What is Grace?
In everyday talk, it refers either to a prayer before a meal or to the well-coordinated movements of a dancer or athlete. But in faith talk, grace refers to God’s freely given love we don’t earn and God’s mercy we don’t deserve. The New Testament says, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Grace is the word that represents the mystery of God’s relentless and unyielding love for human beings as individuals and for humanity as a whole. Why should God care about us? We have no answer to that question except the assurance in the Bible and in Jesus Christ that God does. We find no logic for grace but the strange logic of love itself.
Sometimes Christians have gone too far in explaining the mystery of God’s love for us by making us sound so foul and unworthy of consideration that we might wonder if Christianity is not misanthropic, hateful of humanity. It is not necessary to speak contemptuously of human beings in order to see the wonder in God’s love for us. We have only to realize God is under no obligation to care about us to marvel that God does. How much? God cares enough about us to enter into our flesh and blood, into the joys and sorrows of our earthly world, into the limitations and humiliations of our human existence. God even cares enough about us to suffer torture, shame, and alienation rather than give up loving us. That’s the mystery of what Christians call the Incarnation: the wonder of God’s Son becoming one of us. Jesus is the living representative and embodiment of God’s grace.
Protestant Christian churches have emphasized the reading and preaching of the word (as presented in the Bible) and the sacraments as the principal means of grace. For Protestant churches, the sacraments are two: Baptism and Communion (also called the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and the Breaking of Bread).
There are other ways, also, that God’s grace is extended to people and they receive it. In an adult discussion in our church, the first way mentioned by the group was the influence of other people who know God’s grace. Care and compassion are not human creations; they come from God to us. Making justice happen for people denied it and showing mercy to people who need it are human actions that represent the justice and mercy of God. Also mentioned were prayer, the singing of hymns, meditation, study (such as the study we were doing together at the time), and the fellowship of the church.
Christians used to speak of “practicing the means of grace.” What does that almost quaint sounding expression mean? It’s not about the minister’s practicing the sermon for better delivery or the elders’ walking through the drill for serving Communion. It’s about making a practice of seeking God’s grace through the means of grace. What we want, we seek. What we seek diligently and regularly, we find. What we practice, our lives become.
What kind of people should practicing the means of grace make us? It should not make us self-righteous so that we look down our noses at other people who do not believe in Jesus or at those who do believe in him but seem to be less serious about their faith than we imagine ourselves to be. No, that would be learning exactly the opposite of grace. Practicing the means of grace should make us gracious people. It should remind us of our own need for God’s unmerited love and mercy and keep us aware of the wonder and mystery of God’s caring about us. That self-understanding should enable us to empathize with people who also need grace and so should make us understanding and compassionate. If, instead, our religion is making us cold-hearted and judgmental, then whatever we’re practicing might be, it isn’t grace.
Grace is for people who don’t know all the answers but are discovering their need for God, for love, for compassion. It is the hope of people who need healing.