Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 12, 2015; 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year B
Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-23

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection
of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”
Acts 4:33

You know, when the children go home after church today and someone asks, “What was the children’s sermon all about?”, you know what they’re likely to say: “Umbrellas!”

That’s because kids are very literal learners. We do an object lesson with them — as I did today with the umbrella — and sometimes they don’t get much past the object itself.

That’s OK. I’m just as happy if kids understand worship as a place where they belong, a place they’re welcome and accepted. It’s really a very big theological idea I introduced them to today: the idea of grace — something hard enough for us adults to wrap our minds around. My hope is that they’ll feel God’s grace long before they understand the meaning of the word, feel covered and protected by it as an umbrella covers us in a spring cloudburst.

Acts 4:33 says, of those apostles of the first-century church, “Great grace was upon them all.” Now, there are lots of meanings of the English word “grace.” I wrote some of these up in the newsletter teaser for today’s sermon, a graceful ballet dancer, “social graces,” the “grace period” before you have to start paying on a loan. This stuff’s all good.

Our English word “grace” comes from the Latin gratia, which means “something pleasing.” In classical Greek and Roman mythology, there are three sister-goddesses, known as “the three graces.” They’re identified with charm, beauty and creativity. Again, all good.

The dictionary gives another meaning to the word “grace”: favor. Now that gets us closer to the theological meaning of the term. If parents have a favored son or daughter, they put that child on a pedestal. It’s the proverbial child who can do no wrong.

So, too, with the grace of God. God’s favored son, of course, is Jesus — but God doesn’t put him on a pedestal. God puts him on a cross — or, at least, allows the horrors of the cross to happen. The beneficiary of God’s favor that day is not God’s son Jesus, but us!

It’s a curious thing, but this verse from the beginning of Acts is the second part of a set of bookends. To find the first one, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of Luke (they’re two volumes of the same book, you know — Luke and Acts). In chapter 2, Luke’s wrapping up his story of Jesus’ birth, telling how Mary and Joseph returned — with their young son — from Bethlehem to Nazareth. He says:

“When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” [Luke 2:39-40].

Now, if you were looking for the word “grace” in those two verses, you may be thinking you missed it. But you didn’t. The word’s there. It’s just hiding.

The word for “favor” — the Greek xaris — is the same as the word for grace. The grace of God rests upon the infant Jesus. The grace of God rests upon those gathered disciples after his death and resurrection — and after they’ve received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It’s all one and the same. God’s grace — God’s favor — is upon those early disciples. It covers them like an umbrella in a thunderstorm.

Now, wouldn’t you like to have a little bit of that grace, that divine favor, as the early apostles did? Wouldn’t you like to know God smiles on you? It’s what we’re all eager to know.

Jesus begins his own ministry on a note of grace. You can see it, again, in those early chapters of Luke. Jesus is no longer an infant, but a grown man, about to leave his hometown. He enters the synagogue of Nazareth, unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and starts reading:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” [Luke 4:18-22]

(There’s that word “grace” again: only this time it’s the “gracious words that came from his mouth.”)

Now, here’s what I find very, very interesting. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, but there’s something there he doesn’t read. (You’d never know this unless you go to Isaiah and actually look it up.) He ends the passage abruptly, in the middle of a verse.

The last words of scripture Jesus reads there in the Nazareth synagogue — from Isaiah 61:1-2 — are “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (“favor,” again, is the same word as “grace”).

But here’s what he leaves out. The proclamation of Isaiah 61:2 is “the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”

Jesus doesn’t say a thing, here, about vengeance — even though those words are staring back up at him from the scroll in his hands. He skips over them: because he’s all about grace!

The good news is, you already have this grace. You have it because of Jesus. And you don’t have to do a thing to deserve it. By his cross and resurrection, Jesus has already done it all. You just have to accept it!

It’s just as true for little Mackenzie as it is for us. When the sign of the cross was traced across Mackenzie’s forehead in baptismal water, she was marked as belonging to God — so she, too, receives God’s favor. As Mackenzie grows and matures over the years, we all hope and pray she’ll understand enough about that favor, that grace, to accept it as her own.

Yet, how difficult that can be! It’s difficult because, more often than not, you and I would rather not admit that we need such a gift. We’d rather see ourselves as people who are basically good, who’ve earned God’s special favor by living exemplary lives.

In that respect, we’re like a certain character in Jesus’ famous parable of the Prodigal Son. You know how that story goes: a man has two sons; one stays home tilling the fields; the other cashes out his inheritance, flees to a far country and makes a mess of his life. He blows through every shekel in no time, and comes crawling back to his father, hoping for a little kindness for old times’ sake.

Instead, the father throws a party — an expression of his favor — such as that village has never seen. The older brother — who’s lived a far more exemplary life — is jealous of that gala reception, and says so. But — as old dad explains — he’s overjoyed because the son he thought he’d lost has now been found. The Prodigal Son is a parable of grace in action.

This sort of thing goes against every moral inclination that’s hard-wired within us. Apart from the Christian Gospel, common sense dictates that people — always and everywhere — ought to get what they deserve. “You commit the crime, you do the time.” The Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr calls this sort of thinking the “economy of merit.” Those who have merit can expect to get good things in this life. Those who don’t can only expect punishment.

Yet, if we’re really serious about following Jesus Christ, we’ve got to make a fundamental shift in our outlook. We’ve got to switch, sooner or later, from the economy of merit to “the economy of grace.” This does not come naturally to us. Making such a switch is “very hard indeed.” It’s especially hard for those of us who — by reason of our upbringing, or simply because we beat ourselves up inside — tend to be our own harshest judge. Those of us who fit that description don’t need some magistrate to tell us we’re bad people: we’re convinced that we are, and we remind ourselves of that fact a hundred times a day. If we’re so busy judging ourselves all the time, it can be all but impossible to extend grace to others.

Here’s how Richard Rohr describes the revolutionary power of grace:

It is God’s magnificent jailbreak from our self-made prisons, the only way that God’s economy can triumph over our strongly internalized merit badge system. Grace is the secret undeserved key whereby God, the Divine Locksmith, for every life and for all of history, sets us free. [Dancing Standing Still (Paulist, 2014), 42-43.]

There’s an unforgettable scene from the 1986 film, The Mission, that illustrates this point. It’s a movie about the Spanish colonial empire in South America. Robert de Niro plays Mendoza, a brutal slave trader who’s captured, sold and murdered more native South Americans than he could count.

Mendoza’s life changes when he murders his own brother in a fit of rage. The hard-bitten conquistador is overcome with remorse. He scarcely thought twice about killing a native in the past, but now he’s come to realize that every human life has value, and that he is guilty of spilling far too much blood.

A Jesuit priest gives him a penance to atone for his sin. Mendoza must accompany an expedition of missionaries deep into the rain forest. There they plan to teach the natives about Jesus Christ.

On the trek into the forest, Mendoza binds up his armor in a net. He ties a rope around the heavy burden and drags it along, to remind himself of the violent life he’s left behind. The sack of armor slows the expedition, but the priests tolerate it. They know how important it is for this man to do his penance.

Close to their destination, the missionaries climb to the top of a waterfall. At the top, they warmly embrace the native friends they’ve come to know on an earlier journey. But then the natives spy Mendoza, still scrabbling up the rocks beside the waterfall, dragging his armor behind him.

They know this man, and they fear him. One of the natives grabs a knife and runs over to Mendoza, holding the blade against his neck, threatening — by all appearances — to kill him in revenge. Mendoza looks up at his assailant. He prepares himself for death.

But then, something surprising happens. The native does slash his knife through the air, but what he cuts is not the conquistador’s throat. He cuts the rope holding the bag of armor. The entire company watches Mendoza’s burden fall away, tumbling end over end down the waterfall, smashing onto the rocks below.

Mendoza cries like a baby, fresh from the womb of God. A priest says, “Welcome home, brother.” It’s then that his real instruction in the way of Jesus begins.

“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith,” writes Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking…
…is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

It’s all gift, says Buechner. Nothing but gift. You can’t be a follower of Jesus Christ if you don’t set aside that judgmental, rules-based thinking, and claim the joyful truth that you’re never going to get what you deserve at the hand of God.

It’s a good thing: because, if you did, you’d never survive such wrath. None of us would. What we have, instead, is the bright promise of God in Jesus Christ: a promise of grace and hope and forgiveness.

Thanks be to God who gives us such victory!

Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.