john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK




    The Word of Grace

    St Cleopas, Toxteth - Communion Service, 23/02/03

    John 1.1.14

    "Grace is everywhere." Those words end the classic novel, The Diary of A Country Priest by George Bernanos. It's the story of the life of a young priest right up to the time of his death; those are his last words.

    The diary tells us about a young man on a journey, moving away from a legalistic idea about God and life; moving away from self-hatred towards understanding. His last words tell us so much about what our faith really means. It's all grace.

    I bring this up today because I'd like us to think about the Word becoming flesh, coming to live among us, whose glory we can see, full of grace and truth. What that means.

    I'd like us to think especially about the ways we see the Word bringing grace and truth into our lives.

    The Word is Jesus, of course. By faith we believe that he lives among us today, and that we can see his glory. By faith we can begin to open ourselves up to grace and truth, and as we do we can see the Word come alive in our lives, Jesus living alongside us and around us.

    Words are powerful things. You know that from your own experience. We all know the saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." And we all know how untrue that is. Words do hurt us, don't they? Most of us are carrying round all sorts of hurts because of what people have said to us, or about us, at some time or another.

    I have a friend who goes around schools and churches, teaching people to sing. Or rather, encouraging them to sing, because he reckons that they can all already do it. But so many people won't sing because in the past someone's told them to be quiet, so many say they can't sing, because in the past someone's told them they can't, they're no good.

    My friend insists that everyone has the voice of an apprentice angel; it just needs bringing out of them. And when he's done his encouraging, and persuaded them that they can do it, he has them all singing parts - working out who are the altos, the sopranos, the tenors, the basses; he has them singing the most complicated pieces, ordinary men, women and children, regardless of whether they can read music, regardless of whether they've ever done that sort of thing before.

    And invariably, without fail, every time, in tumbledown church halls or scruffy school assembly rooms, however modest their surroundings, they sing out the most wonderful pieces of music. And you can see from the light in their eyes, the colour in their faces, just how much enjoyment they have found in discovering that they can sing after all - and boy, how they can sing! [1]

    That is a story which shows us grace at work. When someone like that speaks words of encouragement and assurance to us, then the Word comes to us, full of grace and truth. Jesus comes to us through another person's graceful, generous words.

    The writer Philip Yancey [2] calls grace "the last best word" because even now, in our secular world, it hasn't lost its meaning; it still carries the glory of the original. He says that:
      The word [grace] underlies our proud civilization, reminding us that good things come not from our own efforts, rather by the grace of God.
    Listen to how we use the word.

    Many people "say grace" before meals, thanking God for the gift of daily bread. We are grateful for someone's kindness, gratified by good news, we get congratulated when we're successful, we're being gracious when we let friends into our home. When we are pleased with the service we have received somewhere, we leave a gratuity.

    Grace is like being delighted by getting what we don't deserve. All of these words carry a hint of that.

    A composer of music may add grace notes to the score. They are gratuitous - not essential to the melody - but these notes add a flourish which would be missed if they weren't there.

    In Britain we still address royalty as "Your grace." Workers or students may "get a day's grace" to help them do something important elsewhere. Parliament declares an "act of grace" to pardon a criminal.

    We also learn about a word from its opposite. Newspapers speak of people who have "fallen from grace." We criticise a person by telling them: "You're a disgrace!" A truly hateful person has no "saving grace" about them.

    Yancey writes:
      The many uses of the word in English convince me that grace is indeed amazing‹truly our last best word. It contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun. The world thirsts for grace in ways it does not even recognize; little wonder the hymn "Amazing Grace" edged its way onto the Top Ten charts two hundred years after it was composed. For a society that seems adrift, without moorings, I know of no better place to drop an anchor of faith.
    How can we recognise grace when God offers it to us? I'll suggest some examples from scripture and from contemporary life.

    Scripture is full of the Word bringing grace and truth to life.

    Consider Sarah, at ninety a barren and sombre woman, hardened by living with the feeling she'd failed her husband through not producing a child. Then God's grace breaks into her life. When she gets the news that she will give birth and that she will become the mother of the nation of God's people, she creases up laughing. It can be unbelievably funny, grace.

    Think about the story of Ruth and Naomi. When Naomi lost her husband and then her two sons, she was bitterly angry with God. She expected that her bereaved daughters-in-law would do the natural thing and go looking for new partners, new security, young women that they were. But Ruth stayed with her, supported her and eventually they built a new life together, and when they saw it, the people around them praised God. It comes through acts of kindness and generosity, grace.

    Think of the grace which Jesus showed to the crowds who followed him, pushing and shoving, tugging at his clothes and in one case smashing a great big hole in a roof to get near him to be healed. He dealt with each one individually, because each one was created unique and special by him, and he healed each and every one who came. It is always available to us, it pays attention to the detail of our lives, grace.

    And finally, remember Saul the zealous persecutor of Jesus' people? Consider how God came to him, a light shining in the darkness; the darkness in Saul was overcome by it. His letters show us a man who has become eternally grateful to God for bringing him into the body of his people. He tells the Corinthian believers what a difference grace has made to him, to them, and by extension, to us when he writes:
      I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
      For in him you have been enriched in every way - in all your speaking and in all your knowledge - because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.
      Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. [3]
    That's just a taster of what scripture shows us about grace. You could go through the bible in your own way and your own time and find the grace of God on every page.

    Philip Yancey suggests that we can just as easily see the Word bringing grace and truth into today's world, if we have eyes to see.

    He sees grace in the great events of history - the people from both sides of the Berlin Wall bringing it down; South African blacks queuing up in long, exuberant lines to cast their first votes ever; Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the Rose Garden.

    He knows that in life the state of grace can prove fleeting. For a moment, grace descends. But then Eastern Europe sullenly settles into the long task of rebuilding, South Africa tries to figure out how to run a country, Arafat dodges bullets and Rabin is killed by one. Yancey writes,
      Like a dying star, grace dissipates in a final burst of pale light, and is then engulfed by the black hole of 'ungrace.'
    But I'd rather suggest that those moments are like candles lit, which keep on flickering and providing some light, however slight, so that the darkness does not overcome it.

    If only we could see it, God is lighting such lights with acts of grace every day. Small acts of kindness - someone asking after you if you're unwell, an unexpected gift or call.

    Things that surprise us, like a discount in the corner shop when we've run out of change; like a workman turning up on time to do that repair, and when he has to go out to his van to look for the replacement part, finding one without delay.

    And bigger things - the first smile of a new-born baby; laughter among those you love; the family reunion after maybe years of separation; a good conversation with a new neighbour which makes you think you could be friends.

    It is in these things that we see the Word becoming flesh, coming to live among us, day to day.

    These things help us see God's glory, full of grace and truth. Help us understand what that means.

    The best thing about God's grace is that it shows he loves us, that we are God's children by adoption and have received a great gift from him.

    Knowing this helps us love ourselves, and that helps us love others.

    I hope you take with you today the truth of that young priest's final words: "Grace is everywhere." It's all grace. It's amazing, grace.


    Notes

    [1] I'm writing about John Bell from the Iona Community's Wild Goose Resource Group. He sets out his approach in The Singing Thing (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2001)
    [2] Philip Yancey: What's So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
    [3] 1 Corinthians 1.4-7