Grace upon Grace (Christmas Eve 2019)
You have heard it said that it is better to give than to receive. But the reading that we just heard, the beautiful prologue to the gospel of John, is a reminder that for us Christmas is first and foremost about receiving. God does the giving. God so loved the world that God gave us his only Son, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God gives. We receive. It sounds simple but in actual fact we’re not always that good at receiving. To receive requires us to be open and to be responsive to the divine initiative. Sometimes we prefer to be closed and in control. We can only receive when we’ve made space in our hearts and our lives for something new to enter. Often, and especially at this time of the year, our lives are overly full.
There is a story about a university professor who came to a Zen master to ask him about Zen. The Zen master served him tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is full. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” said the Zen master, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can you receive anything new unless you first make space in your cup?”[i]
We need to make space. Christmas is about receiving. And what we receive is grace. Not just a little grace, but grace upon grace. More than you could ask or imagine. Is there room in your cup for grace to pour in?
What is grace?
Grace is a light that shines in the darkness.
Grace is bringing into being.
Grace is a life that shines light on those around.
Grace is the birth of a child.
Grace is becoming a child of God.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.
In November I spent some time at Huron College, the Anglican theological college in London, Ontario. I was talking with divinity students about the text where Jesus asks his disciples, who do you say I am? Not, ‘who do your professors say I am?” but ‘who do you say I am?’ Asked that way, it is a deeply personal question that goes right to the heart of our faith. “Who is Jesus for you?” How would you have answered?
I shared with the students that for me, Jesus is the one who reveals God, the one who shows me who God is and what God is like. John says a similar thing in tonight’s gospel. Jesus is the one who makes God known.
And what Jesus reveals to us is grace. Grace upon grace, the very heart of God.
One thing that I find curious is that though the prologue that we heard this evening resounds with grace, the word itself is never used again in John’s gospel. John never explains to us what grace is, no definition is offered.
Instead, John chooses to take us into the very heart of God by telling us the story of Jesus. Because grace makes no sense in the abstract. Grace can only express itself in the concrete, in the particular. For us to see grace, to understand grace, for grace to touch us and move us, it has to be embodied.
The Word became flesh is the embodiment of who God is, the embodiment of grace itself. And so Jesus’ story will be told by John. It will be a story of healing, a story of compassion, a story of selfless love, a story of justice, a story of hospitality and inclusion, a story of forgiveness, a story of courage, a story that fills with awe and wonder. That’s how the story of grace has to be told, not with abstract definitions but with real human interactions. Jesus shows us grace in the flesh. Can we see it?
The author of the letter to the Hebrews sees it. When she looks at Jesus, she sees the very reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. What do you see? Jesus is the one who makes God known. When you look at him, when you hear the story, what do you see? Do you see grace?
And if you do, is there space in your life to receive that grace? To receive him, the very embodiment of the God who is grace.
There were those who would not accept him. Grace is disruptive, Jesus’ life will show us that too, over and over again. Grace will not limit itself to social conventions or human power structures. Grace has no regard for whom we think is in or out. Grace breaks through our defences and leaves us vulnerable. Grace both forgives and reminds us that we need to be forgiven. Grace won’t play by the rules of our game.
No wonder that there are those who will not accept him. But to all who receive him he gives power to become children of God.
It is by grace that God’s children are born. That birthing process begins when we receive him, the one who is the very embodiment of grace, and from his fullness we receive grace upon grace. Our cup begins to overflow, in a good way. The grace that has filled us can now flow to others, and we become a channel for God’s grace, a reflection of that grace in the world.
How is grace reflected in us? Here are some of the things that I’ve seen.
Grace is scrambling to get warm clothing to a mother and child when the temperature suddenly drops to minus 20.
Grace is a well-timed word of affirmation.
Grace is a child who reaches out a hand to bless her mother.
Grace is a smile, a hug, a listening ear.
Grace is the first step taken after doctors said you would never walk again.
Grace is forgiving those who hurt us.
Grace is fixing someone’s glasses.
Grace is when we pray for each other.
Grace is finding a room for someone who’s been on the street.
Grace is the way of love, the way of compassion, the way of mercy.
Imagine what it would be like, if the people of this world, or even just those of us gathered here this evening, were filled to overflowing with grace. If our way became the way of love, the way of compassion, the way of mercy.
Lives would change. The world would be changed. Grace can do that.
No one has ever seen God. But we have seen God’s grace, for it is Jesus, the Word become flesh, the child of God, who has made God known.
If you receive him, the one who is grace, you will receive grace upon grace. You will become a child of God and that is a powerful thing, because you, child of God, you too will make God known. You will be a reflection of God’s grace and the image of God’s very being in the world. You will change lives, including your own.
The Word that exists outside of time and space enters our world again tonight. The gift is given, to be received. May grace be ours this night.
May you be the light that enters the darkness,
the life that enlightens everyone you meet,
the bearer of God’s image in this world
and the one through whom Grace is made known.
Homily. Christmas Eve 2019 (John 1.1-18), St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 9.2-7; Ps 96; Heb 1.14; John 1.1-18
Image by NASA, Creative Commons
[i] adapted from Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation p 3.