Radical Grace

Of all the theological words borrowed from the Christian thesaurus by our culture at large, “grace” is the most well-known. Few hymns remain in our collective cultural memory, but Amazing Grace can still safely be used in about any setting, it’s so well known. In an age when people are looking for the radical, the anti-institutional, the paradoxical, grace should speak within our larger culture even in a post-Christian setting. I’m afraid that we’ve watered down grace and domesticated it to the extent that it no longer appears radical to us or to our culture; and in that, we’ve done a grave disservice.

I’m always amazed at just how radical and paradoxical grace is in many of the New Testament texts. Recently, I used the story of the Woman Caught in Adultry (John 7:53-8:11) to introduce the idea of radical grace in a sermon. In the story, a woman is brought before Jesus by the Scribes and Pharisees; they test Jesus by accusing her of adultery. They had caught her in the very act, the only question now was what did Jesus think should be done? Jesus, unimpressed with their accusation, bends down and starts to doodle in the dirt while they continue with their accusatory banter. He brings the process to a conclusion by reminding the accusers that in the Old Testament, witnesses had the responsibility to punish the guilty. If her accusers were really who they claimed to be, their only course was to take up stones and punish her. Having shifted the focus from the woman to the accusers, Jesus goes back to his doodling on the ground. The next time he looks up, he is alone with the woman. The “witnesses” had thought the better of their accusations and slipped away in order from oldest to youngest. With a final “Go and sin no more,” Jesus sends the woman on her way.

If you look at the passage in most modern translations (ESV, NIV, NRSV), you will see that the entire passage is enclosed in brackets. Most of the earliest Greek manuscripts (from which the New Testament is translated) don’t contain the passage, and some of those who do place it at various points in John’s Gospel or in Luke. There isn’t another story in the New Testament that displays this kind of fluidity across the early manuscripts. Often, the scribes would mark the passage with something like our modern brackets to let readers know that there was a question about the authenticity of the passage in its context. The shifting around of the passage continues well into the twelfth century. Its not a favorite passage of the church fathers who quote much of the New Testament from the second century onward. In large swaths of Christendom, the church fathers don’t cite this story until the twelfth and thirteenth century.

How do we explain this fluidity in the manuscripts into a quite late period? The story is both scandalous (an adulterer walks away with no more than a “go and don’t do it again”) and radical at the same time. The manuscript tradition appears to both try to exorcize the story (morally loose?) and cling on to it at the same time. It is a radical, scandalous, paradoxical kind of grace.

The other thing of note in the story is the whole Jesus doodling in the dirt narrative. What was he doing? It is often thought that he was writing the sins of the accusers in the dirt. I can understand why someone might want to go beyond the text to explain what happened, but the point is the text itself doesn’t tell us, and none of those thousands of scribes who passed on the passage to us knew of such a tradition.

It does seem important to me that when they bring the woman to Jesus, they say in verse 4, “this woman has been caught in the very act of adultery.” Here and in verse three, the verb “to catch” is a process and not a simple single event. She wasn’t “caught”, she was “caught through a process” (both verbs are perfect rather than aorist tense). It makes me wonder if the act of adultery wasn’t really some kind of entrapment, something that went on over time. That would also explain why the other partner in the act isn’t brought to Jesus. Just her, whom they had hunted and caught. Jesus doodling in the ground is his way of letting them know he wasn’t impressed with what they had done. From their own mouths the truth had come, they had hunted and they had caught. Jesus’ reminder that justice was about both the accused and the accusers burned into their hearts. Everyone in the story needs radical grace, but only she really understands her need. In the end, only those seeking and extending grace are left in the narrative. Radical grace is transformative, “go and sin no more” is the declaration of a new found freedom and opportunity.

Real grace has always been radical. It was in the manuscripts of the New Testament, and it still is today. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . .”

Sermon Notes for July 10

I’m always jealous of preachers that can weave multiple texts into a single sermon. I normally find that I’m captured by one of the texts on any given Sunday to the exclusion of the others. One of my first sermon decisions is which text I focus on and which texts I let fall into the background. This last Sunday (July 10) was a difficult choice: John 8:1-11 (The Woman Caught in Adultery) was a text I’d never really studied in depth, and Ephesians 2:1-10 is one of the most beautiful and poetic passages in the Epistles. As you remember, John 8 was the focus of the sermon (how could it not be?), but I tried to weave in Ephesians 2:10 into the final point of the sermon:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Grace, God’s favor given because God chooses to extend it, has a purpose. Even in John 8, grace moves towards change. After Jesus tells the woman “neither do I condemn you” (vs. 11), Jesus follows with the command “go and sin no more.” The grace extended to the woman wasn’t just a random act, it was a creative act; it had a direction in which it moved: grace transformed the woman. Ephesians 2:10 is making the same point, God’s grace through faith, God’s gifts to us, are given with a direction, a purpose: to produce good works. People often get this wrong, they put the works in front of grace. The idea is never that our works earn or merit God’s favor; rather, God’s grace produces good works. The grace which saves us is never given because of what we do, but it is a grace that, once given, works.

Time, and the decision to focus on John 8, meant that I had to leave out one of the really profound images in Ephesians 2 last Sunday. In verses five and six, the writer traces our journey from those who cannot respond to God (“dead in our trespasses”) to our becoming the objects of God’s saving grace:

even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved--
and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

Verse seven is a beautiful picture that gives a reason for this grace-through-faith gift of God to us:

so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

The “coming ages” are that future time when there is neither sin, sickness, suffering nor death. The text is not talking about tomorrow or next year, it’s talking about a new age when God’s wholeness has vanquished every vestige of the sin and death dynamic of our age. In this future age when only God’s wholeness is known, we (the objects of God’s grace through faith) exist to show “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.” When God has vanquished everything that is antithetical to God’s peace, we will exist so that there are trophies of the immeasurable riches of God’s grace even then. That’s us, trophy wives, husbands and children.

Like I said, one of the really profound images in the Epistles.

Hello World

Hello and welcome to the Southminster Taylor Pastor’s Blog. I hope to engage a couple of themes in the postings to come. First, I’m always interested in how a text becomes a sermon-to-be and how that in turn becomes a word both shared and received. I would like to reflect here from time to time on sermons, both delivered and heard, and the texts that drive the sermons. Not exactly Best Seller lists stuff, but for a solo pastor in a community like Southminster its one of the most regular and important parts of life.

One of the current buzz words in the church world is “community exegesis.” By that, people mean the act of “reading” or understanding the underlying presuppositions and assumptions of a community. For the last twenty years, I’ve lived in the suburbs, in what are called urban edge communities. Taylor is very much like the community where I was born (Wheatridge, Colorado) and in many respects very unlike the communities where I’ve served previous churches. I’m interested in both “exegeting” or understanding the history and assumptions that shape Taylor and make it unique from other communities in which I’ve served, and using the process of fitting into a new community as a mirror to look at my own assumptions and presuppositions. Social exegesis is defiantly on the table.

Finally, Southminster is in may ways a typical mainline protestant congregation. The stuff that makes up so large a part of the national church conversations (debates on sexuality and political expression) don’t really play a large part in the life of Southminster. Local issues tend to dominate local congregations, at least that is my experience. Church communities like Southminster have a daunting task in defining themselves in a new way as the national centers of power and influence wane and the act of definition takes place in each local community. Part of my task at Southminster is to lead into a conversation about who we are and where we’re going. From time to time, I intend to take up that conversation in the blog.

Thanks for dropping in. Please come back from time to time so we can talk.