Rev. Kit Billings
April 24, 2004
Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out, and your dog would go in.”
This morning I'd like to talk with you about the wonderful relationship between God's grace and the Law. I've been ruminating on this lately due to our Ten Commandments program, which concludes this Thursday night, and it is a subject that is certainly at the heart of life in God's Kingdom. Getting to know and coming to terms with God's gracious love is something we all must face. Sooner or later, the abundant love and unmerited favor of the Lord will be in front of you. Hopefully, I pray, you are encountering God's grace quite regularly in your experience of life on earth, especially while in worship. I seriously and warmly pray that you are able to feel God's grace every Sunday you come here. New Church people have been blessed to discover and feel the Lord's grace within the correspondence of the sun above the clouds—the ever-present, warm sunlight is a natural representation of God's grace—Divine Love which is unmerited…freely given, just because of who God is.
The holy Scriptures, most notably the New Testament, are ripe with the Lord's gracious love, especially within Paul's epistles, yet even more so really in the four Gospels, since so much of what Christ did (how he treated everyone, especially women and the “untouchables” of His culture with tremendous favor) and by the parables he spoke, such as the parable of Great Supper from this morning's lesson, as well as the beloved parable of the Prodigal Son.
At this point, let me clearly define what God's Word means by “grace.” Grace is the unmerited favor of the Lord upon you, which bathes the heavens and all people and life on earth. One author defines grace as: “…God's free action for the benefit of His people. It is different than justice and mercy. Justice is getting what we deserve. Mercy is not getting what we deserve. Grace is getting what we do not deserve.” Examples of God's gracious favor toward humanity and toward specific people can be found in the Old Testament. Moses and the Israelites were given grace to escape Egypt. Moses was a murderer, and yet the Lord saw past his sin and graced him with Divine Fire in the burning bush. The Lord showed grace toward Moses time and again, appointing seventy other judges to lift the unbearable weight of leadership off Moses' shoulders, and then by covering Moses while in the cleft of that great rock as God passed by, a favor God bestowed without Moses' request. If Yahweh had not protected Moses, as that story goes, Moses would have died because of the intensity of Infinite Love so near him. Samuel was given special favor, as was Gideon.
In Jeremiah we read these wonderfully moving words: "…the people who survive the sword will find grace in the desert; I will come to give rest to Israel." Here is a promise of the grace of God given to the people when they are given the new covenant. The new covenant, of course, is a promise that God will be their God, and they will be his people, with the Law written upon their hearts and present in their minds, and the gracious promise that all God's people will know him. From the least of them to the greatest, they will be forgiven their wickedness, and God will remember their sins no more.
However, while it is true that God's grace is found here and there in the Old Testament, overall the spiritual ethics found there are that of “eye for an eye” and “tooth for tooth.” While I would never believe that God's core nature ever changes, I would believe that the maturity of humanity in our relationship and openness toward God changes and evolves over time. In ancient Israel, the more immature spiritual perspective of “tit for tat” dominated. After two great spiritual “falling outs” in the Adamic and Noahatic periods, humanity was at our low ebb in the time of the Patriarchs. God was perceived to be a punisher, who punished those who sin and rewards those who live well within the Law given through Moses. God was experienced as the great Law-giver who demanded justice.
To illustrate further the reality of the degree of the sin drawing forth and equal degree of punishment, I refer you to this terrific story told by Tolstoy. He tells of a story about a pot of honey in a clearing within a forest. There is a large and heavy log hanging from a fat tree branch by a rope, positioned just above the tasty pot of honey. A bear enters the scene, smells the honey and pushes the large log away so to get to it and eat it. The log swings back and shoves the hungry bear away. The bear is irritated and pushes the log away with much greater force. The log again swings back, smacking the bear right on the snout, knocking him away from the honey. The bear is furious! He grabs the log with his forepaws and throws it away with great might. “That takes care of that!” the bear thinks to himself and nestles down to enjoy his sweet meal. Just then, after the log had sailed high up into the air and then reverses its direction, gaining speed as it falls; it swings down with tremendous force and slams right into the bears head, killing him instantly. This is the law of Retaliation!, which was still alive in Jesus' time illustrated by the group of men picking up stones ready to kill the woman caught in adultery.
Yet here and there in the Old Testament, especially within the core messages of hope, grace and forgiveness preached by the prophets, a higher perception of God's nature began to be heard. Even after tremendous disobedience Yahweh lets His people know that He still loves them and will save them—and a remnant of the people of Israel will be brought back from captivity to Jerusalem.
Judaism in 1st century Palestine, however, as it was taught and promoted by the Pharisees was lacking greatly in grace. Salvation was believed to be something a faithful Jew achieved, by living up to the Laws of Moses (where were the focus of the Sadducees) and the man-made regulations of the Pharisees, which the Sadducees often had difficulties with. When Jesus came into the picture, only the Law-abiding children of Israel were “in” and everyone else was “out.” Shepherds were sinners since they were unable to follow strict religious regulations.
And it was within this strict, regulatory religious framework that God-Incarnate walked, right into the thinking of “tit for tat”…“reward and punishment.” The Lord knew that it was time for people to grow up in their spirituality and religion and expose them to a much higher and brighter revelation of the truth of God's love and joy in all people, whether Jew or gentile. Everyone was welcomed to God's table! No one is left out anymore! All may attend God's table if they are willing to come. God's favor is upon us all.
We hear this profound and marvelous spiritual truth echoed within the parable of The Great Supper, God's banquet of love for His people. In the parable, the typical Jew made excuses and rejected the Master's invitation. Then the Master of the house shouted aloud for his servant to run into the streets “…and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.” Yet still there was more room! So the Master said to the servant, “Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” WOW. Sure feels like grace to me. And we read in Matthew 5:45 of God's grace, which pours down upon both the just and the unjust: “…[the Lord] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In addition, Jesus takes Mary's part over and against Martha's. Zaccheus, who had swindled his own people, was forgiven just because he said he was sorry. And then of course there's the Prodigal, who has squandered his inheritance upon riotous living. Yet then, after realizing the error of his ways, decides to return home. Yet before his father actually heard his son's repentant confession, he runs toward him with joyous grace in his heart, who obviously symbolized God the Father in this amazing story in Luke.
The Law of “you get what you've given” or rather “an eye for an eye” would apply to many of us especially after we die. Our judgment would occur in reference to which aspect of our lives weighed most—the good we've done compared to the evil or the negative we've done. The meaning of it comes from judging a person according to one's external behaviors. Many of us would perhaps fail this form of judgment.
What do you believe heaven is like? What awaits you after you die—what will it be like when you meet up face to face with God, your person meeting up with Divinity, with the Lord your Creator? The answers you come to will likely affect your experience of life in a big way.
New Church teaching, whose foundation is the Divine truth we find within the holy Word, puts an amazing perspective before you to consider. First, it deeply honors the reality of God's nature being that of a gracious and loving God. So much so that every one of us, no matter what we've done and how well we've lived up to the Ten Commandments (which Christ did say were important to strive for), will be greeted by the most loving and compassionate angels sent from the Lord from heaven. Some of us may be led through a “life review”, but not at all to punish, but instead to encounter for real without any shred of doubt that God's grace has been with us every moment of our lives. This kind of review, which The Book of Revelation calls opening our Book of Life, has the purpose of helping us to learn more fully than ever before exactly what kind of person we have chosen to become. In other words, our lives are opened up fully before us not to pull out an external balance sheet of this behavior vs. that one, but rather, to reveal the intention behind the actions, leaving justice in favor of mercy.
External actions and their consequences are for our natural world on earth; after death, you will encounter the spiritual realm of motive. What you will take with you is the “will behind the actions”, what Swedenborg called your ruling love. But still, the essential attitude of God is, “Welcome to heaven! Welcome into the living sphere of My Divine and forgiving Love! Welcome to the banquet of My Kingdom.” You are given the Lord's grace so that you can discern and discover what your reigning love is—whether primarily for God and neighbor, or for your self and perhaps what is materialistically delightful. You are allowed to discover if God's Kingdom of love for all, as well as your self, is what you want…is what you truly enjoy.
For some, the thought of doing good and making others happy without any thought of reward or recompense is a boring way to live. “What fun is it if I don't get any recognition?” we might say. Yet heaven is literally made up of God's love and truth—God's Spirit makes up the fabric of the heavenly spheres. There is no merit for human beings living in that much love, since there is only One Source of good and truth, who is God of course. If we open and expose ourselves to the Lord, He will fill us with His Love…no questions asked, and we shall become angels.
It is an ongoing source of bewilderment, in a sense, to the angels of heaven that they are admitted into the delights of heaven. They do not feel that they deserve it. This perspective on heaven is revolutionary. It is “grace centered” and yet it honors the importance of letting God's grace live and work in my life, so much so that the principles and truth of the Ten Commandments become helpful guideposts through my journey of life. The love and truth of the heart of the Law, we find, contains the grace which God provides. No wonder we hear Christ having said, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
Ultimately, since the Lord is Divine Love itself…He is Grace in other words…the simple question becomes, what do you want? Do you want God to fill your heart and your life with His grace, which cannot ever be earned or merited (there is way more love from God's end then one human being could ever hope to merit)? The Lord governs our lives not from justice but by grace. God's grace is showered upon us all, and is yours for the taking. Paul, you may recall, reminds us to deeply truth, or have faith, in Jesus' grace. Christ's Divine grace is the only substance which can save you. And you are blessed every day to let God's grace infill your heart to be reflected within you. “Of His fullness shall we all receive, and grace for grace.” Amen.