross. Yet between those two moments, Jesus renames him and tells him he is a rock—a stable rock! Can you imagine what he must have thought when Jesus rebuked him? “How can I be a stable rock if I am so easily swayed?” Later he tells Jesus he would follow Jesus to his death only to deny him a few hours later. And even after Jesus’ resurrection he is still fishing! What a mess of contradictions! Yet he did not let his failings obstruct Jesus’ grace. No! He hung on to Jesus’ words as to a promise. Jesus had called him a rock. And a rock he would be.
If we want everything to play out in a predictable manner, according to set rules, we will be like the scribes and Pharisees. We will stare God’s grace in the face and in effect reject it because it is not black and white, because God accepts those with whom we would rather not associate. Indeed, to expect God’s grace to be formulaic is to continue in our rebellion. The contradiction of grace, if rejected, leads to rebellion. But if, like Naaman and Peter, we accept the contradiction of grace, and embrace it, we reach the final stage in which grace accomplishes its purpose.
Having issued the contradictory invitation to buy without money, Isaiah tells the exiles, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” He had addressed and caught the attention of those who were hungry and thirsty. To them he says, “Delight yourselves in rich food.” The exiles are promised portions fit for royalty. God is not going to give them moldy bread and stagnant water. No! God is going to give them choice foods, rich food, food they could only dream of having. This is Isaiah’s answer to their thirst and hunger—a healing of their need.
Naaman, having accepted the various contradictions in Elisha’s solution, immerses himself in the filthy Jordan seven times and finds that his need is also met. The leprous sores disappear and he is healed.
Quite unlike Judas. Having betrayed Jesus, Judas hangs himself. However, if he had flung himself on God’s mercy and on Jesus’ forgiveness, would Jesus not have forgiven him?
After all, Jesus forgave Peter after Peter had denied him. Peter hung on for dear life to the fact that Jesus had initiated the relationship. Surely Jesus knew what he was doing! So Peter waited those agonizing hours as Jesus lay in the grave. He waited, hoping, probably against all hope, but, nonetheless, hoping. And he accepted Jesus’ forgiveness and healing when it came. He did not resist it but merely accepted it.
If like Judas we run away from Jesus’ healing, we will find our story end in tragedy much like Judas’ story. God’s healing, if rejected, leads to tragedy. However, if, like Naaman and Peter we go past the contradictions and open our hands the receive God’s healing and forgiveness, we will be forgiven and healed. And that is the purpose of grace.
So grace involves recognition of our need, invitation to have the need met, contradiction, and healing. So when we say we are saved by grace, we mean that we are delivered from our sins and for our life with God by God’s grace, which first brings us to recognize our need, secondly invites us to have that need met, thirdly proves to be contradictory in nature, and fourthly heals us.
There is nothing we can do to earn or merit any of these. Even reaching the point of recognizing our need is only by God’s grace. The invitation is wholly God’s initiative. The contradiction runs contrary to human wisdom. And the healing is solely from God. In other words, our salvation is, from beginning to end, an outworking of God’s grace in our lives.
It is important to observe that all four steps of grace are needed for it to be grace and for that grace to save. And Jesus has given us a way of experiencing that grace in the setting of the church. Christians have called it Holy Communion or the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. Eucharist probably best contains the idea that this is a means of God’s grace. Eucharist, after all means, “showing of good favor.”
Here I wish to make a much-needed correction. Protestants maintain that the Eucharist is a symbolic act of remembrance, as though there were no power in it. However, hear what Paul says to the Corinthians.
[Read 1 Corinthians 11.27-34]
Paul tells the Corinthians that some of them had fallen ill and died because they had not received the Eucharist in appropriate ways. It follows then that this act, this event, is filled with power—power both to bless and to condemn.
Approach it, therefore, with the appropriate attitude. Since this is supposed to be a communal act, I ask you to get into groups of five to seven. Please do that now.
Now spend a few minutes contemplating areas in which you are in need of God’s grace. This may be a spiritual area such as the fact that you know that you are a sinner and need God’s forgiveness. It may be an emotional area such as a struggle with depression or anxiety. It may be a relationship that is breaking up. It may be a physical area such as a broken bone or cancer. It may be financial need. Nothing is beyond God’s power.
Think of one need that you will pray for in the context of the group. I will be asking you to link your prayer for this need to the act of receiving the Eucharist. This is not to say that every prayer will be answered! No! That would make the Eucharist a rite of magic. What I am asking you to do is to be open to receiving God’s healing through this act. It might seem silly and foolish. Eating a bit of bread dipped in juice may not seem to have any bearing on your area of need. But remember the contradiction of grace. While we are often careful not to make things we do magical in that they definitely work, let us not reverse it and make it definitely not work! Let us be open. Let us be willing to receive this foolish grace.
Each group, please designate one person to come forward for bread and juice enough for the entire group. Would the designated people now please come forward.
Now take turns praying the individual prayer in the bulletin insert. When everyone has prayed in this manner, pray together the group prayer and receive the Eucharist as a group. When your group is done, please wait for the other groups to finish.