Friday, March 18, 2005

Grace



It's getting near to Holy Week and Easter and so I'm thinking about grace.

My favourite definition (?) of grace is that of Philip Yancey - grace means that "there's nothing you can do to make God love you more; there's nothing you can do to make God love you less". This is a bold and helpful statement of what grace means, and it shows the radical nature of Christian faith. It is both liberating and terrifying.

Grace is liberating because it takes our salvation (and the love of God is precisely that - our salvation) out of our own hands. We cannot initiate it, we cannot screw it up. However awful we've been, it matters not. The great testimony stories of God changing the lives of people who have murdered and committed dreadful crimes, from St Paul onwards, are testimony to this.

There is, of course, massive room for misunderstanding here. The logic of grace is contrary to all our human logic, and so it is very difficult to grasp. Once we have grasped the logic of grace, it is all too easy to let it go again and to return to familiar territory of understanding. Many of the reformation controversies find their roots here, I suspect.

But it is precisely because of this offer of new life to the 'undeserving' as well as to ourselves that grace is also terrifying. We are forced to confront not just our common humanity, but our common new humanity with people we don't like, or who frighten us, or whose actions we find repulsive. We know that they are loved by God, no other conclusion can be drawn. The saying 'there but for the grace of God go I' is more radical than I often think.

But the real terror, especially for church people, is that grace cuts out any notion we might have that we have control. There truly is nothing we can do that will affect grace, nothing will affect God's love or our salvation. And we find that difficult, because we think we know what's expected. Whether it's my thoughts on the church-going habits of people who live in the parish, or an Archbishop's thoughts on gay people, both are defeated by the reality of grace (whatever church rules, my teaching or Primates Meetings may say).

Karl Rahner once wrote that "theology had been led astray for too long by the tacit assumption that grace would no longer be grace if God became too free with it" (Nature and Grace, p. 31). This is the church's temptation par excellence, to think that God restricts his grace to those like us.

May the Lord, in his grace, have mercy on us.

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