33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I spend a lot of time talking about ethics in church. I talk about what I believe we should be doing and I talk about what I believe we shouldn’t be doing based on my reading of the Bible. I spend a lot of time talking about ethics because the Bible spends a lot of time talking about ethics. So I do not apologize for spending so much time talking about how we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ. I believe that following Jesus daily in our lives is the only way to truly live what Jesus calls an abundant life.
Today we take a break from all of the ethical discourse and burst in with what I believe to be at the heart of the Gospel: Grace. Grace is a very difficult thing to define. One might use the metaphor that trying to define grace is like trying to nail jello to a wall. It just can’t be done. Sure, we can give brief descriptions of grace and say things like grace is an undeserved gift, something that we cannot earn or do not deserve, but I believe that any definition of grace is incomplete and falls short of what grace truly is.
We could also try to systematically dissect grace, like a biology student dissects a frog, with the intentions of learning more about it. We could cut it open. We could look at the original Greek language. We could parse the verbs, label the person, number, and tense. We could look at grace from every possible angle. But as Philip Yancey writes in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? “Grace can be dissected, as a frog, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” For this reason today we will try to better understand grace, not by dissecting, and not primarily by defining, but by hearing stories of grace. (I will be drawing some of my example from Yancey’s book.)
Our scripture begins with Jesus hanging on the cross between two thieves. The Bible tells us that Jesus has been tried, beaten, whipped, accused, spit upon, stripped naked, and nailed to a wooden cross. Nailed… nails have just been hammered through his hands and feet. And as he is hanging there he cries out, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Throughout the Bible, Jesus teaches us that we are to forgive others. When he teaches his disciples to pray what we commonly refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches them to pray, Forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. When someone approaches Jesus and asks him how many times he should forgive someone who has done him wrong and this person suggests to Jesus that perhaps seven times is adequate, Jesus tells him not 7 times, but 70 times 7, or elsewhere he says 777 times.
We all know that we should forgive others, but it isn’t always that easy. We hold grudges, we talk about people behind their backs, we plan our revenge. But Jesus doesn’t just tell us that we need to forgive others, he shows us how to do it.
I don’t know everyone’s life story, but I would bet that few of us have ever had the things done to us that happened to Jesus. I have never been beaten bloody. I have never been stripped naked and exposed to the world. I have never been nailed to a cross and left to die a slow and agonizing death. But Jesus had all of these things done to him and he is asking God to forgive them for what they are doing.
If we were to look at the crucifixion account in Matthew and Mark, we can see that the Roman guards mock Jesus throughout the entire event. But as Jesus gives up his spirit, one guard, a centurion, says “Surely this man was the Son of God.” What made the centurion change his opinion? I believe that Jesus’ act of calling out to God to forgive those abusing him was an act of transforming grace.
In Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, we find the story of a man named Jean Valjean. Valjean has just been released from prison after serving 19 years, 5 for stealing bread to give to his starving sister and her family, and 14 more years for trying to escape from prison. Now that he has been released, Valjean is forced to carry around a yellow passport at all times letting people know that he is an ex-convict.
For Valjean, that yellow passport was a bad as having leprosy. He wasn’t welcome anywhere in the town. He was turned away at every inn and hotel that he came to and he was forced to sleep in street, making him bitter and angry at the world. Valjean finally found someone that would put him up for a night, the local bishop. In the middle of the night, this hardened criminal decides to steal the silverware from the bishop and make a break for it.
The bishop wakes up in the middle of the night to a knock on the door. A policeman has captured Valjean making off with the valuable silver. But the bishop says that the silverware was a gift from the bishop and that Valjean had actually forgotten to take the most valuable part of the gift: the two silver candlesticks on the mantle. And as the policeman and Valjean are leaving the bishop reminds Valjean of the promise that he made, but really didn’t make: To use the money from all of the silver to make an honest man out of himself.
The next day Valjean is fleeing from the city with the goods in his possession and the words of the bishop fresh on his mind. Valjean comes across a boy playing with a valuable coin that he had. Valjean instinctively takes the coin from the boy and chases him away, threatening to hurt to boy. And then it strikes Valjean. He remembers the grace offered to him by the bishop and he immediately regrets the thievery of the boy’s coin. He tries to find the boy, but he is long gone out of fear of Valjean. And right then and there Jean Valjean changes. A switch is flipped. The grace that was extended to him by the bishop was a transforming grace, like the grace extended by Jesus to the Roman guards when he said Father forgive them. A switch was flipped when that centurion said, “Surely this man was the son of God.” This is the grace defined by Strong’s concordance as “The divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life.”
The centurion surely was transformed by the act of grace by Jesus, but not everyone was. Immediately after this act of grace we find that people are casting lots for Jesus’ clothing. They are dividing up the possessions of a man who was soon to be dead, more worried about getting the most they could for themselves and not even considering the man who was there suffering for them. People continue to mock him, some saying “He saved others, let him save himself,” and others said “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Not everyone was transformed by the gift of grace offered to them, but did they not still receive forgiveness for their offense on that day? I believe they did. That seems to be what John Calvin calls irresistible grace.
Karen Blixen, writing under the name Isak Dinesen, wrote a lovely book that was later adapted into a movie and became a bit of an underground classic in the late 1980’s known as Babette’s Feast. The movie is set in an impoverished fishing village on the coast of Denmark. The town had streets paved with mud and houses covered by leaky roofs. Everyone in this city was a part of a church run by a widower who shunned all earthly pleasures. The people wore all black and ate nothing but boiled cod and gruel, which is boiled bread. Yummy.
This old widowed pastor has two teenage daughters whose beauty is beyond words. And in the story both of these young women are courted by gentlemen from out of town who are visiting. Both men fall in love with the daughters and each invites one of them to come with him to be his wife. But both women decline the invitation and instead stay home to care for their father.
Fifteen years pass and the pastor has died leaving his aging daughters the home in which they were raised. The town, once run so smoothly and in a neat and tidy way by their father was now falling apart. Two of the church members could not stand to be in each other’s presence because of a bad business deal. Two women refused to speak to one another for ten years. The church still met, but there was no life there.
One rainy night the two sisters heard a loud “thump” at their door. They opened the door to find a collapsed woman who spoke only French. The woman handed the sisters a note, which was written by one of the young men who had courted a sister fifteen years earlier. The noted explained that the woman’s name was Babette. Her husband and son had died in the French civil war and that she was fleeing for her life. The note asked if the women could put Babette up for a few nights until things settled down and she was able to get her feet back under her. And for a little encouragement the note emphasized, “She can cook!”
The women take in Babette as a cook and a housekeeper, roles that she fulfills for the next twelve years. She bakes the cod, boils the gruel, and even helps with the Sunday service at the church. Everyone agrees that Babette has brought so much needed life and energy into the small town, but Babette never talks about her life back in France and the sisters never ask.
It happens one day that Babette comes into a fair amount of money, 10,000 francs. Babette wishes to celebrate by using the money to make an authentic French meal for her closest friends at the little church. But the people resist a bit. Tongues were meant to praise God, not to indulge in expensive food. However they realize that it would be rude to refuse Babette’s gift and decide instead to eat the meal, but not to praise Babette because they didn’t want to encourage such behavior and extravagance.
Babette arranges for the finest foods and finest drinks to be shipped to the small town and she begins working on the meal. And it just happened that the nephew of one of the church members would be joining them as well. He, however, was not informed of the plan to withhold praise for the food that was being offered to them by Babette.
The food was served, one course after the next. The town’s people emptied their plates out of courtesy to Babette, but didn’t even say as much as “mmm”. But the nephew was so appreciative. “Is this turtle soup? This is my favorite dish, and by far the best I have ever tasted!” One course after the next resulted in one appreciative outburst after the next by the nephew. The other diner guests began to lighten up. The women who hadn’t spoken for years were chatting freely. The men, angry over a bad business deal were slapping each other on the back and laughing merrily. Finally the nephew said, “I have only ever tasted food this great in France at the world renown Café Anglais.” To which Babette replied, “I used to be the chef at Café Anglais.”
The story of Babette’s Feast comes to an end with the old timers of the city holding hands around the town fountain, singing the old hymns. And inside the kitchen, with dishes piled high, the sisters thank Babette and tell her that they will remember this evening long after Babette has gone back to France. But Babette says that she will not be going back to France. All of her friends and family have been killed. And she doesn’t have the money to get back and start a new life.
The sisters ask if the 10,000 francs that she had won would not be enough to get her back to her home country. Babette tells them that every last franc that she won had been spent on throwing the party for her new friends. It was a gift that cost everything for the giver and nothing of the recipient. And the recipient didn’t even seem to appreciate the gift.
The final lines of our scripture for this morning tell of the conversation taking place among the three men hanging on their respective crosses. One man decides to join in with the other people and mock Jesus as he hangs there, and the other recognizes who Jesus is and asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom. And like I mentioned a few weeks ago, Jesus doesn’t run through a laundry list to test this man’s beliefs. He doesn’t check to see if he has the correct understanding of the incarnation, the Trinity, or any other doctrine. Jesus doesn’t ask him how he lived his life. He doesn’t ask if the guy ever cheated or lied, stole or hurt someone. He simply tells the man that tonight they would be together in Paradise. All was forgiven. That, my friends, is saving grace.
The writer Brennan Manning tells the story about a woman, who had been having visions of Jesus. And the local archbishop comes to find out more about this woman, who had been having these visions about Jesus – because we can’t have that.
The archbishop says, “Have you been having visions about Jesus?”
The woman says, “Yes.”
She does not back down, so the archbishop said, “Okay, here’s what I want you to do. Next time you have one of your visions of Jesus, I want you to ask Jesus a question.”
“Okay,” the woman said.
“I want you to ask Jesus what sins I confessed the last time I went to confession.”
The woman said “Fair enough.” And the archbishop leaves.
A little while later, he hears rumors that she’s been having visions again about Jesus. So he returns to the woman and says, “Have you been having visions of Jesus again?”
And the woman says, “Yes. I’ve been having a vision about Jesus.”
And he says, “Well, did you remember?”
And the woman says to the archbishop, “Yes. I did remember.”
And then she took the archbishop’s hand in hers. And she said, “I asked Jesus what sins you confessed the last time you went to confession. And Jesus’s exact words were: I don’t remember.”
-From Rob Bell’s The God’s Aren’t Angry
There are many stories of grace and many kinds of grace. But there is once unifying aspect of God’s grace that we cannot deny. It is amazing. And the Bible tells us this time and time again. A woman is caught in adultery and about to be stoned when Jesus says, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” A father runs to meet his son that has gone off and squandered his inheritance and then throws a big party in his honor. One of Jesus’ closest friends who said that he would never betray him does so three times and Jesus says, “I’ll give you the keys to the kingdom.” Workers begin laboring at different times during the day, some work all day, others only a few hours. At the end of the day all receive a full day’s wage. Roman soldiers are forgiven, a thief on a cross is welcomed into heaven. A common thief is given not only the silverware and not only the candlesticks, but another chance at life. Simple people trying to earn God’s favor receive a gift that cost someone else everything and all they had to do was enjoy it. And an elderly woman takes the archbishop’s hand in hers, looks him in the eye and says to him “I asked Jesus what sins you confessed the last time you went to confession. And Jesus’ exact words were: I don’t remember.”
Grace is a difficult thing to define and perhaps an even more difficult thing to receive. But when we see grace, when we hear of its awesome transforming power, we know it. We recognize it. May we live in it. Amen.