“Say grace.” Those instructive words were often heard as our family gathered around the table in my boyhood home. Dad usually said grace. Sometimes, however, it was someone else who said grace. Every now and then my Dad would turn to someone else sitting at the table and ask him to “Say grace.” So whether it was eggs and grits on the table or southern fried chicken with sweet potato casserole, someone always said grace.
I soon learned that all grace was not the same. There are different kinds of grace to be said. I was always glad when Uncle Rex visited and Dad would turn to him and say: “Say grace.” I liked the way he said grace. When Uncle Rex said grace, it was always the same grace. When he said grace, we would all bow our heads and Uncle Rex would say, “Thank you Lord for these and all other blessings. Make us truly thankful. Amen.” I liked the way he said grace. It was always the same and it was always short. When Uncle Rex said grace, it did not take long to get to the main business at hand.
Once in a while Dad looked across the table to my mother and said, “Say grace.” Mother’s grace was different from Uncle Rex’s grace. I liked his grace, but I dreaded hearing Dad say to my mother: “Say grace.” When she said grace I knew it would be a while before we got to the main business at hand. When my mother said grace, she thanked the Lord for her children and her warm home. She thanked God for the beautiful day, our health, our church and our food. Finally, when she was almost finished saying grace, she would thank God for His love and for His Son, Jesus. If I was not hungry before she started, I was certainly hungry by the time she finished saying grace.
There is a wonderful story about grace in the Bible. It’s like a thirty-second film clip in which there is both needed grace and surprising grace. This compact picture of grace in action is in the Gospel of
It may have been that this story of needed grace and surprising grace was so powerful and so often told that someone along the way was prompted by the Spirit to decide: “This just has to be included!” And so it was. And here it is. A quick clip about grace.
Before the cool morning gave way to the stifling mid-day heat, Jesus took His place at a familiar spot along the stone paved courtyard inside the Hebrews’ sacred temple. Finding a place to sit, for all Jewish teachers sat, people quickly crowded around to hear what the Nazareth teacher had to say. Hardly before He could warm to His subject, mumbling splashed across the crowd before Him. Then came shouts. “Get out of the way!” someone bellowed. “Move!” another brayed as people jumped aside. “There now!” blurted a brawny looking fellow as he shoved a disheveled woman before Jesus. “Here she is! We caught her! We caught her in the very act! She is as guilty as sin!” shouted another.
Flushed by the titillating excitement of the morning, red-faced Pharisees with coursing adrenaline hovered over the woman and over Jesus. This would be the day and this would be the time and this would be the place, when the Nazareth carpenter-turned-teacher would be shamed and discredited. And this would be the question, “Should we beat her to death with our stones? Moses said we could. The law says we should.”
Silence. That was Jesus’ response. Utter silence. But silence was not enough. It was not what the fixated Pharisees wanted. They had to have an answer. Without an answer the trap could not be sprung. An answer had to be made. Silence just would not do. If Jesus were to answer, “Go ahead. Kill her,” they could accuse Him of teaching people to love and forgive while at the same time not being loving and forgiving Himself. On the other hand, if He said to the Pharisees, “Don’t kill her,” He could be accused of disobeying Moses and disobeying the Law. So, they needed an answer. They demanded an answer. Silence just would not do.
Finally the teacher broke His silence. “Okay. Go ahead. Whoever has not sinned, let him start it off. Let him hurl the first stone.” Once more the Nazareth teacher bent down to scribble something in the dirt. Again He was silent. And the crowd was silent. And the Pharisees were also silent. The answer was not what had been expected, and having heard the answer, there was nothing else to be said. The silence only amplified the muffled shuffling as the courtyard emptied.
Weighted with guilt and fear, the anxious woman stood alone and silent. “What now? What now?,” throbbed soul-deep as she nervously shifted from one foot to the other. Would the Nazareth teacher do what the others had not done? Would being beaten by one man be any better than being beaten to death by many? What now?
Then Jesus said grace. As the Nazareth teacher stretched His frame to its full height, a gentle grin curled the corner of His lip. Before Him still stood the humiliated and fright-filled woman. “Where did they all go?” He asked. “Didn’t anybody stay to condemn you?” “No sir,” she barely whispered. “And I don’t condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go and live as a changed woman.” That was Jesus saying grace — needed grace and surprising grace. Jesus said grace to the disgraced woman.
Jesus saw the obvious and more than the obvious that perilous morning. Like others pressing close to the spectacle before them, He saw the comely form in rumpled dress suffering mortifying embarrassment and justified fright. He saw a wounded life that had tragically failed to weigh the consequences of her poor choices. He saw a heart-hungry woman who had sought to fill the emptiness of her life by trolloping through a number of one night stands. He saw a soul that had earned for herself both physical and spiritual death. He saw more than what could possibly be seen by those who shouted their way to Him and then shuffled their way from Him. He saw a person whose “God-shaped emptiness” remained tenantless and whose eternity rode on the following moments. He saw a person whose self-worth had been corroded by sin and whose life was awash in humiliation and guilt. He saw someone of immense value and potential, and whose future could be radically different from her past. He saw someone whom God wanted to embrace with His “nevertheless” love. And having seen all there was to see, Jesus said needed and surprising words of grace to the disgraced woman.
It does not take much to be like the scarlet-charged woman standing dazed before Jesus. A little neglect of the spirit or disregard of the heart’s integrity is all it takes. A few shortcuts in building a life or the barter of a soul for some supposed favor of a midget-sized god is all it takes. A brief lapse of conviction or a silent-stricken conscience is all it takes. A little worship at the altar of self is all it takes. It doesn’t take much. Then individuals are startled when forced to reap what has been sown, when faced with the thieving consequences of sin and guilt which steal their fondest dreams, sincerest hopes and greatest securities. It doesn’t take much, not much at all.
The words of Jesus that burdensome morning were gifts of forgiving grace. Guilt was not in doubt. The distraught woman had been, after all, caught “in the very act” according to her accusers. (I have occasionally wondered if they were hiding in a closet and under the bed, or peeping through a bedroom window, to have “caught her in the act.”) Those men of caustic judgment and hollow spirits had one thing right. She was indeed guilty — guilty of sin, guilty of disobedience to God’s greatest desire for her life, guilty of trashing her own worth, guilty of violating the best for which God had created her.
Pummeling epithets and pulverizing stones paled in comparison to the consequences of sin and guilt in the woman’s life. That long ago morning in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s temple, Jesus spoke to a helpless and hopeless soul that needed forgiveness. To her He offered the gift of forgiving grace. “No longer condemned,” He said. “No longer condemned.”
Freedom from the condemning consequences of sin and guilt. Ah what we would do to know that sweet release. If we only had enough money, could do enough good or had the ability to reinvent ourselves, we surely would pay the price, do the deed and take a new lease on life. If only we could. But we cannot. So like the guilty woman before Jesus, we too stand in need of God’s forgiving grace. Grace which cannot be purchased, grace which cannot be earned, grace which cannot be garnered through self-effort, but which can be had only and simply through the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
“And can it be that I should gain an intr’est in the Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?” (“And Can It Be,” v.1, Charles Wesley).
The words of Jesus to the woman before Him were gifts of healing grace. Sin’s ugliness had carved it’s unmistakable swath through her feelings, memories and habits as well as her soul. She gingerly eyed the One who had given to her the unexpected gift of grace. Without fully understanding how or why, she nevertheless knew the gift was hers. She knew heart-deep and soul-sure that she was forgiven, but there was something more that needed His grace. Beguiling feelings, seducing memories and calamitous habits lingered. How could she ever be truly free from the past?
Along with forgiving grace offered and received came also healing grace from the heart of God and the lips of Jesus. From this moment through every moment to follow, from this place through all of life’s other places, she would live in the forever embrace of the Father’s love. God would bathe the passage of time and life’s new nature in the ministry of His love to close the wounds and heal the pain of her wayward past. Remaining scars would likely bear their wordless testimonies to her former choices, but someday the realities to which they testified would seem less potent, less pronounced, and less perplexing. Until then she could depend upon God’s day-by-day healing grace.
Often sin’s patterns cut deeply into life. Some struggle well beyond the receipt of God’s forgiveness with consequences formed while meandering through the days and years of wayward living. Feelings, memories and habits fashioned while pursuing wrong-headed ideas, and unworthy gods are tenacious and long-lived. Along with the woman before Jesus, many are in need of God’s healing grace. Grace that will set life free from the pull of delinquent feelings. Grace that will abate desires aroused by recalcitrant memories. Grace that will transform entrenched patterns of behavior. As was true for her, God’s offer of forgiving and healing grace comes to us — grace that is stronger than any feeling, any memory or any habit.
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed Thee.” (“And Can It Be,” v.3, Charles Wesley).
The words of Jesus to the woman before Him were words of transforming grace. His final directive, “Leave now your life of sin,” was in no wise a curt dismissal. “Don’t ever sin this sin again, and, while I’m thinking about it, don’t ever let me see you here again,” certainly was not the intent of His heart or final word. The record is silent. She was there and then she was gone. The Bible gives no clue as to how her story turned out. Before she left, however, Jesus said to her words of transforming grace, “What is past is past. What is behind you is behind you. Let God’s forgiving, healing, transforming grace shape who you are and who you become.” That was His last word to the graceless woman who had unexpectedly experienced God’s needed grace.
His last word was a new word for the woman of infant faith and fledgling grace. Toward the world Jesus pointed her again, to the very world from which she had minutes earlier arrived. It was a world she knew well. The streets were the same streets. The bed was the same bed. The neighbors were the same neighbors. The vegetable market was the same market. The town’s shaded well was the same well. The pressures were the same pressures. The temptations were the same temptations.
Back into that world Jesus sent her, a world where everything was the same — except her. Into the world from which she had come and which she knew so well, She would be an instrument of God’s forgiving, healing, transforming grace to others. In her would be seen the meaning of the Christ-life and the power of the Spirit-life. In relationships to her and through conversations with her, something of the love, acceptance, patience and forgiveness of God would be experienced. Into her familiar world she would go as a living testament of God’s desire and ability to transform life.
The Nazareth teacher will not be found this morning in Jerusalem’s temple courtyard. Nor will a crowd gather about Him in the mall’s food-court tonight. Likewise, it is doubtful He will show up mid-morning tomorrow for conversation around the office coffeepot, or at Tuesday’s P.T.A. meeting, or the grocery store for “double coupon day” on Wednesday, or in the doctor’s waiting room Thursday morning, or to catch a ride with the car pool Friday. It is not likely Saturday’s tee-off will be delayed by His late arrival. For those to whom Jesus has said grace, however, it is in the familiar places and to the familiar people which form the patterns of life that are to be vessels of God’s grace. In them is to be seen something of God’s love, acceptance, patience and forgiveness. In relationships with them, something of the nature of God is to be experienced. Those to whom Jesus has said grace are living testaments of God’s desire and ability to transform life.
When Jesus says grace, He says a different kind of grace. When He says grace, it changes everything, for He makes the grace-less to be grace-full. “No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him is mine! Alive in Him, my living Head, And clothed in righteousness divine, Bold I approach th’ eternal throne, And claim the crown, thro’ Christ my own. Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God should die for me!” (“And Can It Be,” v. 4 and chorus, Charles Wesley).