Grace upon grace – Second Sunday of Christmas 2011

In last week’s Gazette, The Revd Ed Vaughan wrote his final article for his column “By the Book”. Ed has just resigned as minister of Crinken Church (near Bray) to return to a parish in his home diocese of Sydney, Australia. Both Crinken and Sydney are decidedly, not to say notoriously, Evangelical in churchmanship; so while I have always found Ed to be perfectly pleasant, you will not be surprised that he and I would not always be in agreement. And indeed it would be a very boring world if we did have to agree about everything.

Ed’s last article was a reflection on his experience of the Church of Ireland. I was delighted that he found us an intimate community in which people can hold opposing viewpoints without being openly rude to each other. However, he did find us rather shy about proclaiming the Gospel; and, even worse, with a pronounced liberal tendency that might call into question whether we had the real Gospel at all.

“I think, ” he writes, “the biggest danger for the Church of Ireland is the new gospel of tolerance. Tolerance is our culture’s cheap substitute for grace… The Gospel that the Apostles boldly proclaimed offers so much more than tolerance. It offers transformation through grace…  I would much rather someone minister the grace of the Lord Jesus to me than just tell me they tolerate my fallenness.”

It is good for us to hear a variety of opinions. It helps clarify our own ideas, it corrects us where we are mistaken, and confirms us where we have discovered some element of truth. Ed’s article raises various issues, especially about the value of “tolerance”, but I was struck by his last words quoted above:

“I would much rather someone minister the grace of the Lord Jesus to me than just tell me they tolerate my fallenness.”

That’s an important statement, and deserves a bit of reflection.

Grace is a big theme in our readings today. St Paul writes to the Ephesians about “the riches of [God’s] grace that he lavished on us”, grace experienced as forgiveness of trespasses, as revelation of the divine purpose, and as a destined future of hope and glory. We have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be adopted as God’s children, holy and blameless before him in love. John’s Gospel takes up the theme: we have been given power to become the children of God; from the fullness of the incarnate Word we have all received, grace upon grace; the grace and truth which came through Jesus Christ.

There are three elements in this notion of grace.

1. There is the sense that in each human being there is a potential to reflect the image of God, to reflect the glory of God, to grow into the likeness of our Father, to become “sons of God”. The modern translations use the gender-neutral term children; but the original has sons – in Hebrew idiom a “son of God” is a godly person, a god-like person. We have many different potentials with regard to intellect, or skill, or achievement – but all have potentially the moral, personal destiny of sharing the divine life. This potential is itself a gracious gift of our Creator – who has chosen to raise poor creatures of dust to the throne of heaven.

2. The second element in “grace” is the thought of deficiency, of need. We speak of grace being the free gift of God, reflecting the unforced generosity of the giver, rather than any deserving on the part of the recipient. To speak of grace is to acknowledge that. left to ourselves, we fail entirely to realise our created potential. We are indeed fallen creatures, so much so that sometimes we don’t even realise what our true potential is. We need God’s help, and we don’t deserve it. To speak of grace is to speak of inadequacy, of failure – but it is also to speak of the God who freely recreates and restores.

I think this is what Ed Vaughan wants to emphasise when he rejects “tolerance” – I think he is speaking of the attitude that says, I’m OK just the way I am. Such an attitude fails to perceive our high calling, our failure to achieve it, and God’s power to turn us around and transform us. He is right to emphasise instead the language of grace. (How exactly that applies in certain cases might be another matter, for another time).

 3. For the third element in grace is that God, having graciously made us with such potential, having graciously stuck with us in our failure to be what we are meant to be, also graciously reveals to us our need and makes a new future possible. In Christ we not only see what we are meant to be and have failed to be, but also the gracious love that re-makes us, if we come to him in humility and faith. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.” We believe in being changed. Sometimes it is the dramatic conversion from open rebellion against God to a life of discipleship. Sometimes it is the unseen change that comes with the years, as we continue in the practice of prayer, the discipline of repentance, and the practice of the commandments.

 Who can tell what the new year may bring? Every day is an opportunity to grow a little more into children of God; an opportunity to practice patience, kindness, diligence; an opportunity to show God’s grace to others by treating them with grace. Or it may be that the new year will bring an occasion of falling, when circumstances will conspire to reveal how much we fall short of God’s glory. It may be disappointment; it may be disaster; some difficulty, some trial that causes us to stumble. This happens. Our faith is tested, and perhaps we fail. It is not unknown for people who, after a lifetime of being Christian, suddenly find themselves assailed by doubts, grown cold at heart. This happens. And if it does, our recourse is the grace of God and nothing else. Helpless of ourselves to give life to ourselves, and more than conquerors through him who loved us. And the great place to find that grace is in the Holy Communion, the divinely-appointed “means of grace”. This is a dynamic sacrament; here is God is found as a living power to quicken dead hearts and raise fallen men and women. How this is so is beyond us; holy mystery; our part is to draw near in penitence and faith, in all our need and failure, so that we may receive grace upon grace, power to become the children of God.

O Saviour, I have nought to plead in earth beneath or heaven above,

but just my own exceeding need, and thy exceeding love.

The need will soon be past and gone, exceeding great, but quickly o’er;

the love unbought is all thine own, and lasts for evermore.

Jane Crewdson, 1809 -63

 

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