Four Little Five Letter Words (II)

But why did God set this whole thing in motion?  Ephesians 2.4 reveals it: mercy (still another of those five letter words).  In all the secular side of the English language, there is perhaps no greater discussion of the nature of mercy than Portia’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy….”

 Shakespeare aptly notes that while some seek justice when they perceive a slight or infraction against themselves, they will beg for mercy when they become the object of justice. 

Jesus twice quotes a line from Hosea 6.6, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (NKJV)  The ESV renders mercy here in Hosea as “steadfast love,” but as “mercy” where Jesus quoted it in Matthew 9 and 12.  Either way, the concept is really the same.  Mercy is an extension and expression of steadfast love.  Where Jesus is using this verse, he is confronting the Pharisees, whose claim to fame was largely based on their strict adherence to Law.  Jesus says that sometimes, some Law not only may but must be superseded in the exercise of the supreme law, that being love.  In Isaiah 1.12-17, the prophet reveals the mind of God and his disgust with a people whose religion is form without substance, sacrifice without mercy.

“”What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

“12 When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

“16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

For anyone who has read many of my trifling essays, you will recognize my frequent return to this theme.  But this is not just my theme.  This is a constant if sometimes understated undercurrent throughout the entirety of the collected scriptures.  Some may say that we don’t see that in the New Testament, but that would be an erroneous conclusion.  Returning to James, in chapter 2.8-13, James asserts

“8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

If our religion is based on form and formula and does not issue from the transformed lives that we are meant to live, then it is not likely that that we will express life-giving mercy.  Perhaps we will never be called upon to provide mercy in any dramatic way.  But small degrees of mercy are every bit as important as great ones.  Not everyone can uproot their lives to minister to the needs of the poor in some remote part of the world.  But we can support those who do, and provide mercy to those close to home, maybe in our own town, or even our own neighborhood.

One of my favorite passages in all of scripture remains God’s appeal from Micah 6.6-8:

“6 With what shall I come before the LORD, And bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, Ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (NKJV)

The ESV uses the word “kindness” in place of mercy in verse 8, which still carries the same charge and force.

Faith, Works, Grace, and Mercy: these are four little five letter words with monumental impact to anyone who takes to time to reflect on them, or more importantly incorporate them into their lives.  God’s mercy provides for grace, which can be received through faith, leading to the expression of mercy and grace through good works.  It sounds simple.  But if it is, why is there so much discussion and debate?  Why do people get hung up on works that lead to salvation vs. works expressed because of salvation?  I don’t have an answer.  But I do know this: just getting a foot in the door and being counted on the membership roster of a church won’t get you to heaven.  Jesus said as much in Matthew 25. 

“31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.

“34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

“37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

“44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

“45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

What is the difference between the “sheep” and the “goats”?  Both groups had the same opportunities.  The difference was that the sheep acted out of mercy, expecting nothing in return.  They demonstrated grace as they had received grace.  They lived their faith by expressing good works.  Granted, there may be Five Steps that get you in the door (assuming that we understand that grace is the encompassing principle that makes those steps of any value at all).  But it’s some five letter words that will go a long way in taking you the rest of the distance. 

You can count on it.


Four Little Five Letter Words (I)

Words are powerful things.  They can encourage or discourage, build up or break down.  Some words have reputations.  Think about the infamous four letter words.  (Of course, I’m limiting my discussion to English, my native tongue.  Related words aren’t likely to be only four letters in any of the other languages of earth.)  And no, we won’t recite such things here. But they immediately conjure up some pictures, I’m sure.  I remember once using some word I shouldn’t have and my mother treated me to a mouth washing with Zest.  I can’t recommend it.  In my ecology classes, we discuss parts of an ecosystem including that complex and essential one, the soil.  I tell the class to never say the word “dirt” to a soil scientist, since that is a four letter word.  Of course, it doesn’t take too long for some bright young scholar to count the letters and chime in that “soil” is a four letter word, too.

Now, of course, there are many four letter words that are certainly welcomed in polite company.  Think about it:  Help.  Hope.  Give.  Life.  Love.  No one can find fault with these words, and they can convey very positive messages in terms of the life of the spirit. 

I got to thinking the other day that in matters of faith, there are several five letter words that are of tremendous impact.  In fact, in matters of faith, faith itself is one of those five letter words. The writer of Hebrews defined faith as “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrewes 11.1).  Later, in verse 6 of the same chapter, he indicates that faith is essential to pleasing God: “…without faith, it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”  That makes sense, since it is likely that only those who believe in God would be interested in pleasing him.  Belief in the existence of God must precede the realization of rewards.

But someone may say that James points out that faith without works is dead.  And that is true.  But as I have often thought, putting the works in perspective is essential.  That passage is talking to established Christians about how to conduct their lives, as the rest of James’ epistle also does.  While I cannot argue that there are things that must be done in order to place one in that Christian relationship, failure to assign the appropriate contextual emphasis is dishonest, and misleading.  In our more modern vernacular, James is basically saying that if you are going to talk the talk of being a disciple, you better be ready to walk the walk.  Let your actions demonstrate your faith more loudly and clearly than mere words, because talk is cheap. 

Another famous passage in James gets misused a lot, as well.  The writer says in 4.17, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the passage used to condemn procrastination in the matter of baptism.  While the principle may be obliquely applicable, the direct context has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s initial act of obedience or submission.

Notice the function of the comment in verse 17:  the thought begins with “so,” an obvious indication that the writer is drawing a conclusion.  The immediate context returns to verse 13ff, where James expands his arguments regarding the tendency of some—remember that he is admonishing Christians—to leave God out of the picture when making plans. 

“13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17  So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

This thought actually blends with the previous discussion of arrogance, which he asserts is firmly grounded in worldliness, or friendship with the world, in verses 5-10.

“5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  9  Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” 

Faith and works are now mingled with the concept of grace, which, in keeping with our theme, happens to be another five letter word.  Wait a minute:  James doesn’t talk about grace.  Paul talks about grace.  James is a “works” man.  Read it again for yourself.  Of verse 6, Barnes reflects,

“The meaning is, that he shows them favor; he bestows upon them the grace needful to secure their salvation. This he does:

(1) because they feel their need of his favor;

(2) because they will welcome his teaching and value his friendship;

(3) because all the arrangements of his grace are adapted only to such a state of mind. You cannot teach one who is so wise that he already supposes he knows enough; you cannot bestow grace on one who has no sense of the need of it. The arrangements of salvation are adapted only to an humble heart.”

Grace is one of the most feared words in the narrowly focused segment of the faith heritage with which I have been associated.  In the broader experience of this particular movement, it is not necessarily the case, however.

Back in the early/middle 19th century, as the Stone-Campbell Movement was picking up speed and becoming recognized especially across the American frontier, a former Baptist by the name of Walter Scott became one of the most successful evangelists in the new—or as many would have it, restored—group.  Scott is credited (or some may suggest, blamed) with formalizing the Five Step Plan of Salvation.  Scott would enter a town, find some children and teach them the five steps, which could easily be remembered by ticking them off the fingers of one hand, and encourage them to bring their parents to his revival meeting to learn more about this simple path to salvation. 

In an earlier post, we discussed how Scott’s initial concept included six steps, three for man and three for God.  But, over time, this was reduced to five, de-emphasizing the role of God and emphasizing the works of man, where salvation largely remains today among many of this movement as a Five Finger Exercise.  The sad and shocking thing that I think about is that so many preachers take to the pulpit weekly and tick off the Five Steps and never once in the entirety of their lesson or invitation speak the word, “grace.”  It is a sad commentary on the state of the movement when grace becomes a word to be shunned and avoided.

Grace is so important a concept that Paul opens and closes his letters with it, along with the twin blessing of peace (another five letter word, for those who are keeping score).  Paul also delivers the most definitive pronouncement regarding the centrality of grace to the life of the Christian in Ephesians 2.4-10:

“4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Paul says that grace is the key to salvation, which can only be realized through faith, and not by the works that anyone may produce or perform which could then be used as the basis of claiming entitlement or perhaps even more seriously, may be the source of arrogant boasting.  But notice also the result of receiving that grace: the Christian is to be engaged in good works.  In a sense, he is to transmit God’s grace to the world, serving as a conduit of that grace for God.

Grace and the Flow of a Fallen Reality Toward Renewal

You know, I’m not the kind of guy who likes religious slogans.  You know those things that get put on the marquee signs in front of the meeting houses of virtually any denomination or religious group.  One says, “BIBLE—Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”  Another one might say something like, “What’s missing in Ch__ch?  UR.”  Get it?  Trying to guilt someone into attending.  “Seven days without God (or church, or prayer, or whatever) makes one weak.”  A play on words—week vs. weak—I suppose, which wouldn’t really work in any other language.

No, I’m not the guy who thinks those are particularly clever.  But I ran across an expression one time that could have been put on a marquee, and it would have made people think.  The thought conveyed was that, “The Bible begins with God and ends with grace.”  Look it up:  read Genesis 1.1 and Revelation 22.21 in just about any translation or version, every one that I’m familiar with at least, and it’s right there, plain as day.

Genesis sets the stage for the cosmic drama.  We are introduced to the three primary forces:  God, mankind, and the adversary.  The power of God is established in the very first verse, in a sweeping revelation that both explains and obscures the origin of everything.  Next, man is introduced in his innocence (as indicated in his lack of attire—he had nothing to hide from his God).  When man is confronted with the prospect of a lonely existence, God makes a woman to be his helper and companion.  That they should be bound in the divine pronouncement that man and woman would become one flesh has been the object of too narrow a focus.  While the sexual connotation is undeniably present, that is more than a sexual conclusion.  It suggests an intimacy deeper than merely achieved through the mechanical performance of a biological function.  It speaks of an intimacy of mind and purpose.  A house, a couple, a family that is at cross purposes among its constituents cannot stand, nor should it.

So man and woman are given a set of rules.  Not a huge set, mind you.  The implication of their being stewards of the garden God had made is that man must take care of it.  The fruit of all trees in the garden was fair game for food except one: in the midst of Eden was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Of course, the story is well known that Eve was visited by the adversary, the accuser, the devil, the serpent, Satan, and tempted to consume the forbidden fruit.

Now, in a world where there was only one clear and fast negative regulation, you know there had to come a time when the line would be tested.  When they ate of that fruit, was there some miraculous shedding of the scales of innocence, or did they come to the realization that they had indeed disobeyed the God who loved them and cared for them and provided everything they needed, including each other?

You can read the hurt in God’s questions at the confession of the betrayal of his trust.  You can hear the pain in his voice as he asked Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?”  And the more direct question, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

In the first recorded instance of a time honored human behavior, Adam passed the buck.  He blamed Eve, even though he was apparently present or at least nearby when the deception was going down.  Eve claimed ignorance, that she had been deceived, even though she quoted the simple rule God gave them.

But let’s think about that one rule for just a moment: was God at fault for putting the tree in the Garden in the first place?  Was this entrapment?  Why did he not want his children to know right from wrong?  Perhaps he was sparing them the heartache that comes from the hurtful exploitation and abuse of one person by another, which is the very stock of evil.  As Adam blamed Eve, she must have felt betrayed.  After all, they were in this together.  The evil was growing.  One infraction led to another, and another, and the ultimate end of this first volley in the battle of good vs. evil was the loss of the innocence they didn’t even know they enjoyed until it was gone.

Another result was that God’s heart was broken.  In pain himself, he visited pain upon his creation.  And that pain is still felt today.  There is suffering.  There is death.  There is separation from loved ones and separation from God.

But the story of the Bible is the roadmap to the reconciliation of God with his creation.  If there is one passage that drives this home, in Revelation 21.5, God declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Renewal.  Rebirth.  Reconciliation. Re-creation.

The nature of humankind is revealed over and over through the Old Testament, with constant fallings away and half-hearted temporary renewals.  Through that time, whether directly stated in prophetic language or in the dealings of characters in the grand play, the themes of love and justice and mercy were there, like the constant rhythm of a mother’s heart as she carries her unborn baby.

When it became amply apparent that humankind would never be able to carry on under the burden of law upon law and rule upon rule, God revealed his ultimate weapon in the war on evil: being the very essence of love, he provided his fallen creation with a way to overcome their weaknesses and rise above the miasma of human foibles and breathe again the clean clear air of a divine wind from heaven.  By his grace, he sent his son to teach the minds and touch the hearts of a few people in a dried up corner of the world.  And they would spread the good news, and it would sweep across the known world in a heartbeat.

John wrote in what is now the first chapter of his Gospel account,

“14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth….16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Jesus was full of grace and truth.  We have received grace upon graceGrace and truth came through Jesus.

Grace is one of the most difficult concepts for people who are used to working for themselves, working to make a living, striving for personal advancement and the satisfaction that comes with it.  I heard a preacher once confess that he didn’t really know what grace was, but that he knew what it wasn’t.  I’ve been baffled by that for some time.  But while grace is never explicitly dealt with in the Old Testament in the same sense as in the New, the underlying foundational elements of love, justice, kindness, mercy were all critical in developing the concept and understanding of the nature, value and necessity of grace.

Grace is a concept that I have wrestled with.  I came to embrace it more fully when I read passages like Romans 3.24 and Ephesians 2.1-10, and especially verses 8-10: “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

As I was chatting with my dad the other day, we were discussing grace, and he remarked that “…we are not so much saved “from” death as being saved “for” life.”  That was one of those “I get it moments,” those rare and dramatic epiphanies that become set in the concrete of memory.  When we receive God’s grace, we transmit it into the world.  His love and grace shine through our transformed lives and actions.

God began his human experiment by placing man in a perfect setting with basically one explicit rule (don’t eat of that one tree), and one that may have been implicit or directly stated to the man, to care for the creation.  Mankind, from its humble beginning was weak and powerless to defend against the deceptions that bent or refracted the radiance of God’s light and extinguished the knowledge of his purpose.

Jesus’ life and ministry were marked by the twin virtues of love and service.  He healed the sick, not just to show his power but to show his compassion, which was powerful in itself.  He healed the heartbroken and soul-sick, not just to flex his divine prerogative, but to restore.  John says Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, to love one another.  He said no greater love could anyone have than to lay down his life for his friends.  He called them his friends, and then laid down his life, not only for them, but for all who would call him friend for all the ages to come.

In a sense, Jesus was the walking, talking, breathing, thinking, acting, caring, loving embodiment of grace.  His coming into this fallen reality, his radical teaching and selfless sacrifice were the beginning of the end of the old order.   By emulating his life of love and service, we fulfill the good works for which we were created.  But to emulate him, we must first know him.  And as we learn and act and become more like Jesus, we are being remade.  As we move consciously toward the beacon of the boundless goodness of God as demonstrated by his son, we reflect that pure light and herald the beginning of the end of the old creation. We may catch a glimpse of the perfection that was Eden, the perfection that will be the New Jerusalem, where and when we least expect it.  If we fulfill the charge given to those who are saved by grace, the charge to live for good works, the world will see (if only in flashes and inklings) something of the future that God has planned for his creation.  But if those tiny sparks come together, the greater light will become unmistakable and unavoidable.    

Grace crowns the collected works of the great people who recorded the divine saga.  But the story continues today and will continue until all is made new.  That will be a disappointment to many, I suppose, who hope for some wispy ethereal existence in a Christianized Elysian Fields.  But a perfected creation—one not subject to the frailties and sadness forged as a memento mori of this tainted world— that will truly be a sight to behold.