One of the most beloved hymns of English-speaking Christianity is Amazing Grace. Written by a repentant slave trader turned Christian minister, it proclaims the unmerited love and mercy of a God who saves us, gives us life, sustains us despite our best attempts to reject that love.
We who are Lutheran stand in a tradition that is grounded in the principle that our relationship with God – and so creation and everyone we meet – is a gift. We are justified by grace, through faith, apart from works of the law. You can’t earn, buy, bargain for, or achieve God’s love. It is a gift revealed in Christ.
All this said, I’m not sure we generally find God’s grace amazing. In fact, I think the whole notion of grace annoys us. I say this based on decades of observation of God’s people. I say this after an honest look in the mirror. Down deep (and this is a sign of our brokenness) we are convinced that nothing is free, everything is up to us, we can trust only ourselves, and “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”
When a trial or challenge of life arises, I am often like a three-year-old who yells, “I can do it myself” even though God has surrounded me with loving people to walk with me. I often find it easier to believe that if people really knew me – If God really knew me (I see the intellectual flaw here) – that they would find me unlovable instead of holding fast to God’s acceptance. Asking for help is a sign of failure or weakness in my mind, and I’d rather not risk that judgment from others.
I can’t count the number of people who, lying in a hospital bed hooked to all manner of medical stuff, have told me, “I’m fine.” They have gone on to tell me they don’t need the prayers of the congregation because “others need prayers more than I do,” as if there is a limit to God’s ability to answer prayer. I know that the unspoken reason is that if you pray for me, I must admit I need help. I’ll do this myself, thanks.
Perhaps what makes grace most annoying is that if God loves me for no reason except God is love, then God must love my neighbor for the same reason – and we all know that person just doesn’t deserve it. You see the insidious effect of God’s grace is that once it gets through to me, it changes me and my view of the world, and my neighbor. If grace is why God forgives me, then I can’t place conditions on forgiving my enemies. If the whole of creation and my daily bread are gifts, then I can’t withhold sharing them – they don’t belong to me. If even the paycheck I receive is made possible because God’s grace has given me gifts and opportunities to work, then I become dependent on God’s grace. THAT is annoying.
When Luther died, they found a piece of paper in his cloak which said, “We are beggars. This is true.” In the context of his life and proclamation, this is not a statement of resignation. It is a word of praise. Everything we are and have – the air we breathe, the family and community around me, the food on the table, the work I have been given – it is all a gift of grace. When we can see that, our life becomes one of praise and gratitude and we are set free from fighting for our place in this world. Grace is annoying, but it is life itself – and quite amazing.
Pax Christi – Tim Olson, Lead Pastor