16 Dec Advent: Grace beyond understanding.
Over the years I have looked to those older and wiser to explain the scriptures for me, mature people with years of experience to make sense of our canon of stories. And a lot of this has been, and still is, very good.
But in the last few years something has changed. I believe (most of the time – when I am feeling brave) that the Word of God is not just the domain of people who have been to theological college (although their knowledge and understanding can be very useful!).
I think it is for anyone.
As I have started looking again at the familiar stories, and (dare I say) using my God-given imagination to think about them, I have begun to re-consider the truths I thought I knew.
A lot of these so-called truths are about the stretch of God’s grace.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I grew up thinking God’s grace was limited. And I think this might be, in part, because of the way I understood (and maybe occasionally was taught) the Bible.
I have heard scripture interpreted as instructions for living, as guide-lines for behaviour. I have heard it described as a blue-print and a manual. At times (maybe even often) I have understood the Word of God as a book of lessons in morality. Words used to protect us, to equip us, to rein in our excesses, to curb our freedom, to keep us on the straight and narrow.
Now, I am not saying there is no good in this teaching, in talking of God’s grace in this way…
…Yes I am! That is exactly what I am saying!
Because as soon as we talk of God’s grace as requiring certain behavioural responses (‘yes God has shown you kindness, therefore you must…’, or ‘yes God’s grace is available to you, but now it is your responsibility to play within the rules…’) we kill it. As soon as we apply caveats or restrictions on who is eligible, we miss it.
It isn’t grace anymore.
Looking back now I see that what I had done (and I pretty sure I am not alone in this) is mix one part spirituality, with a little self-help and a dose of western capitalism. The ‘gospel’ I ended up with was one where behaving well granted my ticket to a relationship with God. Like everything else in the world, it was conditional and I could (in theory – if I ticked all the boxes) control it. If I was ‘good’, God would be pleased with me, if I strayed from what was acceptable he would withdraw from me.
This rules-based, protectionist thinking feels helpful for a while. It gave me a framework of right and wrong, and a feeling of belonging, it created security.
But the freedom that lies beyond ‘in and out’, is far, far sweeter.
God’s grace is beyond our structures. It is beyond our rules. It shouldn’t be in the same sentence as anything approaching a should, ought or must.
I no longer think there is any ‘in and out’. That was the whole point of Jesus, wasn’t it? That the grace and favour of God was no longer just for ‘his’ people. Jesus came to bring hope to all, not just those small ghettos of Christians who worship like I do, and agree with me. Either it is true and for everyone, forever, or it isn’t true at all.
If God was willing to send his son to die for us, while we were still sinners, before we had even acknowledged our need for him, ahead of our asking, why do we now feel the need to limit his grace to those who behave how we, in this time-limited, culturally specific moment in history, think that they should behave?
This is hard to believe, and keep believing. In a world where everything is conditional, when it always about proving your worth and maintaining you position, these ideas are subversive and dangerous. They are unlike anything on earth.
But this is the amazing joy and the unbelievable truth: a saviour came, a rescuer was sent.
And he doesn’t ask us to put on our Sunday best, or mind our p’s and q’s. He isn’t waiting until we have got our act together, or sorted our mess out. In fact His words were
“Come to me all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest”. (Matthew 11:28)
And it is in the light of this expansive God, who continually confounds my expectations and bursts through all the boxes I attempt to squeeze him into, I now look at scripture and I read of a baby King who came not to issue decrees, but to lay his life down as the greatest sacrifice. A God who became man to reveal his ‘never stopping, never giving- up love’ and show grace, unconditional and freely given.
It is a pretty exciting read.