Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's All Grace

From time to time I have serious problems with the shorthand that people use for Paul's central theological point. Justification by faith can be misunderstood and people can fool themselves into thinking that it is their faith that justifies them, thus turning faith into another work. While Paul did himself use that shorthand ("justified by faith in Christ" in Galatians 2:16), we need to guard against pulling the phrase out of the larger context of Paul's theology. In Romans 3:22-24, we can read a fuller exposition of Paul's understanding of Paul's understanding of justification: "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

All have sinned. It's all Grace.

In the Lord of the Rings there is an interesting reflection of the theology of Grace. During the long and difficult journey to Mordor and Mount Doom, Frodo Baggins comes to see that his unwelcome travelling companion, Gollum, is more like him and other hobbits than he had originally thought. Although Smeagol's humanity had been corrupted by his love for his Precious - and by the evil of the Dark Lord who forged that ring - Frodo could see in Gollum the vestiges of the humanity of Smeagol. Having sought to be more by stealing the ring from his cousin, Smeagol had become less than fully human.

The same thing happens to us when we sin and fall short of the glory of God. Perhaps, like Adam and Eve, we want to become like God, or, again like Adam and Eve, we let someone else do our thinking for us, but whether our sin is pride or sloth, it corrupts our humanity and alienates us from God and one another and the creation. And there is nothing that we can do about it.

Grace happens.

Although we can never justifiy ourselves, never reconcile ourselves to God or one another or God's creation, God can, has, will. It's pure gift with no strings attached. All we have to do is accept the gift, surrender to God's love, trust Jesus. That sounds simple, even easy, but surrender is difficult for us. We want to earn our way, to be deserving of the gift, perhaps even to yield to the temptation to thnk of ourselves as better than others because we've been saved. But if have been saved, one of the things that we've saved from is the arrogance of thinking that we are better than other sinners. And one of the things that we have been saved for is community with other sinners, not only those who are receiving the gift of Grace, but also all those who have yet to surrender to Love Incarnate.

The Germans have a word for it - as usual. It's mitsein, being with. The glory of God, as Irenaeus asserted, is humankind fully alive. We see that glory in Jesus, but it isn't about talents or gifts or abilities but about relationships, about being with, about mitsein. Jesus reveals to the world that God is an accompanying God, One who desires to be in relationship with us, One who, I believe, wants to be God only in relationship with us. Created in the image of God, reconciled by the Cross, we are given the Grace to live in right relationship with all creation. It is the gift that we need to accept and unwrap and enjoy. It is the gift that Paul was pointing to when he wrote to the community in Rome:  "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God...." (8:19) In the words of the African-American poet June Jordan, "we are the ones we have been waiting for."

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