Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

Canon Jenny reflects on the nature of the grace of Christ

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

In our New Testament reading this evening, we hear an extract from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Timothy who Paul affectionately names his “beloved child,” a child who Paul is nurturing in the life of faith. Paul is in Rome and in prison. This letter is his final communication with a close companion who he has known for twenty five years.

Early in this final communication we hear the following words:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.  (2Timothy 1:2)

Grace, mercy and peace.

A little later, in the passage we heard read tonight, Paul writes to this beloved one,

You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. (2:1-2)

Were Paul, or a dearly loved friend in the faith, writing to us, they might say the same thing.

Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

We might turn to one another and say that or that similar and familiar prayer that we know as “the grace”. And so I thought we would spend a little time this evening pondering what it is that we mean when we say the grace, looking at one another, or for that matter closing our eyes, when we wish for one another that grace of our Lord Jesus Christ – and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – that that grace might be with us now and always. And with Paul, might hope that Christ’s faith would give us strength.

The biblical scholar, Michael Fallon, writes the following about Christ’s grace:

This is a “greeting that reminds [us] of God’s action in [our] lives in drawing [us] to share in the life of the risen Jesus – a life of communion in love with his Father through the shared bond of the Holy Spirit. …[It is about] the graciousness of God pouring out his love upon [us].”[1]

I thought, then, that we would spend a little time thinking about this Jesus and how, through him God pours out his love upon us. Because Paul goes on in his letter to his friend reminding him that a life following Christ will involve suffering, and that a life following Christ will involve deep loyalty, and a life following Christ will involve stepping away a little from the things of the world. In other words, this life of discipleship is not always easy and it will not always make us fit well with the world in which we live.

So what is it about him, this Jesus, that would make us find in him such grace, such love, such boundless life that we might think that following him is the very richest life we could lead?

I find some answer to this question, of course, in our stories. In those gospel stories. The stories of Jesus’ earthly life.  The first thing that seems to jump out of these stories is presence. Jesus’ abiding presence alongside those he loves, which is everyone really, Jesus’ abiding presence especially alongside those in need.

One of the most powerful stories to illustrate Christ’s determined presence is found in the story of the demoniac in the Garasenes. (Mark 5:1-20)This man scares everyone away; his behaviour is so strange, so violent. And he is found is such a frightening place, far across the sea, in amidst the tombs. But he doesn’t seem to scare Jesus away. And his being in such a strange place doesn’t put Jesus off either. Jesus goes close to him. We cannot know exactly the conversation that took place between them but I do wonder if that man didn’t end up “sitting there [beside Jesus] clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15), as Mark’s account describes it, simply because Jesus sat beside him, clothed and in his right mind. Jesus let this strange man tell his story, whatever it was, tell him the truth of whatever awful suffering was giving him such violent pain. In Jesus, we see grace of presence, the outpouring of a love that will not abandon.

Simone Weil once said, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”[2]

Jesus was and is that miracle.

And then there’s the way he taught. No sentiment, no rose coloured glasses. Jesus was a consummate Jewish teacher and provoked those listening to him with sayings that challenged, and blessings that confronted, and then his stories …… What is God like? “There was a man with two sons …” Who is my neighbour? “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho …” How many times should I forgive? “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” (Matthew 18:23) Stories that baffle and sit with us for years weaving their way with our sense of God, God who we cannot understand, and who graciously pours out his love into the world, creating, redeeming, sanctifying that world.

Jesus’ teaching rings with truth. That we are puzzled seems only right, and is strangely reassuring. Would the one who made the world be easy to grasp? Would we expect to fully understand sin and forgiveness, sickness and healing, life and death … Would we expect to fully know the graciousness of God pouring out his love upon us?

Rowan Williams once said the following about God:

“Jesus in the desert …looks towards God and there’s nothing there that will solve a problem, nothing there that will sweep away all the questions. What there is is truth and love and patience and endless welcome. In due course that will transform us, it will bring us to joy, it will make our problems …fade away. But first of all we have to get used to a new climate, we have to breathe a new air, …the air of the Holy Spirit …[we have to] get used to the idea of God quite different from what we expected and yet at the same time ringing bells with what we most care about and most deeply long for.”[3]

…truth and love and patience and endless welcome…

Is this what the Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord is about?

And then there was the dying and the rising. He gave up all these things – the presence with people, healing and keeping company and the meals he so loved, everything, he gave up the teaching, the telling stories, those windows into his father, God, he handed it all over … he gave up even his closeness to God, in that death that was more ghastly than even he anticipated, because that presence, that Father presence that sustained him felt gone.

Perhaps that’s the essence of Jesus’ grace – that he offered up everything precious in his earthly life … that we might know the truth and love and patience and endless welcome…of God.

And, as Paul says to his beloved friend Timothy, share that grace, that truth and love and patience and endless welcome… with others.

[1] Michael Fallon New Testament Letters – Saint Paul p30.

[2] Quoted in Painting the Word by John Dury p37.

[3] #BigRead13: “Why study C.S.Lewis for Lent” with Rowan Williams YouTube video, 7.22. Jan 30, 2013.