Grace is a free gift from God.
Grace is not like wages we get if we do the right kind of work or wages we don’t get if we don’t do the work.
Grace is not like a reward for good behavior, meaning that a punishment for bad behavior is that you don’t the reward. Grace is not like that.
Grace is not some kind of scarce resource that has value because the demand is high and the supply is low.
Grace is not a transaction like that. That way of thinking just doesn’t apply.
Earning, deserving, merit, payback – these things simply don’t apply when it comes to Grace.
But that’s mostly how we think about it:
God’ll only love us if …
To this way of thinking about Grace, the truth of God’s love is outrageous.
God’s love is free – totally free – an indiscriminate gift, and that free gift is always available to anyone who says “Yes, please.”
This is outrageous from a dollars-and-cents way of thinking. It doesn’t make good business sense. It’s not part of the logic of trade and transaction. That logic has its place in human affairs. But that place is different from where Grace is. Grace is simply in a different realm.
But I think that truth is so radical that people always slip back into making Grace out to be some kind of transaction, part of some kind of system of rewards and punishments.
Now, there are lots of problems with thinking about Grace this way. But what I think is the most unfortunate problem for Christians when we slip back and get stuck in a transactional way of thinking, is that when we hear the Christian proclamation that Grace is free, when we hear from those holy fools for Christ throughout history that the love of God we know through Christ is so vast and wide and deep that God’s Grace is free, as a gift … when we hear that word “free” and we’re still stuck in a worldly way of thinking, we translate that “free” in our heads as meaning “cheap.”
But Grace isn’t cheap.
And it’s a problem when we treat it as cheap.
Someone just needs to make a big show out of professing Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior and that’s it, we can go on like we went on before, being petty and self-serving and judgmental – but now we get to do that underneath a chintzy plastic halo of being among the “Saved.”
But before we get carried away judging those kinds of Christians, there’s the other side of the Christian and post-Christian spectrum where grace gets cheapened. God’s Grace is free, God loves everybody, so we don’t need to worry about God imposing any kind of challenge on our lives. This is an easy, lukewarm spirituality of low-expectations. You know, every now and again just try to be more or less a decent kind of person and we don’t need to get too bothered about God stuff, too disrupted by ultimate concerns, too troubled by the eternal.
These problems come when we still think of Grace in economic terms.
So let me tell a different kind of story:
We are like seeds planted in soil.
That soil is rich because of Grace. We are placed in that rich soil because of Grace.
The rains come and soak into the earth and seep into the seed.
Those rains are good because of Grace.
And because of these gifts of Grace, the seed ruptures.
It breaks open, and its safe hard shelter falls away, becomes a husk and dies …
That is the cost of grace for that little seed…
so that new life can sprout – as a gift from Grace.
More rains come and soak the earth as the sprout pushes out its roots. The sun shines on the new leaves. All this is by Grace.
As the sprout grows it becomes clear it is under the care of a farmer. The farmer has planted this seed, and they tend to the growing plant, for the purpose of producing good fruits.
A healthy plant, you could say, gladly soaks in the grace it is given, it receives the gifts, and gladly dares to grow and root and reach into the sky and produce buds and flowers and fruits.
But all this is under the care of the farmer, so that vine or tree, is going to be subjected to pruning.
Sometimes it’s just a dead branch here or there that gets cut away. But in some stages of life that pruning can be quite severe.
It not as pleasant as just sitting back and soaking in sunshine. But the pruning is also a gift of grace, to help that plant fulfil its purpose of making whatever kind of fruit it was put in the earth to produce.
So, notice how this way of thinking about Grace is ecological. Jesus’ teachings are full of ecological and agricultural images.
God’s love is freely given like good soil is freely given to a seed, like water is freely given, and sunshine, and the diligent care of the farmer.
But of course, we’re not vines or trees or vegetables, we’re humans. We have free will.
We can choose to be ornery and not soak in the water we need. Or we can be too afraid to break through the shell of our seed. That can feel like a terrifying death of a comfortable if constricted little self, a loss we’d rather not risk. We can hold our buds like tight fists and refuse to open our leaves to the light of the sun. We can resent the farmer for wanting to cut off the dead weight of fruitless parts of ourselves, even if they’ve become diseased or become grotesque shackles choking ourselves and others. We can refuse pruning.
And this good farmer lets us refuse or consent to the pruning shears. But if we choose to refuse, God may not rescue us from the natural consequences. And those are worse than the pain of pruning. That’s what John the Baptist is warning about in this dramatic way in the Gospel of Matthew. “Prove your repentance with the fruit you bear.” By your fruits you shall be known. And “the trees that do not produce will be cut down and burned.”
That’s not a threat. It’s a warning about natural consequences. It’s a realistic assessment. If we don’t let violence get pruned away, it begets more violence. Greed left to grow becomes a choking weed. Resentment and judgement festers and rots us out. Guilt, shame, self-hatred, the ways we refuse God’s love because we’re obsessed with how we don’t deserve it – that makes buds die before blossoming. Grasp tightly to the things that deadens our souls, and they will pull us down.
But that doesn’t need to be the outcome. The invitation is always there – always – to receive the care we need from God to cut away what kills our souls, to get free of its dead weight, so we can bask in the sun and the rains of Grace and gladly make those sweet fruits of the spirit.
And surrendering to that care requires us to turn away from human powers and commit ourselves to God alone, by whose Grace we exist in the first place. That Grace is always freely offered. But it’s up to us to say “Yes.”
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” – John 15:1-6, 9
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” – Galatians 5:22-25
“When John the Baptist saw may of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to escape from the wrath to come? Prove your repentance by the fruit you bear … Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” -Matthew 3:7-8, 10-11
‘Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.'” – Matthew 7:15-19
‘”Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Holy One shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Holy One will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Holy One will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.’ -Isaiah 58:3-4,6-11
(Image: “Pruning Shears” by Jim Dine)
(Sermon delivered at First Congregational church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)