The season after Pentecost is the time for the church to consider its identity and mission. Even more important, the church needs a clear-eyed understanding of the source of its very life, which is grace. Many of my preacher friends who follow the lectionary will be tackling Galatians in the weeks ahead. I pray for them a bracing and merciful encounter with this magna carta of Christian freedom—for their own sakes and for the sakes of their congregations.
Grace is the very hardest aspect of the Christian life, in my judgment. It destabilizes how we regard ourselves; for the grand American narrative is that we are “self-made.” The idea that we lack capacity to determine our own destiny ultimately seems an affront to ambition and industry. And it is.
Over the weekend I visited one of the former enclaves of economic and social achievement, Jekyll Island, Georgia. A winter retreat for persons bearing names like Morgan, Rockefeller, Goodyear, and Astor, it was both exclusive and inaccessible. When these elite families gathered, one-sixth of the world’s wealth was concentrated in this one place. It is hard to fathom dinner conversations revolving around spiritual anxiety due to uneasy conscience (like a Luther).
We are so used to systems of transaction. When we borrow, we know what we owe. When we transgress laws, we understand consequences (or should). When we earn great sums, we have certain notions of entitlement. Perhaps the closest thing to sheer grace that humans can conceive is the unselfish love good parents lavish on their children.
Paul wrestled with grace. He was used to excelling in his religious pursuits, and his keen legal mind understood the law. It hardly made any sense to him until he realized his own sinfulness in the light of God’s great mercy toward him. Rather than considering himself righteous, he learned that it is God’s prerogative to grant him reconciliation and a new vocation. He had a profound sense of his life being bound up with Christ, who is God’s sacrament of grace for the world. His testimony was that he was “called through God’s grace.”
The best of us carry this kind of humility, evoked by grace. On the way back from the island, I stopped in Middle Georgia to visit a friend who is battling breast cancer with great courage and shining determination. Her life is a testimony to being immersed in grace, and her sense of God’s providence in her life is intense. I simply wanted to stop by and pray for her. Her witness during these months of treatment has inspired many, and I wanted to join her other friends in encouraging her to persevere.
It is hard to tell who was more blessed by this pastoral visit! We each had a deep sense of God’s generous grace in our lives and the ever present supply of the Spirit. For by grace, we are being saved; it is God’s doing. Our response is to live by faith, entrusting the whole of life to God.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.