At an international conference of comparative religions, experts from around the world debated which belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis entered the room in the middle of this debate, and when he was asked to name Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s religions, Lewis responded: “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
I don’t know that grace is a uniquely Christian idea, but I do believe it is a theological concept that goes against the grain of much human thought and action. Grace is not a natural instinct for us. And almost every time Jesus preached grace or demonstrated grace, he was reviled, ridiculed, attacked or abandoned.
Human beings seek something more secure. We want a contract, a covenant, something we can put our hands on, a place where we can come down and know that we are in the right. We are drawn to the idea of karma—what goes around, comes around. We believe in cause and effect, in earning what we receive, in pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, by hard work justly rewarded.
Almost every time Jesus suggests that the God of Israel works differently—that God’s ways are not human ways—someone, usually many someones—get mad at him. We are baffled at all the scriptural references that go against our every concept of what is good, what is religious, what is pure in heart. Like when the prophet Isaiah says to the people of Israel, “all your so-called righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” The good works of our mission committee, filthy rags? Surely not! Or when St. Paul says, “There is no one who is righteous, not one.” That’s harsh, even for Paul. You may not like Paul at all, but when he makes his confession in the Letter to Romans, it rings true, though troubling to hear: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do… I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”
Scripture this morning takes us to the inauguration event of Jesus’ ministry. It is early days, and Jesus comes back to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, where he grew up. The folks at home have heard that Mary’s boy—the son of the carpenter—has been working wonders in surrounding towns and villages. They are thrilled to have this celebrity home, hoping he will do something remarkable in their midst.
They hand him their favorite scroll—the Isaiah scroll—and Jesus searches through the text to find what he wants to proclaim: “good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing for the blind and lame, the year of God’s favor.” That sounds good to the hometown crowd, because who is more captive than they. They live in Galilee with its long history of captivity. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and now Romans—it seems like everyone except the Galileans have ruled over this small plot of land. “Today!” Jesus proclaims. “Long ago, God promised to make of Israel and great nation, a blessing to all the peoples. Today God is already en route, coming to us, anointing me to say and do the things you are seeing and hearing. God’s kingdom is at hand.”
But Jesus stops reading halfway through the last verse, a verse almost everyone in Nazareth has memorized. “I have come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” Jesus says, and then he rolls up the scroll and sits down. Every eye is on him because their favorite part is what comes next, and that favorite part was not proclaimed. “And I have come to proclaim the day of God’s vengeance… a day when all the wealth of the Gentiles will be yours, and these aliens will work as your shepherds, and these foreigners will be your slaves and you shall devour the wealth of the Gentiles.” Everyone in the synagogue is anticipating this declaration from Isaiah, and instead Jesus stops speaking and sits down.
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they murmur. “A carpenter, a day laborer, should know how humiliating it is to have to scrape together a living from the scraps that fall off the tables of these rich Gentiles. Doesn’t he want God to avenge our humiliation?”
And while every eye is boring in on the back of his neck, Jesus stands up and throws salt in the wound he has already opened up. Again, he preaches from Scripture, from sacred text, and he alludes to the beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who proclaimed the Word of God to corrupt kings and foreign queens.
‘God came for us at a time of corruption, famine and want. There were many hungry widows in Israel, but God’s prophet, Elijah, was sent to none of them. Elijah gave food to only one: an outsider, a Gentile, a pagan, a woman, a widow from Sidon. Don’t like that story? Then how about this one. There were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha. The people were in need of the Word of the Lord and the healing presence of God. God did come. Through Elisha, God healed a general in the Syrian army called Naaman.’ That is what Jesus dares to tell his hometown congregation.
This is more grace than the people can bear. This is the final insult. How quickly a congregation turns into a mob. Did you know that in a sanctuary that can seat more than 200 persons, state law requires that individual chairs are to be bound together in groups of four, so that no one can pick up one chair and hurl it at the preacher or the choir in anger. We have moved our chairs so often that these are no longer bound together, so I suppose, I am in some peril this morning. The mob in Nazareth soon swarms over Jesus and pushes him to the edge of a cliff. There, inexplicably and by an impossible grace, Jesus walks through the crowd and goes his own way.
Artur Schnabel is considered one of the 20th century’s best and most important pianists. He was an Austrian Jew who was known for his interpretations of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. In 1933, he moved his family to England, and in 1939—inexplicably and by an impossible grace, he and his family were able to immigrate to the United States. He spent the years of the Second World War teaching down the road at the University of Michigan. Schnabel once said that as a pianist, he played the notes no better than anyone else. “But the pauses between the notes—that is where the art resides.”
He especially admired the Mozart piece that the choir is singing this morning—Ave, Verum Corpus—Hail, true body. Schnabel once said that the piece is too simple for children, and too difficult for adults.
Mozart was not the church musician that Bach was, for instance. Bach dedicated the music he wrote to the glory of God; Mozart was motivated by his own ego, and by his financial needs. Ave, Verum Corpus was written and dedicated to a friend who was a choir master in a small church. Apparently, this was Mozart’s attempt to pay back a debt he owed.
The piece is written with a small choir in mind, just 46 simple bars of stunningly beautiful music—music meant to be simple enough for children to sing yet challenging for adult choirs to adequately interpret. Mozart may not have spent much time in churches, but he was haunted by God-in-Christ. He spent the better part of his life searching for meaning and purpose in his life, trying to find grace and mercy in a world that seemed too cruel and cold. Here, Mozart gives an expression of the mystery, the inexplicable, impossible truth that the real presence—the true Body of Christ—is the means by which God’s grace overcomes human suffering, sin, and death.
A Jesus teaches in the synagogue it is a lesson that is too simple for children and too difficult for adults. God’s grace is on display, so obvious even a child can see it. That grace is available to everyone, Jew and Gentile, male and female. Only adults—full of their own expectations and ideologies—would be unable to see what God is doing. Here is a gentile widow who is suffering from hunger after three and half years of drought Elijah asks for her last loaf of bread, and she finds the faith and the courage to bet her life and her child’s life on God’s grace. She gives her bread to the prophet of the God of Israel, making an astounding leap of faith into the unknown. Her faith is in a God who will not be bound by gender or tribe or ethnicity. God’s grace reaches out to all.
Naaman too, is able to be humble enough and hopeful enough to swallow his own pride and trust in a God he does not understand. He follows the instructions of Elisha and finds healing and wholeness beyond his wildest dreams. Essentially, Jesus tells his hometown crowd that he is asking them not to merely tolerate their Gentile neighbors, but to imitate them and their radical faith. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not safe in any culture without a witness within that culture and from beyond itself. Because we have come to terms with our own society, the total word of God has to be declared to us by another, by the outsider. This is what is so often too difficult for adults to understand.
Grace is not a natural instinct for us. The daily headlines prove it to us. Our world seems more set than ever to declare that power, wealth, and violence are the forces that shape our lives. Our political process provides us with a scandal a week. Priest by the hundreds have made victims of innocent children. Unbridled greed, unwavering pride, moral corruption spew from the White House, the halls of Congress, and so many other places that our trust in institutions is at an all time low. Martin Luther would diagnose us as he did his own time: we have fallen in love with our own ideas rather than the Word of God, and that is sheer delusion.
Jesus begins his ministry the same way that he ends it. There are many who are ready to kill him. There are a few who would walk through fire for him. But the majority are simply confused, afraid, anxious—people who know not what we do. Jesus will walk through us and go his own way, with us or without us. Sometimes, by the grace of God, we may receive more that personal assurance. Because we cannot control a living God, we may receive Jesus Christ in all his uncontainable, unusable glory. God is greater than we ever supposed. Jesus passes through our clutches, refused to say or do what we want him to, and sometimes, if we look and listen close enough, we may find that God is using us for what God wants. Imagine that. Jesus goes his own way into the world, not satisfied with merely reigning inside the church. This provokes us to ask, “Will we go with him on his way, or will Jesus go without me?” Amen.