I used to teach an Ethics course to undergraduates. It was fun because conversations in the seminar would move from the highly theoretical to the intensely practical quick enough to give everyone whiplash. One of the topics that almost always got students riled-up was distributive justice. This is the classic question of who should get what. I can remember one particular seminar where a student was trying to make the case for a libertarian approach by saying that those who develop skills more valued by society should be financially rewarded more handsomely than those who don’t. He said that the free market is a fine instrument for working this out. As you might expect, another student brought up professional athletes. She pointed out that most of them are paid quite handsomely, even though their contribution to the betterment of others appears minimal. The first student responded by saying that this obviously wasn’t true. Clearly their years of practice and innate skill made them able to bring quite a bit of satisfaction to the average person. He argued that this is precisely why they are paid well. These athletes worked hard and dedicated themselves to mastering stick-handling or jump shots and so their paycheck was rightly theirs—all of it.
This went back and forth until another student who didn’t really seem to be paying attention sort of woke up and made the point that this isn’t quite so simple. None of us can be credited for our innate talent, or for our parent’s nurturing us or for being born in a country with good schools, the list could go on. None of us have done anything to earn these things. They’re just given to us.
Several Sundays ago we began working through the book of I Corinthians, and on that Sunday we read the first nine verses of chapter one. It’s just the first few paragraphs of the letter. As you may well know, First Corinthians was written by Paul. And Paul is commonly known as the apostle of grace. Before meeting Jesus, Paul was a member of the Pharisee’s school of religious thought. He was deeply committed to doing everything within his power to make the cut and to measure up. Meeting Jesus didn’t make Paul ditch his basic assumption that the Torah (Old Testament Law) was valuable. But when he became a follower of Jesus he realized that some of the deepest things we strive for—they’ve already been done for us. Any sense that we have of needing to try harder to make the cut, to be taken seriously, to matter, to be a part of God’s people—the death and resurrection of Jesus takes care of that. That’s the message he says he received (I Cor. 15). That’s grace. With Paul’s testimony as inspiration, let’s think about one question:
What does it mean to live in God’s grace?
Before we go too far, we should notice a few things about the word ‘grace’. It shows up twice in the first nine verses of I Corinthians. The Greek word there is charis. Our word ‘grace’ comes from Latin, and it can be used in three main ways: (1) It can refer to something that is pleasing, a gracious dancer maybe; or (2) ‘grace’ can refer to some kind of undeserved gift; finally, (3) ‘grace’ can refer to an expression of gratitude, ‘grazie’ the Italians would say. It’s the middle definition that connects with Paul’s use of the term charis here in his letter to the church in Corinth: grace as an unearned gift. This is the center of the Christian faith. We have received what we couldn’t possibly accomplish.
So that’s where my question is pointing: What does it mean for us to live with the knowledge that what we have and what we are isn’t all earned? What does it mean for us to have our view of others shaped by grace? What does it mean to have our view of ourselves shaped by grace? How can we have friendships shaped by grace? How about families shaped by grace? Can our experience of grace change the way we die? Can it change the way we steward our things or our time?
Grace, of the unearned-status-variety, doesn’t seem to be a valid currency in our time. Ours is a time when we need to make the grade, measure up, get in and sound professional. The closest we might have is the idea of freedom. And we might think that our society is all about freedom, but think of the young girl who looks in the mirror and wonders if she’s slim enough. Or the guy who feels like he needs to add ten pounds of muscle to be taken seriously. Or the couple who has the impression that without the pool or the new car they aren’t really successful. Or even the university student busting their butt to ‘make something of themselves’. Or the terminal patient who worries about being ‘a burden’ or not being, as we say so often, ‘productive’. Or even think of the kid that makes a mistake and has it posted on the web. It’s pretty hard to give that kind of shame the slip.
Again, we say that we are freer than ever before. That might sound like we live in grace. Social mores related to birth and death have changed dramatically in the span of one generation, so too have many assumptions related to sexuality. Things that previously might have been hard to access or learn about are now readily available on the internet. This feels like freedom. Many kinds of limitations imposed on us by our bodies are now things we can negotiate. Think of this, not even our bodies restrict us like they once did. Some of this is obviously wonderful and some not so much.
My point is just that, whatever our experience of freedom may be, we do not live unconstrained lives. We may not worry about what others think of our choice in marriage-partner but we sure worry about our social status and our numbers of friends. We worry that someone is more trendy than we are or that some else’s vacation is more beautiful than ours. We worry about making the grade, measuring up, making the cut, getting in, being on-trend. We worry. We are bound by anxiety and stress. We are bound to keeping up appearances.
I wonder if the current stand-in for living in grace is the idea that we are accepted ‘just for who we are.’ We repeat this little mantra because otherwise life becomes crass and dark. The trouble is hardly anybody believes ‘we’re accepted just for who we are.’ Just about every aspect of our culture says that’s not true. We’re accepted for the money we might spend or the vote we might cast. We’re accepted for how we might benefit a corporation or fulfill someone’s agenda. And so, like many of the people to whom the NT letters were written, we must be reminded again and again of God’s grace.
So friends, hear a line from the introduction of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched by him . . . .”
People followed Jesus because he seemed to get the Torah right. That’s what they meant when they said he spoke as one with authority. That’s why the disciples refer to him as ‘rabbi’ and it’s why they talked about him being anointed (our other reading came from John 1:35-42). Anointing with oil was a sign of a special calling. Part of Jesus’ message was that getting in, making the grade and measuring up isn’t something that happens after we get our external stuff in order. It’s something that’s given. We’re trying to earn our right to breathe when it’s a gift. And so Paul greats the Corinthians in grace: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Like any community, our congregation has to work through some difficult things from time to time. But these paragraphs from I Corinthians remind us that Jesus has enriched us and strengthened us so that when we get together we don’t lack any spiritual gift. That means we don’t have to worry about whether or not we’re equipped to deal with things. When we see each other, then, we see God’s grace. That’s what Pauls sees in the Christian community in Corinth. That’s why he greets them in grace.
Some writers have suggested that Paul’s audience in Corinth was more like a modern church than that of just about any other book. Here’s what they mean. Corinth was a busy commercial center. The town site was an old one, but it had been torn down by the invading Romans in 146 BCE. It was then re-founded by Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. So, if Paul visited sometime around 50 CE, Corinth would have only had the social structure of a city of 100 years old.
This relative newness meant that Corinth was a place of new money. It was a place open to new ideas and a place for the upwardly mobile. Not only that, but Corinth regularly hosted sporting events that attracted large crowds. Corinth had large theater and a number of markets. It had many temples and a tolerance for new religious ideas. Corinth was often visited by sailors and it developed a reputation as a place where a man could easily find a ‘female companion.’
It’s to a church in this context that Paul writes a letter where he devotes whole chapters to the centrality of love (c. 13), the gifts of the Holy Spirit (c. 12, 14), good worship practices (c. 11), sexuality (chunks of cc. 5,6,7) and divisions in the church (cc. 1,3). And it’s in this kind of a context that Paul reminds his readers that they are called to be saints. That’s verse 2. He tells them at they are made holy—that is, they are made unique and weird—through the work of Jesus.
I can’t tell you specifically what it means to live in grace. There is so much. Our church network calls today Stewardship Sunday. The point is to remind us that the things we have are really God’s. We use them and care for them on behalf of their owner. So maybe it’s worth noting that the biblical practice of tithing or giving of the first-fruits was a part of living in grace. We give in various ways because we have received. Living in grace surely has implications too for the anxiety we carry. Don’t worry, says Jesus, your heavily father knows what you need. Surely that also applies to the many ways we grasp at social significance.
There are many more implications to living in grace, but let’s end with this: living in grace means being different. Our culture would shape us according to a pretty strict recipe. We feel that pressure on a variety of levels. But God offers us grace—a gift. The gift is that in Christ the power of these crushing forces is broken. We don’t have to work ourselves to the bone to be popular enough or professional enough. We can care for each other because God cares for us. And we can care for the other person because that other person has been made new in Jesus and carries God’s grace to us.