Understanding Grace

We use the word “grace” in a number of different ways. To be in someone’s “good graces.” “There but by the grace of God go I.” “Saved by grace through faith” (that’s quoting Paul). And we define grace in many ways: love, forgiveness, help, acceptance and mercy. All of these different understandings make it challenging to discuss and analyze the concept of grace.

In Old Testament times, the Hebrew root of the word translated as grace was “favor.” If you received God’s grace, you received God’s favor or God’s help.But you only received God’s grace if you were one of God’s elect. There were certain requirements of faith and action which were to be met in order for God to bestow grace upon you.  Following the many laws required by Jewish tradition was really the key.

In New Testament times, Jesus constantly tried to move people beyond the rigid, confining words of the law. He argued that they may have followed the letter of the law, but they had forgotten the spirit of the law which is love. This was a hot topic when it came to salvation. Some ardent Jewish-Christians insisted that one must follow the letter of the Jewish law, in addition to being baptized and recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, in order to be saved. Paul, Peter and others, argued that people were “saved by grace through faith.” The intent was to put the emphasis back on God’s gift of love, but conservatives and evangelicals have turned this into another instance of meeting a requirement to get to heaven. They would say that you have to accept God’s grace, which will manifest itself in faith and then you will be saved.

I have issues with this whole concept of not accepting God’s grace. That seems to make us bigger than God. It suggests that we have the final word. Haven’t you ever had your kid yell at you and say, “I hate you”? And you responded that it was fine if they wanted to hate you, you loved them anyway.  God’s love for us is not affected by anything we say or do. In my humble opinion, God has the trump card in this play.

In seminary I was taught that grace is God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Marcus Borg talks about radical grace ad God’s unconditional acceptance of everyone. And Philip Gulley defines grace as God’s unfailing commitment to love. Unconditional means that any statement including an “if” in it is no longer unconditional. God’s grace is for you… if you accept it… if you go to the right church… if you believe the right thing… if you got the right baptism… if you are not gay… if you asked forgiveness. That is conditional, which is not the essence of God’s love and grace.

The best definition I’ve heard lately is from the book Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership which defines grace as “a direct personal experience with the power and love of the Divine.” Yes! I love the use of the word “power.” Experiencing God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance is powerful because it can be transformative in our lives.  Why is it transformative, you want to know? Because when we know we are loved no matter what, we can stop worrying about messing up and start living into our authentic selves. We can risk and question and search without fear of God withdrawing grace.

Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, sums it up beautifully. He says, “Taking the God of love and justice and the God of grace seriously has immediate implications for the Christian message… it’s about seeing what is already true – that God loves us already – and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.”

Let me conclude by drawing a few pieces together. If we put our reframing of “salvation” as “healing and wholeness” together with this discussion of grace, then the formula of “saved by grace” now becomes “healing and being made whole through a direct personal experience with the power and love of the Divine.” That makes sense.

Peace, Kaye

Reframing “Salvation”

(This is the abbreviated version of my sermon yesterday.)

The generally accepted understanding of salvation (in a Christian context) is that if you “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior” you will be saved from eternal punishment in hell and find your eternal reward in heaven. The problem for me is that I don’t believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins (see my blog called “No Contradictions” from two weeks ago), nor do I believe in hell, so this definition of salvation just doesn’t work for me.

There are three basic theological reasons this understanding of salvation doesn’t work for me. First, while salvation is mentioned many, many times in the Old Testament, the Hebrew people didn’t believe in an afterlife, so it couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with being saved from hell. The word salvation in the OT was much more about protection. God was their rock, fortress, shelter, refuge, stronghold and salvation. Israel was always seeking to be saved from its enemies (there were lots of wars back then) or from slavery or from exile.

Second, our primary understanding of salvation in the New Testament seems to come from Paul, who has been heavily influenced by Jewish culture, heritage and theology. By Paul’s time, while some Jewish people had developed a belief in an afterlife (although many today still do not believe in one), their biggest concern was to be “righteous” before God. This meant primarily keeping their 613 laws. Those who kept the laws were “righteous” or “right with” God; therefore, God would be pleased with them and would show them favor and shower them with blessings. But it was next to impossible to keep all those laws, so Jewish tradition celebrated Yom Kippur (a day of atonement) to seek forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, Jews publicly confessed their sins, which were then ceremonially heaped onto the back of a scapegoat. The goat was chased out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying their sins away. Then they sacrificed a perfect, blemishless lamb to make up (or atone) for their sins.

Paul (originally Saul before his conversion) was a very well educated, devout Jew, who was zealous in keeping the law. Jesus obviously pushed a few of Paul’s buttons when Jesus not only breaks the law, but even suggests that the leaders may be following the “letter of the law” but have forgotten the “spirit of the law.” After Jesus death, Paul is ruthless in persecuting Jesus’ disciples and followers, until he has an amazing conversion experience where he comes to believe in Jesus. Now Paul has to figure this all out in his head… how can he fit Jesus into his understanding of God and Judaism? Aha! Clearly, Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb to atone once and for all for the sins of humanity. This leap makes perfect sense… in Paul’s worldview. In a modern worldview human sacrifice is barbaric, period. Which brings me to my third point.

I do not believe in fear-based theology and this dominant understanding of salvation is based in fear. Fear of a God who believed we were so bad that a beautiful, kind, loving human being had to die to save us. Fear of a God who is still judging us and will condemn us to eternal punishment (and here I thought Jesus had already saved us from this??) if we’re not good enough. Fear of hell itself.

But, if God is pure, unbounded, unconditional love (as I believe God is), then this fear can not emerge from that love. Scripture says, “Perfect love cases out fear” (1John 4:18). So, God’s perfect love can’t possibly have this consequence of people living in constant fear.

Because of these three things, the understanding of salvation from eternal punishment breaks down (at least in my head). So, what do we do with this concept of salvation? Let’s reframe it in a way that makes sense.

The root of the English word “salvation” comes from a Latin word that means “wholeness” and “healing”.  It is the same root we use in the word “salve.” Wow. That puts a whole new spin on things, doesn’t it? What we all seek is wholeness – to be healed and have all the broken parts of our lives brought back together. Wholeness – for our souls, who are constantly seeking their source, to be at one with the Creator and creation.  Wholeness. Jesus is our salvation… he helps us become whole. Yes. That makes sense.

Jesus was all about bringing wholeness to people – physically, spiritually, emotionally.  He brought the outsiders back within the circle of love and community, healing broken relationships. He let people know they were forgiven, thus releasing them from the guilt and shame they carried and leading them to wholeness. He taught about a God who loved everyone, was for them, was with them and wanted them to have life in abundance – wholeness. And, Jesus loved with a pure deep love until the end so we could see what wholeness looked like.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church, throws another little spin on it:  “Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk…And I love this line: it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall.

Have you ever looked at someone and said, “You saved me, ” because they got you out of a tight place where you thought you had no options and then suddenly there was one? Or they gave you a new perspective that helped you to heal? Or they helped you become yourself?

Sometimes that is said more superficially than others – “thank you so much for watching my sick child while I go to work, you’re a life saver!” But sometimes there is someone there who helps pull you out of the pit you are in and gives you hope and love. They literally save you from the broken life you are living and set you on the path to healing and becoming whole.

For me there is so much more health and beauty in understanding salvation in this way. Jesus came for our wholeness. God works in our lives helping us to become whole. We are loved into wholeness by a God who shows us new paths, possibilities and opportunities. Yes.