Grace Abounds, Doesn't It?
The other day my wife and I were driving through the parking lot of the gym that we frequent. I was trying to get the Walgreen's across the street and was searching for a suitable exit. As I turned to go down one of the rows, I was met by a guy driving the wrong way in a huge truck with a trailer attached to it. I had to literally pull into an empty parking space to avoid being crushed. This did not sit well with me at all.
"I hate people who do that!" I exclaimed. "Seriously. There are like ten rows that this idiot could have driven down and he had to choose one going the wrong way. Come on!"
My wife, gentle soul that she is, gave me holy heck for reacting the way I did. "You shouldn't say you hate anyone," she told me. And then she added for good measure and to twist the long knife of guilt deeper into my heart, "You're a pastor, you should know better!"
I went on to explain how I didn't really mean that I hated the dude driving the huge truck and trailer, but that I hated his offensive driving skills--or lack thereof. Then I sulked. I left the parking lot and discovered that in my haste I had gone out an exit where I could only turn right in order to get into the adjacent parking lot where the Walgreen's happened to be. I flipped an illegal U-turn and darted into the parking lot entrance by the pharmacy drive-thru. As soon as I did it, I realized that I was going the wrong way down the parking lot row. A large truck was heading right for me and the driver had to swerve a bit to keep from hitting me. The expression on his face as he passed was not friendly. I am no lip reader, but you didn't have to be much of one to understand what he was saying, and it wasn't polite.
My wife, again gentle soul that she is, said nothing for a moment. Then she repeated my own words back to me, "I hate people who do that!"
"I am guessing that God is messing with me again," I said to her.
I got the message. In the span of a few seconds, I gave someone no grace at all, and then found out far too quickly that I needed grace for the same damn thing. I think that most of what God does to teach us is to simply hold up a mirror right in front of us, and allow us to see ourselves clearly. It's not a lot of fun when that happens.
There is this great story in the Bible that I have been studying pretty hard this week. Admittedly, my study was prompted because it is the passage of Scripture I am preaching from on Sunday, but still...The story in question is from the book of Acts, which is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It tells the story of the first Church and if we are paying attention, we will find our own story within it. Or at least part of the story that God has been writing for the Church since those days over 2,000 years ago.
In Acts chapter 8 we find one of Jesus' disciples whose name is Phillip. Phillip has just completed a fairly difficult mission to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ to people he is not supposed to like at all: The Samaritans.
On top of having to go witness and minister to people who he is not supposed to like (and who are not supposed to like him), Phillip is called by the Spirit of God to leave Samaria and wander around on one of the roads that led south out of Jerusalem to Egypt. There were two main roads out of Jerusalem, one that went through Hebron and the other that went past the ruins of Gaza. One was busy and probably filled with roadside stands selling fruit drinks and exotic lunches. The other was flat out deserted.
Guess which one Phillip was called to go wander on for a while? Yup.
So, he is walking down the road and he spies an Ethiopian on a chariot reading a scroll. This was not what he was expecting. And this is not just any Ethiopian. He was the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. Here's some nifty information to add to that:
1) The name "Candace" was sort of like "Caesar," only it applied to the female rulers of Ethiopia. Apparently, even if a prince came to the throne, he would step back and his mother would rule in his place. Pretty dang progressive, eh?
2) The Ethiopian on the chariot is idenfitied as a eunuch, which could have meant a lot of things, but almost assuredly meant that he had been castrated. And "castrated" could have meant a lot of things, but almost assuredly meant that if one was castrated, one's...you know... was completely removed.
3) At the time Ethiopia was known as the "end of the earth." It was believed that there was no civilization beyond Ethiopia, which had been a thriving kingdom since 750 B.C.E.
4) The Ethiopian was probably what was known as a "God-fearer," someone who desired to worship Yaweh, and who was more than a little interested in what it meant to be Jewish. Unfortunately, as a eunuch, he would never be able to be completely Jewish. It is possible that when he visited the Temple in Jerusalem the exclusivity of Temple worship may have tempered his zeal a tad, but not enough that he didn't obtain a scroll of Scripture.
5) The scroll was more than likely a translation from Hebrew into Greek, which an Ethiopian in the highest circles of his government would have easily been able to read.
Phillip had to be thinking, "All righty. I have been called to preach to a whole bunch of people who pretty much hate me, and vice versa, and now I have to preach to this strange, exotic, ritually impure, sexually ambigious foreigner. Wonderful."
When Phillip approached the Ethiopian, he notices that he is reading from Isaiah 53. The reason he knows this is because it was sort of a cultural norm to read aloud back then. I rather like that, to be honest. When you read out loud, you pretty much can't read alone. Anyway, the passage is from Isaiah 53, which speaks of the Suffering Servant of God who "was lead like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent..."
Phillip asks, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
The Ethiopian answers, "How can I, unless someone explains it to me?"
And so Phillip explains everything to him. He tells him the "good news of Jesus." After hearing, the Ethiopian asks Phillip "What is stopping me from getting baptized?"
This is the kind of question that many of the early Jewish Christians would have reflexively answered, "Well, you are ritually impure, you are a Gentile, you are a sexual minority, you cannot be circumsised...you really can't become one of us." When you include the part about Phillip preaching to the Samaritans with the story of the Ethiopian, those early Believers would have been more than a little challenged by the whole thing. All kinds of people were experiencing God's grace through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The wrong kind of people.
The meta-narrative of the Acts of the Apostles is that God's grace through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is for all people. God's grace is for Jews, Gentiles, men, women, rich, poor, slave, free, sexual minorities, ritually impure folk, people of all kinds of races, backgrounds, faiths and beliefs.
God's grace is for people we consider our enemies.
God's grace is for people we believe should not receive grace at all.
And the example that is before us all is the example of Christ, who meekly went to his own death, forgiving those who led him.
For those of us who call ourselves Christians, it is not our job to figure out who is in or who is out when it comes to the grace of God. It is our job to show grace and forgiveness to all--even as we have been shown grace and forgiveness. Jesus told his disciples that anyone could love their friends or their family, but a real disciple of his would also find a way to love and forgive his/her enemies.
In my last church I had two women who decided that I was awful, and not the right person for the Associate Pastor position before I even arrived. They spoke ill of me to everyone they met, and one of them even actively tried to destroy my ministry and discredit me. It was a miserable first year of ministry for me. In the end, they both left, but I could not forgive either of them. I put up a good front, but there was no grace to be had in my heart. They had made my life a living hell, made me question my call and I wasn't going to ever forget it.
Jesus never said to "Forgive and Forget." But he did command his disciples to forgive one another as they had been forgiven.
Just a month or so ago, I was helping my wife out at a community event by sitting at the booth for her law office. When I arrived at the event, she pulled me aside and pointed to the booth next to us. One of the local business had rented the booth next door to ours, and had their staff there as well. The lady who had actively tried to destroy my ministry was standing there. I remember thinking to myself, "God, you have got to be kidding me." And the voice came back in my head, "You need to let this go." So I did. I went over and gave her a hug, and we talked about things and I silently forgave her as I realized she was just a person trying to do the best that she could. God loved and cherished her, and the least I could do was to acknowledge I didn't know anything really, and deserved more grace than I could give.
An hour later, I looked over a the booth to my left where another business had set up. There I saw the other woman who had been part of that team. At this point I was starting to wonder if God had anything else going on that day that he could afford to spend so much time messing with me. So, I went over to the booth and gave her a big hug and I forgave her, too.
I am thankful that God saw fit to mess with me that day. Most days, we don't get that kind of shot. We're sort of on our own to create our moments of grace and forgiveness. It's one of those things that God in God's wisdom and mercy ordains for us to do. We need to forgive. We need to show grace.
We need to get it into our heads and hearts that the person most in need of God's grace is staring right back at us in the mirror.