Summit Presbyterian Church
August 9, 2009
Words of Grace
I've been here about a year and I don't believe you've ever heard me talk about heaven as a place: what it might be like or who, exactly, would be there. I shy away from such speculation because there's not much about it in scripture. There's talk of judgement and salvation, and there are visions of the end-times -in the book of Revelation especially. But in neither the Old or New Testament is there a detailed description of the place where God dwells we call heaven. Also, in our age of space exploration and Hubble telescopes we can no longer think of heaven simply as a giant playground above the clouds. But today, I'd like to picture, to imagine, just a little corner of heaven. The little corner that contains the water cooler -- you know what I mean, the kind almost every office has. Where folks stand around and talk. Mostly about other people. Mostly about other people they know -- friends and co-workers and family. And this is my question: if Jesus Christ were hanging around the water cooler, not with people but with heavenly colleagues such as cherubim and seraphim and angels and archangels - what might he talk about?
He could talk about the friends and disciples he knew when he walked the earth as Jesus of Nazareth. Peter and James and John, Thomas and Philip and Matthew. He'd have lots of information to share with his heavenly friends. He could talk about how he first met Simon Peter and James and John when they were fishing and how, really - they weren't very good fishermen. They'd put down their nets night after night but they didn't know how to do it right and they kept coming up empty. He could joke that it was a good thing he called them to fish for people instead. (Luke 5: 1-11). He could talk about how, underneath all their piety, the disciples were actually social climbers. Always arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, who would get to sit at Jesus' right hand. Christ could also confide to his friends that for all their arguing over who was at the top of the class, none of the disciples were especially bright: he told them again and again who he was and what was going to happen to him but they just didn't get it. He could also gossip about his women friends. He could tell the story about going to dinner at Mary and Martha's house and how Martha was one of those martyr types -- a cook who wouldn't let anyone else into her kitchen but then would complain that she had to do everything herself. He could also talk about his family. About how his mother and his brothers just didn't appreciate his gifts or vocation. He could tell them how they thought he was crazy and tried to bring him home when he was teaching in the synagogue -- but that he had created his own family, thank you. And if Christ were to regale the cherubim with these entertaining stories -- if they nodded their heads and laughed appreciatively -- Christ might be tempted to even start a few rumors. About Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. Or about the money problems Judas had that led him to betray Jesus for a few pieces of silver.
Yes, Jesus Christ could tell all kinds of stories, stories about his friends and disciples, stories which stretched the truth just a bit and got in a laugh or two. And if he did who could blame him? After all, they abandoned him in his hour of need. They couldn't even stay awake in the garden to pray with him, and Peter -- who promised to stand by him - denied him three times. Who could blame Jesus for being angry, even bitter, over all that was done to him and the cowardice of his friends? And who could begrudge Christ a little fun -- for we know how fun it is to talk about other people - who could begrudge him a little fun around the water cooler when all was said and done.
And of course, the risen Christ wouldn't need to confine himself to talk about people he knew thousands of years ago. He could also talk about us! He knows enough: he's read every e-mail we've written. He's heard everything we've said to our mother, he knows what we've done in bed. He knows everything we've thrown in the trash and exactly what's in our bank account. He knows our daydreams and the way we turn our eyes from homeless people and skip newspaper articles about global warming. If the risen Christ were to talk about us around the water cooler, he'd have lots of material. And if he was critical, or stretched the truth a bit, who could blame him? In Matthew it says that what we do to the least of these we do to Christ -- or not: feeding the hungry (or not), visiting the sick (or not), welcoming the stranger (or not). So who could blame Christ for being angry over our failings? Who could object if he were critical, or talked about us with some bitterness, or at the very least indulged in a bit of fun at our expense?
But Christ doesn't do that. Christ doesn't talk about us that way - at the heavenly water cooler or anywhere else. How do we know? We know because even from the cross, Christ prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." We know because after he was dead and buried, he came to Mary in the garden, called her by name, and asked her gently why she was crying. We know because he came to the other disciples when they were a huddled, frightened mess and rather than berating them, he said, "Peace be with you." And when Thomas came later and said he'd only believe Jesus was alive if he could see the mark of the nails in hands, Jesus came back. He didn't mock Thomas for wanting evidence: he showed him his wounds. We know Jesus doesn't talk about us that way because when Christ rose from the dead he didn't return to punish anyone or seek revenge. Instead, he ate with his friends. He met two disciples on the road to Emmaus and broke bread with them and opened their minds to the scripture. One morning on the beach he made breakfast for Peter and the others, a breakfast of broiled fish and bread. And after he spoke these grace-ful words of peace and forgiveness and wisdom to his disciples, he entrusted them with a mission: to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins. To tell friend and foe alike of God's love. A love we know in the presence of the risen Christ, and in the blessing of his forgiveness. A love that we, too, are called to proclaim.
So, therefore, says Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians: be imitators of God, as beloved children, living in love as Christ loved us. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us. Put away bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. Put away falsehood, and instead let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of with one another. Be angry, but do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your anger or make room for the devil. Let no evil come out of your mouths, says, Paul, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.
Speaking words that give grace to those who hear. What a challenge of the Christian life! It's challenging because it means speaking the truth. It means taking the time to discern true from false - which is not always be easy - and acknowledging when we're wrong. Speaking the truth may mean challenging someone else and risking their anger. It also hard to speak the truth in a way that builds up and gives grace, especially when we're angry. It’s challenging to speak words of grace because of our anger. Be angry says Paul – and there's plenty of room for anger in the Christian life; we’re called to be angry on behalf of ourselves and others. But do not let that anger become a reason to sin, says Paul: to spread falsehood, to slander, to hurt, whether we're arguing with our spouse, reprimanding our children, or speaking out at a meeting. Choosing words that are grace-full is also challenging because it means letting go of the satisfaction we get from stretching the truth about other people - saying something that's basically accurate but that slanders rather than builds up: gossip at the water cooler often falls into that category. And it’s challenging because we also have to choose words that are truthful and grace-filled in public life -- unlike much of the talk we heard this week from opponents of Obama's healthcare plan.
Speaking words of grace; challenging, but possible, because of Christ’s words of grace to us. His words of love and forgiveness to the disciples and to us despite everything we've done and haven't done. His words of truth - which may be hard to hear - but which are spoken only to build us up. His words of grace and confidence in us, entrusting us with the message of the gospel. So let us be imitators of God, in our lives and as a church, living in love as Christ loves us.