God’s Loving Grace

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Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1:1-2)

Grace. Paul begins and ends every letter he wrote with talk of God’s grace. It is the foundation of everything else included in his theology. I wonder if we really grasp the significance and meaning of grace. As a student of the revered Jewish Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), young Paul learned early on what God’s grace had meant to the Old Testament fathers.

When we first acknowledge our belief in God, we ‘feel’ our sin as guilt. If we’re not careful, we can become stuck in this feeling of unworthiness. God provides us with the gift of grace to keep us moving forward in our faith. In Isaiah 6, the prophet has a vision of the Lord “sitting high upon a throne,” surrounded by seraphim, his voice shaking the foundations. But Isaiah’s first words aren’t spoken in awe. Rather, the guilt of his sinfulness in the presence of God’s holiness, leads Isaiah to speak out of fear:

“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5)

Then the unexpected happens, for God doesn’t strike Isaiah down out of anger because of his sins, as Isaiah fears God might do. Instead, God meets Isaiah’s fear with grace. In a moment, God removes Isaiah’s guilt, declares his sin atoned for, and sends him out as his personal messenger to Israel – a job that Isaiah now feels worthy enough to volunteer for!

Let that sink in: God has the power – and desire – to return us to a state of holiness so that we may come into his loving presence without fear. No longer will sin and guilt be wedged between God and his creation. Keep in mind, we don’t deserve this second chance. We don’t deserve new birth. We don’t deserve new life.

But just like he did for Isaiah, God gives us grace anyway.

Paul wasn’t aware of this truth only from his scripture lessons as a young boy, though. Paul could speak of God’s miraculous grace from first-hand knowledge. At one time, Paul (known also by his Jewish name, Saul) had imprisoned Christians and even witnessed the stoning to death of the deacon Stephen (Acts 7:58 – 8:3). One need not hurl a stone to be complicit in murder, though, which brings to mind the words of Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” Woe is me, indeed.

But just as he did for Isaiah, God extended to Paul his unexpected, unmerited, undeserved grace. Paul never writes of his dramatic conversion to Christianity, but Luke gives an account in Acts 9. Struck blind by God for three days and asked by God, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me,” Paul is later revealed to be chosen by God to spread the gospel to the Gentiles and is filled with the Holy Spirit, strengthened through Christ Jesus.

Grace is the power and the depth of God’s love made visible. Grace allowed Paul to understand his sin as separation from the Creator. Grace transformed Paul from persecutor to Apostle. As Paul later writes to the Ephesians, God has the power to make us “holy and blameless” in his eyes (Eph. 1:4).

God’s grace knows no limit. Paul experienced God’s infinite grace personally. He would never again persecute Christians. Rather, Paul began a new life with new purpose and urged Jew and Gentile alike to do the same, united as one body in Christ. Paul preached a theology of forgiveness, sanctification, election, and the revelation of God’s divine mystery – a theology he lived and experienced, only... because God first showed him grace.

Call and Response

Do you believe in pure coincidence? Serendipity? The human mind, I think, is always looking for connections, ways to make sense of what happens in our world. It’s like proof-texting scripture, though. Oftentimes, we come to a conclusion and then work our way back to its origin, falsely concluding that correlation equals causation.

At the same time, I’ve lived long enough to have had a moment – and sometimes my entire life – completely altered, taken down a path felt always meant for me, by a domino effect of “sheer coincidences.”  It’s then that I think… this can’t be just coincidence.

When I applied to seminary, I knew it might take me ten years to finish because I could only pay for one class at a time (I did not want to take on more school loans). Then – out of the blue – I was told my application had been referred for a scholarship I didn’t even apply for. A scholarship that eventually covered all my tuition.

A couple of days ago, I pulled an old journal of mine from a stack, looking for quotes or scripture notes I might be able to use for an essay on Ephesians. I didn’t flip through it, though, as I might normally do.  Instead, I opened the notebook to the first page:

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It was Ash Wednesday 2018, and I had started reading A Way Other Than Our Own by Walter Brueggeman. It’s now a year and a half later, and I’ve been steeped in Ephesians for weeks. By randomly opening an old notebook, I immediately spotted a connection between the OT book of Isaiah and the NT letter to the Ephesians. I would never have looked in Isaiah otherwise.

What I had read in Ephesians, coupled with what I found in Isaiah, brought me to tears:

In him, we have redemption through his blood… Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price… (Ephesians 1:7; Isaiah 55:1).

The OT prophecy and the NT message say the same things:  We – all of us, everyone who thirsts – are invited to come back, return to our original identity in God. We – all of us, even he who has no money – can buy wine and milk without price. Because we – all of us – have been redeemed by the grace of God through Christ’s sacrificial death and rebirth.

Our bill has been paid . We have been called to return. All of us. Everyone.

Lent – Good Friday

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When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:33-34, 44-46)

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
    for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

Psalm 31:3-5

“A new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love. This is the heart of the revolution that was launched on Good Friday. You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means. If one force overcomes another, it is still ‘force’ that wins. Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love, which, in obedience to the ancient prophetic vocation, will give its life ‘as a ransom for many.’” (N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion)

Lent – Day 22

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Today’s Thought: Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin?

Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” (Luke 5:12-13)

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Lent – Day 18

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Today’s Thought: Do you realize how much God misses you?

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him…. “[L]et us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15:20, 23-24)

In Chapter 15, Luke records not one, but three parables told by Jesus in an attempt to convey just how very much we are loved by the Father. While most of us are familiar with the story of the prodigal son, we may not be nearly as acquainted with the two immediately preceding stories: the lost sheep and the lost coin. Taken together, these parables form an image of God whose love for us is almost beyond comprehension.

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Lent – Day 3

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Today’s Thought: How do I answer when God asks for my help?

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:4-8)

A friend recently shared this quote with me: “At the end of a long day, I love getting into bed and turning off the lights so I can spend eight hours thinking about every mistake I’ve ever made.” I chuckled a little, if only at myself, because it’s how I’ve spent many nights in my life. Something about the silence and the darkness sparks self-reflection and before long, I’m ruminating down a rabbit-hole lined with personal failures—perceived and real. Those late-night journeys get imprinted into my subconscious. As a result, I manage to replay them whenever God (or anyone) says, “I need your help.”

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Lent – Day 1

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Today’s Thought: When was the last time I called God… and not because I needed something? 

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning….” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…. (Joel 2:12-13)

It’s Ash Wednesday. Today is the first day of Lent—a day when millions of Christians set aside time to reflect on our role as children of God. As most of us know by either observation or experience, children can be devoted and they can be distant; full of understanding and short on slack; quick to anger and tantrums, or easy to hug and love. Sometimes the parent-child relationship is solid, and sometimes there are cracks. And, if we aren’t careful, a crack can become an impassable crevasse.

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I’ve Changed

It’s fairly common these days to find at least one breaking story about someone in a high position who’s done something in their past that—now known—makes them unqualified to hold the position they’re in. Let’s be honest, though. Each one of us—no matter where we’re from or what age we are—has done something stupid, embarrassing, or inexplicable at some point in our lives that we’d rather just keep to ourselves. For the majority of us, that something will remain forever hidden in our past. But for those in the public eye, once their grand error in judgment makes the news, their fate will be decided by the general populous—a group generally not described as “forgiving.”

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Abba

I had just taken a sip of coffee and was staring absentmindedly at the menu, feeling the stress of another workweek beginning to slip away… and then it started. First as a small whine, I don’t waaaant to; then it amplified into a full-blown tantrum… aaaaaahhhhhh [crying] nooooooooo [kicking the chair]. No, it wasn’t me telling my husband how much I didn’t want to go back to work on Monday. It was the small, but hearty-lunged, child at the table next to us expressing his displeasure with his parents. I glanced over and caught their exasperated faces and slumped shoulders as they asked for to-go boxes while wrestling a coat onto their child (who seemed to have turned into an octopus). I wanted to tell them it was just a phase, like teething or potty-training. But, I never was a good liar.

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