Sermon for Evensong – 10th Sunday after Trinity – OT20A 2017
2 Kings 4:1-7
Encountering Grace – Encountering God
‘Grace to you, and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ’
I always head my sermons with a biblical text – and usually a reference – but in the case of these words, the references would be too long – for the Apostle Paul opens every single one of his 12 letters in the scriptures with this very same greeting. ‘Grace to you, and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ’. Even his letter to the Galatians, which dispenses with all of the standard courtesies of saying how much he is praying for them etc. has these words. Grace, Grace and Peace to you, From God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ
And there is a temptation to skip over them – to move on to the meat of the theology of Paul’s message – a bit like when you are graced . . . with the receipt of a letter, we skip over ‘Dear . . .’ not least because most letters we receive continue ‘Sir or Madam’ – from strangers who do would not call us dear to our face.
‘Dear’ an address which like so much of our language has lost its density, we just tag it on out of custom – we write back to the bank, or we did, even our writing has now been reduced to typing and that on an all but frictionless keyboard . . . ‘Dear Sir, or Madam’ and what follows the ‘Dear’ expressed precisely why we don’t mean ‘Dear’ Words without weight – no Density
But we should not pass over Grace to you, and Peace . . . For Paul these words are words from the stuff of his life as a disciple of Jesus – they express his being taken hold of by the Living God – they are not mere words. Paul’s culture unlike ours knows no such thing as ‘mere words’. By his Word, God created the heavens and the Earth. Words speak Matter – they are concrete. Paul speaks out of his Encounter, and his words are words of encounter. Grace TO you, Peace TO you, FROM God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. May you be apprehended by Grace – may it come to you, and so with Peace also . . . but that’s another sermon, or 50
Grace is a very familiar word to us as Christians – we sing Amazing Grace, one of the best selling Christian books of recent years has the title ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ (many of you I know have read it) – but our Faith is in the Word made Flesh. Words in Our dictionary have form, density, materiality always guiding us into the encounter with this Grace which comes to us from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ – who is Grace in the Flesh.
It was John Wesley – that fine Anglican 🙂 – who added to the somewhat cerebral three legged stool of ‘Scripture, Tradition, and Reason’ a fourth leg – and an indispensable one – Experience. The heart of the Evangelical faith, is faith in the Evangel, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, who comes to us from God the Father . . . it is in this encounter that Grace moves from being a concept, a nice word, to an experienced dense reality.
That move is the move to the Faith of the Apostles – the Density of Faith. Embodied. We can in our conceptual terms come up with a dictionary definition of Grace – but ultimately you cannot put it into words because Grace is the WORD. But where is Grace to be found? Rather like, or indeed very very like Wisdom, it eludes our searching. Rather Grace finds us, where Jesus is – in the very depths of our existence, in the deep places.
A widow has her husbands creditor banging down the door – demanding her two sons as slaves to settle the debts . . . Grace comes to find her in the person of Elisha (a prophetic figure of Christ) . . in the midst of her distress . . . Oil . . . the symbol of Life – Grace. John Newton in the depravity of his life as a trader in human cargo – in the utter shame of an inhuman life – is apprehended by Jesus. Grace
I think of a couple of encounters this week. With a woman who has an extraordinary ministry as an evangelist . . . but her husband is dying of cancer. She is called to speak at a conference but there is no place for him at the hospice and she doesn’t want to leave him anyway for she fears she may not see him again, and then as she told me, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, the hospice ring, there is a place, he can go, and she can go and in faith she goes – literally between her home in Auckland and the conference in Wellington she has three encounters – three people encounter Jesus in her and through her, they are converted, they become Christian. As she put it to me, ‘it is Absolute Glory, in the midst of total Hell’ . . . Grace . . . On the Edge of death – Christ who tramples down death – Harrows Hell . . . the earthquake rips the doors of the jail away . . . those long imprisoned in darkness are brought blinking into the bright light of the Knowledge of the Glory of God in Jesus Christ. Someone else who in the hell of a divorce is apprehended by an angel . . . Grace TO you, FROM God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
So, Paul. When he writes ‘Grace to you, and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ’ – he knows what he is talking about. KNOWS. In the biblical sense (a phrase which always raised a titter when I was at school 🙂 ) For in the Bible the Only Knowing is the Knowing of encounter. It is deep and rich and messy – often it is bewildering for we are caught up in something much much bigger than ourselves. We have been sleep walking through life, and then Grace takes hold of us – throws us up – to use a wonderful word, it discombobulates us – throws all our categories up in the air. Paul has the world figured – he sets out to deal with this Jesus sect, and encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. The vision is so bright and terrifying – he is apprehended by the Grace that has come looking for him, and he sets out on the journey of living by and out of that grace. All other bets are off – Grace has taken hold of him
So we find him living by Grace. Paul and his companions are swimming deep in Grace – attentive to its currents in the depths – ‘forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia – the Spirit of Jesus preventing them going into Bythinia – in Troas a vision, a call to Macedonia. Living by Grace as vehicles of that Grace – and finding Grace . . . going to the place of prayer, a rich woman – Lydia – a worshipper of God – in amongst the crowd, Grace finds her
On the way to her house they meet a slave girl trapped by a spirit of divination – her chains fall off – Grace. So Paul and Silas are thrown into prison – Grace is not always well received – but in the midst, they Know the Grace of God. They’re Deep Deep in its flow – singing hymns – full of Joy even in the dark place. They know the truth of God’s promise of Treasures of darkness, and the earthquake strikes – but why run off? Their freedom is to remain – Grace does this. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who returns to Germany from England. Grace sets you free to live as free even though in chains. And free people are the only ones who can free people and so the jailer becomes a free man and the Grace spreads to his whole family . . . but what of us? When we sing ‘Amazing Grace’ do we Know that Grace?
A man is walking his dog alongside a lake. Absentmindedly he throws a stick into the water for his dog, which calmly walks across the water to bring back the stick. Rubbing his eyes in disbelief he repeats the stick throwing, . . . both times the dog walks across the water and brings back the stick. Thinking he is going mad he calls someone over – ‘Look at this!’ he cries and throws the stick out once more. The dog once more walks across the water and brings back the stick. ‘Amazing!’ the onlooker cries out – your dog!!! He can’t swim!!!
We may well see Jesus walking across the waves, but if you are going to walk on the water, you first have to learn the density of the water – how it will hold you up . . . it is the same with Grace. If we haven’t learnt to swim in it. At the turn of the C17 an otherwise unknown French Jesuit priest Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote a short book. most people know it by its modern name, one which is light and spiritual and unchallenging. ‘The Sacrament of the Present moment’ – I have to say the original title ‘Abadonment to Divine Prividence’ far better sums up its thoughts. We Know grace – it comes to find us when we abandon ourselves to God’s goodness and mercy. it is so so so tempting and indeed easy no to do this, to plan for tomorrow and next month and next year – rather than to Seek his Kingdom and allow Him to bear us up.
If we haven’t found the incredible density of the Grace of God, have we even stepped off the side of the lake? Are we mere onlookers to this Grace? is it just a word, like the ‘Dear’ at the opening of a letter? Have we begin to paddle in the shadows, or have we found ourselves away from the shore, swimming in it – as our natural surrounding our true home? Can we bear witness to being borne by Grace
Often people will say – I just found myself in a situation where I had no choice but to rely on the Grace of God . . . to which it seems reasonable to ask ‘but why did you stop doing that?’ St Paul would say ‘why do anything else?’
For most of the churches existence bodily difficulty and hardship was known as a sure way to encounter the healing power of Christ. ‘To share in his sufferings’ as St Paul puts it. Today the physical and the spiritual are in our world all but ‘put asunder’, and we have lost sense that it is in the depths of the darkest experience that Grace meets us. The deeper we go in the life of Christ, the denser it is – and often the harder. For Christ went down into the very depths – he redeems and transforms from the bottom up. That is where he is – and we have to learn to let go and find our true weight, our true density, our Existence as embodied life in the Ocean of Grace From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.