Sunday, September 18, 2016

Amazing Grace

Today marks fifteen years since the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001.  Where were you that day when you first heard the news? For myself I can vividly recall turning on the television to see images of smoke pouring out of the world trade center. The news anchors were speculating that perhaps, a small passenger plane flying too low had accidently crashed into the tower. They seemed very perplexed. I remember puzzling over it myself with my cousin who was visiting that morning, when suddenly right before our eyes the second plane hit. The horror of the following events unfolded before us as we watched in disbelief. The third plane went down over Pennsylvania. Perhaps most shocking of all, was the collapse of the massive towers.  I remember wondering if the attacks would continue throughout the day.

I was a young college student at the time. For myself and for others my age, it was the defining moment of our generation. Emerging as we were into the world of adulthood and responsibility, it was a painful and sobering confrontation with human nature and the desperate realities of the world. Nothing would ever be the same again. Our consciousness was forever altered.

Those events caused me to reflect, in a more serious way than ever before, on the seeming intractability of moral and social evil. How could I be a part of the healing of our broken world? Where was genuine hope to be found? The years ahead would involve me in a spiritual and intellectual search. I delved into works of psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. It was a dizzying experience, and one that—at least initially stirred up more questions than answers. 

These periods of questioning and instability, however, have the potential to be turning points in our spiritual journey. I found that the experience brought me to a much deeper engagement with my Christian faith and a greater confidence in its truthfulness. I found in the gospel good news for the brokenness of the world and for the darkness in my own heart that I found nowhere else. It was a message that shifted my focus from programs for self-improvement and agendas for political revolution—who’s hope rested on the power and initiative of human beings—and  centered my hope on the more sturdy foundation of God. At the heart of the gospel is the beautiful and transformative proclamation of God’s grace.

What is grace anyway? It is usually defined as, “unmerited favor.” That is a good place to start. If we want to understand grace we first need to get our heads around the idea that it is a completely undeserved gift. If I give you something in exchange for a service rendered me, that is compensation. If a man sends flowers to a woman who’s beauty he admires, that is appreciation. But if I show mercy to someone who has wronged me, that is grace. It is a free choice of the giver of the gift, unconditioned by anything about the recipient.

Grace is perhaps better conveyed than defined. Its power is beautifully extolled with astonished wonder in a much loved hymn penned by John Newton,

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

Newton was a former slave trader turned abolitionist. He was converted to Christ after being spared during a horrible storm at sea. The lyrics of the hymn capture his amazment at having received God’s grace in his unworthiness. They describe the change that understanding and receiving God’s grace produced in his life. 

In a similar way, in our Epistle reading this morning, Saint Paul recounts his own dramatic transformation. He was a, “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” yet God showed grace to him and called him to be an apostle of the Gospel. He goes so far as to say that God chose him, the chief of sinners, in order to make him an example of his amazing grace.

It was this grace that became the constant theme of his preaching. Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans,

“Christ died for the ungodly. It is rare indeed for anyone to die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.…”

How is it that this message of God’s grace can change the world?

First, God’s grace means that there is hope for the future. God has not rejected us or treated us according to our sins, but instead he has reconciled the world to himself through his Son Jesus Christ. The Gospel is his declaration of peace with the human race. The whole reason Jesus came into the world was not to condemn the world, but to seek and save lost sinners, rebels who had spurned his father’s love and wandered far from him. In Christ, God has paid the moral debt amassed against us and has borne the penalty for our sin. He has declared us free and forgiven. More than that, to those who believe in him, he has promised to give the power to live righteously, to live transformed lives. 

Those who have heard and believed the message of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, have often spoken of being “born again.” They testify to being a new creation, a whole new person. They have a new meaning and a purpose for life. Changed hearts and lives mean a changed world.

Secondly, God’s grace makes us children of God through Christ. God is our loving Father who loves us all unconditionally. If God is our Father it means that—whether they are a believer or not, whether they are from the same country as us or another, whether they agree with us politically or not, whether or not that they live their lives in a way that we approve—every human being is our brother or sister.

 We cannot be indifferent to them because they are our own flesh and blood. God has equal love for all his children, and we cannot claim to have a place superior to our brothers and sisters. We all stand shoulder to shoulder as recipients of God’s grace, as those for whom Christ died, as rebels who have been made sons and daughters.  If we accept the Gospel, we know that to love God we also must love of neighbor.

Finally, God’s grace to us moves us to show mercy and compassion to others. Perhaps the most revolutionary of Jesus’ ethical demands is the call to love our enemies. This teaching is the natural consequence of God’s grace. If God has shown us such mercy in forgiving us and laying down his life for us, we should endeavor to show the same grace to our own enemies. Grace breaks the never ending spiral of violence. It does more than vanquish our enemies, rather through the appeal of love it has the power to make them our allies in the Kingdom of God.

It seems like every week we hear of some terrible new tragedy, the latest terrorist attack or natural disaster. Each heart rending event only confirms to us more, we need God’s Grace. We need his forgiveness for our unforgiveness and for the terrible things we do to one another. We need his hope amidst the despair we sometimes feel. We need his strength and guidance as we seek to mend our wounded world. Thankfully, God’s grace is abundant. It is a never ending stream of goodness poured out on us his wandering children.