October 10, 2010
2 Timothy 2:1-13
“Be strong in grace.”
What is grace anyway? And why does pairing it with the word “strong” sound so strange to my ears?
“Be strong in grace.” The author of this letter is consistent in defining grace in exclusively Christo-centric terms. Grace is always connected to, defined by, and centered upon Jesus Christ. He tells us to “remember Jesus,” who is apparently the sum total of what the gospel is. Jesus reveals to us the depth of grace, the breadth of grace, and the power of grace in the life of the believer. Let’s look then, more closely, at Jesus Christ to gain better understanding of God’s grace.
The depth of grace
The first qualifying statement our author provides us about Jesus Christ is that he was “raised from the dead.” I’m certain that unless you are a cyborg, an alien, a robot the luckiest person to have ever lived, you’ve asked yourself at one point or another, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!?!” The loss of a child or loved one, the loss of a dream or self identity, or job. Depression, violence, natural disaster. At some point we’ve all found ourselves down emotionally, depressed, in the darkest valley, broken, lost and alone. We suffer from the guilt and shame of our own sins, and we’re constantly victims of someone else’s brokenness and passive-aggressive living out of their sin-sick self. This is just who and how we are.
The emotional scars of one teenage girl I pastored ran so deep, the pain so tangible to her, that self-mutilation became the only human act she could perform to verify that she was indeed still living. Without hope, and absent all signs of joy, her anger would readily boil over into the cry, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!?!”
She’s not alone in this sentiment. Elijah, Moses, Jeremiah, David, Judas, all struggled mightily with what was perceived to be death, and the loss of God. Perhaps the greatest known story of living in the shadow of death is the story of Job, who lost everything. But the starkest, coldest, most raw voice in all of scripture comes from Jesus, God’s own son, who, abandoned on the cross cries out to the heavens, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!?!”
It is into this commonplace despair – a despair that perhaps you are experiencing at this very moment – it is in to this despair that the resurrection of Jesus speaks so convincingly of the depth of God’s grace. What an overwhelmingly hopeful message! That Jesus came back from death! That God is faithful even when everything seems beyond repair. The faithfulness of God is intensely, deeply personal, and reaches into the depths of despair to utter a still more powerful word: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases! His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).”
This, my friends, is the gospel! The wages of sin (ours, and others enacted on us) may very well be death. A death we can and do experience this side of the grave as a kind of hell on earth. But the free gift of God is eternal life (Rom 6:23). A life you can equally live this side of the grave as a kind of heaven on earth. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).”
So, what is this “grace of God” that we are to be strong in? It is the good news of salvation, healing, and hope for all who call on the name of the Lord. “Grace makes beauty out of ugly things (U2, Grace)!”
The breadth of grace
Ah, but there’s more! As good as this news is – and oh how sweet it tastes – there is more! The second qualifying statement our author provides us about Jesus Christ is perhaps a little more surprising, and says that he is “a descendant of David.”
What is it about being a descendant of David that is so important it’s mentioned as one of only TWO qualifying statements about Jesus and the gospel??? I doubt any of us would include it in a list of 20, let alone 2. Is this the litmus test for the “birthers” of the day, who needed proof that Jesus was an American, er, I mean, Jewish, citizen? Is it a fulfillment of OT prophecy, a requirement for the new Messiah?
More than either of those, this statement goes a long way towards politicizing the life and message of Jesus Christ. For the author, Jesus is not the descendant of priests- and therefore concerned only for individual piety, religious practices, or matters of the heart. No, he stands in the line of kings! And by association is thus also concerned with the stuff of kings! Politics. Nations. Group dynamics. Culture. War, peace, economics, conflict. You know- the real stuff of life. This is the Biblical world’s way of saying that Jesus matters to both the social realm and the personal realm. In other words, this is an intensely social gospel.
Mark Labberton (Presbyterian worship prof from Fuller Seminary) says it better than I can: “The personal love of God is like an equation that works one way better than the other: God loves the whole world, and that encompasses loving us individually. He doesn’t love us individually until he ends up loving everyone. The difference is significant because the second order shows the influence of our individualistic American subculture instead of the God who made heaven and earth. If we think the personal love of God is the issue of primary importance, then we are more likely to try to make God in our image. We must see reality God’s way rather than try to make God see reality our way. Many years ago J.B. Phillips wrote the book Your God is too Small. That title still captures one of our biggest temptations.”
Wow! Imagine the breadth of God’s grace if its no longer limited to the individual human heart!? Imagine the consequences of a God who cares for nations, cultures, groups and worlds. If your like me, the possibility of a social gospel is new to you. But “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18-19).”
This too, my friends, is good news! God’s got the whole world, in his hands!
This is the work of Columbian Mennonites who work and advocate for peace and justice through JustaPaz, working to change not just individuals, but the very systems and social networks that promote violence and war. Without addressing the system, the social, the whole, there is little hope for transformation in a complex situation like Columbia faces. Grace it seems, it larger than perhaps we realized.
The power of grace
Following these 2 grace-defining statements about Jesus, the author follows with a statement about himself and God’s word that puts yet another layer of meaning behind the concept of grace. In reference to this gospel, both deep and wide, both intensely personal and passionately social, that the author says “for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.”
Now, I don’t know about you but Paul here goes against every Western, American, middle class, sane, human, focus-on-the-family impulse coursing through my veins with that bit about suffering hardship. I’m more the nice guy sipping Colada’s on the beach sort of guy myself.
In this openness to Jesus to the point of suffering we glimpse the raw power of grace at work in the human heart. Not only are we loved, not only are we healed, we are transformed to such a level that persecution no longer matters! Being made fun of actually drips off of us like vapor, affecting us nada. We are no longer (and likely for the first time in our lives) defined by the notions and perceptions and words of others about us!
No! We are free to stand before God naked and unashamed. Unashamed of ourselves, our looks, our lives, our laugh, our skin, our weight, our history, our hair.
Imagine how it would feel to not worry about being made fun of. Imagine not feeling the compulsion to dress right, talk right, act right, smell right, drive right, and be right. Imagine living just one day free from the addiction of chasing the Jones’s. Imagine the shocking thought of looking yourself in the mirror and not thinking you fall short in some fundamental human way.
The power of grace is that we can be transformed to see ourselves as God sees us. We can accept our acceptance! Because its not that we have to change. Like it’s some assignment. No, it’s not some obligation, some expectation added to our list. Not what God demands you pull off on your own, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, by yourself, all alone. Some twisted form of lone ranger individualism. No, it is the free gift of God that God can – and does – change us.
Be strong in this grace! Cling to this self-image. Believe in this gospel, the gospel of transformation. For this is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is the Jesus we remember! Whole, complete, total, both individual and social, forgiving and calling, personal and vocational. The Whole Gospel for the Whole World. With the absolute power to absolutely transform.
But how do we remember Jesus? What exactly does that look like? Does it mean bringing Jesus into the forefront of our thoughts? Does it mean listening to sermons about Jesus?
Perhaps. But let’s look at the word “remember.” It’s a simple word with 2 parts: re, and member. Re-member. Paul is calling us to re-member Jesus, to re-connect Jesus. It’s a call to connect to Jesus, to be membered, joined, merged, integrated in to Jesus. Does it happen in prayer? Worship? Song? Does it happen in the context of the community, or by being alone? The answer to all of these, is yes. Yes, we must connect to Jesus through private practices of faith: silence, artistry, journaling, study. Etc..
But it happens primarily in another, more dynamic way. According to John Driver (whom Gamaliel Falla mentioned to us last week), it happens by living the life of Jesus. We remember Jesus by being present with him in the world, partnering with Jesus in his mission and ministry to those around us. More than anything else you can do, living the life of Jesus will bring you closer to Jesus. Early Anabaptist Hans Denck says the same thing this way, “No one can truly know Christ except by following him in life; and no one may follow him unless first you know him.”
The more you live the life of Jesus, the more the depth, breadth and power of God’s grace can and will transform your life, from the inside out.
Remember Jesus by living the life of Jesus in your world, and you will be strong in grace!! AMEN.