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Dr. Bruce Lancaster
April 3, 2016
Romans 1:1-7, 18-23
A reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
I had been invited to one of those church suppers – Dinners for Eight, Friendship Meal – whatever you call it for gathering church members together to get to know one another. I was there as a guest, but the host turned to me as the Professional Pray-er and said, as many others had said before, “Bruce, would you say Grace?”
Now, don’t ask what spirit came over me, but as they bowed their heads around the table, I did it: I said, “GRACE!”
Well, that’s what this text is about – What Paul is telling us is that there are some people who know how to give thanks or say the blessing or ‘say grace’ but there are also some who cannot say grace.
It is, to say, an incredible statement!
These people who do not, who cannot be grateful to God – how God’s heart must ache to think of all that’s been done for us and how little we acknowledge with our lips and our lives God’s goodness.
But I also believe that Paul is telling us a little bit about himself – that he at one time was one of those people who could not say grace. He was one of those negative, narrowed, naysayers to all that God was doing – “…for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him…”
The ‘they’ in this text, I think, was Paul – he was one of them, who knew God, but was not honoring God, giving thanks to God – what Paul was about was finding Christians and having them killed.
Dr. Karl Menninger, the noted psychiatrist, discussed this negative personality in his book The Vital Balance. He describes them in vivid terms: “…rigid, chronically unhappy individuals, bitter, insecure…”
Look at Paul – a bystander acting as a coat rack when Stephen was murdered, and then taking up the cause himself as he searched high and low and was on the road to Damascus to find more….
What Menninger is saying is that Paul knew what he was talking about: These people are “futile in their thinking, senseless minds darkened…”
Paul had been there ‒ but then he was set free by grace, not by righteousness that he earned, not by working his way up the doctrinally pure religious ladder – he was set free by the gospel power of grace from God – to someone who doesn’t deserve it and can’t earn it.
Or to put it another way, Paul was knocked off his high horse and then walked along the roads of Rome carried by grace!
How can you know God, experience God’s love, benefit from the divine generosity – how can anyone really know God and not be grateful?
But these people exist. Charles Swindoll goes so far as to call them ‘killers’ (remember Paul before grace) – people who do not, who cannot, give thanks to God. He says you find a lot of them carrying Bibles, spending a lot of time in churches, sometimes in places of religious leadership. He says they kill with their words and attitudes – they use words of grumbling, not grace; complaining, not commitment – they cannot permit themselves the pleasure of giving.
Ingratitude corrupts the spirit, starves the soul, and makes of your life and mine less than it ought to be, less than it could be, less than it will be.
It can happen to any of us. It has happened to some of us. It is a temptation to all of us who have more than we need and have had it for a long time.
The Bible calls this groaning, moaning, frustrated sputtering reactivity “cursing,” and it happens easily, quite apart from any four-letter words we may or may not use. “Cursing is an attitude in action,” says Robert Morris. It includes all our ways of seeking power by excluding, diminishing, destroying the opposition – again, remember Paul before grace.
The Hebrew root of the word for curse has to do with restraining and binding, a diminishment of spirit. It is the opposite of blessing, which implies letting be, enrichment, expansion of spirit. And isn’t that what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus – he had been in the business of restraining and then he was blessed, transformed by grace for grace.
I have my own picture of grace. Many, many years ago, I was 19, 20 years old after having spent about a year hitchhiking around the South. I was at home for a few days before heading to New Orleans, where I would live for several months. I was packing my backpack, getting ready to leave.
My father walked in and handed me the keys to a Volkswagen van, and said, “I don’t want you to hitchhike anymore.”
That van was grace. I drove to New Orleans and a lot of other places the next few years in what a proper theologian, the Princeton professor Benjamin Warfield, called the “free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.”
I was truly ill-deserving, but I rode in grace.
You can call it a free ride, but that’s grace.
I don’t know of anything that has the power to change us from within like the freedom that comes from the grace of God: undeserved, unearned, the power of the gospel to transform the way we travel the journey of life.
I suggest to you that the simple act of saying grace is the picture for our own life as Christians. As I said earlier, the picture of saying grace that so many of us know, around our own tables is actually a simple affirmation of faith for a way of living out the grace from God we have received in Jesus:
God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we are fed,
Thank you God for daily bread. Amen.
We are faced with a stark choice in our world today: will we bless life as it arises or will we curse it? Say grace or say grumble?
Grumbles focus on what we lack or how we’re different – grace is a focus on the daily gift of life from God, which we all have in common.
I think Mattie Stepanek makes the division between those who grumble and curse and those who can say grace – and aptly so, he calls his poem “Grasp of Truth”:
If you have Enough breath
To complain About anything,
You have more than Enough reason
To give thanks About something (May 6, 2001)
Very simple, isn’t it? But that in itself is a major portion in a life of grace. True gratitude is born of simplicity, as someone described simplicity as having an ‘undivided heart.’ The divided heart you see, seeks security and success in a variety of places – how well we know all that things that draw us away from life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Maybe the opposite of simplicity is duplicity – and the effect of saying grace is to remind us that greatness is with God, goodness is from God, and the undivided heart is found in the presence of God.
When a word of grace rules our hearts, the desire to love God, love neighbor becomes our beatitude for whatever comes before us…that we walk this day in the kingdom of grace, open-hearted, open-handed, full of generous love, saying grace at every turn.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.