“Grace: You can take it, but can you dish it out?”
(Based upon Luke 23:39-43, Matthew 20:1-16)
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on May 2, 2021
“During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of this. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. ‘What’s all the rumpus about?’ Lewis asked. In reply, his colleagues told Lewis that they had been discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.’” (Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? p.45)
Lewis is right. When all that Christianity shares with other religions is stripped away, all we’re really left with is grace. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, twas blind but now I see.” Martin Luther shared John Newton’s and C.S. Lewis’s appreciation for grace, declaring “Solo Gratia!” “By grace alone” we have been saved. A Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines grace as “the unmerited, undeserved goodness of God.” One year I worked with a confirmation class at my church, and they defined grace as “God’s tendency to spare us the punishment we deserve and to give us something wonderful instead.”
We Christians like to talk a lot about grace and sing nice feel-good songs about it. But I’m not sure we’ve looked at grace and thought about it as comprehensively or as carefully as we should. For all of its sweet-sounding softness, God’s grace does have another, much more difficult side to it. ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound?’…Well, it wasn’t so ‘sweet’ for the older brother in the prodigal son story, was it? Remember him – the one who stayed home, who did everything right, who never strayed from his father’s wishes, while his selfish little brother skipped town with the inheritance and went on a bender that made Jack Kerouac’s On the Road look like child’s play? Anyway, when the father in that story extended grace to that good-for-nothing younger brother in the form of the most lavish welcome home party anyone had ever seen, grace didn’t sound the least bit ‘sweet’ to that older brother! (We’ll look at his uncomfortable encounter with grace later this month.)
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound?…Not if you’re one of the workers in today’s parable who worked all day in that land owner’s vineyard and then watched as the boss paid the bums who showed up an hour before closing time just as much as he paid you!
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound?…Not if you were in that family that was robbed and probably beaten by that thief who was hanging on the cross right next to Jesus. I can’t imagine they were any too pleased to hear Jesus assure that low-life scoundrel a place in heaven, complete with a confirmation number for that very day!
Careful, thoughtful readers of the New Testament understand that “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” only tells half the story. For in every moment when grace is dispensed, somebody ends up feeling ticked off or even cheated. In fact, if we are really honest about it, the parables of grace – like this one we read today – tick us off too, don’t they? And that stands to reason, for we live in a world that lives by what Phillip Yancey calls a system of “ungrace – tit for tat, the early bird gets the worm, no such thing as a free lunch, people should get what they deserve – nothing more, nothing less.” (p. 64) That’s how the world we live in operates – a system based on, at least, the presumption that people should get what they deserve – and that system, whether we like it or not, is the opposite of God’s system, for His chosen system is based on grace.
So living the way we do in the world we live in, it’s no wonder that we sympathize with the older brother when we hear the parable of the prodigal son, or with the laborers who worked a full day in the story of the laborers in the vineyard. It’s no wonder that we sympathize with the family who had been robbed by that the thief on the cross. We identify with the people in all these stories who seem to be getting the raw end of God’s deal! But what we’ve got to understand is that it’s only a raw deal if we’re ignoring Christianity’s most important and unique principle – the principle of grace. And, we must also note, that God’s grace is also only a raw deal if you and I continually identify ourselves as the “good,” “hardworking,” and “deserving” people in all of Jesus’s stories. More on that in a couple weeks.
But in Christ, God entered a world of ungrace, and proclaimed that there was a new economy emerging, an economy of undeserved grace, an economy where “a widow’s pennies count more than a rich man’s millions, where an employer pays the Johnny-come-latelies the same amount as his trusted regulars,” where a criminal who repents on his deathbed gets the same reward as the one who lived his entire life for Christ. (p. 60) Yancey calls this “the atrocious math of the Gospel.” Like it or not, fellow Christians, there’s another side to the initially ‘sweet’ sound of grace. And make no mistake: if we’re going to call ourselves ‘Christians’ we have no choice but to line up behind God on this one. Perhaps the most bitter pill God requires Christians to swallow is that we don’t get to decide who gets grace and who doesn’t. It’s not our call. If Jesus’s life and ministry are any indication, pretty much everyone gets grace, except, perhaps, the ones who would withhold grace from others. As C.S. Lewis puts it, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.” (What’s so Amazing… p. 64)
I think our attention to this other side of grace, to the full picture of how grace works, is especially important in the present age, because for the first time in history, we have moved into a time when Christianity is no longer the primary or dominant religion in America. While it might not yet be the case in Charlevoix, in most urban areas and college towns in this country, people now have face-to-face interaction on a daily basis with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and folks from every religious tradition under the sun. And as our world gets smaller and the religious complexion of America gets more diverse, more and more people are asking, “Who goes to heaven and who doesn’t? What happens to all the millions and even billions of people on the earth who don’t know Jesus or don’t believe in or practice Christianity?” I find it troubling and more than a little ironic that it’s Christians – Christians who espouse the very religion that is based on grace – who respond to this huge and heartfelt question of who gets into heaven in the most grace-less way. How can we Christians, who have been saved by grace alone, so quickly and callously sink to the quoting of an isolated scripture verse like, ‘Jesus is the only way to the Father. No one gets to heaven except through Him?’ Trust me when I say that I have memorized those same verses, but I’ve also wrestled faithfully and diligently with the larger and way more prominent Biblical narrative of grace in which they occur, and with what Phillip Yancey correctly calls “the atrocious mathematics of the Gospel.” And because of all that, I have a different answer to the question of who goes to heaven and who doesn’t. It’s an answer that seeks to take grace into account. When someone asks me, “What about people from other religions?” the first thing I say is, “God makes it clear that such weighty decisions and judgment calls are to be left to Him, not me.” The second thing I say is, “But I do know this: the God I worship has a well-documented habit of extending grace to those who least deserve it – the thief on the cross who gave an 11th hour confession, that day-laborer who only worked one hour but got paid for the entire work day, or that younger brother in the Prodigal Son story, who was given a hero’s welcome when he returned from his trip to Hedonism III. So if you’re asking me, ‘Will God welcome people into his eternal party who either don’t really “deserve” it or who don’t meet some religious standard that makes sense to me…I’d say the odds are God probably will. My job is to be ok with that possibility and to live my life giving grace as freely and as indiscriminately as my Lord does.”
I want to tell you a personal story about all this. It’s a story about my dad. As many of you know, he was in this terrible car accident that killed my mother and an 11-year-old boy from Charlevoix. My dad lived 14 years after that wreck, though to say that he “lived” is an over-statement. I was his live-in caregiver for most of that time, and dad was miserable, tortured with guilt, and wanted nothing more than to go and be with my mom. When we received his stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis about 11 years after the accident, dad was relieved. He had no interest in any treatment and was glad to know that, finally, the end was in sight. The one thing my dad kept struggling with and saying over and over again was “I just don’t know why I’m here. I’m not doing anybody any good. Why doesn’t God just take me? All I’m doing is taking up oxygen. I don’t understand why I’m not dead yet.”
The closer he got to the end, the more open and probing I would go in my conversations with him. One night during dinner I asked him this question. I said, “Dad, let’s say that when you die, you go to heaven, you see God and Jesus, and everybody is there. Mom is there; your folks are there; all your deceased buddies and relatives are there. But so is everybody else too – Jews are there; Muslims are there; Hindus are there; Buddhists are there. How would you feel about that?”
His face became very grim, he crossed his arms, and said, “I wouldn’t like it – not one bit.”
“But dad, you’re with God and Jesus – directly. Mom is there. All your loved ones are there. It’s just that so is everybody else. Why wouldn’t that be great?”
“Well,” he said, “it’s just not what I was taught. It’s not how I was raised. Heaven’s not supposed to be for everybody. I’d feel cheated.”
“But, dad,” I persisted, “You are there! Mom is there! You guys are with God! You’re in God’s glory! How can that possibly feel like you’ve been cheated?” Here he struggled, like he couldn’t quite find the words to express what he was thinking. He just kept shaking his head and clenching his jaw.
“It just wouldn’t be fair. It’s not right.”
“Dad,” I said, you know the Bible pretty well. I know you know Jesus and his teachings very well, because you and mom taught them to me. You remember how Jesus always used to eat with sinners and tax collectors, and how the religious leaders always got upset with him about that? But he kept right on doing it. Do you remember how in all his stories and parables, the people who didn’t deserve love, forgiveness, and grace still got it – the prodigal son, the laborers in the vineyard who only worked the last hour of the day, the thief on the cross? Jesus told us that that is how his kingdom would be, so I think we need to be ok with that. You know how you’re always saying that you don’t know why you’re still here or why God hasn’t taken you home yet?” He nodded. “Well, maybe it’s because your heart is not big enough for his kingdom yet…Maybe God is waiting and being patient with you, until you finally get to the point when you’ll be ok with all the other people who are in his kingdom, especially the ones you don’t expect to see there or the ones you don’t think deserve it.”
Dad got really quiet. He uncrossed his arms, folded his hands as if in prayer, took a deep, sighing breath, and then slowly, silently nodded his head.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound – it’s a great song, isn’t it? But as great as it is, I do wish that John Newton would have added another verse or two to complete the picture of God’s grace. I wish Mr. Newton had included a couple more verses about the call upon each and every one of us who claims to be a follower of Jesus – the call to accept and cooperate with God’s indiscriminate scattering of grace. For whether we like it or not, the God of the scriptures is not about fairness. Instead, the God of the scriptures rains His grace down on the just and the unjust, on the saint and the sinner, on the good and the wicked, on the sheep of ‘this’ fold and on those “sheep of another fold” that he spoke of in John 16. So with all due respect to the great hymn writer John Newton, I’d like to close today’s sermon with my proposed additions to the greatest hymn ever written:
- The grace that Christ has given me,
it is not mine alone
His grace is made to ever flow,
through me to all God’s own
- And when Your grace my rival finds,
may I not bitter be
But pray his joy would equal mine,
that day Your grace found me