Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, notice how often the word “grace” occurs in our second reading today:
“It is by grace that you have been saved.”
“The immeasurable riches of his grace.”
“For by grace you have been saved through faith.”
The word “grace” means, literally, “free gift.” Our second reading tells us that it is “the gift of God.” What is this gift, brothers and sisters? It is the gift of our salvation. We have been saved, saved from eternal death and hell, and saved for eternal life with God in heaven. And none of this is our own doing. As St Paul tells us in that second reading: “This is not theresults of our works, so that none of us may boast,” in other words, boast about saving ourselves. We so love to be the ones in control, in charge of our lives, we think it beneath our pride and dignity to avail ourselves of other people’s help. We want to boast and say, “I did this myself, all by myself.“
We can be like the parable that Jesus told once about the Pharisee and tax collector going to the Temple. The Pharisee stood at the front of the sanctuary and told God what a terrific guy he (i.e. the Pharisee) was, and all the wonderful things he did for God, whereas the publican stood hidden away at the back of church beating his chest and saying over and over again “Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.” The kicker is that, according to Jesus, the tax collector went home, more right before God than the Pharisee, because the way the Pharisee told it, all the holy things he did were entirely the result of his own efforts, and nothing to do with God.
I think that, often, we don’t want to go to confession, becausewe would have to admit that we are not such wonderful guys after all, that we have failed, and failed often, to do the right thing, and that we need God’s help, God’s forgiveness, to pick ourselves up again. And that really goes against the grain for us, that really hurts, not to be able to “show off” our holiness, our goodness, as “all our own work.”
I know that when I go to my confessor, I am desperate to be able to point out what progress I have made, to be able to point out proudly that I have conquered this or that area of sin in my life. But, alas, all I can say in honesty, is that I have failed again to overcome the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, and that I need mercy, from God and from my confessor. I say that, brothers and sisters, so you never have to be afraid, when you come to confession to me, that I will be judging you. Because I can’t judge you, I am absolutely not in any kind of place to be able to judge you. Even when I am preaching a tough message in my homilies, I am not doing it from a place of judgement or condemnation. I am simply, as I have to do as your pastor, and as a Roman Catholic priest, teaching the truths of the Bible and the Catholic faith. But, as I have tried to say on many occasions, when I am doing this, I am only too aware that I come “as mediocrity, to preach perfection,” knowing only too well, that I fail, over and over again, to live up to the high moral standards that the Scripture and the Catholic faith put forward. And so I need mercy, and not judgement, though I deserve judgement, I need God to show, as our second reading puts it, “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness to me in Christ Jesus.” I need kindness, kindness from God, and from my confessor. And from you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. And you deserve to receive kindness from me.
“The immeasurable riches of his grace.”
I was in Jerusalem, back in 1989, when I learned, from a biblical teacher, a really neat way to understand what this word “grace” means.
This man defined it as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” (GRACE).
To say that our salvation, our forgiveness, our deliverance from eternal death and hell, is a “free gift” from God, is not at all to say that it cost nothing. It cost God everything, even to the last drop of his blood on the cross. Why such a price? Surely our sins, for the most part, aren’t that bad? We look at this question of sin often from entirely the wrong perspective. Every sin weakens me, and since I am a part of the Catholic Christian community, my sin weakens the holiness of the community, whether or not my sin is “private.” In the early days of the Church, the “public” effect of personal sin was reflected in the way that a penitent, after confessing their sins, had to stay outside the church, covered in sackcloth and ashes, until they had done their time of penance, and was publicly allowed back inside the community again.
Tough times, but it did convey the truth of the poet John Donne’s words: ”No man is an island, entire of itself/ Every man is a part of the continent, a part of the main.” And because I am part of the whole human race, my sin weakens the whole world. And it weakens God’s attempts to bring the world to salvation, which, as our gospel makes clear, is His great game plan “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.” The original sin of our first parents, caused a traumatic, a cataclysmic, fracture in our relationship with God, and, therefore, in the whole world on all levels. And every sin of mine, causes that fracture to widen, and causes the world to drift further and further away from God, our source of life. So we are, inevitably, because of the sins of the world ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, falling more and more away from life, into eternal death and hell. Always sinning, we are completely unable to stop that fracture widening, and bring the world back to God. We needed someone from the side of God, to reach down and “haul” us back from the precipice. And that is what Jesus, Son of God, did, on the cross, taking on his shoulders the sins of me, you, of every single person on this planet, past, present and future. He didn’t have to do it, but He chose to do it, so that we might not perish but Have eternal life. God’s riches at Christ’s expense – GRACE.
The question for you and me is simply this: What are we going to do with this free gift from God – accept it and open it, or refuse it and give it back, or seem to accept it, but put it out of sight on a shelf somewhere to gather dust, till we are ready to open it up?