Thursday, January 01, 2015

Grace upon grace (Rick O'Brien, Dec. 28, 2014)

If you were in church on Christmas morning, you are probably saying to yourself, “wait a minute, didn’t I just hear this gospel reading on Christmas morning?”  No it is not simply a case of déjà vu; you did hear this passage from John.  But unlike television, this is not a mere rerun or simply a way to take it easy on what is traditionally a Low Sunday.  We have four gospel stories, each with its own way of telling us the good news of Jesus Christ.  Over the course of the three year cycle of our lectionary we hear each gospel in its entirety, for there is much to learn from each one.  But the beginning of John’s gospel is so rich, so full of import for our understanding of Jesus, that it is repeated.  Indeed, I could preach on the beginning of John for a full year and still have only scratched the surface of its significance.

I don’t know how other preachers handle their preparation, but I like to read the lessons several times over a number of days and see what words or message resonate with me. Each time I do this, I find some phrase or nuance that I have not noticed before.  Far more than simply a story or a collection of advice, the Bible is a living document; it is God’s message to us that informs how we live our lives.  That is why reading the Bible is a lifelong pursuit, for unlike a Dan Brown novel; it does not have a beginning, middle, and an end.  The words in the Bible are the same, but their meaning is revealed to us in different ways as our lives change and our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with God deepens.

Two phrases caught my attention this week.  John tells us, “He gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”  And Paul echoes this in Galatians when he says “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” 

Children of God.  It is easy to focus on Jesus in the gospel, but we too are included in the Good News.  We call Jesus the son of God, but John reminds us that we too are children of God.  By taking on our mortal form, Jesus the Immanuel makes us God’s children.  As God’s children, we are not slaves or outsiders.  By giving us the gift of Jesus, God has accepted us as his own and this is vividly demonstrated as Jesus assumes our flesh and blood.  For if God becomes one of us then we too become part of God.  As slaves or outsiders we have no right to expect anything from God, but as his children we then may claim the inheritance of a child.  The inheritance of God Immanuel, who rose from the grave to show us that death was defeated and that eternal life with God is our destiny. 

The second phrase that captured my imagination was “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  Grace upon grace.  What a lovely phrase.  But what does it mean?  Grace seems to me to be an absolute term; you either have it or you don’t.  So what could John mean by this phrase?

Many years ago I was in New Orleans for a weeklong conference.  I had never been there before, but had always heard that New Orleans had some of the best restaurants in the country.  I was not disappointed.  The first night there, I had the best meal I had ever eaten in my life.  I remember going back to my room, absolutely full to bursting and thinking “I will never have such a wonderful meal again, that was as good as it gets.”  The next night, as you can probably guess, the food was even better.  It got better each progressive night, and I had to constantly reevaluate my thinking that this was as good as it gets.

Grace upon Grace is something like that.  For grace is not a binary proposition.  It is not a “take it or leave it “proposition.  Grace is like that first meal in New Orleans.  A wonderful experience that exceeded anything I had ever had in the past.  But unlike my thinking that this was as good as it gets, Grace just keeps on getting better.  Grace is not simply enough, it is more than enough.  Grace is an inexhaustible supply of abundance that overflows our ability to experience it.  God’s fullness of grace is more than we can imagine or experience.  It fills us and washes over us in its abundance.

Tying the two images together helps us to understand the concept of Grace upon Grace.  Through the incarnation of Jesus we are children of God.  As children, we are not yet prepared for all of the grace that God has in store for us.  For just as a newborn is not yet ready to dine on Prime Rib, we are not ready from birth to experience all of God’s grace.  As a child must learn to crawl before they can walk, we must learn to comprehend the idea of a relationship with God.  As infants we have a relationship with our parent.  But that relationship changes as we grow and mature.  The same is true of our relationship with God.  And it is only as this relationship grows that we can even begin to appreciate the idea of grace upon grace.

Indeed, as our relationship with God develops, so does our need for Grace.  We need one type of grace in times of abundance and a different type in times of peril.  A prayer of thanksgiving for all of God’s gifts is quite different from the cry for help when one is in need.  Both are calls from a child to a parent, but the response is different based upon the situation.  Grace upon grace assures us that the inexhaustible supply of Grace will be there for us no matter our circumstance or the level of our relationship with God or one another. 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This Christmas let us remember the coming of the savior, who made us children of God and heirs of his grace upon grace.