Costly Grace

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                    A Reign of Christ                  Nov. 26, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46


This gospel story is one of my favourites. It is my guide when I wonder how I should respond to someone in need. If I see this person as Christ, does that change how I respond? This passage has also challenged my avoidance of prisons. Those are horrible places and I have not wanted to be associated with anything concerning prisons, drugs, or violence. And then, I heard that a neighbour was in prison. It’s this very gospel lesson that challenged me to confront my own fears. And so, I began to visit this person at Stony Mountain every few months. I met some incredible chaplains there who taught me much about grace and hope.

Westworth’s mission statement is to offer ourselves as Christ’s hands and feet. But we also need to consider the flip side of Christ’s body and realize that those we are serving or visiting or feeding are also the body of Christ. When we are helping someone in need, can we look into their eyes and see Christ? Sometimes that is very easy, but other times, not so much. But if we can look beyond the rough exterior, the dirt-caked hands, the needled arms and see Christ, we may be the ones receiving Christ’s blessing.

As inspirational as this passage is, it is also another difficult one that speaks about judgement. Those who serve others in need will be saved while those who ignore the needy will be damned. How can we reconcile this teaching with other teachings of Jesus about unconditional love and grace?

There was an article in the newspaper the other week that surveyed how religious people felt as their own death approached.[1] It found that those who were more conservative in their beliefs faced the most guilt and fear that they were not good enough to rest in peace with God. Those who were more liberal in their faith and those who were atheists were more at peace. Atheists didn’t fear the end, because it was simply the end. Liberals didn’t fear the end of their life, because they believed, as most of us believe, that God’s grace enwraps everyone so that we all live together, in peace, with God in the afterlife.

If we believe in universal salvation and in God’s unlimited grace, where does judgement fit? Does it matter what we do, if we are all forgiven and granted eternal rest with God? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship in which he contrasts cheap grace with costly grace. “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Costly grace, on the other hand, is “a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels [us] to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ ”

Bonhoeffer took this very seriously, risking his own life to resist the Nazi regime. He was hung in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before it was liberated by the Allies. Bonhoeffer lived and died what he preached. His love of neighbour extended beyond the offer of a cup of soup to a challenge of the very systems of injustice that created hunger and oppression. He wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheel of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” He believed in both grace and judgement—judgement between what is just and unjust. Jesus made frequent judgements in his teachings, and calls us to make similar judgements every day. As followers of Jesus, we are called not just to receive God’s grace, but to live it.

So what do we make of final Day of Judgement, when the sheep that met the needs of others are separated from the goats that were oblivious? I believe that we are both sheep and goats. None of us is perfect. We will all fail to meet particular needs at one time or another. We are both saints and sinners. We will stand before the judgement of God for what we have left undone. But we will also stand in the costly grace of Christ Jesus, whose love flowed through us on many occasions.  Ultimately, it is because of our identity as God’s beloved children that we are held in grace. Does it matter what we do? Of course—otherwise, this would be cheap grace. But what we do flows from grace. If someone never seems to care about the needs of others, perhaps they never fully accepted God’s grace for themselves. Once our inner child is fully confident of God’s unconditional love, we are set free to love others.

Timothy Paul Jones discovered the incredible power of outrageous grace that melts barriers to love. He and his wife adopted a little girl who had previously been adopted by another family. After a couple of rough years, that first family dissolved the adoption. The little girl’s new family learned that every time her previous family had gone to Disney World, they had left the little girl with a family friend. The little girl thought that she had done something wrong each time and was punished by being left behind.

When her new family heard that, they decided to go to Disney World as soon as possible and assured the little girl that she would be going with the rest of their family. But as time came near for the trip, the little girl began to act out. She stole food, when she only had to ask for snack. She lied when telling the truth would have been easier. She deeply hurt her older sister by insulting her. Even after her family had set out for Disney World, she acted out at every hotel and rest stop along the way.

Finally, they arrived and were able to enjoy their first day there. That night, though, she was a bit weepy and sad. Her father took her up in his arms and asked, “How did you like your first day at Disney World?”

She didn’t answer at first. She looked down at her stuffed unicorn and buried her face into its soft fur. After a few moments, she looked up and said, “Daddy, I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”[2]