Michaelmas Term, 2016
9th October, Rev Dr Simon Perry
The theme for Chapel this term will be the biblical notion of Grace. Though Grace lies at the heart of the Christian worldview, attempts to explain it, to name it, to put it into words – though helpful – tend to have the unfortunate effect of domesticating it. The clearest definition of grace is to describe it alongside the notion of Mercy – and in Christian circles it is often said that Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, and Mercy is not getting what you do deserve.
The idea behind this is the sixteenth century doctrine that human beings are all miserable and wretched ragamuffins, all deserving of eternal damnation. So Mercy, is being saved for the eternal bliss of the afterlife – and Grace is when nice things happen, and since we are all miserable wretched ragamuffins, none of us deserve anything nice. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, Mercy is not getting what you do deserve. And that does, indeed, unpack one facet of how the Bible speaks about Grace. But there are far more important dimensions to the dynamic of grace, and it is those other aspects of grace that will be addressed by different Guest speakers through the course of the term.
Today’s reading was about an incident that occurred to Jesus of Nazareth sometime in the Late 20s. It is essentially the story of what, in all probability, was the most disastrous PR launch in Western history. Jesus pitches up to his home town of Nazareth, he deliberately misquotes a precious sacred text, he claims to be the Messiah, he delivers a sermon more offensive than anything Donald Trump himself could concoct, and finds himself hauled out of town by an infuriated lynch mob! As a whole, this incident is the perfect illustration, of grace…
This is largely because grace, if it is a virtue, is a violent virtue. The most extreme form of violence is widely regarded as the violence arising from grace. Hence the phrase, gratuitous violence. As a father with three teenage boys, (and a relatively tiny but turbo-charged spitfire of a daughter), gratuitous violence is not an uncommon experience. That is, violence that is unprovoked, that comes out of nowhere, for no reason. Violence that irrupts into a perfectly manageable and sensible state of affairs – and causes chaos. Gratuitous violence – is thus the perfect illustration for how grace functions. Grace is unprovoked, and comes out of nowhere for no reason. Grace irrupts into the manageable and peaceable status quo of our experience, and causes chaos.
And that is precisely what happened in the hometown of Jesus some time in the late 20s. In fact, it strictly speaking it wasn’t merely Jesus’ hometown – it was his Fatherland. In Nazareth, there was a perfectly manageable status quo. It was a town that in recent history had witnessed human atrocity at the hand of Roman occupiers. And it was a town with a naturally high level of patriotism, and nationalism. And then Jesus pitches up at the synagogue.
He reads from the ancient scroll of Isaiah, but changes some of the words – in particular, he mischievously omits the most satisfying climax in which Yahweh will exact vengeance upon Israel’s enemies. Now in some translations, people speak well of Jesus because he speaks so graciously. But it could equally be translated, that everyone was offended by him, because he was talking about grace. That is, he is disrupting the status quo by not voicing the need for vengeance against oppressors. And they are confused – and say ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph’. Again, this could be expressing delight (because our Jesus – local boy done good), or it could be expressing disdain (he’s just one of us – he has nothing to teach us.) In any case, if the crowds are not offended they soon will be.
Jesus goes on to slam two principle virtues treasured in your Fatherland, or quite literally, your ‘Patris.’ In his own Patris, Jesus attacks both nationalistic brand of patriotism and of patriarchy. He slams patriarchy by citing how Israel’s greatest prophet, at the time of Israel’s greatest need, was sent not to help Israel but to help a foreign woman. He slams patriotism by citing Israel’s other great mega-prophet – who when Israel had many lepers, was not sent to heal any of them but instead was sent to heal a general in the army of their enemies. In his Patris, Jesus attacks patriotism and he attacks patriarchy. He introduces grace into a status quo that was perfectly happy without it.
It is for this reason some New Testament scholars take it that Jesus not being celebrated by the folk of his fatherland because he spoke so graciously. Instead, they argue, they attempted to execute him precisely because he was talking about grace. In this light, grace was violent. It was intrusive. And people recoiled from it. I’m not sure how you might picture the scene – but in Nazareth it is highly unlikely there were hundreds of men – but maybe 20-30. And by the time they had got Jesus outside and carried him up the hill, they would be getting pretty tired – and they would have exceeded the distance they were permitted to travel on the Sabbath. So whether by divine intervention, insufficient manpower or the gradual loss of enthusiasm, Jesus’s ministry was not ended before it had begun.
The point, it seems however, is that throughout the Gospels, irruptions of God’s grace are not universally fluffy experiences, not a foretaste of happy eternity of blessings.
Of course grace is celebrated throughout scripture despite its disruptive and its controversial and its potentially traumatic nature.
Of course, grace is something to be celebrated and shared and received with joy. But all too often, in Christian parlance, it becomes a domesticated virtue, robbed of its explosive core. And without the trauma, the disruption, the controversy – then there is nothing amazing about grace.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus engages in activities where he becomes a channel of divine grace – whether through teaching, through healing, through exorcising demons, or through telling parables. And time after time when people experience the grace he embodies, they are shocked, amazed, taken aback. The normal reaction to grace, it seems, is to recoil in sheer astonishment – and that will be the subject of next week’s service.
Today, however, it is enough to claim that Grace is a societal, political, behavioural explosive device.
Grace is more radically disruptive than anything to date that UKIP have done to shake-up British Politics.
More shocking than anything that could be conjured up from Donald Trump’s history of outrageously disgusting one-liners.
Grace is even more astounding than when the middle aged-female rapper, Honey G, made it through to the next round of the X Factor.
Grace means much more than getting what you don’t deserve. It’s a word used by Biblical authors in a desperate and almost futile attempt to cram into a concept something of what happens when human beings experience Divine Otherness at close hand.
God of grace, for the everyday blessings we take for granted and think of as ordinary, and for the acts of grace that we encounter as extraordinary, we give you thanks.
For the warmth of friends, the availability of food and water, the advantages of education, we give you thanks.
For the freedom of our decisions, for the gift in every breath we draw, for the blessing of every moment we live, we give you thanks.
We thank you for all that you have made us to be, and pray that by your grace we would grow into who we truly are in your sight,
So that those who hunger and thirst and have no education, might benefit from our abundance.
So that those who live under the darkness of injustice and the yoke of the oppressor might be affected by our worship of you.
So that those who oppress and exploit and trample the poor, might be confronted by your loving grace, and when we are to be found among them, open our eyes.
God of grace, may your welcome disruption, your liberating presence, your astonishing actions be made real through us, to the glory of your name.