“But [God] gives more grace. That is why scripture says God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” ~ James 4:6
Grace is unearned love, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to live out. I’ve been using stories from Callahan’s book Living in Grace to explore this topic at the heart of what we Christians believe. However, as I write this, I’m on a pilgrimage to Israel, the land where grace was made known to us in Jesus Christ. Even here, I notice how difficult it is for humans to actually live in grace. No matter our religion or background, there is often a vast difference between what we understand to be true, and how we live our lives.
I saw this in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There, we can find the traditional site of Golgotha, though it’s covered in décor so that I could only touch the rock through a small hole under the altar table.
There, we can also find the *Edicule, the tomb, where His body was laid. The mountain the tomb was carved into had been removed 1700 years ago. It was replaced with an ornate structure built around the tomb’s limestone walls. Those walls are still visible through a window installed after the recent renovation. And no, there is no one in the tomb; Christ is risen indeed!
In that place of holy sites, the people within whom Christ lives, struggle with how to honor Him best. Since the great divide between Catholic and Orthodox, three streams of the church have grappled over custody of this holy site.
It plays out in different ways. One of the mornings I was there, I could hear the organ playing from the Catholic service on one side, while at the same time there was chanting from the Orthodox side. Shortly after this, the great bells in the tower pealed as the Armenian procession made its way into the church. Was grace there? On another occasion, I was about to enter the edicule when one of the caretakers said, “stop!” making the sign with his hand. “Service,” he explained before he turned around and entered the tomb. Now, most Israelis I’ve met don’t bother with pleasantries, though they are very helpful and generous if asked. So, I didn’t get too offended by the custodian’s gruff demeanor. As I stood watching, I could make out discussions about who had their turn on that day and whether candles should be lit and how many. In all of this, was there grace? In both these cases, I think the answer is “yes, but…”
In the first example there is grace as each group is given room for their expression, in their own way, whether it be bells, by organ or chanting. But, it was messy, and awkward and required participants to both focus hard on their own expression, and tolerate the expressions of others. I wonder if this was made possible by remembering the psalmist words about making a joyful noise to the Lord, or Jesus’ example of grace. Yes, grace was present, but it was messy and difficult. Isn’t it always?
In the second, there was grace in cooperation. Yes, there was discussion between officials from different streams, and yes, there wasn’t always agreement. Sometimes one would have to defer to another, “Ok, go ahead and place four candles, not three.” Sometimes, negotiations were needed, “We agreed the Franciscans were using it today.” I wonder if this was made possible as they remembered the sacrifice at the centre of that building. Or how in Gethsemane, Jesus deferred His own wishes and became willing to sacrifice, all for the joy of you and me becoming His family. Or, by remembering the lengthy discussions and collaboration that took place in the infant church, with the result being that Gentiles like you and me could be welcomed too. Grace, is unearned favor. Since we didn’t earn it, we may think it’s easy too.
Grace is anything but easy.
If we’re to show it to each other, it will require a willingness to get messy and awkward; it will demand tolerance and a commitment to cooperation. It will require sacrifice.
In the next weeks, St. Andrew’s is journeying together to the cross and the empty grave. In the next month, we are coming through a season that has been difficult for so many of us. As we do both of these, I pray our church may be a place that is willing to show grace. May we confront rumor through discussion and negotiation. May we become willing to get messy and feel awkward as we seek clarity from the people at the heart of the issues. May we offer to each other tolerance and a commitment to cooperation so we can become a place known for taking the less-easy-road that grace is.
Then, Christ will be seen in us. For He’s not in the Edicule in Jerusalem.
He is in us. O, what grace!
Rev. Jeremy Bellsmith