The Irony of Grace

There is something ironic happening within my own denomination. I was born into the Methodist Church, and I was seven years old when the denomination united with the Evangelical United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church. My maternal grandmother and her parents were German (her parents having immigrated at the very turn of the 20th century), so having being United Methodist has suited me well as we joined the anglo-saxon (Anglican) forces with the German (Lutheran-descended EUB) forces. It was like this was the denomination that just had my name written all over it!

It was into this tradition that I was baptized and confirmed. It was in this tradition that I heard the call of God to be a pastoral leader in the church. It was this denomination and tradition into which I was ordained. It was in this tradition that I first learned of the powerful importance of grace.

It was early in my ministry when I was looking for the perfect closing salutation to correspondence. In a day that preceded email or digital communication of any sort, I sought to have something that far exceeded the “sincerely” normally found at the close of a letter. I looked at various religious options (I was a new member of the clergy, after all, and I couldn’t let people down with something that was either too lame or too over the top). After careful consideration, I finally decided upon a single word: Grace.

In time, I even took the closing of my correspondence to the next level, and I began to wrap the upper loop of the “J” in Jeff around the word grace. It was something that came to symbolize for me that grace was at the heart of everything I did, and grace was what defined my ministry.

Without spending too much space here covering the full theology of grace and its many formulations in the Wesleyan tradition, suffice it to say that I spent the ensuing years of my ministry learning about the nuances and boldness of grace. I learned about the merciful and terribly demanding nature of grace. I learned about how grace is not just that saving power of God; I learned that grace is the power to transform us and shape us and move us closer to the heart of God. A good Methodist here inserts a thought of “Christian perfection.” (Google it, if it doesn’t make sense).

And grace is the way in which we relate to one another. The readings for this Sunday have led me in two directions at once, so I am addressing one here and taking a slightly different direction with the sermon this week. The two passages we (meaning, my worship planning team and I) have settled on are Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35.

In Romans, Paul is talking about people who are stronger and weaker and people who are simply different from one another. He is talking about people who have different opinions or thoughts (dare we say theology?) and how we are called to live in community with one another regardless of what day we consider to be holy or what food or drink we feel best enhances our faith journey. He asks who we are to judge or restrict someone else’s servants, and by that he means those who serve Christ and who do not serve the person who is judging. He challenges us to live in grace with one another.

In Matthew, Peter has come to the end of this chapter on reconciliation asking how many times we have to forgive our brother or sister. He assumes that the number seven sounds like a “perfect” number of times, so he offers that up. And Jesus answers that it is so much more than that. Then he tells a parable of a man who is forgiven by a king over a debt of 10,000 bags of gold (let’s just say a gazillion dollars), but the forgiven man turns around an puts someone else in prison who owes him only $10.00. Jesus says it’s about to get bad for the guy who was given grace over the bazillion dollars yet who failed to share that grace with the $10 debtor.

And my point is this:

THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH PROCLAIMS GRACE AS CENTRAL TO OUR CORE IDENTITY, YET WE FAIL TO PRACTICE GRACE WITH ONE ANOTHER AND ACTUALLY HAVE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT PARTING WAYS IN THE CHURCH.

We want to think that the issues we face have to do with a divide over homosexuality, but I have come to the conclusion that it is less about homosexuality and much more about our inability to make room at the table for people who are very different from us. We, who are the literal beneficiaries of grace, have failed to be benefactors of grace in our common life together. Most people know where I stand on the issues of inclusiveness, but I am here saying that my form of inclusiveness is to draw the circle wide enough to include people who don’t share my views on inclusiveness. (It’s ok to spend some time re-reading that … I had to, as well).

I think perhaps Jesus’ and Paul’s admonitions to us might be taken to heart. It’s going to get bad for us who have been forgiven the bazillion dollar debt when we fail to overlook the $10 debt and fail to invite our debtors to join us for a meal at the table. Are we people of grace or are we not?

So the irony here is that the church that proclaims grace as a core part of its theological and doctrinal underpinnings is having a hard time living into its legacy of grace!

I am a home-key typist (people over 50 know what that means), and there are times that I get typing so fast that, when I go to type United Methodist Church, I slip and instead call it the Untied Methodist Church. Sometimes I wonder if we are becoming more untied than united, but I am hopeful. I still believe in and make every effort to live by grace! Perhaps … just perhaps … God’s prevenient grace will shine on my beloved church once more and remind us that we are all about …

Jeff Signature