Grace Upon Grace
John, author of the Fourth Gospel, begins with a beautiful hymn about the Word of God. Towards the end of the hymn, there is a tiny phrase tucked in there. But this tiny phrase possesses immense wisdom and I would like to focus on it with you today. John wrote, "From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace."
Grace upon grace.
It is hard for me to admit this but I think that, after almost twenty years as a priest, I am only just beginning to understand what the word grace means. I remember speaking to a Methodist Sunday school at my father-in-laws church right after I was ordained. An elderly gentleman raised his hand after my talk. "Yes?" I asked him. "Thank you for your talk," he said, " but what I really want to know is this, 'How do you feel about grace?'"
Well, the truth was that I felt nothing about grace. Grace hadn't really occurred to me at all. For me, leading a church was all about bringing in new people and making sure that the parishioners were growing in their spiritual lives, if that is at all possible. I had no concept of grace at all. I was approaching my ministry as a good workaholic New Englander. Work your tail off and make sure attendance is always increasing. If you struggle, pray harder, give more. Earn your way to pleasing God. So when this Methodist man asked me about grace, I thought, "Those darned Methodists! They are always talking about these sweet Christian words that don't really mean anything at all."
But his question bothered me and my lack of ability to answer it bothered me. I began to notice how much the Bible talks about grace. Paul talks about it today in his letter to the Galatians. In fact, Paul began almost all of his letters with the words, "Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and The Lord Jesus Christ." And St John writes, "We have seen his glory, the glory of a fathers only son, full of grace and truth." Full of Grace. I had to admit, there might be something essential to this word, grace. So I began to pray about it, think about it, read about it. And here is what I learned.
There are two ways to look at your life. You can see yourself as a sinner trying to earn your way to God-that is the first perspective. If you see yourself this way, then you work hard to try to please God. You are constantly trying to do better, be a better friend, spouse, parent, to do the very best job you can at work and at home. You try hard to say your prayers and come to church and manage your life. And you probably suffer from anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. When something goes wrong in your life and there is a mess, you blame yourself and try harder.
There is another way to live, though, another way to see your life. You can try to absorb the fact that you are a new creation, made anew by God at your baptism. You are beloved and good and you are even made perfect through God's grace. There is nothing that you can do to earn God's love. It has already been given to you. This is the grace perspective and it is hard to absorb but it is the true identity of every Christian and a path to joy and peace. It is not your job to earn God's love, rather you are to surrender to God's love and let Christ live in and through you.
When I was in college, a hypnotist came to do a performance on a Friday night. He hypnotized four of my classmates. When they were under, he told them that each one of them would wake up convinced that he or she was an animal. Then he woken them up. I'll never forget that my friend Matthew was among them. He woke up convinced that he was a rooster. He ran all around the auditorium crowing at the top of his lungs! Another girl was a cat and kept trying to crawl on people's laps. I laughed so hard that my side was sore the next day. When the hypnotist broke the spell and my friends truly woke up, they went to their seats puzzled and shy. And later, when we told them how they acted, they were really embarrassed. Matthew's face turned bright red, like the rooster's comb that sticks out from the top of its head.
My friends acted like animals because they were hypnotized into believing a lie about their identities. When they were taken out of the trance and experienced reality, they began to act like the people that they really were.
You are holy. God made you holy by grace. But the world will hypnotize you into thinking that not only are you inadequate but that you must try to make up for your inadequacy by trying to prove your worth. Christians fall into this trap when we try to succeed at our faith and try to please God. You must earn grace, that's what so many believe. But grace cannot be earned. It has already been given. It pours down upon us like that beautiful piece of art that hangs in Talliaferro. Someone who feels inadequate and is constantly trying to earn God's favor will be always on the defensive. But someone who understands what grace really is will understand the depth of God's love and will then be able to go on the offensive, to be creative, to be truly alive.
Imagine that a King decided that he was doing to pardon and free all prostitutes. If you were a prostitute, this would come as great news! It would liberate you. But would you change your behavior? Maybe, maybe not.
But what if they King then took you as his wife? Would you change your behavior then? Absolutely, for your were given a better identity, something to become. When you were baptized, your sins were forgiven, but you were also made the bride of Christ. Your whole identity was altered. There is no longer a need to earn salvation. God has married you. You went from being a caterpillar to a butterfly. Now all that you have to do is spread your wings.
The grace perspective begins when you realize that you have nothing to prove and instead you allow God's love to live in and through you. We do not do good words to earn God's kudos. We do good works because they flow from us naturally, because it is who we are. It is the truth about you and me. We are full of grace and truth.
I wish I could go back to that Methodist Church. I would tell the old man that it took me twenty years to begin to understand what his question meant. And I would thank him for asking.
- The Very Rev. Kate Mooreheadat 3:05 PM
Saturday, January 17, 2015
I wrote in our E. Newsletter this week about what happened to me in San Francisco, how I flew out to officiate at the wedding of my nephew and came down with Influenza A. I did the rehearsal and had everything ready, but I felt worse and worse. So on the morning of the wedding, I went to one of those traveling doctors offices and tested positive for the flu.
How do you call your beloved nephew and tell him that he has to decide, on the day of his wedding, as to whether he would like to expose his bride and himself to the flu and possibly be sick on their honeymoon, or find another priest. He opted to find another priest.
So I found myself lying alone in some random California hotel room feeling like I had been hit by a train while my family and friends celebrated a wedding without me. This was the first time in my life that I had the flu and I have never gotten so sick as to miss something this important. It was devastating. It made me realize what a profound privilege it is to be part of weddings, to be part of a celebration of love, to stand there while people vow to be faithful to each other for their entire lives.
In today's gospel, Paul comes to the city of Ephesus where he encounters some new disciples who have been baptized. But Paul quickly realizes that something is missing. They have become followers of Jesus but they have not fallen in love. They are not in a living relationship with God. They seem lost. So Paul asks them about the second but equally important part of baptism. He asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized. It turns out that they don't even know what the Holy Spirit is. They say, "We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." They were baptized but they didn't receive the Holy Spirit.
Did you realize that all baptisms have two parts? In the first part, I pour water over the child's head and they are washed from sin and become part of the church. But there is a second part. In the second part, I take this holy oil called Chrism, which the bishop has blessed, and I make the sign of the cross on the forehead of each child. And I say to the child, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever."
In other words, the Holy Spirit comes down and owns you. Forever. You belong to God. In the book of Revelation, it says that Christians bear this mark of the Holy Spirit even in heaven itself. It is something that stays with a person forever.
Being baptized without the Holy Spirit would be like getting married without your spouse present. You could say you were married but there was no one to be married to. In baptism, you form the most important relationship of your life. It is more important than your relationship with any human being, more important than your parents, your best friend, even your spouse. In baptism, you enter into a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. God claims you forever. God takes up residence inside you.
And the secret to all this is hard to comprehend. If you can realize that your first and most important relationship is to God, then all the other ones will go a lot better. You will be a better father, mother, son, daughter, wife, husband, if you are first and foremost a child of God.
My friend in Seminary had a little girl named Marlo. She was six at the time when he found her staring down her own throat in the full-legnth mirror in their bedroom. "Marlo," he asked, "what are you doing?"
"I am looking for God!" She said.
"Do you think that God lives down your throat?" my friend asked.
"Well, the Bible says that God lives in me...so I just wondered if I could see..." She explained.
When these babies are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes down upon them like it came down upon Jesus. And from this moment on, there will be this someone else in their lives. Often a quiet presence, the Holy Spirit will live within them, full of wisdom and insight and ready to be listened to at any time. They will be loved forever and this love will live inside them. All they have to do is access it. They will NEVER BE ALONE. No one can be there for them in the way that the Holy Spirit can. No one even comes close.
The problem is that it was not just those early disciples who forgot who they were. We forget that we married God in our baptisms. We forget that God waits for us, lives in us, ready to heal us and listen to us and adore us. We listen instead to all the noise of this world that tells us we have to prove our worth, that we are not enough, that we must work harder or become thinner or get smarter to be loved. The Spirit whispers something else, something radical and hard to absorb, that God lives in you and will never leave. And only God could live in you without pressuring you or making you feel claustrophobic or crazy. It has to be a God thing.
As these babies grow, it will be your job to teach them who they are. Teach them that Jesus is right there with them, listening and understanding. Teach them to listen to God and not just talk all the time. Teach them to look around, to look outside themselves and ask, what is the Spirit trying to tell me? Teach them to wonder what they can do to serve God? To understand that you are married to God means to understand that you are not alone. There is always someone beside you, always.
What an incredible gift to give your child, to tell them that they will never be alone. To know that the Holy Spirit has come to them and will never leave, that is quite something. It means that they will be capable of doing more than they think. They will have God with them. When Paul anointed the disciples with the Holy Spirit, they spoke in tongues and they prophesied. They did stuff that surprised themselves and others. They become more than they thought they could be. To recognize God's presence is kind of awesome and scary. It means you can do anything.
When I got to the hotel and realized that I was going to miss the wedding, I talked to God and I cried. I told God that I did not understand why this happened, that I was angry and disappointed. I listened for the calm and peace of that Spirit and I got frustrated when all I felt was sick. Then I called my husband and cried to him. The poor guy upgraded my flights home, maybe because that was the only thing he knew how to do to help me feel better. But what he didn't know was that I was just grateful to hear his voice.
I never was alone. Even when I flew all night sick on the plane. I knew that God was there. That's what got me through. These babies are going to grow up in a world full of pressures that we cannot even begin to imagine. They will need the strength and fortitude that comes only from the presence of God. No matter what storms or sicknesses they encounter, they will belong to God from this day forward, marked as Christ's own forever. God will live in them. Always.
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead