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Offensive Grace

March 30, 2001

ďIf God says something is acceptable, donít say it isnítĒ (Acts 10:15)

Grace is great to experience. Itís wonderfully liberating to know that God forgives us and accepts us just as we are. Itís thrilling to realize that our sins donít make us too vile for God to love, and that he loves us enough to wear flesh and carry a cross and enter a tomb to save us. Itís a blessing to know that we are not judged on the basis of our faults. It frees us to forget the past and push on toward the future that God has promised us.

Itís wonderful to experience grace from another person, too. You know what I mean if youíve experienced the forgiveness of an offended friend, the unconditional love of a spouse, or the admiring gaze of a child who thinks you can do no wrong. Another human being can give us no greater blessing than the assurance that they love us in spite of our frailties, that they believe in us in spite of our failures, and that they donít judge us on the basis of faults.

Grace is wonderful to talk about. Everyone loves John 3:16. The spark of the Reformation was Martin Lutherís rediscovery that we donít have to lift ourselves to heaven with our own bootstraps. Christians throughout the ages have rejoiced in the Bibleís insistence that Jesus came to save the wicked, not congratulate the righteous. And the church has long benefited from reminders that we are to be instruments of grace to the poor and undeserving of our world.

Yes, grace is inspiring to talk about and wonderful to experience.

Giving it, however, is another story.

To show mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and acceptance to someone who youíd normally cross the street to avoid is difficult. The difficulty of it was driven home to me once in a conversation with an Afro-American brother in Christ. We were discussing the state of race relations in the church in our city, and he gave me an insight into the problem. Talking about his pre-Christian life, he said to me very matter-of-factly, ďI would just as soon have seen a white manís head where his feet were.Ē At least he owned up to his struggle. I have a hard time even doing that.

Maybe you find yourself struggling with prejudice toward one race or another. Maybe itís contempt for the poor that prevents you from showing Godís grace toward them. Maybe your moral outrage over sin obscures your love for sinners. Maybe your sectarian dogma wonít allow you to reach beyond your own circle to find brothers and sisters in Christ.

Or maybe itís more personal. You have trouble showing forgiveness to the wife thatís hurt you. Youíre consumed with bitterness for the parents who failed you. Youíre full of criticism for the church thatís let you down. Youíre angry with the friend thatís disappointed you, or the person whoís used you.

Donít deny it, now. Go ahead and own up to it. There are people to whom showing grace seems distasteful. You can think up all kinds of reasons to justify it, but only one really explains it. You donít like those people, and it galls you that God could love them just as they are.

Well, you arenít alone. Grace, quite frankly, is too big for all of us. We all run up against people who seem undeserving of the love of God. For Peter, it was the Gentiles. In his experience, Godís people had always been the Jews. Being right with God was defined by such things as circumcision, the keeping of the Law, and worship in the temple. It went without saying, then, that Godís grace was only extended to them. Certainly not to pagans.

Then he had a lunch time vision of a menu that was completely unacceptable according to Jewish food laws. ďHave something to eat,Ē said a voice. Peter, no doubt thinking it was some kind of test, said, ďNo way.Ē It was indeed a test, and Peter flunked. ďIf God says something is acceptable, Peter, then who are you to say it isnít?Ē

But God wasnít really interested in getting Peter to change his eating habits. So as soon as Peter had his preconceptions challenged, God put a Gentile right in his path. He had the chance to try out this new, broader definition of grace immediately on a Roman army officer named Cornelius.

Iím guessing God will challenge you, too. Iím betting that if youíll seek his heart, like Peter was doing, your definition of grace will be stretched, too. I imagine that, one by one, God will start to pick at the walls that keep you from offering his grace to that person or this person. And likely, heíll do it in you just like he did it in Peter. Heíll put you face to face with one of the people that you struggle to love, and challenge you to love him.

Will you? Will you own up to your prejudices, admit the walls in your heart, and go along with Godís work of tearing them down? Will you seek opportunities to serve exactly the people who you resist serving? Or will you stubbornly refuse to hold out grace to those you donít deem acceptable, forgetting that God could have legitimately put the same label on you.

Come to the table of grace. Youíll be amazed at who youíll find yourself dining with.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

E-mail Patrick Odum





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