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Grace Upon Grace

Sermon - 1/04/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 1:6-18

Last week I suggested that singing "Silent Night" by candlelight in our Christmas Eve services is one of the most sacred things we do in this community.  But for me, the most powerful moment in that service on Christmas Eve comes just prior to that -- when gathered in this circle here in this sanctuary, and all of the lights go out, and then in the darkness and the silence we hear the opening words of John's gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

And then, we take the light from the Christ candle and it spreads across the sanctuary as the silence is broken with Silent Night.

It is a powerful moment made sacred on that holy of nights by this ancient, powerful witness to the meaning not only of the birth but of the life, the teachings, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

The text for this morning picks up after these opening words to John's gospel, and provides further insight and reflection on just what it means to say that God is revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

Verses six through eighteen:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

 

It is a very appropriate text for this Sunday, which is just 2 days before Epiphany, the celebration of the Star of Bethlehem that represents the light of God that we see in Christ. 

And it is also an appropriate text for the first Sunday of the year, as we think about beginnings, of a new year.  We think about how we are going to live out that Strategic Plan through our Visioning Process.  We think about the new directions of our country as we inaugurate a new President.

The prologue of John's gospel, as this text is known, is John's equivalent of the birth narratives that we find in Matthew and Luke.  Only, he says, in essence, that the beginning of the good news is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of the cosmos.  Note his first words:  "In the beginning", which of course are the very first words of Genesis.  And quite likely is intentional on the author's part, so we make the comparison to the creation of the world.  'In the beginning', before, in other words, anything else was created, the Word was there with God.

This is the beginning of the good news, the origin of the gospel.  Not a historical event attended by shepherds and honored by Magi, it was not the divine messenger appearing to the father as in Matthew's gospel, or to the mother in Luke's gospel, rather it was and is the very character of God revealed to us in Jesus.  This, says John, is where our story begins.  With God, before anything else that is, was.

And the essence of that character, revealed to us in all it's fullness in Christ, is summed up simply (but powerfully) in this one phrase:  grace upon grace.

This is, I believe, a most striking and remarkable assertion made by our gospel writer.  It speaks to that deeper truth that cannot be proven by empirical evidence.  It can only be experienced by the believer.  What is striking about his claim that we receive from God through Christ 'grace upon grace' is that after this prologue, in which the author mentions grace 4 times, it is never mentioned again as he tells the story of Jesus among us.  It's as if the author is saying to us that God's grace is so evident in the life of Jesus he doesn't have to name it. 

When Jesus heals the blind and the lame, often when they do not even know enough to request it, that is grace upon grace.

When he surprises the guests and host alike at that wedding party that has run out of drink -- turns the water into wine -- that is grace upon grace.

When he engages a Samaritan woman in deep theological discussion at the well -- a taboo for a Jewish man in ancient Israel -- that is grace upon grace.

When he feeds 5,000 from the few loaves and fishes with baskets of food left over, that is grace upon grace.

And when he saves that woman caught in the act of adultery from stoning, he befriends lepers and outcasts, he raises Lazarus from the tomb, that is grace upon grace.

Finally, when he appears to Mary in the midst of her grieving in the garden, and appears to the disciples in the midst of their cowering in the closed room, and appears to Thomas in the midst of his doubting, that is grace upon grace.

A remarkable claim, because if scholars are correct, the author of this gospel (by the way, we call him 'John', though the gospel itself never names him), is not writing a few days after these events, a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years, but rather at least 50 years later.  Writing as if it were yesterday.  It's like writing about 1959 as if we experienced it yesterday, or even more recently.  For this grace upon grace is not something that is received once in the distant past that one treasures in their heart like a cherished memory (like Mary ponders all these things in her heart), but it is an on-going presence that continues to enlighten and enliven all the community of Jesus' followers.

And even more remarkable is that in the eyes of the world the life of Jesus ended in failure.  Spectacularly so.  No person of any repute in the first century would dare to claim that one who was crucified somehow embodied the presence, the essence, the character of God.

And yet here is John making this point, that no one has ever seen God, but in Jesus everyone can see not only the Son of God but God the Son, so full of God is Jesus.

So what is this grace that is so abundant in Jesus to make him, as John says, next to the heart of God?

If you look up 'grace' in Webster's dictionary, there are 11 different definitions of grace.  One of the things that makes the English language so challenging -- 11 different definitions of grace!  From the prayer said before a meal, to the period after the due-date on your credit card bill -- the 'grace period'.  Grace can be a manner of speech or a manner of movement -- Grace Kelly we think of as the embodiment of grace.  A person of royalty, or what a good number of current and former government officials in the administration are hoping the President will provide before leaving office!

Actually, Presidential clemency is very close to the theological definition of grace.  Provided in Webster's dictionary:  "Unmerited love and favor of God for humankind".

I would prefer not 'unmerited' but 'unconditional'.  Whether we merit or do not merit this love of God is not the point, but rather that God gives it unconditionally and abundantly.  Just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.  And it is this abundant love so amazing, so divine, revealed to us in the life and being of Jesus that is grace upon grace.

The apostle Paul, who speaks about grace more than any other New Testament writer, in fact, twice as often as all the other New Testament writers combined, defines this grace of God in Christ using economic imagery for a most non-economic reality.  In 2 Corinthians 8 he says:  "For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.  So that by his poverty he might become rich".

It is in knowing and experiencing this richness of God, the beauty, the wonder, the joy, the mystery, the harmony, the love of life in all things created through the Word of God that we experience this grace upon grace given so freely and abundantly to all who will receive it.  Merited or not.

There's a great scene in the new Batman movie ["The Dark Knight"].  My kids always think I'm silly, coming up with these theological reflections on things like Batman.  But in case you haven't seen it, a wonderful scene that illustrates this interplay between merited and unmerited.  The Joker, tragically but brilliantly portrayed by Heath Ledger (who gave his life, sadly, in service to that role, died toward the conclusion of that movie) comes up with a villainous plot whereby there are two ferries that he arranges to have filled with people:  one ferry filled with the good citizens of Gotham, the other ferry filled with the convicts of Gotham.

Both ferries are rigged with explosives.  Both ferries have a detonator for the other ferry.  And the Joker tells them that one of them has to be exploded before midnight, thereby killing everyone onboard, or he is going to explode them both.

So you can just imagine now the scene on each ferry.  And the good citizens of Gotham now start clamoring for someone to push the button, because after all, those convicts, you know, don't deserve to be the ones to survive, they had their chance in life.

And then one of the good citizens finally takes the detonator and a few minutes before midnight . . . . can't press the button.  Just can't bring himself to do that.  He's a good citizen, after all.

Meanwhile on the other ferry, the meanest, ugliest looking, baddest convict of them all, gets up and takes away the detonator and. . . . .throws it into the sea.  And thereby, the lives of the good citizens are also spared, by the convicts.

Grace upon grace.

Chris Carrier and David McCallister were the most unlikely of friends.  Chris, 32 years of age, father of two, a Youth Minister.  David, 77 years old, a long criminal history, now confined to the nursing home in very poor health.  On his last visit to his ailing friend, Chris took a pound of David's favorite smoked fish and made sure he was warm and cared for, because there wasn't anyone else left to do it.  Having no family or friends, alienating everyone who had known him except for Chris, he died alone that night.

Just a few months before, he confessed to the crime that in which he was long the sole suspect -- the abduction and near murder of a 10 year-old boy, 22 years before.  After being fired from his job, he kidnapped his employer's son, stabbed him with an ice pick, shot him, and left him for dead in the Everglades.  It was a miracle, they all said, that the boy survived, although blind in one eye.

Now, facing his likely and soon death, David confessed to the Sheriff, who had kept the investigation open all those 22 years.  Told the identity of his attacker, the victim went to see the old man himself.  And when the dying man realized that this young man standing before him was that boy that he had left for dead, he broke down and cried.  And told him how sorry he was for what he had done to him.

That victim, of course, was Chris Carrier.  He said of their encounter that day:  "It wasn't hard for me to show compassion given his circumstances.  I had long since moved on.  I told him I forgave him".

And so it was at his death, David's only friend was the one he tried to kill.

Grace upon grace.

With the escalating hostilities in Gaza, and now the invasion by Israel (begun yesterday), it's hard to imagine much grace in that land of seemingly unending hatred and killing.  Yet grace is precisely what I found on my visit there just 11 months ago.  From a Jew and a Palestinian, members of the Bereaved Families Forum, composed of 500 members, 250 Palestinians, 250 Jews.  The only criteria for membership is that you had lost a loved one to the violence.

The group only sends out speakers two-by-two, one of each, to share their personal stories of pain and suffering, and often of deep anger and hatred.  In the case of the young Palestinian woman who met with us in our hotel in Tel Aviv, who's family was from Gaza, whose brother was killed by an Israeli soldier, who's aunt died due to lack of medical care due to conditions in Gaza, it was a visit from the founder of that organization that transformed her hatred of Jews into hatred of the violence.

When he came to their home, they all thought that he was crazy -- here, a religious, devout Jew, coming to this Muslim home in Gaza, to express his sorrow.  She thought that all Jews hated Palestinians, indeed as she hated Jews, and wanted to drive them into the sea.  Instead, he shared with this family of how his son was kidnapped by Hamas in 1994, executed in order to thwart the peace process.  And he decided he needed to do something to make sure that his son's death was not in vain.  And so he founded this organization.

Together, they cried over their common loss.  Today, this organization of Jews and Palestinians speaks with one voice for the reconciliation of their respective people.

A Jewish representative who met with us on our tour, whose son was killed by Hezbollah in Lebanon, told us that the Israeli government says there is no one in Gaza they can talk to, and hence the current invasion.  And yet when this organization went into Gaza, where 90% of all families have lost a loved one to the conflict, they found open doors.  People eager to talk about how they could work together to change the facts on the ground, to bring about reconciliation.

Government, he said, will never bring peace.  At best, it can only make agreements.  Peace must be made by the people, in face to face reconciliation.

Asked about the role of forgiveness in this process, another Jewish speaker on our tour said that is a question typically that comes from Christians.  Never hears about it from Jews, because, he says, for them, forgiveness is not up to them, it is up to God.  "We do not have to forgive one another", he said, "we have to learn how to live together in peace.  Only then when that happens, perhaps, can we speak about forgiveness".

Grace upon grace.

Wherever life is given, not taken, reconciliation offered and accepted, love shared merited or unmerited, there you will find the grace of God.

In Christ, the fullness of that grace has been revealed and offered to us.  And when we share that grace with one another, and especially with the unloved of our community and our world, that's when we know grace upon grace.

May it so be.

 


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