The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is the second installment of our sermon series on Thorny Theological Themes, and yet I don’t know if “grace” is so much thorny as it is ignored. We sort of gloss over it when we sing “God of Grace and God of Glory” and maybe even when we sing “Amazing Grace.” And yet it is a foundational idea for Christians and perhaps especially for Protestants, whose revolution was based in large part on the idea that we are grounded in God’s grace and our response to it is what brings us to wholeness.
I remember being a little kid and going to a friend’s house for dinner, and before the meal began, his dad said, “Let’s say grace.” And I was brought up short for a minute…were we supposed to repeat the word “grace?” And things became a little clearer when he began to offer a brief prayer before the meal…what in my family we would call “the blessing.” (The briefest of blessings in our house is one only I offer — and I’m sure I shouldn’t tell you this — “God, bless our food, our family, and our crazy-ass congregation. Amen.”) But back to the family of my childhood friend…what his dad offered was in fact a blessing, so where does this “grace” title come from? Well, it’s Latin, of course! Gratia is the Latin noun for thanks, and it spills over into Romance languages with gracias and grazie. So, they were offering a prayer of thanks, which is great. But that’s not exactly what the theological concept of grace is about.
Going back to the Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate as “grace” is charis, which means a present or a gift. Even in English, when we say that someone has the gift of being attractive and engaging, we say they have charisma…that they have a gift of being able to draw people in, in the way JFK did. So, if we start thinking of grace as a present and God’s grace as a gift, what is that all about?
Well, think about that…what has God given you? Look around! It’s all grace!
You are able to inhale and exhale! You can perceive beauty and the terror in creation! You have senses and are able to perceive complex ideas! You are sitting in a progressive congregation trying to deepen your spiritual life! You understand what love feels like, both in its presence and in its absence. It’s all grace!
And you didn’t do anything to earn those gifts. Your life itself is an unearned gift from God, given to you unconditionally. I don’t know how to describe the enormity of this gift of existence, but I like the way Frederick Buechner describes it: “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth….The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
God also creates us for relationship…one with another and also with God. And that trusting relationship – that longing for and embrace of the divine – is what we call faith. And the writer of Ephesians says that it’s a relationship that we can’t earn, because it is an unconditional gift from God…our faith is a gift, a grace from our creator.
One of the thorny bits of western Christianity before the Reformation was the idea that we could build up merit with God, who was seen as something of a divine accountant, keeping track of all of the good works we do, putting them in the credit column to outweigh the sin that was in the debit column. This became a big deal in European Christianity in the 16th century with selling indulgences, through which the church told people would add to the credit column in the ledger God was keeping on you. But Martin Luther famously objected and wrote, “A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved since through faith [that is, relationship] [the Christian] is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely. [The Christian] seeks neither benefit nor salvation since he [or she] already abounds in all things and is saved through the grace of God because in his faith he now seeks only to please God.”
That is an enormous idea with great implications on how we live out our faith, our relationship with God. Think of it like relationship between parent and child. Just as we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with our parents, we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with God. And just as we foster human relationships with love and communication and attention, so we nurture our faith (our relationship with God) through love and communication and attention. And yes, relationships do get skewed and broken. And with God, there is always a tender parent looking for reconciliation with a child who has wandered like the Prodigal Son. In fact, there is more grace shown when we return to the embrace of God after straying apart.
I don’t know if any of you are fixated on the image of God as accountant and trying to tilt the divine ledger in your favor, but if so…knock it off!
There is nothing wrong with doing “good works,” but if you are going on mission trips or being a trustee or organizing a yard sale just to earn God’s favor, you are barking up the wrong tree.
Instead, focus on the grace of God that has been shown to you. None of us did anything to earn the gift of life. None of us did anything to be born into an affluent society. None of us did anything to earn the exquisite beauty of Colorado. And if you focus on the grace of God, you will want to respond somehow. That’s where the Latin word gratia comes in. We respond to God’s unearned gifts to us through gratitude. We do “good works” not as a way to curry divine favor — there is no tit-for-tat with God. No, we do them because of an external response to and internal feeling: we are showing gratitude to God.
So, I’m giving you permission to let go of pious language and the “doing good to look good” either to God or to others. Get real. Take a moment each day to let God’s gifts to you soak in. Enjoy them! And respond, giving thanks to God for the outrageous gift of your life and all that surrounds you. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 The Greek synonym doron is used in this passage as well.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 38-39.
 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” in Martin Luther: Three Treatises, trans. W. A. Lambert. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 298.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.