20th November; Professor Morna Hooker
‘I come to this moment, deeply humbled, grateful to God for his amazing grace.’
If the words seem familiar, it is because they were spoken by Mike Pence, Vice-President Elect of the United States,+ in the early hours of November 9th, when he claimed victory for his running-mate, Donald Trump. I, for one, found them deeply offensive. That the result of the presidential election was amazing, we can surely all agree, for it was undoubtedly unexpected. And most of us would probably accept the hidden assumption that the Republican victory was undeserved. But the suggestion that it was due to the grace of God seemed to me to border on blasphemy. During the last ten days I have heard many explanations as to how it was that Donald Trump won, but I have heard no-one else suggest that it was due to the grace of God.
But I suppose I should not be surprised to find Mike Pence, a devout Conservative Evangelical, claiming to have God on his side. After all, he is doing precisely what those engaged in conflicts have done throughout the ages, whether the battle has been one fought with bullets or with ballot-boxes. Take, for example, the constant appeals of Israel in the Old Testament to their god to save them, and their gratitude when he apparently gave them victory. And what, we may ask, of their enemies? Were they, too, not praying for victory? No doubt the Israelites would have retorted that they were appealing to the wrong god – to a false god. Those of you who have ever sung in Mendelssohn’s Elijah know how, with increasing desperation, the chorus appeals to Baal to save them, while Elijah mocks them. And when his prayers are answered, that is taken as a sign that his god is the true God. When Israel was triumphant in battle, that was a sign that their god was greater, stronger than all others. With God to back them, they were naturally victorious – and if they weren’t, that was because they had offended him, and he was chastising them. But God was not only gracious, but merciful, and would forgive them, and give them victory in the future. So they thanked God for his amazing grace.
In later times, things became more complex, however, since the spread of Christianity throughout Europe meant that opposing armies were apparently appealing to the same god. A protestant god or a catholic god, perhaps, but the same god, nevertheless – and undoubtedly claimed as the champion of either side. ‘Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”’ shouted Henry V – or so, at least, William Shakespeare would have us believe – and his opponents would have responded in a similar vein. Human arrogance assumes that God is on our side, because we envisage God in our own image. Countless memorials to those who died in the carnage of the First World War are headed ‘to the Glory of God’, when they might more accurately be inscribed as memorials to the selfish ambitions and schemings of political leaders. And the victors gave thanks to God for his grace in granting them victory. But have they perhaps not fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of God’s grace?
So what is grace? Our English word comes from the Latin gratia, which means not only ‘graciousness’ and ‘gift’ but ‘gratitude’, ‘thankfulness’, as well – which is why we ‘say’ grace – or give thanks – before a meal. It’s similar in meaning to the Greek word charis, which also has the double meaning of generous giving on the one hand and receiving with gratitude on the other. Someone who has grace is said to be charming, elegant, attractive, and to be in good favour with others; to be graceless on the other hand, is to lack these qualities. Not surprisingly, Adam and Eve are described as having fallen from grace when they disobeyed God’s commandment. Grace is demonstrated in generosity, and in concern for others. This seems a long way from the assumption that grace is demonstrated in strength, in power, and in defeating one’s opponents, and so being enabled to impose one’s own beliefs and rule on others.
Certainly our readings tonight offered a very different understanding of grace from the one assumed in Mike Pence’s victory speech. Our short reading from Exodus was taken from the story of how God gave Moses the two tablets of the Law, setting out the Ten commandments. Moses asks to see God’s glory, but that glory is too powerful for him to bear; exposure to this kind of radiation would burn him up and blind him. Since he has neither protective clothing nor goggles, he’s allowed only to catch a glimpse of God as he disappears round the mountain. But even that fleeting glimpse tells Moses something about the nature of God. If we had read a little further we would have heard how he hears God explain that he is gracious and merciful, faithful and true. These are the fundamental characteristics of God. So when the Bible speak of the grace of God, this is what is meant.
God is gracious. Goodness gracious! Is that once common exclamation simply a way in which people reminded themselves of the grace of God – another way of saying ‘God is gracious’? ‘Goodness’, after all, is another term used to speak about God – which is why we have the parallel phrase ‘thank goodness’. One on-line site informed me that the words ‘Goodness gracious’ are generally used to express ‘surprise, dismay, or alarm’ – which would justify the explanation that they really mean ‘God grace – or help – me’ – in other words, please get me out of this hole. Another site told me that the phrase ‘goodness gracious’ is used a lot by ‘sweet little old ladies’ – surely a dying breed. The young, of course, prefer to use the expression ‘oh my god!’, which is apparently the modern equivalent of the phrase – though this version is certainly unlikely to be much used by sweet little old ladies.
‘Goodness gracious’ sums up, then, what Moses learned on Sinai – and the author of John’s Gospel clearly had that story of Moses in mind when he wrote in our second reading about no-one ever having seen God. Moses had been told that he couldn’t see God – but Christ, declares the evangelist, has seen him face to face;
he knows, therefore, what God is life – indeed, he embodies the characteristics of God. That is why he is full of grace and truth. The idea is so important for John that he repeats it: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. In him, we have seen what God is like. And then he continues: through him we have all received grace upon grace. Recipients of grace. But what are we, as recipients of grace, to do?
St Paul gives an answer to that question in our final reading, from 2 Corinthians.
Paul is engaged in a difficult task: he is fund-raising. Christians in Jerusalem are having a hard time, and Paul is collecting from the Gentile churches he has founded for his relief fund. Then, as now, fund-raising was no easy task, and he has to use all the arguments he can think of. Think of the grace given to the Macedonian churches, he urges the Corinthians; poor though they are, they have contributed to the fund – and they are bubbling over with happiness that they have been able to do so. Come on then – you Corinthians are surely not going to be left behind! Keep up with the Macedonians! You who are so rich in so many ways, and who claim to have such faith and wisdom – you will surely prove yourselves as lavish in your generosity as your fellow-Christians. And then he pulls out his trump card. Think of the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ, he tells them. He was rich, yet became poor for your sake, in order that, through his generosity, you might become rich. The Son of God was born and lived as a humble man – he gave everything for your sake; how can you not do the same?
The word ‘generosity’ which is used here is in fact a translation of the Greek word charis, grace. Remember the generosity – the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, says Paul. And how are they to remember it? Why, by following his example, though in a very minor way. If he could abandon riches for poverty, you can surely dig your hands into your pockets and put something in the collection. To ignore Paul’s plea would, in effect, be to turn their backs on their newly-found faith, and to say that they placed no value on Christ’s sacrifice. Those who claim to follow him must surely follow his example and do something for their fellow Christians.
Through Christ, says St John, we have all received grace upon grace. We are recipients of grace. St Paul draws the logical conclusion: as recipients of grace, we are expected to pass it on. I can imagine him addressing us in this chapel today, in the words he used in writing to the Corinthians: ‘You are so rich in everything – in faith, speech, knowledge and eagerness of every kind, as well as in love; you should surely show yourself equally lavish in generous service’. That’s what grace is about. Share what you have with others; don’t seek your own advantage, but the well-being of others. You have received grace – gifts – be grateful and graceful – generous to others. His message is as appropriate to us today as it was in Corinth in the first century. But I can also imagine Paul using those words of Mike Pence with which we began, for he, too, might well have said: ‘I come to this moment, deeply humbled, grateful to God for his amazing grace.’ But in his mouth, how very different they sound; and what a different message they convey!