Friends, this post was originally published at CRN.info. I eventually turned a good portion of this into a sermon from Romans 1-5 which is published under the 90 Days with Scripture series. Thanks for stopping by. jerry
I’ve been thinking about grace all week. I think I started thinking about it, intently, because the men at my church, last week, stood up and offered their unqualified support of my ministry. That’s the first time since I began full time ministry that has ever happened. It was moving, overwhelming; a powerful effluence of God’s grace. I had expected them to do so. What I had not expected was the pure grace that I understood and felt as a very quiet, humble man who was terrified to speak ‘in public’ spoke humbly and gently into the microphone in public and said, “We unanimously support Jerry.” Not ‘the preacher;’ not ‘the pastor;’ not ‘our employee.’ Jerry.
My year, 2008, began in a seminary class in Cincinnati. Doctrine of Grace with Dr Cottrell who happens to be one of my theological heroes. The class was rather boring as far as the lectures were concerned. And the format, 2.2.2, didn’t make it any easier. Long days. A lot of reading. Long drives to and from. But grace…ah, grace! A spring sun in the middle of Northeast Ohio winter! Sex after a bad fight. Peanut Butter cookies after a long walk on a tread-mill. Grace. How shall I describe thee? Let me count the ways. I’ve been thinking about grace all year.
How can we not? We are a strange lot of folk. I recently received a questionnaire from a church I had mailed a resume to. They asked all sorts of questions about baptism, church membership, The Restoration Movement. Not one question about grace. I don’t care about the Restoration Movement. I’m not interested in directing people to the ‘right church.’ I’m interested in God’s grace. This is what so many of us, I think, miss so often.
Wonderful grace of Jesus,
Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it,
Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden,
Setting my spirit free;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.
I can’t help but think about it, but I’m the naïve type who enjoys seeing grace any place I can find it. Grace is a treasure in a field and I love searching for it and buying the field. I heard it on the radio too, on my way to the Middle School today. A commercial featuring a Dr Martin Luther King, jr. speech or sermon:
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant. Martin Luther King, Jr, The Drum Major Instinct, and Here.
It’s like grace is everywhere just waiting to be heard, waiting to be found, waiting to be seen. I’m surprised so many miss it. I’m more surprised more Christians fail to be captured by it. I am horrified that we Christians who have been undone by this grace keep it to ourselves.
I would like to draw a line between two stories that, for all intents and purposes, have nothing to do with one another. I doubt William Willimon knows Alexandra Stevenson; I am certain Alexandra Stevenson doesn’t know Willimon. And yet somehow I found in these two stories a connection. It’s grace. Willimon’s story is about David, the great Israelite King, who committed adultery with another man’s wife and then, when she became pregnant, had the man killed. Willimon writes: (William Willimon, A Peculiarly Christian Account of Sin, Theology Today, July 1993)
In short, David’s sin is revealed, by the prophet’s story, to be that of living as if he had no story, as if he were not already spoken for by Yahweh.
Yet, thank God, Yahweh’s story has the power to evoke that which it demands. David is able to name his sin, having been given the narrative means rightly to discern what is going on in his life. David’s response is not evoked principally by Nathan’s “you are the man” but, rather, by Yahweh’s “I gave.” Having been seduced by a false story of royal power, David courageously resubmits to Yahweh’s truthful account of the way things stand between us and a God who manages to be both truthful and gracious, a God whose truthfulness is grace.
There is still a high price to pay; there remain consequences. David’s family shall pay. Much death, much grief come after David’s repentance. Yahweh’s graciousness does not mean that our actions are without consequences. There is a high cost to doing business with stories other than truthful ones. And yet, despite the seriousness of David’s sin, the story continues, the story told because a gracious God is willing to intrude, to assert, and, ultimately, to forgive. David’s continued story is there, not as some “impossible ideal” to be heroically lived despite a renewed awareness of his finitude (Niebuhr). David goes on as a man who knows his sin because he knows his forgiveness. Although the child dies, David is spared, the family is continued in the birth of Solomon. So, this story of sin and forgiveness
Willimon notes that two stories collided here: David’s royal story in which he was seduced and tricked and Yahweh’s story spoken by the prophet Nathan. Willimon writes that David’s ” ‘I have sinned’ here arises out of a clash of narratives, a narratively induced awareness of a horrible disjuncture between David’s personal account of his life as king and the prophet’s account of David’s life as gift.” That is, everything in David’s life had been a gift. It had been grace.
What happened in the life of David, after the sin, was a collision of narratives. David had involved himself in another story, another narrative that was not God’s narrative. Willimon goes on to make this powerful statement, “Only by getting the story straight, God’s story of redemption, are we able to understand our sin with appropriate seriousness and without despair because only then will we know of a God who manages to be both gracious and truthful.”
There is another story I read this week too. It’s the story of someone famous, and someone trying desperately to be her own. It’s a very moving story told by Tom Friend at ESPN.com and it is the story of a man named Julius Erving and his estranged daughter, Alexandra Stevenson. (You’ll have to read the entire essay yourself. I cut and pasted it to MS Word and it still printed 19 pages. It was worth every last tiny bit of copier toner though. Tom Friend, ESPN.com, Outside the Lines, Hello Alexandra…This is Your Father
The gist of the story is that a long time ago, Julius ‘Dr J’ Erving had an extra-marital affair with a woman named Samantha Stevenson. She is white. He is black. She conceived and gave birth to a baby girl, Alexandra. In order to protect his image as a superstar NBA basketball superstar, a bunch of legal documents were drawn up and Samantha had to keep the affair and the father of the child a secret and Dr J provided monthly checks. Here’s what the relationship was like for the better part of a quarter-century:
She put her dad on a shelf and left him there for a quarter-century. Just because the rest of the world is preoccupied with Julius Erving doesn’t mean she’s had to be. She says she has never Googled him, that she has never even heard of “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” Instead, everything she’s learned about the man has come second- or eighth-hand. She first found out he was her father when she was 4, and she first started denying it when she was 5. She’d say her father died in the war or that he was a sheik in Kuwait or that his name was “Ken.” She didn’t celebrate Father’s Day, she celebrated Grandfather’s Day. On dad-daughter nights at school, she’d show up with an uncle or a neighbor. On registration forms that required a father’s name, she’d write “N/A” or “None Of Your Business!” Through the years, Dr. J wasn’t so much a secret as he was a figment of her imagination.
She had spent the better part of her life denying she had a father or concocting stories about alleged fathers. It didn’t mean Julius didn’t care, it meant there was a problem:
He empathized with Alexandra’s plight; she just didn’t know it. She couldn’t understand why, on her birthdays, there was never a card or a present. “Presents are big to me,” she says. “I can’t lie.” She had no idea he felt his hands were tied by his wife and the agreement, no idea he was an attentive dad to four other children: Julius III, Jazmin, Cory and an adopted son, Cheo. It was a shame, because both lawyers knew exactly how paternal Erving was and how maternal Samantha was. When Erving would visit Samantha’s lawyer, he’d sometimes bring little Jazmin along to play. And when Samantha would negotiate with Erving’s attorney, she’d always bring Alexandra, in a Snugli. Erving’s lawyer even held baby Alexandra in his arms. They weren’t one big happy family, but they weren’t coldhearted, either. They were simply separated by legalese.
Law stood in the way. Law kept them apart. Law separated them. It was an obstacle that cut a deep trench and prevented any sort of relationship at all. Doesn’t law always stand in the way of a relationship with our father? Eventually, she quit caring at all. Then she became famous herself and when she made a run at Wimbledon in 1999 the whole thing went nuclear. Someone, an outside agent, did some research, found the birth certificate, and set two narratives on a collision course. His name was Charles Bricker. He was the ‘prophet’ who blew the cover off the story. She had been living her story of denial, ‘none of your business,’ and prodigal. She had been doing everything she could, with her mother’s help, to deny and escape her true identity.
Sometimes, often times, always, we need someone to come along and blow our cover. We need a Nathan, a Bricker, a Jesus who will shred the mystery, shatter the glass shell we have cocooned ourselves inside, undo our safe narratives in which we are kings, in control; masters. We need someone to come along and tell the narrative, the alternative narrative, Yahweh’s narrative, that will set us on a collision course with grace. “At this verse occurs a collision of two narratives: the story of how power is gained, used, and inevitably abused in the ‘real world’ and a second narrative about Yahweh’s counter plans for the world” (Willimon). And that collision course inevitably has its own promontory point. “When our depravity meets his divinity it is a beautiful collision” (David Crowder Band).
Well, I don’t want to ruin all the good points, but I do want to say that the story has an ending (SPOILER) and it involves Alexandra and Julius coming together as father and daughter. “Part of me always missed her, missed not having her around,” said Julius. Friend notes, “…he’d preferred she make the first move, and now that she had, he wasn’t letting go.”
There are two lines in the story that I would like to conclude with as they are pertinent to this post. There’s a lot in the story that is truly illustration worthy, but I’d like to conclude by thinking about grace again.
The first line is at the very end. At one point during her young life, Alexandra had met her father at a basketball clinic. He had given her an autographed basketball, but he had acted as if he didn’t really know her. It turns out she had saved the ball and written on it. After the reconciliation, she found the ball and the words she had written on it had revealed another secret: She had always missed him. (Friend’s words.)
It seems to me that there are a lot of people in the world who are in the same boat. I think that is about grace. It’s like the prodigal son who couldn’t figure out a way to go back to his father until he was living with pigs. I wonder how many people in the world miss their father, but simply have no idea how to approach him? In Alexandra’s case, what ultimately drove her to her father was money (much like the prodigal son). And in both stories, grace prevails. I think people miss their father and they just have no idea how to get in touch with him. This is where grace comes in to the picture.
We have, not in the sense of being in possession of but in the sense of we have already been derailed by, the alternative narrative. We at least know the story that will set people on a collision course with the grace of God. We know the alternative narrative because we have already had our collision. We have already been undone. We have already been destroyed. The prophet has already come to us and showed us how we were living a royal life as opposed to the gift life. This is the story we share, the Jesus story, the grace narrative of what God is doing in the world and what he is doing to set it right. Willimon notes well:
Yet, the collision of narratives is not closed. These stories are meant to continue. Having been caught red-handed, trapped, one might think this is the end for David. Two things impress us about the continuing story: David’s swift, outright confession, “I have sinned,” and the prophet’s swift, outright pronouncement, “Now the Lord has put away your sin.” The collision of stories is meant to evoke this twofold, covenant response. David’s response is evidence of his submission, not just to the Decalogue but to the narrative, the covenant narrative. Just as we were prepared to write off David as a moral failure, the prophet’s counter narrative has evoked a new David (or is it the old David, in the best sense of the designation?) who is yet able to submit, to admit to the coherence and dominance of Yahweh’s account of things. Our story reads “autonomy.” Yahweh’s story says covenant.”
The second line is found just before that. It’s a simple line about the new relationship Alexandra had been thrust into with Julius. They began communicating, but for her it was difficult. She was broke, without sponsors, “We know who your father is-pay up!” creditors would say. Julius said, “I trust you, and I need you to try to trust me.” Her response is nothing short of precisely the point of grace:
“Help me find a way to call you dad.”
Isn’t that the point of grace? Isn’t that what we do? When we open up the hearts full of grace and the souls full of love we are opening up the story of collision. This is what Nathan did. David had struck out on his own, tried to create his own narrative. Nathan came along and reminded him of the narrative to which he belonged. The role of the Gospel is to help people find a way to call God dad again.
I think we have that much to offer to people who are wandering around the earth right now missing their father. And until those of us who already call him dad understand this…well, they will likely continue wandering about without a dad. I believe that our role is less about creating so much despair in people, Lord knows they have enough of that already, and more about giving people words and courage and ways to call Him Dad all over again. What better can we do? What is more delightful to the ears of our Father than that not so subtle word, ‘Dad…’?
Grace is something we cannot control. We cannot contain it. Grace cannot be directed or corralled. Grace cannot be stopped. The role of the church is to expand the scope of God’s grace not to contract it. If the role of the Gospel is to help lost sons and daughters find a way to call God dad all over again, do we think the Gospel is any less about God being able to call us sons and daughters all over again too?
As a preacher of the Gospel, the Good news, I want people to know about my Dad. I want to help them see their place in His story, in His working out the story of redemption. I want to help them not just have an academic definition of charis or a theological position on salvation or a membership in a particular denomination, but to have an experience of grace that demonstrates itself in their lives undone and redone. Those who are undone, those who have collided, can say Dad. I believe it is our job, our role, our calling to help people in this world find a way to call Him Dad much in the way someone helped us.
I enjoyed your special message today. It means a lot to know you’ve committed to being in my life. I will be in yours, as well. … You have captured my imagination with Alexandra moments, and I want to at least offer you father’s hugs, daddy’s kisses and parent support forever. I hope you are OK today and always.