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Friday, October 21, 2016

The Table of Grace

“If God says something is acceptable, don’t say it isn’t”
-Acts 10:15 (The Message)


    Grace is great to experience. It’s wonderfully liberating to know that God forgives us and accepts us just as we are. It’s thrilling to realize that our sins don’t make us too vile for God to love, and that he loves us enough to wear flesh and carry a cross and enter a tomb to save us. It’s a blessing to know that we are not judged on the basis of our faults. It frees us to forget the past and push on toward the future that God has promised us.
    It’s wonderful to experience grace from another person, too. You know what I mean if you’ve experienced the forgiveness of an offended friend, the unconditional love of a spouse, or the admiring gaze of a child who thinks you can do no wrong. Another human being can give us no greater blessing than the assurance that they love us in spite of our frailties, that they believe in us in spite of our failures, and that they don’t judge us on the basis of faults.
    Grace is wonderful to talk about. Everyone loves John 3:16. The spark of the Reformation was Martin Luther’s rediscovery that we don’t have to lift ourselves to heaven with our own bootstraps. Christians throughout the ages have rejoiced in the Bible’s insistence that Jesus came to save the wicked, not congratulate the righteous. And the church has long benefited from reminders that we are to be instruments of grace to the poor and undeserving of our world.
    Yes, grace is inspiring to talk about and wonderful to experience.
    Giving it, however, is another story.
    To show mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and acceptance to someone who you’d normally cross the street to avoid is difficult. The difficulty of it was driven home to me once in a conversation with an Afro-American brother in Christ. We were discussing the state of race relations in the church in our city, and he gave me an insight into the problem. Talking about his pre-Christian life, he said to me very matter-of-factly, “I would just as soon have seen a white man’s head where his feet were.” At least he owned up to his struggle. I have a hard time even doing that.
    Maybe you find yourself struggling with prejudice toward one race or another. Maybe it’s contempt for the poor that prevents you from showing God’s grace toward them. Maybe your moral outrage over sin obscures your love for sinners. Maybe your sectarian dogma won’t allow you to reach beyond your own circle to find brothers and sisters in Christ.
    Or maybe it’s more personal. You have trouble showing forgiveness to the wife that’s hurt you. You’re consumed with bitterness for the parents who failed you. You’re full of criticism for the church that’s let you down. You’re angry with the friend that’s disappointed you, or the person who’s used you.
    Don’t deny it, now. Go ahead and own up to it. There are people to whom showing grace seems distasteful. You can think up all kinds of reasons to justify it, but only one really explains it. You don’t like those people, and it galls you that God could love them just as they are.
    Well, you aren’t alone. Grace, quite frankly, is too big for all of us. We all run up against people who seem undeserving of the love of God. For Peter, it was the Gentiles. In his experience, God’s people had always been the Jews. Being right with God was defined by such things as circumcision, the keeping of the Law, and worship in the temple. It went without saying, then, that God’s grace was only extended to them. Certainly not to pagans.
    For us, it might be people who don’t go to church, or who don’t believe in God, or who flaunt their sexuality or their hedonism or their selfishness. Maybe it’s immigrants we don’t care for; maybe it’s people who don’t care for immigrants. Maybe it’s a particular economic group or political party. “Surely God hates them as much as I do,” we tell ourselves. Because it rationalizes the prejudices we already hold.
    Peter had his thinking straightened out over lunch, from a menu that was completely unacceptable according to Jewish food laws. “Have something to eat,” said a voice. Peter, no doubt thinking it was some kind of test, said, “No way.” It was indeed a test, and Peter flunked. “If God says something is acceptable, Peter, then who are you to say it isn’t?”
    But God wasn’t really interested in getting Peter to change his eating habits. So as soon as Peter had his preconceptions challenged, God put a Gentile right in his path. He had the chance to try out this new, broader definition of grace immediately on a Roman army officer named Cornelius. And it sounds like Peter got the idea. He said of Cornelius and his family, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
    I’m guessing God will challenge you, too. I’m betting that if you’ll seek his heart, like Peter was doing, your definition of grace will be stretched, too. I imagine that, one by one, God will start to pick at the walls that keep you from offering his grace to that person or this person. And likely, he’ll do it in you just like he did it in Peter. He’ll put you face to face with one of the people that you struggle to love, and challenge you to love him.
    You’ll make mistakes. Peter did. Given a little pressure from others who shared his old prejudice, he found himself sitting at the “Jews-only” table. It took some pretty strong words by a guy named Paul to make him see that he was rebuilding the walls Jesus had torn down.
    Own up to your prejudices, admit the walls in your heart, and go along with God’s work of tearing them down. Seek opportunities to serve exactly the people who you resist serving. Otherwise, you’ll stubbornly refuse to hold out grace to those you don’t deem acceptable, forgetting that God could have legitimately put the same label on you.
    Come to the table of grace. You’ll be amazed at who you’ll find yourself dining with.

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