Grace Celebrated

Grace Celebrated

Kua puta mai hoki te aroha noa o te Atua e ora ai ngā tāngata katoa (Taituha 2:11)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all (Titus 2:11)

Some years ago, my wife Jo and I [George] were sent by the British Baptist Missionary Society to partner with the Baptist churches of Brazil. I was fresh out of Spurgeon’s College in London, and we were to help with the planting of churches in the pioneer state of Rondônia in the Amazonian region. It was during this time that this verse, Titus 2:11, gained deeper significance for me. I’d known about grace as that which deals with the past and wipes the slate clean. I’d considered grace as that which guarantees the future: a home with God, undeserved but given by the generosity of God. But what about the present? This verse in Titus goes on to explain that grace trains us, so that in this present age we might live differently. What I came to see is that it is transformed lives that carry forward the gospel and mission of Jesus Christ. So this is what we want to look at – the grace of God in this present age and what it does, what it achieves, and what it effects in our lives, our churches, and the world.

This coming year is a particularly significant time to consider the theme of grace, because 2017 marks 500 years since Luther wrote his famous “95 Theses.” His theses sparked a crucial debate in the church, and paved the way for the Reformation. Luther sought to renew the church through grace, and to ensure that the life of the church was oriented to grace. Reflecting on John 4:13-14, Luther wrote: “Christ, our Lord, to whom we must flee and of whom we must ask all, is an interminable well... of all grace... Even if the whole world were to draw from this fountain enough grace and truth to transform all people into angels, still it would not lose as much as a drop.” (1) The grace of God excited Luther. But it was not a generic understanding of grace: it was grace embodied in Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ is grace. So for us to begin to reflect on grace, we must begin with Christ.

Grace Embodied

We only have to look at the opening of John’s Gospel to see that when Christians speak of grace embodied, we must speak of Jesus Christ. John tells us that God’s eternal Word, through whom all things were created, has come and dwelt among us (or tabernacled among us). John uses overtones from the Exodus to show us that God has taken up our cause in Jesus Christ, and his glory - the same glory that Moses saw at Sinai - is displayed in Jesus Christ who is full of grace and truth. In the incarnation, God goes on a journey into the far country,into the world that is stubbornly opposed to his love, for us. In the far country, God takes responsibility for our predicament, and gives himself to us. (2) God reveals himself to be the God who is for us, no matter what the cost. While God gives himself to us, he does not give himself away. Jesus Christ remains the Lord, and he is not reconciled to our alienation from God. Our alienation from God is reconciled through him by grace.

So when we read in Titus 2:11 that “grace... has appeared,” what we are really saying is that Jesus Christ has appeared. Grace was always there: it’s essential to who God is. But in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, grace took on flesh and walked human streets; grace lived a human life and encountered other human people in their cultural specificity, in their life situations, and in their contexts. 

Grace Discerned

Acts 11 tells us about the church in Antioch. This was a phenomenal church. It was the most effective mission sending church in the New Testament. Do you know who started it? We don’t know their names! All we know is that there were people who were scattered by persecution and some of them got as far as Antioch. What are people scattered by persecution called? Refugees. It was refugees who took this bold move in mission. Some of those people spoke only to Jews, but some spoke also to Greeks. Here, the Word crossed a cultural boundary of hostility and suspicion. Perhaps this was because those refugees knew what it was to cross boundaries and to be the outsider, and so they too crossed a boundary to receive outsiders into their community. Here, something new started. Jews and Gentiles together, sharing life in a new community of faith. But they couldn’t have shared together without eating together – and there’s the problem! Jews have food rules; Gentiles have other practices. How can they join together? Only if God makes it happen! 

The Jerusalem church heard about this new thing. They were the original church, the mother church, and they had developed their ways of doing things. So what were they to make of this new, very different type of church in Antioch? They sent Barnabas to check it out. Would Barnabas have gone to assess the degree of conformity to the behaviours and attitudes that characterized the Jerusalem church? What we read, instead, is that Barnabas, who was a man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, saw the grace of God and was glad (Acts 11:23). Barnabas had a disposition that celebrated God’s grace.

Isn’t that what we need in a world where so many things change and where God is doing unusual, unexpected, and unprecedented things? We don’t need people to go into new places with a checklist to make sure that everything is being done ‘properly.’ We need people who can go and discern the grace of God, however surprising it is, however strange it is, however different it is. We need people who, instead of being suspicious and grumpy about difference, will rejoice and encourage the ‘keeping on’ in the faith. 

Grace Unleashed

I [Andrew] have recently re-engaged with indoor cricket. The indoor centre is just around the corner from the new Crave Café in Auckland, and it’s become normal for the team to go and have a coffee, or meal, and chat at Crave. The Crave ethos is all about making the neighbourhood a better place to live, connecting with neighbours, as well as addressing social poverty. My team mates are fairly suspicious about church, and many have been disturbed by some things that they have experienced, observed, or heard about the church. They are not especially warm to talking about Christian faith. What is interesting is the way that Crave creates an intriguing space that causes my team mates to ask positive questions. I know many of the people working at Crave, and my team mates are intrigued by the stories, conversations, and the creative forms of social enterprise. Crave is a question-causing community, and I have begun to think that many of these creative forms of Christian life and faith facilitate conversations that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Crave is an expression of our Christian faith that differs from many of our churches. There are times when we are suspicious of new expressions. Sometimes we don’t allow these green shoots to grow. At times, we have trampled on them. Or, we plant them overnight and then quickly dig them up the next morning to see if they have grown. We need to be patient with new expressions of church and faith, and give them time to grow on their own terms. We need to champion new expressions, and allow the grace of God to be expressed through them.

So what’s the role of the church? Is it mostly just a hindrance that people have to get over if they want to get near Jesus?! Paul’s letter to the Ephesians explains God’s great plan: to bring all things into unity under Christ who is our head. Paul goes on to explain how this great plan is displayed on earth. Surprisingly, it’s actually through the church. Despite its flaws and fallenness, God uses the church to display his great plan to unite all things under Christ. It is displayed especially in the church’s rich diversity of age, ethnicity, sex, and class. The church is not called to uniformity where minorities learn to tow the line, but unity in rich variety. Christ has not destroyed our differences; he has destroyed the hostilities that divide us. The radical unity of the church is a sign to the world of God’s redemptive plan: the church doesn’t just do mission – the church is mission. The church, in all aspects of its life, is to display what it looks like when Jesus is Lord, when God has his rule and reign over a community of people. That’s a scary thought. It’s as if the church is to be the visual aid that God uses and says, “Look at my church and you’ll see what I’m about in the world!” The church is the trailer to God’s great redemptive movie! That’s challenging. Would people pay money to see the movie?!

Grace Shared

Displaying the grace of God to the world is not left in the hands of professional Christians; it is a calling to all Christians, because it is God’s grace that is shared and is to be shared across the whole earth. Philippians 1:7 reads, “…for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” Paul tells the church in Philippi that sharing in the grace of God is what constitutes the church in mission. He doesn’t say, “Church, send money because I have a whole heap of God’s grace that I need to be busy spreading around the world.” No, he says, “People, you share in God’s grace with me and whatever we are doing in terms of the gospel, you are sharing in this grace.”

It is important to understand who Paul is writing to. Paul is a Jew, and he is writing to Gentiles. He is writing to people like Lydia, an Asian businesswoman who became the first believer when Paul reached Philippi. She opened her home, which became the hub of the new Christian community at Philippi. He is writing to the jailer who wanted to kill himself when he thought his prisoners had escaped, and who was saved (along with his household) by believing in Christ. And he was probably writing to the demon-possessed slave girl who had been used as a fortuneteller, and from who Paul cast out the demon. It is to these people that Paul says, “You all share in God’s grace with me. You are part of the cascading of God’s grace in Christ, which works through all sorts of people, and all sorts of cultures, and all sorts of positions in life. We share in this together.”

God is reaching out to this world through his diverse beautiful people, and we share in that together. We need to ask what that looks like, and we need to allow for God’s grace to work in its rich diversity. For many who are used to structures and systems that suit them in the church, it may mean going on a journey where we begin to recognize ways that we have participated in forms of church and life that have frustrated God’s ways.

This takes us back to the text we began with in Titus. Paul is writing to Titus, who was a missionary on the island of Crete. This place had a pretty bad reputation in the Roman Empire – it was known as a place of violence, deceit, and social structures that oppressed women, abused slaves, and took boys out of their homes to train them to be warriors. Yet, this is where the mission of God arrived. In writing to those on Crete, Paul points to the grace of God. He doesn’t say, “Finally, we’ve found the perfect social structure, so let’s cement that by putting it in the Bible.” No, he says, “You are living in pretty difficult social structures. But grace has appeared, and it trains us to live differently. The grace of God makes a difference here – to the ways the slaves live, the ways the women live, the ways the men live.” Grace cascaded out within those social structures as it transformed the recipients of grace in the households, men’s clubs, and slave quarters on the island of Crete.

Parihaka 1881

Parihaka is a community in the Taranaki area, which was established as a peaceful Māori settlement in 1866. In November 1881, leaders Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, along with their community, had to make a big decision. The government militia was assembled ready to march on them, to enforce the end of their settlement of peace, and to take the land. What would they do? Learning from Jesus Christ, they chose the way of grace. They chose not to respond to the troops with violence, but to receive them in peace. When the militia came, they were received with hospitality. Children went out to meet them singing, bringing morning tea, while the community sat peacefully. 

From the perspective of the powers of this world, what happened next looked like a defeat for this act of grace. The leaders and many of the men in the community were arrested; some were transported as far as Dunedin where they were put to heavy labour in harsh conditions. A number of them died. The community was largely dismantled, although some remain until today, and still carry a deep grief over the suffering and loss of life that occurred through this event and its aftermath. Ngā mihi nui ki rātou. But that was not the end of the story. News of the Parihaka resistance spread across the world. In South Africa, it fired the imagination of a young Indian lawyer, one Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi. One of Ghandi’s closest friends there was Joseph Doke, a former minister of Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, in Christchurch. Did they speak of Parihaka and its implications for Ghandi’s developing views on passive resistance and civil disobedience? It seems highly likely. Decades later, another Baptist minister, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., inspired in turn by Ghandi, encouraged his people not to respond with violence to prejudice and aggression. His peaceful protest catalyzed change that continues to this day – the cascading of grace across generations. 

Grace confronts, defies, and subverts the paradigms of power, force, and evil in our world. It may seem that it is defeated, as indeed it seemed that the Lord Jesus himself was defeated. But grace cannot be killed. Grace continues, and grace in one cascades to another. The impact of that cannot be measured. But that is not only what we are called to, it is surely what we are empowered for.

Grace Nurtured

1 Peter 4:10 reads, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” When the Bible speaks about grace operating in us through giftedness, the word for grace is charis. You may have heard the word charisma - like a charismatic gift: the word charisma is simply charis that becomes something specific, such as serving, or giving, or being hospitable. It is not only the charisma of leadership, or preaching, or worship leading, or organising a PowerPoint, or things to do with a Sunday occasion. It is the way that grace becomes real in human relationships, in households, in places of work and leisure, and there is no end to it. It is the infinite and uncontainable concretization of grace.

Closing Thoughts

Grace is why any of us are here. Grace is why there’s any reason for our world still to exist. Because the grace of God that brings salvation for all people has appeared in Christ, and is unleashed in the world. 

Revelation 22:21 reads, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” The last word of the whole biblical revelation is the word of grace. The last word of that great panoramic depiction and revelation of mysteries and things to come in human history, is grace. So if it’s the last word in the Bible and the last word in history, maybe it should be the last word in our life together. And if it’s to be the last word in our life together, then perhaps it needs to be the last word in our churches and societies, in our discussions, in the things that we find difficult to understand and sort out, and in the things that we disagree over. Could we also let it be the last word in all of our pain and disappointments, in the things that keep us up at night, in our thinking, our meditating, and our resolving. Can we let grace be the last word?

Story: George Wieland and Andrew Picard

George and Andrew both work at Te Kāreti Iriiri o Carey (Carey Baptist College), where George is the Director of Mission Research and Training, and Andrew lectures in Baptist Theology, Christian Doctrine, and Applied Theology. 

This article is adapted from a talk given by Andrew and George at the Baptist Hui 2016. You can view a video of the whole talk at lifelonglearning.nz/grace.

A story of grace 

How do we experience grace from another? There is one story that comes quickly to mind. Perhaps it is because I was at a real low, and so grace was particularly amplified. I’m not sure. But I know that the very idea of receiving any favour was the polar opposite to what I felt I deserved. 

I was working in London and living a lifestyle that I couldn’t afford, trying to keep up with my peers. Although I had a decent job, I had expensive rent and an expensive commute, so each month was tight. I was also surrounded by friends with expendable incomes, so I overspent to maintain my social life. Obviously, this wasn’t sustainable. Not only did it come with a high level of stress, but I ended up in financial difficulties. Eventually, I had to contact my parents and ask for a loan as I couldn’t make rent that month. 

I felt utterly ashamed to have to ask for this help – I was an adult who should have known better. I expected a rebuke, maybe anger, disappointment, annoyance, or frustration. But I got something quite different, and it was overwhelming. 

What they said was, “How can we help? We just love you.” They were gentle and generous, forgiving and kind. Don’t get me wrong, we did some practical planning too! But this came from a place of love and care, regardless of where the fault lay. 

Part of grace is to do with focusing on support with compassion that goes over and above mistakes that may have been made. To show grace means that while you don’t ignore the mistake, you care more about the person who needs grace, and you extend another chance. After all, we all need a lot of chances.

When you get those moments of grace, you are reminded how loved you are, and it’s a joyous thing. In this instance, I saw something of God’s heart for us. 

Story: Anonymous

TAKE OUTS:

  1. In what ways do you think your faith community embodies the grace of God?
  2. How would your wider community observe this embodiment?
  3. Talk with others about your local community. In what places might God be working that is outside the local church? Is this surprising? 
  4. How might you practically join him in his work, and what things might you have to do differently to make this happen?
  5. Spend some time thinking about your faith community. Who are the people, different from you, who have been given gifts from God?
  6. How could you partner with them in sharing the gospel within your community? What might the impact be?
  7. In what way might your faith community be burying a talent that has been given to you as a church?
  8. How can this wonderful gift of grace be nurtured?

Reference 

1. Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, Luther’s Works vol. 22 (St Louis, MO: Concordia, 1968)
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans. G. W. Bromily et al. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 179-180.

Photo credit: Pearl/lightstock.com

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

This article is from the February/March 2017 issue of Baptist Magazine.

You can subscribe to Baptist Magazine here

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