I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 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.
From now until Christmas Eve, we will have a sermon series on the gifts of God. This is particularly fitting considering the fact that Advent is usually a time when we fret about what we will be purchasing for everyone else. However, this Advent, we will be reflecting on what God has given us. Today we continue the sermon series with God’s gift of Grace.
PowerPoint presentations were all the rage when I was in seminary. Professors would carefully craft their lectures around being able to display particular words on the screen while they talked. Some failed to use PowerPoint effectively and would just randomly throw words up on the screen without much context. But others used PowerPoint in a powerful way by displaying a piece of art and then describing how it conveys a deeper sense of faith than words alone.
In the spring semester of my first year I was in the middle of a New Testament lecture about the crucifixion when my professor began showing image after image of Jesus’ death. At the time, I was so academically invested in the words of scripture that I was treating it more like a text to be mastered rather than letting in sink into my soul.
I would go to church on Sundays but instead of listening to a sermon for my own discipleship I would think about how to change the sermon to make it more effective. I would receive communion but I would lose myself to thoughts of Eucharistic practices throughout the centuries while I chewed on the bread and juice. And I would read scripture everyday but I thought about how it applied to other people more than myself.
So there I was in the New Testament lecture and the images of Jesus’ death kept flowing across the large screen. I lost count of how many versions were displayed and at some point I stopped listening to my professor and stopped taking notes. Instead I watched my savior dying over and over again.
Some were abstract with shapes and colors conveying the cross and Christ’s body whereas others were remarkably vivid in detail with blood, cuts, and bruises. My professor continued to run through the images on the screen and let the art speak for itself. Like a merry-go-round of emotional impact, I sat in my chair observing the death of Christ until my professor stopped and said, “This is what Christ did for you.”
Overcome by the totality of the moment I jumped up from my chair and covered my tears as I walked out into the hallway. I remember breathing heavily as I tried to compose myself when my friend Wil came out of the lecture hall to check on me.
“What’s going on? Are you alright?” He asked.
I said, “I just don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve what Christ did.”
Then he looked me in the face and started to laugh. “Taylor,” he said, “That’s the whole point!”
Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison. In the shackles for the crime of his faithfulness, Paul continued to embody that same discipleship in a letter to a church that he loved. The community of faith had learned about Jesus Christ, they had heard about his ways and stories, they shared bread, wine, and goods together and were living a radically different life. Their faith in the Lord God was bearing fruit in the community and Paul wrote to encourage their commitment.
This wasn’t just a “keep up the good work” note, but was a profound theological reminder of what the point of the church is supposed to be.
I thank the God of heaven and earth whenever I remember you and I pray for you constantly. I am confident that God will bring your work to completion in Jesus Christ because of your commitment to the kingdom. It is right and good for me to think this way about you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me.
What is God’s grace?
I asked this question recently of our youth and some of our more seasoned Christians and I got a wide variety of answers: love, hope, peace, forgiveness, salvation, joy, knowledge, wisdom, food, blessing, etc. “Grace” is a buzzword in the church, one of those terms that we fling around all the time without really thinking about what it is. We say grace before we eat, we sing hymns like “Amazing Grace” and we even use it in common expressions like “there by the grace of God go I.” But what is grace?
Like my friend Wil reminding me in the hallway, Grace is love that we don’t deserve.
A few days ago I was standing on the front lawn of the church with all of our preschoolers. We were walking through the rows and rows of Christmas tree to select a few for the classrooms downstairs. Wilford Kirby generously volunteered his time to teach the children about how Christmas trees grow and how the real reason for the season isn’t the gifts under the tree but the gift of Jesus Christ for you and me. All of the kids loved it except for one, who was having a complete meltdown.
Why? I couldn’t begin to explain what was going through his mind. But for whatever reason, the moment we asked him to pick out a tree he started wailing and crying. “I don’t want a Christmas tree! NO! NO! NO!”
I tried to distract the other kids from his tears by guiding them along the trees and I could tell that the boy’s teacher was growing very tired of his outburst. Yet, while I kept an eye on her class, she went over to the boy wrapped her arms around him, and started to comfort him.
Grace is love that we don’t deserve.
Yesterday afternoon many of us gathered to remember the life of Dave Fitzgerald, a long time member of this church. We sat in our grief regarding the life that was lost, but we also faithfully proclaimed the promise of the resurrection. We got out the hymnal with our tissues and we praised God for sharing Dave’s life with us.
During the funeral I told a story about Dave that completely reshaped my understanding of the church. When I arrived at this church, Dave and his wife Pat were some of the first people I had a chance to visit outside of these walls. I hadn’t been here more than a month before I was sitting in their living room and learning about this church and all of you. They shared about why the church was important to their lives and how they had, hopefully, passed that feeling to their sons. I learned about how Dave used to butcher meat and stuff sausages in the back parking lot much to the chagrin of some older church members. And then I started to hear about all the drama from the past.
Every church has drama, arguments, and fights. After all, churches are filled with broken people like you and me. So Dave described this seemingly epic event from the past and how it made him so angry with the church and with the people in it. One man in particular. Who and why are not important. Frankly it could have been anyone about anything. But after he had finally got all of the frustration out, he said, “But just because I didn’t agree with him, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t love him.”
Grace is love that we don’t deserve.
I am fortunate to know most of you and your stories. I have been invited into your homes and precious moments. I have learned your stories, and what makes you smile. You all are good people. But if you’re anything like me, you don’t deserve God’s love. You make the wrong choice when you know what you’re really supposed to do. You turn your head away from the public arguments and bullying that you know you could stop. You hear about the problems going on in the world and though you feel bad about it, you don’t have enough energy to do anything about it.
We are so broken people, us Christians. Frankly, that’s what church is all about. This place is not supposed to be a museum of saints. It is a hospital for sinners. We fail to be obedient to the words we hear in church and read in scripture. We love the tunes of the hymns but we forget to live according to them from Monday to Saturday. And we are content to leave our discipleship in this room.
And guess what? God still loves us even through we don’t deserve it!
Can you think of anything more radical that our God could possibly do? I believe in the profound power of the resurrection from the dead, but I am still astonished by the fact that God loves me even though I don’t deserve it.
Like a prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, God will always welcome us home.
Like a crying preschooler on the front lawn, God will always surround us with love.
Like a frustrated parishioner, God will always love us even if God doesn’t agree with us.
Grace is love that we don’t deserve. Grace is a gift.
This table embodies God’s overwhelming grace. There are plenty of people in our lives that, if we did something bad enough, they would never welcome us back. Walls will be built up between us and few bridges would ever get us back. Yet God, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, always invites us to the table and to the kingdom. God’s love is so profound that even when we are at our worst, God will be here with open arms.
God’s grace is a gift. Grace is the love of God made manifest in the life of Jesus Christ who gave his life for the world. Grace is the love of God made real in a baby born in a manger to a young woman in the middle of Bethlehem. Grace is the bread and cup at this table offered to you no matter what.
Grace is love that we don’t deserve. Amen.