1 Corinthians 15.1–11 & Luke 7.36–end
This morning’s readings are intended to inspire awe in us. Awe, because the focus of both readings is on the amazing grace of God.
In the first reason, while reminding his readers of the basic story of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, Paul confesses that he was a dastardly sinner. He reminds his readers that he was a persecutor of Christians – which, in his day, means that he was no doubt responsible for death of many. From the book of Acts, we know that he stood by watching, with approval, the stoning of Stephen – the first Christian martyr. Paul had been a bad man – one whose religious zealotry was so certain, and so passionate, that he could approve of the public lynching of a man who spoke only of God’s love.
But as we know from Paul’s story, Jesus reached out to him, via a vision on the Damascus road. He calls Paul to follow a new path. He gracefully uses one of the fledgling Christianity’s most ardent opponents, and he offers him new life and new purpose. Without a word of repentance being said by Paul, God reaches out through Jesus and saves him.
In the second story, a woman whose name we do not know, is described as ‘a sinner’. Readers of the time would have understood that to mean that she was probably what we would call a sex worker. (It says a lot about the morality of the time that a sinner is someone so desperately poor that they are forced to sell their body and their dignity to a succession of sweaty men). This so-called ‘sinful’ woman falls before Jesus, and bathes his feet with her tears and then with ointment. Jesus, again, acts gracefully towards her. Without a word of repentance being said by the woman, Jesus offers her complete forgiveness of all her sins.
What might we notice about both these stories? For me, both stories talk to me about how God reaches out to us. That’s what Amazing Grace is like. It’s why John Newton, the hymn-writer, was inspired to coin the phrase. As you probably know, Newton had been a slave-ship captain. Like the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet, and like Paul who tortured Christians, Newton couldn’t get over the fact that God’s grace was powerful enough, strong enough, loving enough to forgive even a ‘wretch’ like him.
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ – two of the most powerful descriptions of God? Well, ‘mercy’ is when God withholds punishment that we deserve. ‘Grace’ on the other hand, is when God gives us gifts that we don’t deserve. (Let me say that again!).
In other words, mercy always precedes grace. By rights, because of the way we all sin, and all fail, God would be within his rights to punish us. But he doesn’t. By his mercy, he withholds that punishment, and he instead pours out his grace.
What does this mean for us? How do these stories impact on us?
For me, the message is clear. It doesn’t matter who we are, or what kind of life we have led. Society may have labelled us a sinner. Our lives may have been driven by hatred, or zealotry, intolerance or extremism. We may have been selfish, or arrogant, or lazy or greedy. Whatever our sin, God offers mercy, and amazing grace. God invites each one of us, just as did for Paul, the chance to take a new road, and to co-operate with him. He frees us from our past, and offers us a new future as one of his beloved children, invited to take his hand and walk towards to the light.
And that’s pretty amazing.