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.

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