Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Defined by Grace

I think it is safe to say that there are a lot of people in this world who don’t know why they have been born.  Who don’t have a clear idea of who they are, why they are here.  I see such people every day in my office.  I run into them at meetings in Salem.  I suspect there are even some people sitting here, who looking back on their lives, or looking forward into their futures, have a very blurry sense of what has brought them to this place, and where they are meant to go.  I’ve been there.  At times it has been the story of my life!

When we are in that kind of place, our natural instinct is to try and come up with some answers.  We want to define ourselves.  In part for ourselves, but also for those who are around us.  Those we live with, work with, even those we meet.  This is not a bad thing.  We need to have an understanding  of who we are.  And if we are to be in relationship with other people, especially if we are to be in relationship with other people, they need to have some sense of who we are, what makes us tick.

Paul, the great Apostle, understood this.  And so Paul starts off his letter to the Romans with a run on sentence that would make any English teacher cringe. For seven verses he goes on and on and in a gush of words he defines himself.  In what is called by the commentaries a “salutation” he tries to help the Romans he is writing to understand who he is.

We understand this tactic because we use it all the time.  Think about what we usually do when we first meet someone new!  We define ourselves.  We give that person information about ourselves, in essence we seek to shape their perception of us.

How do we define ourselves?  What is it that we place out there, in our greeting, our salutation to people we are greeting for the first time?  A lot of us define ourselves by their roles, their jobs.  I am a farmer, a teacher. . . So often it is all about what we do….We define ourselves by what we do,  our accomplishments, making ourselves effectually “human doings”?  Is that the way it should be?  Is what we do who we are?  When Paul was writing to the Romans he had to make sure they knew who he was. How did he define himself?  What did he put out there?

Paul started by defining himself in terms of a relationship.  And in terms of what that relationship meant to his life.  The relationship?  The one he had with God.  Paul was not afraid to call himself out as a follower of this God who sent his Son into the world to redeem this world from sin. The first line of his letter says, “I, Paul, am a devoted slave of Jesus Christ on assignment, authorized as an apostle to proclaim God's words and acts.” How many of us introduce ourselves to strangers by saying, “Hi, I’m a slave of Jesus Christ on assignment ...” How many of us really believe that? How many of us here today are so focused on God, so connected to God, so defined by our relationship with God, that it spills out of every pore in our body?

Why was this important?  That this was the “center” Paul put forth in his greeting?  Why is it critical that he defines himself as a “slave of Jesus”?   Because, Paul understood that Christ is the great turning point - the great intersection of God into history.  For him the reality of Christ was big, really BIG.  More than big, it was everything!  It was the “center.”

For Paul Christ is the Center of God’s word, God’ teaching, God’s kerygma to all people.  He is the heir of David, the fulfillment of the expectations set forth in the Law, and the realization of the promises give by the Prophets.  Barth in his commentary on the book of Romans’ puts it this way….”He [that is Christ] intersects vertically from above.  Within history Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as Problem of Myth (in other books Paul talks about the scandal of Christ – let’s face it, the concept of Christ is problematic).  But as the Christ, he brings the world of the Father into history… In short he brings the sacred into the common, the earthly…”  So everything points TO Christ, and, everything moves forward FROM Christ.

And as if there were any doubt in the minds of his listeners, Paul points to the resurrection.  Chirst as the Center was made manifest, obvious, real, through the resurrection.  The resurrection is THE POINT – the moment when everything shifted, when history was transformed.  At the resurrection the spiritual fabric of the world was ripped apart, and something new, something powerful was revealed…something special, wonderful, something called,  . Grace

So Paul believed that one’s relationship to Christ has to stand at the center of our self-definition, has to be THE DEFINING FACTOR.  If Christ is the defining factor, then, he believed, we are defined by what Christ reveals, what Christ brings.  And what Christ reveals, what he brings forth “in power” is grace.  So Paul reveals in his opening statement, that he sees himself as defined by grace.  If you understand grace, you understand Paul.

But what is grace?  In the New Testament, the word translated as grace is the Greek word Charis (Greek Χάρις),  The word Charis is defined this way. "Grace, the state of kindness and favor towards someone, often with a focus on a benefit given to the object." A Greek word that is related to Charis is Charisma (gracious gift). Both these words originated from another Greek word Chairo (to rejoice, be glad, delighted).  Grace means being put right with the sacred, receiving God’s charity, and being empowere in a way that makes us feel joyful.  AND  This all comes as a gift!

So for Paul his identity was ultimately all about God and God’s gift.  When he looked at himself, what he saw was the Christ in him.  Later he would write, “the secret is this, Christ in us.” 

I Paul, who had so many things he could have pointed to, his education, his accomplishments, defined himself by grace, then it seems as if that is what we should do as well. 

So, after reading this opening I had to ask… how do I define myself?  By my current roles?  As an executive director?  Counselor?  Minister?  Do I define myself by my past roles?  As a professor in a medical school?  A disaster relief worker?  Do I define myself by my degrees or accomplishments?  By the house I live in, or the car I drive?  Do I, in my darker moments define myself by my mistakes?  My failures?  But my weaknesses?  My character flaws?

Or do I define myself by grace.  Do I see myself as one loved by God, called by God, forgiven by God, filled and empowered by God?  What difference would it make, it I defined myself as a person overwhelmed and enslaved by grace?  If I lived from this “center” that is Christ.

First, what difference would it make in how I looked at myself.  And talked to myself about myself.  Could I look at myself and see only my failures, my weaknesses.  Could I look at myself and say, “I am not enough?”  “I am a mistake?”  “I am bad?”  I don’t think so.  If I see myself as one called by God, into grace, I can’t go to those places.  I have to see my value, my potential, my worth.  I am worth enough that Christ died for me.

And what difference would that make in how I interact with others.  In how I present myself to them.  In what I say to them?  What would my interactions with others look like, as a person defined by grace?
If I were defined by grace would I have room for fear?
If I were defined by grace would I have room to hold grudges, anger, hatred?
If I were defined by grace would there be room for arrogance?  Selfishness?

It would change things, wouldn’t it…. There is a contemporary Christian band, 33 miles, which has a song called “What Grace Looks Like!”  The final verse goes like this:
 It’s a little bit of hope and sweet redemption
Maybe taking time to stop and listen, Just being there
Show someone that you care
It’s living a life with your hands wide open
Giving all you got to a heart that is broken

Who am I?  Who are you?  We, we are all, people of grace.  This is the big thing.  This is the great shift.  This is the defining factor.  Let’s believe it!  Let’s live it!

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