Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Grace and Truth Came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17)
December 30, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Every year the appointed gospel passage for the First Sunday after Christmas is the prologue from the Gospel According to John, one of the most beautifully written and theologically loaded passages in the entire Bible. John begins by famously describing the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to whom he refers as “the Word”:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with 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 (John 1:1-4).
Throughout his account of the gospel John returns repeatedly to the idea of Jesus being both life and light, both “the way, the truth and the life” (14:6) and “the light of the world” (8:12). John also tells us that Jesus, the Word, fully divine, became fully human at his incarnation: “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…From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace” (1:14, 16).
And then John summarizes the entire Bible in one verse: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). The Old Testament is centered on the law—the moral law distilled in the Ten Commandments and the sacrificial law concerning the atonement for sin. God’s law was given to help us honor God and other people, to protect us from the destructive consequences of sin. Over and over again the narrative of the Old Testament is the recurring cycle of God’s people breaking God’s law, getting into serious trouble as a result, repenting, being rescued by God, and then breaking God’s law again and beginning the cycle anew. All the words of the Old Testament prophets can be summed up in one word: repent, stop breaking God’s law and turn back to God. “The law indeed was given through Moses.”
“Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”—that is the message of the New Testament. The Old Testament is centered on the law of God. The New Testament is centered on the grace of God, grace given all of us in Jesus Christ. “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”—that is why we emphasize God’s grace here at Christ Church more than anything else. The center of the gospel is the grace of God.
God’s grace is unconditional love. One definition of grace is “unmerited favor,” which is true, but grace is much more than that, as Paul Zahl describes in his book Grace in Practice:
What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of lovable…It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold… Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures… Grace is one-way love (36).
Whether or not she was aware of it, Taylor Swift was singing about grace when she sang, “You told me I was pretty when I looked like a mess” (from “Today was a Fairytale”). Bono, the lead singer of U2 was fully aware of it when he sang, “Grace—she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain…grace makes beauty out of ugly things” (from “Grace”).
Last week The New York Times published an op-ed by entitled “The Uncommon Power of Grace” in which the writer observes:
We are naturally drawn to covenants and karma, to cause and effect, to earning what we receive. Grace is different. It is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving. It’s a difficult concept to understand because it isn’t entirely rational…there’s a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth, or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and the unheralded, rule followers and rule breakers.
And this grace of God makes a real difference in people’s real lives:
You don’t sense hard edges, dogmatism, or self-righteous judgment from gracious people. There’s a tenderness about them that opens doors that had previously been bolted shut. People who have been transformed by grace have a special place in their hearts for those living in the shadows of society. They’re easily moved by stories of suffering and step into the breach to heal. And grace properly understood always produces gratitude (Peter Wehner, December 23, 2018).
Grace is one of the central themes in the beautiful and highly acclaimed 2018 foreign film Roma. The main character is Cleo Gutierrez, a maid for the wealthy de Tavira family in early 1970’s Mexico City. The film begins with a lengthy shot of water being poured onto the floor of a porch that Cleo is cleaning, with Cleo in control of where the water goes. Cleo is not only the maid, she is also the unheralded caretaker of several young children—she cooks for them, cleans their clothes, takes them to and from school, bathes them, and helps them to bed at night. Every day, all day, Cleo is a servant who does more than her job; she gives grace to the de Tavira family.
Near the end of the film the de Tavira family, absent the father, is at the beach. Cleo warns the children again and again about not going too far into the ocean, but the children defy Cleo’s warnings, as children are apt to do, and go way too far out. When she realizes they are in danger, even though she does not know how to swim and is frightened of the ocean, Cleo makes her way through the heavy surf and the rough waves. She is absolutely terrified of the water, but even more terrified of losing the children. She has no control of where the water goes.
Cleo keeps going, risking her life with every step into deeper surf, until she reaches the children. She manages to rescue the children who were unable to rescue themselves. The entire sequence is filmed in one spectacular camera shot, brilliant cinematography. After Cleo has brought the children back to safety, they all huddle together on the shore and hold onto each other—all grateful to be safely on shore, all grateful to Cleo, the unheralded servant, for saving the children’s lives.
The law did not work in this instance because the children defied the law. But grace worked, the grace of Cleo saved the children.
I literally experienced something very similar when I was eight years old. My family was at Virginia Beach for a week, the first time I could remember seeing the ocean. My dad rented a raft for me and I spent all day riding wave after wave after wave back to shore. The next day I began again, but kept going a little farther out, even though I had been warned about it. And you can guess what happened—a rip current suddenly swept me out really far from shore.
I remember paddling as hard as I could but I was not getting any closer to the shore. A lifeguard stood atop his large white wooden lifeguard chair and blew his whistle repeatedly, waving his arms at me to come back to shore. But I couldn’t. I even slid off the raft and tried doggy paddling while pulling the raft by the white cord, but to no avail, and when I thought about the movie Jaws I immediately scurried back atop the raft. I was unable to help myself, and I was really scared.
Finally a different lifeguard swam out me. As he drew near I slid off the raft because I thought he and I could tag team, work together to save me, because I wanted to “do my part.” When he arrived he smiled and said, “I’ve got you buddy, it’s gonna be okay, just get back on the raft.” I did, and he brought me back to shore. I was unable to rescue myself. That lifeguard rescued me. The law did not work because I defied the warnings about going too far out, and when I was waved back in I could not do it. I needed to be saved, and thankfully I was.
“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” When it comes to your salvation, to your relationship with God, the law does not work, but the grace of God does.
So how did Jesus relate to the law?
First, when it came to the Old Testament law, Jesus did not water it down; instead, he turned up the heat, as he preached in his Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22).
Second, Jesus summarized the entire Old Testament law in one word: love:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).
And finally, Jesus fulfilled the law in our place, as he said he would:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).
And on Good Friday the grace of God that came in Jesus Christ was manifested in a way no one saw coming as Jesus, the Word of God—fully divine, fully human—died on the cross to fulfill the law. Jesus, by his love, on which hung “all the law and the prophets”, died to save you as he himself hung on the cross. When it comes to the sin in your life Jesus has taken the blame, covered the shame and removed the stain. Even though he was terrified Jesus waded into the dangerous surf of sin and death all the way until he reached us and in his death and resurrection he brought us back to shore. Scripture tells us plainly, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”—scripture tells us and that “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4) and that “you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). And every time we have a baptism we are reminded that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you have been forgiven your sins and raised to “the new life of grace” (The Book of Common Prayer 308).
The law did not work, but grace did…and still does.
As you begin a new calendar year this week, may you experience wave after wave after wave of God’s grace.