Monday, September 22, 2008

MOSAIC MIAMI notes for 9-21-08: THE SHAPE OF GRACE

Been involved in a multi-week study on GRACE SO AMAZING, and what it means - how to express it - how to define it - how to live it. Funny enough - God was able to use me a little this week to learn about expressing grace (Kevin’s technical problems - provide him the grace of a breather). When thinking about how best to start off illustrating what I plan on talking about today, I came up with this example to show.

Every time that I have spoken here at Mosaic, Ashley has reminded me that I’m not speaking to a youth group and that object lessons aren’t necessary - but they’re still kinda fun.

Need two volunteers - speak your names so we’ll know when we get the lawsuits for emotional trauma we’ll know exactly who and why we’re being sued and what for.

Please take your tube of toothpaste, and at the count of three, squeeze it out on to the plate in front of you as fast as you can.

Now, take this toothpick, and try to put all the toothpaste back in to the tube.

What was the point of that? Other than - let’s be honest - it was kinda fun?

I don’t think that people randomly run around all the time tooth-pasting total strangers. So, let’s make this fluoride-laden analogy into something that you might actually be able to relate to: have you ever spoken against someone or spoken to someone in anger, or intentionally ignored the request, plea, or phone call of someone else that you immediately regretted?

When brushing your teeth, have you ever squeezed just a little bit too much toothpaste out, and it drips and gets on you while you’re getting ready for work - class - date - and suddenly you have this blight on your clothes or counter top?

Think about how you felt - sometimes almost immediately afterwards - once you said or did something you regretted saying or doing. Or that hissing noise you make once you spill the toothpaste on you. Once you let something out, it makes about as much sense to try and put the toothpaste back in the tube as it does to try and take back the words spoken or actions done against someone. Ever clasp your hands against your mouth, almost thinking you can trap the words that have already escaped? [First time you said a dirty word in front of your parents?] And it’s just as futile as trying to put toothpaste back in to a tube with a toothpick.

This illustrates that our words and actions have consequences - sometimes it’s unintentional (accidentally squeeze a little too much out of the tube - have become so numb to the world around us that we don’t hear the cries of others - we have forgotten) sometimes it’s intentional (whether it’s using more toothpaste to equal a way to make up for poor dental hygiene - or yes, you did mean to say that).

Matthew 12:34 -
For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (NIV)

One of the things that struck me when I started to think about grace in my own life, how I have seen grace expressed to others (and not necessarily by me), and how I have been used for and by grace - while we’ve been exploring how amazing grace can be, today, I want us to take a little bit of a closer look at the shape of grace.

[PRAY - “Almighty God”]

Anyone here old enough to remember Grranimals? Or am I just totally out of my culture element and age bracket? For the young among you - this was an ingenious clothing idea for kids: it was a system based totally on the idea of matching animals. You take the shirt that has a hippo or the lion on it and you match it to the hippo or the lion bottom. For some people this meant it was a no-brainer, totally easy way to get your clothes to match, and to teach kids that some things do go together.

For me - when I hear the word grace, I’ve never been able to think about it as an isolated idea. To me, grace always goes with something else. It can’t be singular. Grace can not act alone. There are other words that I associate with grace, because they really can’t go alone either: words like mercy; peace; forgiveness.

In addition to looking at these words and how they correlate to one another, we’re going to study one example from a Bible chapter that I’ve not been able to get away from for almost a year now (turns up in almost every book I’ve read for months now): Matthew 5, so if you have a Bible, go ahead and turn there. If not, the verses will come up on the screen.

Little bit of history here: this was Christ’s first mass public teaching. If you look at Matthew 4:17 when it states that Jesus began to preach “
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (NIV),” this - what we now call the Sermon on the Mount - was the first talk of His based on that idea and of the theme of grace that would permeate though everything when He would speak and act. The Message translation of Matthew 4:17 actually says the message (duh) Christ would spread is “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Looking at the time frame when Jesus began this theme, the nation of Israel had been undergoing a few problems for quite some time: when Christ began his ministry on earth, Israel as a nation had been experiencing God as remote and distant for close to two centuries by this point.

Unlike earlier in the history of Israel (from tribe to country), when there were times of intimacy between God and Israel, by this point the prophets - the Daniels, the Isaiahs, the Elijahs - had been decreasing both in number OF prophets appearing and in frequency OF prophecies being spoken. This was due in part to the collective whole of the nation of Israel experiencing:
  • continued moral and ethical corruption within the leadership of the Temple (taxes, rituals upon rituals, segregation of the congregation)
  • dealing with foreign occupation from Rome and how an “unclean” culture was beginning to supplant and infiltrate the Jewish culture 
  • and there was just gross injustice - social and moral - permeating the whole of the country, with a lack of peace.

Without that prophet/priest - that heart/voice of God to speak to the people, they grew distant from Him.

If you’ve ever studied or read any of the Psalms, you might note that close to, if not over half of them, are in fact laments. The authors of the Psalms were crying out for - you guessed it: grace. Mercy. Forgiveness. Shaped within these words was a plea in single for a person (“Have mercy on me, Oh God”) as well as for a culture, a country as a whole. This to me just cements the idea that we serve a God who - just like it says and is backed up with actions - is acquainted with sorrow - with oppression.

This to me means we serve a God stands with, sympathizes and understands the oppressed and not with those who conquer the oppressed.

You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more. Psalm 10:17-18 (NIV)

He upholds the cause of the oppressed. Psalm 146:7 (NIV)

Naturally, when someone is being oppressed, they look to get OUT from under the oppression. The verb used in Psalm 146 is mishpat, which relates to the shape of deliverance Israel was looking for: a verdict, a righting, and not necessarily grace or a restoration. They were looking for grace to take the shape of vindication.

This theme of oppression is one of the reasons why Jewish culture then (and still today to a degree) has a great deal of its text and songs - to say nothing of the scripture - speaking so heavily to deliverance - to the coming of Messiah - to the one who would bring them out of their historical, social, and even religious oppression.

It wasn’t by accident that Paul began four of his letters (Galatans-Ephesians-Phillipians-Colossians) with the phrase “grace and peace” to the churches he was writing to. He understood the historical and cultural significance of showing those two concepts as an integrated whole to the people he was writing to.

But they were looking for Messiah to come and rule against the oppressors and not against them - for themselves, they ask for grace, and punishment for the ones who have been against them. It’s a little amazing to me that in terms of grace, we sometimes look to see grace given to US and not others (enemies).

When we look for or pray for grace in our own lives, we look for (and pray for) that grace of deliverance, because - to use the illustration of Israel again - we have clearly suffered enough. We are looking for this grace to come in and supplant the pain. And while we can, do and should pray for this type of grace, there is so much more.

Let’s look at a slightly familiar passage to some of us found in Matthew 5, starting with verse 38:

You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

This passage - or as it is most often called, the Sermon on the Mount - is what’s been popping up in books for me for a while now. Not just this specific passage.

Now, a lot of times we look at part of this passage without all the verses in it in context, or we “cherry pick” the ideas and themes we want out of it. But, if we look a little deeper, we’ll find that there’s a really cool triad - triangle of ideas - that emerges here as well as throughout the rest of the Sermon (and therein lies your homework: go read this on your own and discuss what you find in it over coffee with someone).

Jesus starts by taking something that is familiar in Jewish culture (eye for an eye) and comments about the traditional righteousness within it (this command was within the context of the Law, and therefore “permissible”). Next He talks about the vicious cycle (retaliating violently - “resisting a fool”) we can get caught in when we see the Law as something outside of grace. Finally, he illustrates the transformative initiative seen in the closing of the passage (give - go).

That triad - and there are other instances of three being a prime number in the Bible. Trinity, anyone?

When you look at not only the Sermon on the Mount but also the life example Christ gave us - I mean, He was struck on the face, and His garments taken form Him, and He went so far as to give His life - it’s glaringly obvious to me at least that the shape of this grace comes not only in deliverance but also in transforming. Grace is deliverance and transformation.

[start playing with Play-Doh]

Does grace to you mean forgiveness alone? There is, of course, grace found in forgiveness. Mercy found in forgiveness. This is why for me it’s so hard to just think about grace as a singular concept. It’s never alone, and for me, it’s never found without evidence of other transforming initiatives of God: peace. Mercy. Forgiveness. Grace to me includes an empowerment to live life through the grace of the Spirit of God transforming me.

Grace includes an acceptance of the forgiveness in my life and a willingness and desire to act upon that grace and forgiveness.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21 (NIV)

Water a thirsty enemy. Feed a hungry one. Transforming grace. Can you imagine what this world would look like if we just on a small scale attempted this?
This does not mean you have to go to the Gaza Strip armed with nothing but Chic-Fil-A (nothing says “grace and peace” more than a chicken sandwich and lemonade) - but what if you offered to get a drink for someone the next time you went to a coffee shop - grabbed a candy bar from a vending machine - took a tray in the dining hall (those at UM know what a sacrifice that could be because that conveyor belt can be nasty).

But part of that transforming initiative of grace is not just being the recipient of grace, but the giver as well.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Luke 6:37 (NIV)

Just as grace does not come easy for us to express in our own lives to someone that we dislike (and we all, if we’re honest, have at least one person like that in our lives: a family member, someone at work, or someone in our past that we have never let go of in terms of a wrong against us), it’s even harder for us to express it in terms of discipleship to God.

Receiving grace from God - forgiveness, mercy - inherently implies that that there should, at a minimum, be a transformation in the shape of our heart (Sting) in how we act to others.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer referred to this non-transformative grace that some people live their lives under as “cheap grace” - grace that we accept from God but do not act upon as a transformed child of the Kingdom.

Think about this Play-Doh. It can be made into any shape imaginable. But until I act upon it, until I do something with it - it’s still Play-Doh, there’s no denying that.
But what good is Play-Doh that’s not used? What good is my grace until I show it to someone else?

Grace includes discipleship and doing the will of God - not just a passive taking of the grace bestowed upon you (the water - the food) from God. Not just a thought of “there but for the grace of God go I”

Grace without repentance - grace without a concrete change in the way we relate to others, to the community we live in - this is grace with no cost to us (cheap grace) and flies in the face of the grace illustrated in a plethora of words by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount - be reconciled; love enemies; seek first God’s reign and strive to act in justice; remove the plank from your own eye

[Matthew 5 again]

Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie: the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?” "Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” John 5:2-10 (NIV)

Let’s look at this: this guy who had evidence of a transformed part of his life was being chastised for carrying a mat.

I wasn’t there (I’m not THAT old) so I can’t testify as to what the theological implications of his healing was, and I’m not going to talk in depth about the stirring of the water. But if you simply look at this passage from the standpoint that grace was shown to him, that he performed an action following having grace come into his life, and that he didn’t just sit there and think “cool - I’ve been healed. That’s neat.” then there is so much that is amazing about the grace shown in this miracle.

And this goes back to speak to the traditional righteousness illustrated by the calling of the Jews when they said that it was forbidden for him to take up his mat (do work) on the Sabbath and how some of us are slaves to these ideas instead of being wiling to look to the transforming initiative that was shown in the shape of grace right in front of their - our - own eyes.

Story goes on to later talk about how this guy was found in the Temple, talking about the grace shown him. For 38 years, he had been an invalid (as the Bible says) - it would have been so much easier to just go back to being a lump of Play-Doh (got food - alms) but instead chose to act upon the grace shown to him, and go forth and talk about what had happened to him.

Let’s think back to the toothpaste illustration for a minute. More specifically, the toothpick. Now, it would have been easier to choose another instrument to try and put the toothpaste back in with. But this was the instrument given to you (volunteers) to use. Something so seemingly insignificant was the tool that could be used for action. Now, think about that in terms of - as Christ said - watering or feeding an enemy. Going that extra mile. Turning that cheek.

Do you think the shapes of grace that God uses might not make a lot of sense to anyone?

Sometimes when we think of grace given to us, we expect that shape to take the form of favor. Or of a blessing. Let’s be honest [TWO TUBES OF PLAY-DOH]: we all know people in our lives who have been shown grace just as we have been shown (forgiveness - mercy), but their grace begins to take on a different shape than ours (blessing after blessing in our eyes).

Only makes sense that what they make or what they are made into is something we want to make or be made into (ill: kids playing with Play-Doh: “I want to make that, too,”).

Here’s a cool idea: the grace - the mercy, the forgiveness - that Christ shows is not amorphic meaning it has no specific shape. That grace is Christomorphic - a specific shape, a shape revealed in Christ.

What action that takes - what shape that takes - is evident in your life as specific for you. The end result of that grace is the same for all of us, but how it is expressed in you is how it is reflected in what you NEED grace in, what you need to be transformed in.

There’s an example in the book of Luke about what that specific Christomorphic grace could have been shown in:

A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother. "All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Luke 18:18-23 (NIV)

Grace comes from repentance - Grace includes discipleship and doing the will of God. Christ asked the guy at Bethesda a simple question “Do you want to get well?” which seems an idiotic question on the surface (“Naw, I’m good. You go and just feed the 5000 plus and I’ll be just fine here”) and gave the rich young ruler a simple solution to his question - yet both answers to both problems required an action for the grace to become evident in their respective lives.

Peter denied Christ three times, but still managed to receive the grace incorporated in an action (feed my sheep). This does not mean that grace comes from actions, but the transformative initiative that we will want to act on the grace given to us. Don’t just say it - do it. Don’t just say you love me, act on it.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, 
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked. Luke 4:14-22 (NIV)

The term for “gracious words” in verse 22 is charis (KARE-ees) - it means joyful - a kindness granted - absolute freeness in the lovingkindness of God. Now, think not so much about what that says, but think about it in the tone, the manner in which Christ read this passage. It is in preparation for grace to be shown in action and deed to the people who have cried out of redemption that Christ read this passage - about Himself - to a people under oppression who are seeking grace.

The shape of grace for them came in the form of a Man who was not what they were expecting.

It’s kind of like Play-Doh. Using a tool (toothpick) no one expected.

Band I listened to growing up - maybe only 1-2 more people here have ever heard of - 77’s - one of their earliest albums (only format available in - not retro) - PING PONG OVER THE ABYSS - reminds me of the dualistic cycle we find ourselves in sp many times: sin-repent - sin-repent - anger-retaliate - anger-retaliate

Need to add the third component into the cycle: sin-repent-act

Move from the old pattern (under the Law) to the new pattern (Christ) - more excellent way

May you come to see the shape of grace in your life - expressed in a way that people see the grace given to you - expressed through your unique, distinct shape - acting in discipleship and not just being all lumpy - and may we all come to show grace, mercy, forgiveness, love to others as grace, mercy, forgiveness, love has been shown to us.

No comments: