Grace grows in community—but not just any community.
This is a difficult message for many people these days because by community I mean the church. The same Father-God who adopted us into his family intends that we should live together as family. This is a difficult message because in modern times the church of Jesus is largely out of joint. We have created a Christendom where we can choose churches the way most people choose restaurants: according to our individual tastes. By most estimates there are more than 25,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Not individual churches, denominations. How can we grow in grace when we a free to wander from one family to another?
It’s an old story. Ask nearly any Christian: you’ll hear stories of church drama, church fights, and church splits. But it doesn't have to be like this. Listen carefully the Apostle Peter:
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11)
It’s easy to miss the word grace in this passage, but you’ll find it right in the middle, which is where grace always belongs. Our words and actions are the practical expressions of God’s grace. God wants to show his grace through the love, hospitality, encouragement, and service in the community of faith. We extend grace to others precisely because we’ve received grace from God. Among our families at home—and among the family of God—we are called to be caretakers of grace. Too often we have become merely consumers of grace, and it has led to a church for every taste and preference the consumers can imagine.
One church in my hometown has an interesting way to determine “membership” in the congregation. “If you’ve hung out with us long enough to have your feelings hurt by someone in the church,” says the pastor, “and then decided to forgive and stay here anyway, welcome to the family!” This pastor isn’t trying to excuse bad behavior or ignore the flaws of his church, he’s trying to playfully indicate that living within a faith community is the perfect opportunity to extend grace to others. Grace grows among family (or at least it should).
Not only does grace grow in the community we call church, it grows in the most unlikely corners of the church: among our shortcomings, our hypocrisies, and failings. If everyone in the church had his or her act together, what need would there be to extend grace? Look closely at the passage above: the Apostle Peter calls us to use our gifts in service toward one another. We steward the grace we have received by the way we speak and act toward others in the church.
Have you thought about grace as a stewardship? If not, here’s a wonderful exercise: trying reading the parable of the talents (it’s in Matthew 25 and also Luke 19) as a teaching about grace. The Master leaves something of great worth with his servants (substitute grace for gold), and when he returns, he looks to see whether we have used his gift wisely.
Best of all of all is our reward. In Matthew’s version of the parable, the Master not only praises the good stewards, he extends an invitation: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” says the Master. “Come and share your master’s happiness!” When we distribute the grace of God we will receive his praise, and something more: an invitation to enter into his joy. Through grace, joy increases for everyone.