~ Full of Grace ~
From time to time a Weekly Reflection is devoted to exploring the richness of meanings of biblical words that are frequently used but pondered little, such as holy, sacred and glory. Now let’s enter the mystery of grace.
The angel Gabriel told Mary she was “full of grace.” We sometimes hear, “But for the grace of God go I.” The New Testament writers often tell their readers, “Grace be with you.” We recognize grace when we see it, often stunned by it. A dancer who is full of grace (graceful) moves exquisitely and in flawless harmony. The performance seems effortless. People pay a lot of money to watch graceful performers. They believe they paid for a performance, but they are really there to be nourished by its splendid grace.
A gracious speaker’s words penetrate deeply into the soul. We may forget what was said, but we still feel the glow of the grace and know we were somehow changed. The words were not the agent of change, but rather the grace that infused them. So what are we really doing when we “say grace” before eating? Few think about grace during meal time prayer, or any prayer. Are our prayers grace-full?
St. Paul begins and ends his letter to the church at Colosse with a petition for grace to be upon the people. In the beginning he writes, “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth” (Colossians 1:6b, NIV). Two thousand years later, how do we understand God’s grace? Quoting Proverbs 3:34, St. James writes about God giving grace: “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’”(James 4:6, NIV).
Paul puts a different spin on grace in his letter to the church at Rome: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man (Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by that grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!… But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:15b, 20b-21, NIV).
Paul seems to use the same language that describes faith as an ethereal substance, as opposed to an attitude, in the Book of Hebrews. He writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5: 1-2, NIV). In these remarkable two sentences, Paul refers to justification, faith, peace, grace, hope and glory, some of which we have pondered in other Reflections. Grace is presented as something given to a person by God, but also as something we can access or enter through Christ.
St. Peter, however, throws another dimension of grace into the mix: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, NIV). Now we are taught that we humans can and must actually administer grace, which has many different forms. How many of us have thought of ourselves as administrators of God’s grace? What is it that we must receive, or access, or administer?
As usual, it’s vital to study the original languages since any good translation is only a good approximation, as any multilinguist knows. We are pulled deeper into the mystery of grace and its wonders with the Old Testament word, hesed, which has been translated in various versions as loving kindness, mercy, steadfast love and grace. There is, however, a difference between these English terms in meaning. The Hebrew word, hen, is often rendered “grace” but, in usage, means something closer to “mercy,” something people have for one another since the Old Testament rarely talks about the hen of God.
To the Greek people, charis meant something that produces health in the being or soul. It is an ancient concept in many cultures, including the Native Americans whose term, “good medicine,” is well translated as “grace.” Paul uses “charis” 100 times in his letters in the New Testament, giving it, now translated as grace, many layers of meaning. The popular rendition of charis or grace as the “unmerited favor” of God misses many of these dimensions and is probably just too simple a term for the wondrous mystery of grace.
Our Christian living is under a covenant of grace, “because you are not, under [the covenant of] law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14, NIV). Thus grace becomes a vital focus of our experience, if not a full understanding. The Greek word, charismoi, from which we get charism and charismatic, means “grace gifts,” but not “gifts of grace.” By definition in English, a gift is unmerited. If it was given as a merit, it would not be a gift but a payment, reward or exchange. Gifts are given only for the good of the recipient for his or her sake, regardless of his or her being “deserving” of them. So grace is a gift, unmerited favor of God, but much more.
Christ taught, “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be [children] of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35, NIV). Is this another way of saying, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more”? When Peter wrote we must administer grace in the service of others, did he mean just those people who are our friends?
We cannot do what Christ commanded “but for the grace of God.” The Scriptures also say we are conduits of that grace, somehow involved in its dissemination. They also teach our access to grace is through Christ. One striking thing one reads frequently in the gospels is that, be it bread, fish, or His own body, Jesus gives thanks for the gift, blesses it, breaks it apart, and shares it. Whether it’s food for 5000 men in addition to the probably equal number of women and children, or His body and blood for all who ever lived and will live (1 Timothy 2:6), it’s in the sharing that the gift multiplies, exceeding the need. (“Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.”)
That’s what Christ does. He blesses, breaks and shares, providing way more than enough. That’s grace. Not a hesed-mercy, but a charis-grace. We are now His body. He still blesses, breaks and shares us. Aren’t we called to be living sacrifices? So Christ’s Body, the Church, the Bride, grows in sanctification and grace, by being blessed, broken, and shared.
We are awed by the splendor and majesty of a superbly graceful dancer, ice-skater or vocalist. How much more awesome it is to encounter a superbly grace-full child of the Most High! But, isn’t that God’s will for all of us, to overflow with and live in grace? Our heavenly Father, may your will be done, on earth, as it is done in heaven.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © June 15, 2002
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