March 11, 2018: God’s World of Grace

March 15, 2018

Summary

God’s World of Grace

It’s too much! Our human capacity for violence and for causing unspeakable suffering is too much. An ancient chieftain once accused the Romans of creating a desert through their destructive violence and then calling it peace. I think of that when I see those horrific images of completely destroyed cities in Syria. Many outside countries (including ours) are embroiled in this devastating civil war.

It doesn’t end there. Many other places are experiencing their own horror. We have become numbed by incidents of mass shootings with assault weapons in our country, most recently in Florida. Yet our lawmakers are very reluctant to take on the gun lobby. This struggle indicates how fragile and tattered the social fabric of our country has become.

A despair for our world grows in me. As I get older, I don’t think so much about myself, but I fear for the lives on our children and our children’s children. What will become of them? We feel overwhelmed by such needs and hardly know how to respond, let alone hold all this pain and suffering in our hearts.

The plight of millions of refugees especially tugs at our heart strings. I have a personal note on this. I was doing research on our family history during my sabbatical and discovered that my ancestor Hans Zimmerman and his brother, who migrated to America in 1732, were both less than 15 years old when they arrived. They came alone without their parents, along with a group of other refugees from their home area in the Canton of Berne in Switzerland.

We know they were fleeing religious persecution and war, but the details of their story are lost. I try to put myself in their place, arriving here as young boys knowing that they would most likely never again see their homeland or their families. They needed to start a new life in a strange land. They were not unlike refugees today fleeing war and religious conflict in places like Syria and Somalia.

So much of the human suffering in our world is created by powerful elites, multi-national corporations, and national governments vying with each other for power and financial gain. Common people get trampled when bombs start falling and armies sweep through towns and cities. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the “course of this world,” which leads to death.

It’s a devilish domination system tied to what Paul calls “the ruler of the power of the air” or, as translated by the Common English Bible, “the rule of a destructive spiritual power.” This is strangely seen as normal by most people; so much so that we can’t even imagine a different kind of world. Those responsible always blame the mayhem and destruction on their adversaries (Ephesians 2:1-10).

Now we begin to better understand Jesus’ provocative claim that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It would be a different matter if it were only powerful elites who engaged in this kind of behavior—not giving a twit about that eye of a needle. The sad truth, however, is that many common people,
including those of us who claim to follow of Jesus, also think and act like this. We fail to see that such powers oppress us, and we forget that Jesus gave his life in opposition to them. We forget
that our God is a God who loves unconditionally, readily forgives, and calls us to a new way of life.

After graphically laying out our ugly human predicament, Paul inserts the little word “but.” He writes, “But, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a
result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!” To the rich and powerful, this is so much nonsense and
weakness unless they can push it into some spiritual, heavenly realm unrelated to our lives here in this world. They know that real power comes from wealth, military might, and influence in
the major national capitals in our world such as Washington DC.

Writing to the churches in Corinth, Paul counters with the zinger, “But the weakness of God is more powerful than human strength (I Cor. 1:25). Ah, I want to know, “What is such foolishness
and weakness?” It looks like love, grace, mercy, truth, and peace with justice. It looks like serving others with joy. Paul adds that we don’t somehow enter this alternative world through
our own effort—we receive it as a gift, and then God empowers us to live into it. John Caputo explains that the world of God’s grace is the very opposite of the logic of our world:

In the logic of the world, nothing is for free and nobody gets off scot-free. By the same token, in the logic of the world, everything is for sale, everything has a price, and nothing
is sacred. The world will stop at nothing to get even, to settle or even a score; the world is pomp and power and ruthless reckoning.1

With reference to such a world, the realm of God’s weakness involves a logic of impossibility— but not as something that cannot be. No! We’re talking about amazing grace, not amazing
magic. Instead, it’s a salvific event that flies in the face of the dominant logic of our world.2  In this respect, according to John Caputo, it involves some degree of sacred anarchy and raising
holy hell.3

When we think of raising holy hell, we may consider joining a public march or protest. A “March for Lives,” mourning the senseless loss of lives and advocating sensible gun laws, is planned
here in DC on March 24. Some of us will certainly want to participate. That’s good! Still, we will not want to put too much focus on appealing to governments and powerful elites as though
they are the main actors in our world. A holy anarchy gently challenges that assumption.

The Bible contrasts “this world” with “God’s new world coming.” This new, grace-filled world is integral to who we are as individuals and as a faith community. It creates alternative pathways
for life and action. Paul speaks of it as “being made alive together with Christ.” How do I pass through that eye of a needle and be made alive? Certainly, it means giving my life to Jesus and
being “saved by grace.”

Yet, we should be warned, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, such grace is not cheap—it involves costly discipleship—but we don’t go around forever counting the cost. Yes, we deeply
feel the world’s pain and take action as we can. We also marvel in God’s good creation, we serve others with joy, we sometimes raise holy hell, and we continually recognize hopeful seeds
of new life sprouting to life in our midst. Those signs of life often come unannounced in unexpected places.

During my sabbatical, I visited I visited a dear spiritual mentor who is nearing the end of his life. He was so glad to see me; wanting to know all about what I’m doing, about the church I’m
serving, and about my family, He still has a sharp, inquisitive mind even though his body no longer fully cooperates. Spending time with him was such a gift. Life becomes more precious
and friendships more alive as we near death. I first learned to know him when I was a young man serving in Asia. He wanted me to tell him all about my recent trip to India and asked about
mutual friends. We talked about the special gift that small churches bring to our world. He had been a mentor to me during some difficult personal faith struggles and taught me how to look
for and recognize signs of God’s reign in unexpected places.

Such spiritual friendship exemplifies living in God’s world of grace. God is not some hierarchical monarch seated on his heavenly throne, undergirding earthly rulers, and dictating everything
that happens here on earth. No, No, No! God is love. God is grace. God is weak by worldly standards. God does not coerce. God instead uses the weak powers of friendship, persuasion,
and invitation. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, we have this audacious and, yes, subversive hope that love wins.

1 John C. Caputo, The Weakness of God (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 107.
2 Ibid., 104-105
3 Ibid., 108