Two streams of thought collided for me this evening.
I have been thinking about today’s Gospel passage (Luke 18:9-14), in which Jesus compares the prayers of two men praying in the Temple. He challenges the Pharisee, who praises God for how good he (the pharisee) is, and commends the tax collector, who says “have mercy on me, a sinner.” There is a humility there, an openness in the second prayer that has made it quite popular among Christians.
I have also been thinking about a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He warned against selling “cheap grace,” that is “evangelism” that highlights God’s gifts, but not the cost that comes with them – forgiveness without repentance, community without sacrifice, resurrection without death. On the one hand, I think it is a very important insight. Only when we understand that giving and receiving happen as one act do we enter into the gifts of God. On the other hand, I have always cringed at the expression “cheap grace.” It implies that grace should be expensive. If it comes at any price at all, it is not grace in my opinion. Grace has traditionally meant a gift freely given.
It occurred to me in church this evening that the way forward has something to do with time. We are tripped up by thinking of God’s grace either in the past or present tense. We speak of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross (a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world), and the question becomes “what is necessary for us to receive this blessing?” (Augustine) or, slightly better, “what can we do to show our gratitude for this gift?” (Luther). We also speak of our hope for salvation, asking what we might do to earn, merit, deserve, or ensure it.
All of those questions have possibilities, but they also have traps. I want to suggest another way of looking at the issue of grace. What if God’s grace is continuous? (Not a new idea.) What if the challenge of repentance (metanoia), forgiveness, and sanctification is all about getting the past baggage out of the way so that we can accept the grace of the moment … every moment? Grace is not a gift once offered – either conditionally or unconditionally. It is the perpetual offering of God’s own self to us. It is free and unconditional, but it also the sort of thing that can be hard (maybe impossible) to hold without dropping a few prized pieces of baggage.
If it were a one time only deal, then we must start talking about economies of exchange, but if something new is offered in each instant, moment by moment through eternity, then we can speak of each moment as an opportunity. We can think of newness of heart and mind as the ongoing process of being empty handed, waiting for the next grace.
Such an interpretation would allow remembering, savoring, even valuing past gifts, but never clutching on to them. It presupposes that even Christ’s sacrifice can be turned into an idol, if we think of it as an achievement or a transfer of power. I believe the incarnation and resurrection (perhaps even the crucifixion) are eternal in that they happened once concretely in time and space, so that all times and spaces can touch on the transcendent timelessness of God. It is not the act, but what happens through it that counts. The point of reconciliation is new communication. Baptism and Confession are openings through which we talk to one another as the church. The point of the atonement is also communication and in Eucharist (Communion) must be seen as a social media technology. It is the radio, the telephone, the internet, and it draws its value from what we use it to say.
This week, I ask you to think of Christ as a way to communicate, both with God and one another. It takes courage and care to put a piece of you out there. It takes patience and peace to be still long enough to take in a piece of someone else. God’s gift was and is and will be the ability to communicate. That gift has been freely given. It may even be enough for salvation (whatever that means), but I do not love it for that. I love it for the ability it gives me to have a real conversation. The challenge remains: how do we get people talking?