Sunday, June 16, 2013

Grace and the Response

What is grace?

People of faith talk about grace a lot. We “say” grace before meals; we try to get into others’ good graces; we want to live in a state of grace; I offer “the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the beginning of Mass, and you offer it right back; the word for “thanks” in Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin all mean, literally, “graces.”

In our own faith tradition and theology, we speak of “sanctifying grace,” “habitual grace,” “actual grace,” “sufficient grace,” and “effective grace.”

But, do we know what we mean by “grace?”

Grace, simply put, is not truly a “thing” that we hold or pass on or possess. Rather, grace is a relationship – the relationship, really. It is the relationship that God chooses to have with His creation, and it starts and ends with God Himself. It is through this grace that we are saved and offered eternal life through Jesus Christ.

This is what St. Paul is talking about today when he writes, “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” He is reminding the Galatians that their personal salvation does not come from anything that they do or observe; rather, it comes from the free choice of God to have a relationship with them – and even when we were dead in sin, He offered that relationship to us, freely, gratis, that is, by grace.

The Pharisees have a lot to learn about this grace, since they believe that this grace must be earned. The woman at Jesus’ feet, certainly, has not earned that grace, has not earned forgiveness. However, Jesus has a lesson to teach them, and us, about how that grace works. His story of the forgiving creditor who waived the entire debt of his debtors is meant to convey the reality and beauty of God’s love and grace toward us, and also, our response to that grace.

First, the man owed a lot! Five hundred days’ wages! Imagine a year and a half’s salary. The second owed a month and a half’s salary. Both were unable to repay – they had no way of “earning” repayment. So, as Jesus matter-of-factly notes, the creditor forgave it for both.

What Jesus is teaching here, first, is the absolute generosity of God. God forgives. There is no pageantry, no fanfare, no ceremony; God just forgives. This is one of the reasons why, especially when someone comes to me in confession after a very long time, I like to give a very simple penance. That’s just how God is. Even before we realize our wrong, God is there waiting to offer that grace – that renewed relationship.

The second lesson comes next. After being forgiven the debt, which of them will love him more? The Pharisee replies rightly, the one … whose larger debt was forgiven. This, Jesus says, is the motive for the woman at His feet: love. She comes to Jesus and literally pours herself out for Him - washing his feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and providing ointment (not just oil) for Him out of a more expensive alabaster jar. It is gratitude for that relationship that God offers her and us through Jesus Christ, and we are all offered that grace.

So, the question comes to us. Having heard this lesson on the absolute gratuity of God’s forgiveness and love, how do we respond?

And we must respond. This is what faith demands; otherwise, it isn't really faith.

What good is it if we are offered forgiveness but do not extend forgiveness to others out of gratitude?

What good is grace if we do not respond in kind to God, offering ourselves to Him out of love?

What good is it to say we are Christian but to live as if God is not an intimate part of our lives?

Here, we are offered – again, freely – the very life of God: the Body and Blood of Jesus. He feeds us with Himself, and we are sent forth. But, what good is it that the Bread and Wine change but we don’t?

Grace – that relationship between God and us – grace transforms us. It must. Otherwise, as St. Paul says, Christ died for nothing. Do you believe that?

No.

We are offered, again and again, the life and love – the grace – of God. We live in that grace and out of it – sharing the joy of this relationship with others. Are we grateful (“gracias,” grazie,” “agimus gratiam,” eucharistesoume”) to God for all He has offered to us in Jesus?

Gratitude is a virtue that we value, but we may not always cultivate it. Parents remind their kids to say “thank you,” but true gratitude is transformative. A woman I once knew told me, “Gratitude is the refinement of the soul.” She’s right. Now, if the central act of our worship is the “Eucharist” – literally, “thanksgiving” – then it is God who refines each and every one of us.

Grace is offered in this place.

How will we show gratitude this week?

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