American Unitarian Conference™
Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition
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Thomas D. Wintle
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (II Cor.13:14).
The final word. The last word. What can you say to sum up everything? I've always been fascinated by what people chose to say when they know that there is not much room for elaboration or explanation, and they want to pack the greatest meaning into the fewest words. What does a mother say when her son is moving out of the house–going off to college, or to seek his fortune in another part of the world? What did mothers say when their sons went off to war? What word do fathers whisper to their daughters at weddings just after that long walk down the aisle? (The best I've heard is: "Remember—you can always come back home"!). And what about the last words of a life, those final words on a death-bed, back in the days when people died at home without tubes and machines keeping them too doped-up to say anything? There was a book published not too long ago of famous last words. I remember one where the great man closed his eyes and said, "Ah, the light." Some thought he was seeing the light of heaven of which so many have spoken; others thought he was complaining that the room was too bright!
I thought about those 'great summations' as I prepared for this sermon on the benediction, the last word of our worship. There are actually two parts to what is called the "benediction" in our order of service. First are the words beginning "Go forth into the world in peace," which liturgists would call "the dismissal" (farewell, take care!). The second part is more properly a "blessing" or a "grace." It is the latter that I want to talk about today.
We are a people of The Story, the Bible, and it is no coincidence that my favorite benediction is the same as the last words of the Bible, and, more specifically, the fuller version of that blessing as given by St. Paul at the close of his last letter to the rambunctious crowd of Christians in the church in Corinth.
What do they mean? What does it mean when John, or Paul, or the Parson, says "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you"?
I should tell you two things at the beginning. First, that these words are not necessarily Trinitarian. Oh sure, the familiar three are there—one can’t take Christianity seriously without dealing with all three—but they are not put together as one three-personed God. And as Unitarian minister Wallace Robbins used to say: Grace, love and fellowship are NOT the Trinity. Second—and this needs to be said—you don’t have to agree with these words. They are not a creedal test, but a blessing, and a very personal one. I will tell you that those "good words" are the fullest prayer I can offer for you. They are my words, not necessarily your words, my richest hope for you. They are also the most concise statement of my faith, of what I believe with all my heart and soul.
So what does it mean?
First, a definition: Grace is a free and unmerited gift from God that empowers us to live a better life.
The "free and unmerited" part is important. Think about this: most religions, indeed much of the world, is based on "merit"–you have to earn your way into favor. Whether it is by performing certain rituals or learning some secret knowledge, performing special deeds or achieving a level of enlightenment, the idea is that YOU must rack-up the points in order to be saved. In the secular world it is the idea of quid pro quo and tit-for-tat and 'you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours'.
In religious circles, it is the idea that the church is a holy club, a gathering of the saints. At its best, the Christian church has avoided that. Back in the early years of Christianity, back when the Church was battling the pagans, one of the great pagan philosophers (Celsus) noticed the difference. “Those who summon people to the other mysteries (the other religions),” he said, “make this preliminary proclamation: ‘(let him) who has pure hands and a wise tongue’ come into the community, but the Christians,” he continued, “say ‘whoever is a sinner, whoever is unwise, whoever is a child, and, in a word, whoever is a wretch will be received by the kingdom of God.’” [Pelikan, Melody of Theology, p. 107] That’s quite a way to welcome new members!
When the religious community is like a holy club, you see, the question is: do you deserve to be here? For the Christian, however, there is a different understanding of human ability and, more importantly, of God's love. You see, you cannot earn God's love. You don't have to strive until you drop, you don't have to always be trying to prove that you're worthy of being loved. You ARE loved, says the Christian. It is given, like the love a mother gives to a child. I have always thought that that is the reason why Christmas is such a powerful festival—for it reverses the world's usual order of things, and presents the great irony of God's power being in a vulnerable little child, and the exemplar is not the great and mighty and powerful, but rather the uncompromising and even uncomprehending love of a parent.
So what is the gift, the free and unmerited gift? It is, first of all, that child, and what the Christ does to those who receive him.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is the fact that he came to us. HE is the gracious gift. The meaning of calling the man Jesus "Christ" is to recognize the power of God's love in human form, a love than is more than human. And the meaning of calling him "Lord" is to be willing to be his subjects, his disciples.
The gift of Christ is not just that he taught us, with his words and with his life, but that he is still with us empowering us to "go and do likewise." I think of the people who care for those whom the world would rather forget—the elderly, the disabled child, the AIDS victims. I think of those who bind up wounded hearts, who tend to the poor, who feel an obligation to feed empty stomachs and hungry souls. I think of those who go out of their way in a crowd to greet one lonely person, who become peacemakers and who hunger and thirst after righteousness. I think of those who endure crucifixions of the spirit, and yet do not let love turn to indifference or hate.
Hemingway once defined "courage" as "grace under pressure." I think it is also true that grace enables courage under pressure—for that is what the grace of Christ gives us: the power to be courageous for the good, in spite of all the pressure to do otherwise. I recognize that power because I've seen it in the Christ of the gospels, I believe that power because I've seen it in others, and once in awhile, calling inside me.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And the love of God? It's almost synonymous with the first. To believe in the love of God is to trust that, finally, in the end, all will be as it should be. In the Book of Revelation that "end" is "The End," the End of the World. But it is also the trust that our struggles for the good in this world are not meaningless, and that the right will, ultimately, prevail. How could you do anything but merely exist, how could you even get out of bed in the morning, without that trust? I had a friend who said that the greatest act of faith is to believe that God is not mad, not insane, that the whole universe is not some absurd spiraling chaos. He is right that it IS a matter of faith, not of knowledge, that enables us to trust in the future, but he has not identified the "greatest." The greatest act of faith is to believe that the strongest force in the universe is attraction, coming together, that is, love.
For those who know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, the evidence slowly mounts and the belief comes to the heart before it comes to the head. We have been shown the love of God, and that gracious gift empowers faith.
And, lastly, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is that unseen influence of God which works in individuals and communities empowering us to do what we ought to do. It is the power which, the Bible says, creates "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal.5:6).
I think the holy Spirit creates community among people. It creates churches. As incomplete and unfinished as each one of us may feel in terms of our own faith development, as unsure as we may be about what we believe, there is something special that comes when we gather together. Paul Tillich spoke of this as "the gestalt of grace"—the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Jesus put it differently: "When two or three of you gather in my name, I will be there in the midst of you."
The gracious gift of the Holy Spirit, you see, is "fellowship"—the fact that we are not alone, by joining together in worship and life we give to each other more than we could ever give alone. That is the last prayer and the last benediction—that we might have the grace that empowers community, the community in which Christ is present.
So, my friends, there is my good word, and the heart of my faith: the grace of Christ which gives courage, the love of God which gives faith, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit which gives us one another.
© 2007 American Unitarian Conference™