Text: Romans 5:1-5
“It’s the most frequent word in the English language, accounting for around four percent of all the words we write or speak. It’s everywhere, all the time, so clearly, it must be doing something important. Words have meaning. That’s fundamental, isn’t it? So what does the word “the,” a word that seems to be supporting a significant portion of the entire weight of our language, mean? It must mean something, right? We can say, roughly, that “the” means the word it is attached to refers to a specific, individual object. When I say “I have the apple,” I mean a certain apple, not just any old apple, or apples in general…But, of course, it’s not quite that easy. Sometimes “the” doesn’t indicate a specific object, but a whole class of objects. When you say you know how to play “the piano” or that exercise is good for “the heart,” there is no specific piano or heart you have in mind…
“The” does not seem like a difficult word, but it’s very hard to explain to someone who isn’t a native speaker. Why do we say, “I love the ballet,” but not “I love the cable TV”? Why do we say, “I have the flu,” but not “I have the headache”? (Unless you are from parts of Western NC.) Why do we say, “winter is the coldest season,” and not “winter is coldest season”? For speakers of [other] languages that don’t have “the,” these are important questions…
[One journalist writes:] We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven’t seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them. Especially the word we use the most.”
When it comes to the language of our faith, there are a number of words that feel a bit like the word “the” when it comes to trying to define them. Take for example words like: atonement, eschatology, ecclesiology, glory, trinity, heaven. These are not only hard to define words, sometimes they are hard to pronounce words. But it’s not really the big words or the hard to pronounce words that leave us scratching our heads when asked what they mean. What if I asked you right now to turn to your neighbor and give them your best definition of the word “love?” What would you say? How would you define the word love, biblically or otherwise?
Maybe you would try and find a series of words to string together to define love. Something like: “a feeling of deep affection.” But does that really define love. Does “a feeling of deep affection” really define your experience of love? If you are Roger Crook you might say something like: “the bible speaks of three kinds of love in the Greek language – eros, agape and philia. Which love are you asking me to define?” Or maybe like the Apostle Paul you would define love by what you think love is not (it is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude) while eventually circling back around to what you think love is (patient, kind, rejoicing in truth).
Love, especially as it relates to God’s love, may be one of the hardest words in our theological lexicon to define – truly define. But I would argue this morning that there is another word of our faith that is even more elusive when it comes to trying to define it. And that word is “grace.” Merriam-Webster defines “grace” in eight entries. Even old Merriam-Webster struggled to define grace. The first entry has three parts: a, b, and c. From there, Merriam-Webster offers seven other entries for defining grace each with their own a, b, c, and even d and e. Entry one 1.a. defines grace as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” 1.b. states: “a virtue coming from God.” And 1.c. defines grace as “a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance.” Some might argue that these definitions are helpful to understanding the word “grace.” But I would argue otherwise – regeneration, sanctification, virtue. Sure, I can read these words and know what they mean. But really, do they explain grace to me? Or to you?
Our sacred teaching for today says: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…” Grace! “This grace in which we stand.” What is it, this grace? How does it work? What are we to do with it? What does it mean to stand in grace? These are the questions I have been wrestling with this past week. Actually, these are questions I have been asking my whole life as I have tried to understand and accept the grace of God’s love for me.
Maybe like me, early in your Christian faith, you were taught that grace was defined as “God being forgiving to us even though we sin and are undeserving of God’s love.” Grace was always partnered with sin. This concept of grace was like a never-ending video loop that played over and over in Sunday school lessons, sermons, and testimonies. We even sang about this amazing grace.
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I am found
T’was blind but now I see.
It was sweet sounding, at least the first two words were. But then you hit that second line “that saved a wretch like me” and all of the sudden things turned a bit sour. This amazing grace was always about saving us poor wretched sinners. I love the way Nadia Bolz-Weber dispels this damaging theology. She writes: “Grace isn’t about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace – like saying, ‘Oh, its OK, I’ll be the good guy and forgive you.” Instead, she writes: “ God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word…it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own [mess]. [Grace is] God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.”
Can you imagine how much healthier our religion would be and how much healthier we would be as people of the Christian faith if the shapers of our faith would have focused on God’s grace instead of original sin? Really, think about that. It is a profound thought. Grace as the headline, not sin. We have let sin define who we are as a humanity. More often than not, we let sin have the final word. We talk of being God’s beloved. We give lip service to God’s grace. But, as far as I can tell, we really don’t believe it, not with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. For if we did, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today as a nation and world.
I spent the first half of my life being told by the church and thus believing that I wasn’t good enough for God’s love. That there was something so inherently wrong with me, so sinful, that God had to make atonement with the life of his own son to save my soul. Do you know and can you hear how depressing that is? Can you think of a more warped understanding of God’s love and grace than that? I can’t. So somewhere along the way, I let that go. And since that time, I have spent the second half of my life trying to believe that I am enough, that God loves me just as I am, and that grace is a gift that God bestows on me every single day (and it has nothing to do with deserving or not deserving it; with being good enough or not being good enough). It is simply a gift that God has given to me and to you. Think about that. Grace as gift – given to all of creation by the Creator – no matter what we do or don’t do. Some days I have actually been able to believe that this gift is given to me.
Like the day in September 1992, three months after I started my ministry with you, that I sat across the table from Mahan Siler and told him I was gay. I remember saying to him, “If I am a problem for you I can quit now and no harm will have been done, it has only been three months.” (You had just voted seven months earlier to be a welcoming and affirming congregation but I wasn’t sure that included me.) What I know now is that that breakfast meeting with Mahan was a pointer to grace. He reached his God-like hand across the table, took hold of my hand, and said words that changed my life forever. He said, “Nancy, that issue has been settled here at Pullen. You are safe and you are welcome here.” Grace.
Yes, some days I have been able to believe in this grace as gift. Like the Sunday I invited an Imam to preach from this pulpit and you not only welcomed him but also made him feel like he belonged here. That Imam still calls this Baptist church “his church.” That’s how you made him feel. Grace. And like all those congregational meetings where we have discussed with passion our differences on issues of significance but in the end walked away still being community together. Grace.
I can’t give you a concise definition of grace or well-crafted theology of grace, but I can share with you some experiences that point to grace. I have experienced grace standing by a hospital bed holding a wife’s hand as her beloved husband took his last breath. I have felt grace in those moments when we have shared hard conversations with one another and walked away with a deeper connection. I have experienced grace with a group of young adults who have made me feel like one of them although half the time I have no idea what they are talking about. I have seen grace as I have watched so many of you help another in need. I have known grace when, knowing that I have disappointed you, you have walked to this table and allowed me to offer you communion. In those moments I can know that all of it is grace – God’s grace. You, me, us, and this world – it’s all grace.
And still, I must confess, there are those other days when I struggle to take this gift of grace in my hands and open it. Too many days I keep it boxed up, taped up, wrapped tightly, lid on afraid to let it out so that it may point me to the freedom and liberation of which Jesus spoke. Freedom from those feelings of not being enough, of not being good enough, of being that wretched sinner, underserving of God’s love and blessing. Liberated from a theology of original sin, from a God who plays hero with the life of his own son, and from a faith that proclaims there is only one way to God. Some days, but thankfully fewer and fewer days, I still can struggle with those old tapes playing from sermons and Sunday school lessons of the past, saying: “you’re not enough, you’re not good enough, you need to do more, be more, be better.” Is there grace in those moments, too, I wonder?
“This grace in which we stand…” The journalist writes: “We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven’t seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them.” Grace is not a container for our failings. Grace is a pointer to all the new things God is doing.
I understand the word grace because Mahan Siler reached his hand across the table and said, “You are safe and welcome here.” I understand grace as gift because of how this church has reached out its hand to so many and said, “you are enough, you are worthy of love, you are worthy of sanctuary, you are worthy of a hot meal, you are safe here, you can sleep here.” I understand grace because I have had the opportunity to listen in on your conversations where you have agreed to disagree with one another and still be community. You, Pullen Church, are a pointer to grace. In so many ways, you take the gift of grace that you have been given and you open it up for others to reach in and experience. You have not kept the gift all to yourself. You have shared grace and it has made all the difference in the lives of the people who have walked through these doors. (If you feel you have experienced a measure of grace here at Pullen stand up. Look around. Words get there meaning from what we do with them.)
Here’s the good news for today: you/we stand in grace. Nothing you did or didn’t do gave you access to this grace – God’s grace. We are neither deserving nor undeserving of it. It is a gift, plain and simple. You can choose to accept this gift and open it or you can leave it wrapped up tightly in a box with the lid firmly secure. What you do with this gift is up to you. And what we do with this gift is up to us. But my experience tells me that when we open this gift and take it out of its box and allow it to be our north star we live as free and liberated people.
And so the gospel asks us: What are you going to do with this gift of grace you’ve been given? This grace you stand in? This grace you have access to? What are we as a church going to do with it? We don’t have to do anything with it. That’s the hell of it. And yet, if we want to give this word grace meaning, meaning comes from what we do with the word. Whatever you choose, whatever we choose, you/we stand in possession of a gift that is called grace. I suggest that we not try and define grace with our words. Rather, we define it with what we do with it.