5-5-19 “Grace That Embraces”
Bob Goff, a best-selling author, diplomat, and philanthropist, is quoted as saying that “Grace seems unfair, until you need some.” Grace, the unearned, unmerited, undeserved love of God is one of those strange gifts that we are given in the moments when we least expect it, in the places where would least expect to see it, and often from the people from whom we would least expect to receive it. Grace comes like the unexpected hug from a stranger.
Some do liken grace to an embrace. Our passage today can be seen somewhat in that way. The issue at hand in the larger passage is that Paul is calling out Peter for being a hypocrite. The word translated as hypocrite, in Paul’s time, meant actor or one who wears a mask. It didn’t have the same negative connotation that we give to hypocrite today, but the idea was the same - saying one thing and doing another, or presenting a false front. In the Book of Acts, Peter famously has a vision of various animals that were considered by the Law to be unclean being lowered on something akin to a sheet for Peter to eat, Peter declaring that he had never and would never eat that which is unclean, only to have God call him out for calling unclean what God had said was clean. This event then led to Peter’s entering the home of a Gentile God-follower - another violation of the Law - and declaring to all present that God does not play favorites, that the grace of God and the Spirit of God fall on both Jew and Gentile alike.
By the time Paul’s letter to the Galatians is written, though, Peter has equivocated on that statement, he is back-sliding under pressure from what Paul calls “false teachers” from outside the group of Jewish leaders and original Apostles, “imposters” Paul labels them - who insist that Gentile converts must first be circumcised, that is - put into compliance with Jewish Law - before the grace of God extends to them. Under this pressure, Peter is folding like a cheap umbrella, and Paul is giving him what for. They had agreed, he said, had shaken hands, had embraced the belief that grace extended to all and that Paul would share this message with Gentiles while Peter, James, and John, would focus on sharing this with the circumcised, the Jews.
This all comes down to the age old debate about whether we’re saved by faith or trust in the grace of God or by our own works. Is grace a free gift given by God, or is it something we earn by the things we do or don’t do, say or don’t say, believe or don’t believe? Does following the Law save us, in this particular case agreeing to be circumcised, or are we saved by faith, by trusting in Jesus Christ?
And that’s a huge question in this passage. If salvation is only offered to the Jews, then the rest of Creation was doomed. The mark of circumcision was not intended to be a status symbol, it was a sign of being set apart from other nations, not set above them. The Law was given to differentiate the people of Israel from all the other nations that surrounded them, nations that worshiped other and multiple gods. When Jesus came, he said he came not to change the Law, but to bring it to fulfillment, to bring it to completion. And he then told his Jewish followers that the covenant of the new Law was simply this - love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbors as your self. And oh, by the way, our neighbors include those we would consider enemies. The Law was never about excluding people from God’s love or God’s grace, it was about setting apart a people who might grow to be an example to others as to what it looks like to live in and share the grace of God.
And the dichotomy of Law vs. Faith is also a huge question in the church today, because while we claim in our creeds and our disciplines that we are saved by faith, we often act as though it is our works, our merit, our compliance with the Law brings salvation. The debate and conflict in the United Methodist Church today, and in other denominations in previous years, is at its core, a debate about Law and grace, as well as about how we understand the nature of Scripture. Do we believe that the unmerited, unearned, undeserved grace of God extends to all people, or only to those whom a select and self-chosen group of people have deemed deserving because of their compliance with their understanding of Law, both God’s law and church law? And more specifically, do we believe that the God who throughout Scripture called not only poets, prophets, and priests, but also liars, cheats, thieves, murderers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, Gentiles, and other so-called sinners to carry out God’s mission and ministry, might also call LGBTQ people into various forms of ministry, including ordained ministry? Or do we really believe that God only calls those who are Law compliant, as a certain small group of self-appointed people choose to understand it? And we should be careful about how quickly we seek to defend the latter, because as Scripture is chock full of stories of God calling those people I mentioned who were thought unworthy, undeserving, and even unChrist-like, God also called Paul, who worked adamantly against those who sought to follow Jesus most closely. The arms of God’s grace extends wide, and often includes those we might think are beyond God’s reach. And in that sense, Bob Goff’s statement hits home for us - God’s grace does seem unfair to some of us, until, of course, we need some of it.
I’m enamored with the idea of grace as an embrace, though. A church in South Africa, where apartheid separated people along racial lines for so long, erected a cross in front of their building that they say models the embrace of Christ. Calvary Methodist Church, in Midrand, South Africa, sits atop a hill, overlooking two different communities. As you approach the church, you are greeted by a large, stone cross towering over all who pass by. In a land that was defined by exclusion and separation, this Embracing Cross of Christ, as it is called, is a sign of hope and healing.
The cross, designed by Hans Wilreker and Alan Storey, was erected in 1999. Alan Storey writes, “This cross is shaped to ex- press God’s loving embrace of the world in the death of Jesus. The left arm is raised higher and extends further than the right arm because it is the extension of the heart, reminding us that Jesus’ heart was given in obedience to [God] in his work of boundless loving. The left arm is also the arm of the outcast, reminding us that Jesus came to raise the lowly and poor. The shortened right arm symbolizes the powerful who are humbled and brought low, as prophesied by Mary in Luke 1:51-53.”
The ministries of the church reflected this embrace. Their four pillars of mission are spirituality, evangelism and church growth, justice and service, and development and economic empowerment. These four pillars reflected the needs of the community and the grace they experienced in the life transforming work of Jesus.
To breathe life into the ideas represented in the inanimate Embracing Cross of Christ, we can think of God’s grace as an embrace. And rather than the four pillars that guide this particular church, we might think of the four actions that occur in the act of embracing.
First, there is the opening of our arms. There must be a willingness on our parts to be obedient to Christ’s call to open our arms, to make room for those who need to know the love of Christ in their lives. Paul, in debating with Peter, is asking “Is there enough room in God’s love for everyone or not?
Is there enough room in the mission field for both you and I, or not?”
And that question confronts us as well. How open are our arms to the people who need to know the love of Jesus, whether they’re people we like or not, whether we think they ‘re deserving or not? A determination, I might add, that is not ours to make.
And more broadly, what signals to the people in our community that our arms are open to them unconditionally, as Christ’s arms are open to us?
And likewise, how open are our arms to those whom God has called, whom Jesus has empowered, who aren’t in compliance with our limited concept of what it means to be a Christ-follower or a minister? Our denial of the call or worthiness of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers is no different that what the church historically did to people of color and to women, and is no different than Peter’s telling God that what God created is not good, is not clean, is not worthy.
The second action of grace as an embrace, after opening our arms, is waiting - active and prayerful waiting. In opening our arms an invitation is extended, now we wait in anticipation of the acceptance of that invitation. Nobody likes waiting. We get tired of waiting. We get bored with waiting. We grow impatient. Nevertheless, Jesus waits for us every day. Jesus waits for us to remember that his love is for everyone, not just for those who think, believe, or worship like us. Jesus waits for us every day to remember that we are no more or no less deserving of God’s grace than anyone else, that we have our warts and our flaws. Jesus waits for us every day to remember that he came to serve, not to be served, and that he came to the least, the last, and the lost, not just those who could be found in Temple or synagogue each week. Waiting is hard, but God’s grace is worth the wait.
The third action, then, is closing our arms in the actual embrace. It’s in the embrace that grace transforms both parties. Standing apart from Christ there is no change, there is no growth. It’s in the embrace of Christ, both given and received, that we become more Christ-like, that we, as John Wesley put it, move towards perfection. We don’t lose our identity in the embrace, but we do begin to experience the embrace of God’s grace as transformation.
It’s in the embrace of Christ that, in Galatians 2, Paul calls out Peter for his backsliding, for going back on his word, on their agreement. It’s not done in anger, but as a sign of their mutual love and respect for one another. If we really love someone, we can’t let them do something harmful without at least saying something to them. In Christian love we hold one another accountable - accountable to live and love as Jesus taught.
As Jesus closes his arms around us, inviting us to encounter him, we join at his table, in table fellowship together because, if we embrace him, he changes us. Title or position doesn’t matter, saint or sinner doesn’t matter, because transformation doesn’t take place in the invitation, it comes in the embrace.
God has a place for you, for each of us, at Christ’s table.
And as it is Christ’s table, who he invites is not up to us.
The word translated as grace in Greek is the same word translated as gift. Sometimes, in grace though, we don’t know whether we’re giving or receiving, because as you extend grace, you also receive grace. So, as we think about grace, and who we do or don’t extend grace to, consider who do you have a hard time sharing space with at the table, and why is that? Or conversely, are there certain people that you ALWAYS share space at the table with to the exclusion of others? Sometimes, when we extend grace to another, hoping God will somehow change them, it is actually changing us that God has in mind. We know we’ve created God in our own image if our God only loves the people we love, and hates the people we hate. But that’s not God - that’s us playing God. So as you consider grace God’s grace extended to you, think about what would keep people from being part of your embrace.
The fourth and final movement of embrace then, is opening our arms again. It is in re-opening our arms that we leave traces of grace upon one another.
This is grace received in grace extended. And the arms reopened are now arms ready to embrace again, to share the grace in the embrace, to leave a trace of grace on yet another - whether with those we encounter in the mission field, around the table, or with those who, for whatever reason, we have avoided embracing.
God’s grace encounters us where we are, as we are, and encourages us to become more like Jesus. God’s grace is given freely to those like us and those unlike us, to those we invite to the table and to those we exclude. God’s grace is overflowing and all-enveloping. It knows no beginning and no end.
Grace springs from the love of the God who loved so much that God gave. We, on the other hand, when we say we truly love someone or something, tend to cling, to grasp, to hold on to it for all we’re worth. God’s love, though, is intended to be given away. It’s not ours to dole out as we see fit to those we deem worthy. We’re invited by God to be a sent people, a people given to others. So how we do transform in God’s love to the point of being able to let go of our biases, judgement, our hatred, and our anger; to let go of our self-centeredness in order to focus on embracing those whom God embraces?
What do you need in order to open your arms as an act of Christ-like grace?
Is there a risk in embrace? Sure there is. But the greater risk is in not embracing. Paul tells us in another letter that God, in Christ, is reconciling the world to God’s self. Reconciling is embracing. And God gives us the example in Jesus Christ and the strength in the Holy Spirit to go forth in God’s grace and embrace God’s children, all of God’s children, as God has created them and called them, in such a way that we might become a people transformed by God in order to make a difference for God in the world.
The young Christian writer, blogger, and speaker Rachel Held Evans, whose words I have quoted many times over the year, died yesterday at age 37 after a short illness. And she often wrote about and talked about grace, and today I want to give her the last word.
“Perhaps we are afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand. Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for know not what they do.’ Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.”
May it be so. Amen.