March 1, 2015
Hearing the tune to Amazing Grace, New Britain, which we sang last week, gets me thinking that the hymn, “Amazing Grace” can be understood best by those who have experienced grace.
And furthermore we only experience grace when we’ve had an experience of needing grace.
The line, “I once was lost and now am found”, only makes sense to those who’ve been lost and found. The deepest form of being lost is when we know that our sin has separated us from ourselves, our neighbor, and from God.
Therefore we can assume that the author of the hymn had a deep sense of his sin and the judgment it deserved, which was then taken away by the grace of God.
As many of you know that is precisely the case: John Newton (1725 to 1807) was for many years involved in the British slave trade as both a slave ship captain and as someone who later profited financially from the slave trade.
In reading about Newton, who became an Anglican priest at 39, I found it surprising that he came to a saving experience of Jesus Christ decades before he repented of his involvement in the slave trade, so it wasn’t the slave trade, per se, that first filled him with sin and guilt.
None of us recognize our sins until we are made aware of them, which is precisely what grace does. Grace always… always…always, comes first to us as diagnosis, as judgment, alerting us to our sins, just as the diagnosis of a bad heart always precedes the surgery to fix the heart.
That diagnosis hurts our self-image about how healthy we are: we resist it mightily, saying, “But doctor, I watch my diet, I exercise four times a week, and I don’t smoke—how could I have heart problems!”
Diagnosis of our physical condition is the necessary first step in getting well. So too in our spiritual life: It is grace that judges our true condition and it is grace that forgives and heals our condition and leads us into the peace of Christ.
So when people ask me if I believe in the judgment of God I say, “Absolutely. It’s a function of God’s love.”
I think of God’s judgment this way:
Baxter Krueger, early in his marriage, was a having a heated discussion with his wife about the color of the walls in their apartment. He was convinced they were white, just as she was convinced they were off white.
So to prove he was right Baxter takes a sheet of white printer paper and slaps it up against the wall and—much to his horror–it is reveals that the walls are not white at all.
Judgment shows the truth about how far we are off the mark of being a fully human person. And when that grace of judgment hits us, it can be a startling experience that wakes us up to what’s going on.
Being around certain people can have that positive effect: I felt that judgment when I was around our late bishop Tom Shaw: his calm prayerful manner, revealed to me my “in a hurry-rushing around” manner. This is not a judgment of condemnation, but a judgment of insight that is deeply healing.
Or seeing the heroic lives of some of you who live with deep pain and suffering, yet remain loving and open, instantly reveals to me my walls are not as the color I thought they were.
This is why the mere appearance of Jesus in Galilee causes a crisis in peoples’ lives. Just standing next to him reveals to them their lack of love and non-violence, which is the first step to a new life.
And it is precisely here that a huge choice opens up for us: What do we do with the pain of that judgment?
The default choice is that we deny it, make excuses for it, blame others, or react violently against it. We say to ourselves: “I’m fine! I’m much better than most people”.
This reaction to the truth about ourselves means we’re going to stay stuck in our ruts and remain “fat, dumb, and miserable.”
We say, “Thanks Jesus, but no thanks—I don’t need all that judgment nonsense. I may go to church for the fellowship but not for renewal. I’ll sing “Amazing grace how sweet the sound” but I won’t apply it to myself–which means we turn our back on the grace of God, which means we turn our back on Jesus Christ, because he is the grace of God.
This is the stance of Saint Peter in this morning’s gospel. And it is why Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”
Jesus is telling the disciples about the profound suffering he carries as the Messiah, who has entered fallen humanity in order to bear the judgment of our sins, so that he can give us in exchange his obedient and faithful relationship with the Father.
Peter will have no talk of judgment or suffering, so he takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him.
No amazing grace for Peter. He can handle his sins just fine without it.
Until of course Peter can’t summon the courage to tell the slave girl that he even knows Jesus the night of Jesus’ trial.
Then the cock crows and Peter knows his need of grace and he breaks down and weeps.
Jesus is grace incarnate because as we nail him to the cross in the noonday sun we can no longer deny we are broken and violent people who have lost our humanity to bring us into the Peace of Christ.
When the pain of judgment comes, instead of denying it, there is another option. We can agree with it and say, “Yes, Lord, that’s true. That’s me. Lord, have mercy!”
When we cry “Lord, have mercy”, we affirm that God’s judgment is true.
When we cry “Lord, have mercy” we affirm that God’s forgiveness and acceptance in Jesus Christ is also true.
It does John Newton no good to throw himself into despair over his life as a slave trader, just as it does you and me no good to wallow in regret and remorse, if we don’t also accept God’s “yes” given to us in Jesus Christ.
In fact theologian Karl Barth says it is more disobedient to refuse God’s “yes” of acceptance, than to refuse God’s “No of judgment”. Church Dogmatics, IV 1. Page 594
We have been elected by God from before time to sit at table with God as adopted daughters and sons in the here and now. This is God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham and Sarah. It is God’s will that Jesus Christ take on our fallen humanity in order to share with him this fellowship with the Father.
Do you remember being invited to a big wedding dinner, in which every place has a name card telling who is supposed to sit where? And you walk around looking for your name—and finally, to your relief, you see your name announcing your place in the celebration.
It has always been in God’s heart that God’s Son would suffer and die for our sins, not to change God, but to change us, so that we might know forgiveness and adoption into the family of the Triune God and sit in our place.
It is not our faith or our behavior that creates that place for us—nor does God’s angelic staff wait until we say Yes to set our place, so that they have to run around at the last minute to make room for us.
After hearing the proclamation of the gospel we wake up to God’s “yes” and live out of that place of acceptance created by Christ.
And even now, when we’re attentive, we see that our faith is like the tiny fingers of a toddler wrapped around a finger of her daddy’s giant hand, which engulfs our hand, holding us, and leading us to our place at the party. Both J. B. and T. F. Torrance use this image of the toddler holding the hand of God.
That is amazing grace!