The Power of Grace (Grace Encountered, Part 2)

(For Part 1 of the "Grace Encountered" series, go here. For Part 3, go here).

Twenty years ago I went with some seminary classmates to a Benedictine monastery in Southern CA. We were having lunch at long tables, in the dining room with the brothers. There was one monk, a very old, Chinese man, who came around with a water pitcher that his shaking arms could barely hold.  He watched for emptying glasses and silently filled them.  I wondered why this oldest of the brothers, (and the only monk in the room who was an ethnic minority), this man who seemed frail and unsteady, was the one serving the others.  

My professor noticed me watching him. She leaned over and told me this story: This monastery was in fact founded in 1929 in China by an Abbey in Belgium.  They soon established an Institute for Western and Oriental Cultural Studies, which housed an impressive 10,000 volume library. On Christmas Day 1949 the Communists took over the city. The institute was dissolved, the library was confiscated, and the monks were put under house arrest. Those among them who were Chinese were taken from the community and thrown into prison, including the monk with the water pitcher, who had been a young man at the time.  

After three years of house arrest the monks were expelled from Communist China, and they made their way to California, where the Abbey converted a dairy barn into living quarters and a stable into a chapel, and reestablished the monastery there in 1956, in the place it stands to this day.  In the 1980s, this aged monk and two others were finally released from prison. After much searching they tracked down their Monastery, immigrated to California, and were joyfully reunited with their brothers.  
He was the last living member of those who had been imprisoned. 

This monk's decades in prison were marked by severely limited access to water.  He had known terrible thirst, and had watched others die of it.  He had felt Christ meet him in prison and sustain him through his suffering, and when he was freed, Jesus brought him home to his community. He was lost, and now they were found.  
To have water, to share water, to give it freely to others so that none would thirst, was his personal act of sheer joy and gratitude. Ever since his arrival, he spent his meal times filling the water glasses of his brothers and their guests. 

Last Sunday we talked about the unconditional, unearnable love of God that claims us as God’s own. The prodigal son limps home and is swept into his Father’s waiting arms; his attempts to earn forgiveness, or reject favor, are brushed away and he is celebrated, for he was dead and now he lives, lost and now he is found.  
This is grace.  

When we looked closer we noticed that the way this grace is felt and experienced and received is only in our weakness, only when we are quite beyond any sense that we could earn or deserve it.  Grace brings to life the dead, finds the lost and frees the captives. So it it comes to us when we are broken, when loss has devastated us, when what we thought held us up falls down.  It comes to us as ministry.  
Grace is not a thing – the favor of God; it is a person - the presence of God.  God gives us God's own self. Jesus meets us as a minister – coming into our need, bearing our sorrow and pain and guilt and shame – not turning away, but joining us there.

Through 35 years in prison Jesus was there with this monk, ministering to him, sustaining him, meeting him with grace, claiming him as his own, holding him alongside others through the darkness and the thirst.  
And then Jesus brought the lost man home.

I like to imagine the household of the prodigal the morning after the party that went till dawn.  Everyone is at home now, under the Father’s roof once again. The household of grace is asleep.  Morning dawns, the rooster is crowing and the sun is just coming up; the last guests have left and the servants are cleaning up the mess.  
The younger brother awakens and hears them cleaning, but instead of turning over and sleeping, he heads out to the barns.  A bit later he comes back and joins the servants in the work.  He picks up a broom and tackles the well-trampled front entry. He gathers up scattered bottles and cups and fills bags. He grabs a bucket and a rag and starts washing tables.  
His older brother hears the ruckus and comes out of his own room, astonished. He has never seen his younger brother willingly do chores in his entire life. 
What is this boy up to? Who is he trying to impress? He wonders. Dad is still sleeping; what’s the angle? 
He squints into his face, trying to read his expression. But his brother is lost in reverie. His face is peaceful; it radiates joy even!  He looks up and sees his brother staring at him. “Good morning! It was such a late night I thought I’d let you keep sleeping. I did the morning milking so you wouldn’t have to.” 

How long before the older brother started to trust in the change? Before it sinks in that it is real?  Grace doesn’t just give you a clean slate so you can mess it up again, start a new clock, a new tally sheet. It changes your DNA. It reorients your course; it gives you a new direction and purpose and fuel.  
There was a reason people who followed Jesus were called people of “The Way.”  Grace sets you on a new way. One led not by trying to earn or prove something, not acting out of obligation or duty, or vengeance or malice. 
A way of freedom. Not freedom from, but freedom for, as Bonhoeffer would say.  Free for each other. Free for God. Free for life.  
The prodigal son sought freedom from when he set out from home to make his way in the world on his own terms. And he discovered only slavery – to his own desires, to a prison of his own making, to endless appetites and downward spirals.  And he decided to go back to his Father’s house to be free from that slavery, by offering himself as a slave. Better to be a slave to my father where I get a roof over my head and three meals a day than to be a slave to myself out there. 
Then, grace.  
The Father says, You are mine. You belong. I love you no matter what.  
And now he is truly free. He is free for life. Free for wholeness, free for belonging to the household completely, to see and love and serve his parents and his brother. 
He is free to be a minister.  
Ironically, it looks the same from the outside. To the brother, it looks like earning - like he's now playing the game the brother knows so well.  He is serving; and yet is fully free.
The monk with the water pitcher exercised his freedom every single day. 
He knew what it was to be in prison. And he knew what it was to be free.  

There are fancy words for what happens by grace- they are justificationand sanctification. Justification makes us right with God – it is to be brought into the life of God, embraced completely into the belonging of God. This happens through faith, which really just means, it happens when we receive the gift that has already been given to us. It happens when we let Jesus meet us in our weakness and minister to us in our humanity. Then we experience the love of God that comes like the prodigal’s father when we can barely stand and sweeps us off our feet and says, my child, you are home! 
Justification is the free part. Grace makes us free.

Grace makes the dead live and the lost found. So naturally, it doesn't stop at claiming and setting free. The other action of grace is sometimes called sanctification, which means, "to be made holy," and it's also called transformation. 
Sanctification is the for part. Grace makes us for.

Here’s where we mess this part up. We think this part is our job. We forget that grace means God does this too. The Spirit of God breathes new life into us, and transforms us, so that we are being rooted and grounded in love. 
Love changes us. It requires that we change, and then it also does the work in us that makes us want to change, and it even does the changing itself.  
We instinctively understand this with our partners, our children. Loving another person means seeing them in their need, joining them in their own places of suffering. When we are bound to another, we are paradoxically more free and also required to change and changed by loving. 
The ministering Spirit of Christ turns us into ministers; Jesus makes us free for one another. 

In grace we are made holy, made more like God, formed into the likeness of Christ. We become what we are; what has been done to us now happens through us. 
We’re loved; we love. 
We’ve been ministered to; we minister. 
We live this way not out of fear of punishment or desire for reward, but because we have begun to glimpse the depth and height and breadth and width, to know the love that surpasses knowledge. 
We have begun to see from time to time that God accomplishes through us abundantly more than we could ever ask or imagine, if we just show up as our real self alongside someone else’s real self.  
We begin to discover that participating in life in the world gives us joy, it fills us and makes us whole, and it brings us back to our truest and deepest self, where we already belong to God and each other.  
So lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.  Paul writes. With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

Live what is true of you. Other places he says, You’ve been set free, why do you act like you are a slave still? Live your freedom!  
And here is what it looks like when we live in true freedom, he continues, in the rest of our verses: 
When we are hurt, the pain someone has caused us, or our own fear of conflict, does not have the power to separate us from each other. We are free to tell each other the truth, becausewe belong to each other.  We feel angry but anger doesn't rule over us, we don't have to let it take root and fester into resentment that takes over our lives, because our lives are already ruled by something, that is, love.  
The next line is great, “Thieves must give up stealing, let them labor and work honestly with their own hands so as to have something to share with the needy.” So specific! What circumstances in this community demanded he give that particular instruction?  
And yet, it makes me think of something I read this week about grace, three statements. They were: “What’s mine is mine, I will protect it.” “What’s yours is mine, I will take it.” And finally, “What’s mine is God’s I will share it.”  (from The Discipline of Grace, by Jerry Bridges).  
The first one is the older brother. What’s mine is mine, I will protect it.  
The second is the younger when he left home, What’s yours is mine, I will take it.
Both are the Way of Fear, of slavery, of death. 
But the Way of God, the way of grace and life, is revealed in the words and actions of the Father’s repeated refrain, What’s mine is yours, I will share it.  

So I think about these particular thieves that Paul is addressing, prodigals brought home in grace, and who they were before, in the Way of Fear. In competition and scarcity, we try to be free from one another, so people look out only for themselves, and those who cannot do so honestly do so by stealing. But in God’s abundance and grace, where we all belong to one another, thieves are set free for honest work, and full contribution so that they can share with the needy.  And it perpetuates and multiplies. Those who receive, receive others. Those given dignity and belonging extend dignity and belonging to others. 

Paul goes on to say, our words are for building people up and not tearing people down, our very words give grace, he says.  What comes from your mouth and my mouth can draw people into the gift!  
We are free to let go of bitterness and wrath and anger and arguing and slander and spite, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. We are beloved children, little walking reflections of God’s own being!

I like imagining the day the grace sinks in to the older brother’s heart. 
The day of his faith, when he receives, finally, the gift of his own belovedness and belonging.  Maybe it’s in great loss – the death of their mother, perhaps, when love meets him in his weakness.  Maybe it comes after time tested witnessing of the slow and steady transformation in his brother, as he is being rooted and grounded in love.  
But I suspect it happened right at the moment the father came outside and invited him into the party. 
The son comes in from the field, dirty and tired, toward the swirling music and shining lights of the house, and stands stunned and angry, watching all that he thought made sense of the world crumble around him.  And in one last grasp at meaning, he refuses to enter the house. 
The Father comes to him. 
Leaves the party and meets his missing son right there. Comes to join him right where he is, in the twilight of the yard, the fireflies around them and the cicadas song rising. 
He comes out to embrace his missing son.  
Oh my beloved child, all that I have is already yours, he says to him, it has been all along
Come inside. Come home and join the party. 
Come be free.

Perhaps after the Father’s death, the brothers run the estate together.  And together they reflect the Father’s heart to all who come near, mostly with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 
Like the Benedictines who welcome each guest as though they are Christ himself, like the monk carrying his water pitcher from guest to guest with the greatest of honor, those who receive the gift are transformed by it, and can’t but give it away, What’s mine is God’s, I will share it.
This is the power of grace.

For Part 3 of this series, go here.

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