Cosmic Grace

The hymn, Amazing Grace. It’s one we all know. Maybe even the story behind it, how John Newton, once a slave of sorts himself, later captained slave ships. How during a storm that threatened his life and all the lives his ship, Newton saw the light of God and the darkness of his heart. Somehow that light pervaded his heart, an enlightening grace so amazing that it was able to save a wretch like himself.

Grace changed John Newton’s life and gave us one of the greatest hymns we have, a hymn that even the enslaved would come to embrace in a profound way. The hymn describes a grace so powerful that it liberates enslavers and the enslaved alike. The Christian hope is that through this grace all will be fully free, body, mind, and spirit. Only a grace cosmic in its scale and its reach can be so transformative.

Last week, we discussed this grace and its accompanying gift of gratitude. In that sermon, I recited 2 Timothy 1:9-10. Let me read it again as I begin a follow-up discussion of grace:

The power of God saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Before I get to the heart of our discussion, I would like to first say that this verse floored me when I read it a couple Saturdays ago. The Bible is powerful that way. It frequently surprises you. I am sure I’ve read that verse before. But for some reason it’s truth really struck me. And I’ve been pondering it ever since.

Have you had any Bible verses or spiritual readings that have especially made an impression on you lately? If so, drop me a note and tell me about it.

“Grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,” 2 Timothy 1:9 says. Before time began, God’s grace through Christ was real and working and giving. God’s grace is eternal, in other words. Grace has always been and always will be. And Christ, just as eternal, is the conduit of that grace.

The word "conduit" -- maybe you’ve never heard the word conduit applied in this way. For those who are not engineers or mechanic types, a conduit is something through which or by which either fluids or electricity or even information, or something else we need, is given. Maybe you know the prayer known as the St. Francis Prayer. That prayer’s first lines are sometimes translated as, Make me a channel of your peace. There is a hymn that uses this translation. Well, we might also translate the first line originally in French this way –

Make me a conduit of Your peace
Where there is hatred, let me bring Your love
Where there is injury, Your pardon Lord
And where there's doubt, true faith in You
Make me a conduit of Your peace
Where there's despair in life, let me bring hope
Where there is darkness, only light
And where there's sadness, ever joy

Well, as 2 Timothy 1 tells us, Christ is the ultimate conduit of divine grace. I should also say Christ is the ultimate conduit of divine peace as well. As Christ-followers, we are called to be conduits of Christ. Christ is the ultimate conduit, but we are called to in turn be conduits of Christ and his grace and peace here and now, on this earth that seems so lost. 

How are we doing as conduits of Christ? I ask this not in a judgmental way. It is a question we should always ask ourselves as a church. How are we doing as a church and as Christians in bringing grace and peace to our world?

If you are like me, I like to know how things work. And as a Trinitarian, as someone who holds that God is the plural-unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I ask how does divine grace work in the life of the Trinity?

Let me first say quickly that we often mistake the Trinity as a bunch of males divinely united. Father and son, yes, are masculine terms. But did you know that in both Hebrew, a language Jesus knew, and Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the name Holy Spirit is a feminine term? So when we can sing and truly mean the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee:

“Thou our father, and our mother,
All who live in love are thine.
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.”

God is both masculine and feminine. Thank goodness!

Anyway, have you ever considered that the Trinity is in essence defined by a relationship between the Three?  Father, Holy Spirit, and Son, they are not strangers to one another. They are not three strangers passing in the night. How could there be a unity if they were separate, autonomous, and unrelating? 

Now, the Trinity uses familial terms to point to the fact that the Trinity is marked by a relationship, by a relating to one another, by relationality.  What unites the family, what defines the family relationship? Yes, that’s right. Love. Love is what unites Father, Mother Holy Spirit, and Son Christ. When we read in scripture and in turn repeat the three words, God is Love, that is what we mean. At the center of the Trinity, as the hub that makes the holy family of Father, Mother, and Son turn, at the foundation of the household, if you will, is Love. Love unites the Trinity and moves the Trinity forward. Love is what moves God to create and in turn relate to what is created. 

And what is grace? Grace is the fullest expression of love. Grace is the language of love.

John 1:3, says this, “All things came into being through Christ, and without him not one thing came into being.” In other words, Christ is the conduit of creation itself.

Through Christ comes creation. But before creation, before the beginning of time, grace was, grace existed. Grace is what love looks like when applied to a relationship, right? Grace is love expressed in action. If there is no grace involved in love, it is not love.

Before creation, Grace was, and it moved through Christ and outward. Creation eventually resulted.

We might ponder these rather wonderful truths as we come to a close – Grace created us. And Grace saves us. What grace created, grace will not give up on. We are God’s creation, created in God’s grace-filled image, and God will not give up on us. Yes, we fall. Yes, we do not live up to the grace that created us. But the greatest truth of all is that the same grace that created us will keep reaching down, keep expressing love, keep lifting us up. And in the end, thanks to Christ, all of creation will be received back to her Creator.

So, here we are. Grace… It makes the world go ‘round and it will bring us all around in return to God. What are we to do with this amazing grace? What will our response be to the immense gift we’ve been given?

Yes, gratitude is an important response. But in our gratitude for God ‘s grace, something else is required. That we follow the way of Grace. We pay God’s grace toward us forward to others. God’s grace must be lived-out in us. Karl Barth, renowned Swiss theologian in the Reformed Church, put it nice and succinctly: “Grace must find expression in life.”

The One-Word Prayer

The scene usually proceeds as follows: the family gathers around the table for a big meal, plates full, mouths watering, stomachs hungry. Before we start to eat, we wait for someone to offer a prayer. My father is always the one leading the effort to make sure this is done. “Okay, everyone,” he’ll say, “let’s say grace. Come on now, I’ll say grace and we can all eat!” The uninitiated, and there’s always one each year, an old family friend, one of the nephew’s new girlfriends, a church guest, will bow their heads first. The rest of the family will do the same for my father’s sake. With all heads bowed, my father will clear his throat and commence to saying, what? Yep, that’s right – “Grace. Okay, let’s eat!” Everyone will laugh, the initiated most loudly, having been initiated into the Erickson holiday family meal ritual. Then someone will say a more lengthy and seemingly more substantive prayer, and the meal will begin. 

Yes, this is a humorous story. But it has a deeper message when you really contemplate it.  

While my father never thought so deeply about it, there can be no greater a prayer than invoking the single word Grace if invoked meaningfully. Why? Because grace points to a core spiritual principle to the spiritual life. It is our first word of two in our discussion of the basics of the spiritual life. To me, comprehending and internalizing into our hearts Grace is absolutely essential to the spiritual life.  

What is grace?  

Grace is something one feels, first of all. It is something we sense in our heart, that we intuit in our soul. And when we sense and intuit Grace, this is what we feel: something in the world outside our selves touches our hearts, moves our hearts, even changes our hearts despite ourselves. Grace means there is something moving in the world or through beings of the world that causes us to feel we are loved, we are embraced, we are included just because we are, not because of what we do or who we are, but just because we exist. 

Now, people receive this differently, don’t they? On one extreme, if you are someone who feels they are an upstanding person, who works hard at doing the right thing, who tends to the perfectionist side of things, grace sounds like this: hey, you don’t have to try so hard. I love you just the way you are, just for being you. Be a little more vulnerable and do a little less, and just sit with me. 

On the other extreme are those who’ve done wrong, who’ve made extremely bad choices, who walk with a deep sense of guilt and shame. Grace for them is here, here is a your second chance, here is a way to make amends, take a step toward me, and I will guide you on a better way. 

Now, as followers of Christ, we naturally associate grace with God, a supreme being full of grace reaching out to save us. We rightly associate with grace with Christ. I think of the wondrous verse from 2 Timothy 1:

The power of God saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to God’s own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Before time began, the grace of Christ was real and working and given as a gift to us.

Why is this eternal grace so important to the spiritual life? Well, from grace we get gratitude. 

I have for a long time felt that the two most important words to learn in any language is hello and thank you. We make contact with hello and we make connection with thank you. So I often teach my son, especially when we go to ethnic restaurants, the word for hello and thank you in different languages. Of course, one of the first non-English words for thank you I taught him was “gracias,” the Spanish word for thank you.

Sounds a lot like grace, doesn’t it? Grace is the basis of gracias, gratitude, and gratefulness.  What is the relationship? Well, I experience grace in the world, when I see the small gifts offered all around – the rain coming down from the heavens, the grass growing up from the earth, the unconditional love of parents, the power and beauty of kinship, friendship, and the kindness of strangers, the underappreciated existence of laws that govern and guide our society and point toward justice – when I see and contemplate all of life’s basic examples of grace, I can’t help but to be grateful and live in a spirit of gratitude. And when I live in a spirit of gratitude, graciousness is usually a result. 

Grace begets gratitude in my heart and graciousness in my actions. 

We understand grace most fully by seeing lived-out in others. One of the most vivid portraits of grace I can think of is the example of someone who, yes, was famous but from all accounts was a remarkable, remarkable human being. Now, I was bred a Baptist, and the Radical Reformation runs deep in my personal understanding. So I guess this means I am not allowed to have personal saints. But if I were to have one, this man would be it. I am referring to Mr. Rogers. Yes, Fred Rogers of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood fame. He embodies to me a deep internalizing of grace in the world and of grace resulting in gratitude and graciousness.

There are many stories that exemplify Mr. Rogers’ graciousness. Everyday his show came on it was obvious both to children and adults. But his giving one of the most poignant award acceptance speech comes to mind. In 1997, he received the Emmy lifetime achievement award. Of course, he went to receive the award, and you can find all of this on YouTube, but he went up, accepted the award, and gave a short speech. I am going to play that short speech as we come to a close. I want you to imagine you are there in his audience in real time and are listening closely as if a kid watching him on TV, with bated breath. Now, he will ask the audience a favor, and I want you too give heed.

That is grace, gratitude, and graciousness all rolled into one.

As I finish, I ask you to do one more favor. This one not from Mr. Rogers but from this humble, ordinary pastor. Will you bow your heads, close your eyes, and take into your hearts this simplest of prayers: “Grace”...