‘By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends”’ –Luke 15:1-3.
“I, myself, have several gay friends,” he started. Then hurriedly added, “Of course they know where I stand on that issue.”
My blood went cold and I felt shame wash all over me. Because I had said those very same words. In that same context and in other contexts over the years. But when I heard him say it, I heard it for the first time through the hearts of the minority, the voiceless and the powerless. Perhaps I felt more connection with people outside the accepted church population because I had read that week about Jesus dining with ‘notorious sinners–tax collectors and other social outcasts’ (Luke 15:1, The Voice) and the scandal he raised with religious leaders. In my shock, I got the impression that God asked me, ‘Why does it matter if they know where you stand on the issue of their lives?’
With time-elapse speed, I went through the life of Jesus and couldn’t come up with one time that he said to his disciples or anyone he ministered to, “I offer you grace, mercy and unconditional love of the Father. BUT … Of course you know where I stand on your behavior.” Not once. So why do we?
I’m growing to believe that the answer lies in the word grace. We don’t really know what to do with that concept. It offends our sense of justice and order. If we’re honest, we probably don’t believe that God got it right. We think we need to speak truth (as long as we throw in an I’m-only-saying-this-because-I-love-you line) about what we think of someone’s life so that people know that grace, mercy and unconditional love have rules. I’ve heard people say things like, “We can’t let this grace thing get out of hand, or people will take advantage.” Probably true. But should that be our primary focus?
What if we focussed primarily on the hearts of the people Jesus spent time with–the social outcasts and those labelled ‘sinner’? Are we willing to allow others to tarnish our reputations? Are we willing to become fodder for church gossip because we associate with people on the fringe? Are we willing to admit that maybe we’ve got it wrong, and some things that we label as ‘sinful’ are not viewed that way by God? Are we willing to invest more of ourselves in the stories of others, joining their life journey and allowing them to join ours–without offering our opinion of their lives unless asked?
Paul addresses unfettered grace in the book of Romans. He does not say that grace needs tempering by the Law. However, he does say in chapter 6, ‘Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God? What a ghastly thought!’ Oh, that churches could have the problem of people asking that question about exploiting grace! If only we preached a gospel that forces that question! Perhaps if we focussed on the life Christ offers us and let others unite with us in that life, we would find that our nit-picking on ‘sin’ (which no one asked our thoughts on in their lives) would disappear like mist in the sun. Perhaps then we could cover the shame that separates so many from believing the grace of Christ is real. Perhaps in covering others’ shame, we would grow in humility and allow them to cover our shame.
In the shame I felt when my friend’s words haunted my memory of words I had spoken, I remembered grace and forgiveness. I thanked God that I am no longer that girl who uttered those words in years past. I thanked Him for forgiving me and continuing to challenge me.
Thank you, Father, for loving us unconditionally. Thank you, Spirit, for continuing to speak wisdom into my life. Thank you, Jesus, for exemplifying grace.
Thank you so much, God, for letting ‘this grace thing get out of control.’
Have you begun to hear words and phrases differently than when you were younger? What are some of the lessons you’re learning about grace in your life?