“ Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus”. Those may seem very strange words coming from the mouth of a URC church member, let alone of someone brought up in a Baptist church. Yet these were the words my mind was saying as I woke around 5am this morning. This week’s reflection has been the most difficult for me to write. I was certain when I read the passage from Ephesians that I had to speak about grace. The word is used three times in those 10 verses that we heard read.
But what is grace? We use the word all the time. Many people ‘say grace’ before meals, acknowledging that our daily food is a gift from God. Those of you who studied music will know about grace notes. They’re tiny notes above the score. Those notes enhance the music but don’t have to be there. It’s like an extra gift from the composer. We insult a person by (saying) ‘You’re a disgrace!’ A truly dreadful person has no ‘saving graces’ about them.
We use the word all the time, but what does it mean in a spiritual context? The Oxford Companion to the Bible simply says, “Grace is the word for the undeserved gift from God that creates and sustains and nurtures relationships. God’s grace makes our relationship with God and other people possible”.
I want to bring Mary back in here. Those first words of the Hail Mary are the words spoken by the angel when they appeared to Mary. It seems to me that Mary couldn’t be other than full of grace being the bearer, the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. Where did her grace come from? Perhaps she was chosen because she was already gifted with grace? Or did being chosen and being willing mean that she was endowed by God with grace? I don’t know. But I like to think that Jesus must have grown up learning grace from her as well as his heavenly father.
We often sing that well-loved hymn “Amazing grace” but do we always look at the words? Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. John Newton, who wrote those words, was joyfully telling of his salvation from his former sinful life.
Sin is something we don’t often talk about, do we? Nor do we like talking about salvation. But grace – God’s grace – runs hand in glove with both these concepts. We can’t have salvation without God’s grace and we can’t have either without acknowledging our sin. The reading from Ephesians says to the Christians at Ephesus (and therefore to us also) “by grace you have been saved through faith not of yourselves that anyone would boast but it is the gift of God”. I take that to mean that only when we realise and confess our sinfulness then we are ready to receive the wonder of God’s grace.
I want to tell you a little about Alcoholics Anonymous here. No, I’ve never been a member – I love gin but I’m not addicted to it. There but for the grace of God go I! Members of that organization know that grace follows an acknowledgement of sinfulness. When they introduce themselves at a meeting they have to say publicly “I am an alcoholic”. It’s a statement of failure, of helplessness and also of surrender. But it’s only by getting to rock bottom and realizing that’s where they are as an alcoholic, that they don’t want to stay there. They know that through recognizing and admitting all the misery and guilt that goes along with being an alcoholic that an understanding of grace is born and lives are transformed. There’s a saying in AA ‘Religion is for people who believe in hell but spirituality is for people who’ve been there’. Some churches are like that – they believe in and preach hell but I’d like to think our church is open to people who have been to hell and that with us they will discover God’s grace that can transform their lives. Being hard on sin doesn’t change lives – only grace can change people.
Think about a child in school who is badly behaved because of pain and hurt in his home life. He’s always getting into trouble. What do you think he needs? Someone strict who will punish him for his misdemeanors, or do you think he needs someone to love him and care for him until he is transformed? That’s Grace. That’s exactly what God does for us. Knowing that we are accepted by God can transform our hearts.
People desperately need this gift of God’s grace. Sinners flocked to Jesus but in 2000 years we’ve somehow changed that. Sinners avoid the church – perhaps because they’ll feel worse fearing the church’s judgement. But perhaps what we’ve missed is that sinners flocked to Jesus because Jesus had grace.
Ernest Hemingway tells a story about a Spanish father who decides to reconcile with his son who had run away to Madrid. Now remorseful, the father takes out this advertisement in the newspaper: “Paco, meet me outside Hotel Montana, Noon Tuesday, All Is Forgiven. Papa.” Paco is a common name in Spain, and when the father goes to the square he finds eight hundred young men named Paco waiting for their fathers. The world is hungry for grace just like those young men were desperate for reconciliation.
If we show that grace perhaps sinners will learn to say “Church! I can go there and find grace”.
God’s grace is shown clearly throughout the whole of the old testament – I’d like to close with that beautiful blessing from the book of Numbers “The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his face toward you and give you peace”. When we baptise children we say that to them – and we’re sure that God’s grace is being given to them.
I don’t feel as if I’ve really got very far with understanding grace in these last two weeks but I hope you’ll feel it’s a start and perhaps want to explore it more.