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08.15.10 Receiving and Giving Grace, Romans 1:18-25, 2:1-11, Sermon Summary

by on August 16, 2010

Paul’s letter to the Romans is easily broken up into parts. Chapters 1-3 comprise the first part. Here Paul begins by arguing the case against those “who suppress the truth, who don’t acknowledge God, and who worship idols.” Every Jewish believer in Rome would know Paul was referring to non-Jews (Gentiles); and they would have applauded. But in chapter 2 Paul drops the other shoe: Those Jews who would sit in judgment over the Gentiles are actually guilty of the same things. And so this first part of Romans concludes with the famous words of chapter 3:23, “There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Less famous, but more important, are the words of Romans 3:24, “and are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes a contrast here between judgment, of which we are all worthy, whether Jew or Gentile, and grace, which we all receive, whether Jew or Gentile.

What is grace? The great 20th century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as, “the courage to accept one’s acceptance.” God accepts us; faith believes that. Grace is, in a word, acceptance. Grace (1) allows what is to be what it is. In John 4, Jesus is traveling through Samaria in the heat of the day and meets a woman at a well. She is there at that time because she is a social outcast. Her reputation within her community does not allow for her to come with the other women in the cool of the day to collect water. Jesus, letting what is be what it is, doesn’t judge her. Instead, he engages her in a conversation. He treats her with grace.

Grace (2) allows what is to become what it becomes. In Mark 10, a wealthy man comes to Jesus and asks about the requirements for inheriting eternal life. Jesus recites some commandments, to which the man responds he has kept since his youth. Then Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give to the poor, and follow Christ. The man walks away dejected. Jesus doesn’t judge him, he doesn’t chase him, he doesn’t argue with him. Allowing what is to become what it becomes, he treats him with grace.

Grace (3) is what allows us to always have hope. In Matthew 18, the disciples come to Jesus and ask how many times they must forgive others. Apparently they realized that Jesus preached forgiveness; they just wanted to know how far this sermon really went. Jesus instructs them to forgive seventy times seven times, a symbolic number meaning an infinite number of times. Withholding forgiveness casts a judgment. It says, “What exists between us can never be changed, it will always be this way, I will never forgive you, you are held in judgment forever.” But grace allows what is to be what it is, allows what is to become what it becomes, and thereby grace allows us to have hope for something better.

I first started really learning about grace by reading Chuck Swindoll’s Grace Awakening. That was a long time ago, but the take-away that started me on my journey was this: if grace applies to me, it applies to everyone. Another major installment occurred when I read Philip Yancey’s What’s so Amazing about Grace?: Picture Edition. There, next to the lyrics from “Amazing Grace”, “that saved a wretch like me,” was a picture of Mother Teresa on one side, and Timothy McVeigh on the other. Difficult to imagine, but true. Through the years, I have grown in grace and in being gracious. Here are three things I’ve found to be helpful.

(1) Replace judgment with relational understanding. If I find a judgmental attitude in my life, I try to overcome it by pursuing understanding. And I don’t just read a book. I find someone whose life exemplifies the matter at hand. Stephen Covey says, “You cannot judge and understand at the same time.” I think this helps explain the Incarnation: God does not want to judge us, so God became one of us to understand us. God treats us with grace. So, for example, if you have a judgmental attitude about someone of another faith, or race, or sexual-orientation, overcome that judgmental attitude by really getting to know someone who lives in those realities.

(2) Replace judgment with patient silence. Margaret Thatcher once said of being powerful, “It’s like being a Lady: If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Sometimes I find myself saying, “I’m not a judgmental person. I’m a gracious person.” In reality, I need to stop talking. Like growing in understanding, it’s grace to be patient, to be silent, and to listen and learn. We need to talk less about being gracious, and simply do it more.

(3) Remember your own gracious judgment. I’m a big believer in what psychologists call “projection.” It’s basically the observation that when we find something really annoying about someone else, it’s probably because that same thing is true about us. We don’t want to face that fact, so we project our own self-dissatisfaction on someone else. For example, I’m often a little late to appointments. I also get quite upset if I’m kept waiting for an appointment. What’s really going on is that I don’t like it about myself that I’m often late, but instead of dealing with myself, I direct that frustration towards someone else.

Again in reference to Paul Tillich, the Cross stands not only as an act of grace, but as an act of judgment (Tillich calls this the “Protestant Principle”). When we look at the Cross, we receive “God’s grace as a gift” (Romans 3:24 above), but we are also judged, as God calls us to be more like the Christ we see crucified there. If we want to overcome our judgmental attitudes towards others, the best place to begin is the Cross, remembering the gracious judgment we receive from God.

In all my reading, the best author I’ve found on the topic of grace is Brennan Manning. He’s a former Franciscan monk and an alcoholic. When I invited him to speak at the college where I was chaplain, I heard a lot of concern that he was “telling only half the Gospel.” The other half, of course, in the minds of my critics, is judgment. Is grace only half of the Gospel? I don’t think so. Ephesians 2:8-10 says it is by grace that we are saved through faith, and that this is the gift from God.

I believe God is gracious towards us. I believe grace is to be freely received, and freely given. And I believe as we grow in grace, we are saved. No, I believe grace is the whole Gospel.

Postscript: The Sacramental Seal. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of grace. In Christ, God accepts us: as we are, as we become, as God’s hopes are realized in our conformity to Christ’s image. This means that the sacraments are a means of grace (how we receive grace). They are also an expression of faith. Observing the sacraments says, “I believe God accepts me, I receive God’s grace, I become more gracious, I become more like Christ.”

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