Scandalous Grace

pearlGrace.

There has been so much written about grace, so many definitions presented, so much airtime given to extolling the many nuanced meanings of this theme in Scripture.

Who hasn’t heard of “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” (or as one mission board used in its promotional material, “Give Regularly as Christ Enables”–what to do with that?!)

Who hasn’t heard a preacher speak about “the unmerited favour of God” (to which needs to be added: “with no strings attached”)?

Grace.

She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings

Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness
In everything

(‘Grace’ as recorded by U2
Written by Dave Evans Adam Clayton
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group)

Grace is scandalous.

That is if it is real, genuine grace.

Because grace means ‘gift’ and it is something given to one who may not deserve it, who may not even appreciate it, want it or like it.

Hence the scandal.

Imagine the God who made the worlds stepping into human history in the form of a human baby. Now imagine that this baby is born to a woman out of wedlock. Born in a cattle stall, worshipped by shepherds, yet claimed to be the Saviour. Scandal from the very beginning, grace never meets the expectations of those who are fortunate enough to bear witness to its presence.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9, ESV)

Take the story of Zacchaeus, for example. Jesus enters the city of Jericho, notices this tax collector in a tree and boldly invites himself for dinner. Why would he do such a thing? Tax collectors were sinners (on the opposite end of the righteousness-scale of those who were teachers of the law, a.k.a. the Pharisees. In fact, when the Pharisee in another of Jesus’s stories prayed in the temple, he said:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

The truth is, Jesus was known for his association with such outcasts. He was spoken severely many times by those who thought he should be more careful in choosing his dining companions: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” he was asked.

And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32, ESV)

Scandalous! Jesus hanging out with the wrong crowd. Jesus partying with the unrighteous. Jesus rescuing prostitutes from judgement. Jesus inviting himself to be the guest of a tax collector.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Scandalous grace. Didn’t the Saviour know the impropriety of such an action?
In today’s terms, what might this look like? Going into a bar? Entering a Casino? Partying with friends at a club? How many of your friends would think it improper if they caught you in such situations? Yet this is where we see Jesus on numerous ocassions–in fact, so numerous that I would say this is “the norm” for his ministry.

Tony Campolo (in his book The Kingdom of God is a Party) tells of a time when he was speaking in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Campolo lives on the east coast of the United States so his body was six hours ahead of Hawaiian time. At three o-clock in the morning it felt like nine o-clock to him. Awake and hungry for breakfast, he found himself in a “greasy spoon” café in the small hours of the morning.

As he bit into his doughnut, eight or nine prostitutes walked in. They had just finished for the night. Their talk was loud and crude, and it was difficult to avoid listening in. He heard one tell the others it was her birthday the following day. “What do want from me? A birthday cake?” was the sarcastic reply. “Why be so mean?” she replied, “I was just telling you. I don’t expect anything. I’ve never had a birthday party. I’m not expecting to have one now.” When Campolo heard this he made a decision.

When the women left, he went over to the café owner, a guy called Harry. “Do they always come in here?” “Yes,” said Harry. “Including the one who sat next to me?” “Yes, that’s Agnes. Why do you want to know?” “Because I heard her say it’s her birthday tomorrow and I thought we might throw her a party.” Pause. Then a smile grew across Harry’s lips. “That’d be a great idea.”

Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. When Agnes entered with her friends, she was flabbergasted. Her mouth fell open and her knees wobbled. As she sat on a stool, everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. “Blow out the candles,” people shouted, but in the end Harry had to do it for her. Then he handed her a knife. “Cut the cake, Agnes, so we can all have some.” She looked at the cake. Then slowly said, “Is it alright … would you mind … if I wait a little longer … if we didn’t eat it straight away?” “Sure. It’s okay,” said Harry. “Take it home if you want”’ “Can I?” she said, “Can I take it home now? I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And with that she left, carrying her precious cake out the café.

There was a stunned silence. So Tony said, “What do you say we pray?” And they did. Campolo lead a group of prostitutes in prayer at 3:30 in the morning. When they were done, Harry said, “Hey! You never told me you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry waited for a moment. Then he kind of sneered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.” Campolo comments:

Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning?… But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with prostitutes and with all kinds of left-out people. The tax collectors and “sinners” loved him because he partied with them. The lepers of society found in him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious people could not relate to what he was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to him with excitement.

Scandalous grace! I don’t know about you, but I would so love to b a part of that kind of church.

In his interactions with Zacchaeus, Jesus seems totally unconcerned about reputation or even the holiness code of the day. That’s because grace always reaches out its hand to the other and gives of itself generously and fully without any thought of self. You could say the Biblical concepts of grace and love (agape) are synonymous for they are both self-forgetting, others-serving ideas.

You could also view these two ideas in the form of a Venn diagram: grace being one circle overlapping the other circle of love. If this were the case, then the place where these two circles intersect would be Jesus, the perfect embodiment of both ideals.

“. . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, ESV)

Extravagant love and scandalous grace meet in the person of Jesus and in the pinnacle of sacrifice, the cross.

In the presence of such a man, we find Zacchaeus overcome by the outpouring of grace:

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19)

Grace is far more than some ethereal concept by which we are “saved through faith.” Grace is a life. A Grace life is centred on giving. A Grace life is filled with moments of generosity, blessing, forgiveness. In Zacchaeus’s life, grace flowed the moment Jesus set his eyes on him. Jesus didn’t say, “Salvation will come if you give to the poor,” or, “Salvation will be yours after you make ethical restitution.” No. Grace reached out and the tax collector responded with a heart that only can manifest itself in one who has received this gift.

We don’t read anywhere that Zacchaeus even kept his promise to Jesus. Nor do we read that Jesus ever demanded it. All we know is that they beauty of grace caught someone by surprise and his entire outlook on life and vocation changed.

Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness
In everything

Amazing, fully-forgiving, all-embracing, life-giving, scandalous grace.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

NarrowWayI remember when U2’s amazing song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For first came out on the radio. It was mid-1987 and I was a new church-planting pastor in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, working under a rather strict, fundamentalist mission. It was my duty to inform my congregation of the errors of the secular world and how their chosen path leads to destruction and eternal condemnation, to warn them of the dangers of uncertainty and lead them to an strong and unwavering faith in The Truth of God’s Word (at least our version of it).

Imagine the internal conflict when i found a copy of the Joshua Tree album in our local Christian bookstore. I was disturbed. Here is a song–the second single from this album–that speaks of uncertainty, seeking but not finding . . . and we knew the answer was Jesus Christ and this is so crystal-clear in the Bible. Everything back then was black or white, fact or fiction. There was no middle ground.

And so I preached vehemently against the insidious faithlessness of the wide path and the indisputable certitude of those who walk in the narrow way (pardon the pun).

But what I failed to say and refused to admit was that I myself was searching. I had many unanswered questions, unspoken doubts, and shaken assumptions. I still hadn’t found what i was looking for.

Twenty-five years on and I am not at all embarrassed to say that I am still on a quest and will be until the end of my time here. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but I’m certainly relishing every step of this journey towards that awesome discovery.

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…*

Here’s a clip from the Rattle & Hum DVD of a Gospel Choir version of this song. It will move you.

May your quest be honourable. May your questions shape you, challenge you and cause you to never stop seeking, growing and learning. May your faith in the one who carried the cross for you be only the beginning of a lifelong quest for meaning, truth and peace. May you be disturbed, confronted, and challenged every step of your journey, and may you never settle for the mediocrity of knowing it all.

_________

* Written by Adam Clayton, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, Larry Mullen and Victor Reina.