Summary: Grace is the kind, merciful, generous love of God for us, and the essence of our witness in the world.

During a conference on World Religions, scholars were debating what belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. They agreed that it wasn’t morality, or compassion, or a belief in judgement and an afterlife. Other great religions included those same teachings. So the question was whether there was anything especially distinctive about Christianity that set it apart. The discussion was in full force when the Christian writer C.S. Lewis entered the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked. When they told him, he said, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

He was right. And, in fact, grace isn’t just a unique teaching, it’s the heartbeat and lifeblood of our faith. It’s the essence of it all. This is very clearly illuminated in Paul’s majestic letter to the Ephesians:

“Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (vss. 4-10)

We’re saved only by God’s grace, received through faith alone, and not by any of our own good works. Our salvation is all about grace, from beginning to end. But what is this essential spiritual quality called grace? How well do we understand grace and its role in our lives?

Grace is love in its highest form, love as a pure gift. It’s the quality of kindness in love, its mercy, that doesn't have to be earned or deserved. Grace is the essence of love, that saves us when nothing else can.

We see reflections of God’s grace in the natural order: in the love of parents and grandparents; in the faithfulness of a spouse committed to the marriage “for better or worse;” in the heart of a good friend, who “knows us very well and loves us anyway;” in the generous grade of a teacher who spares us from our fear of failure.

Although Jesus never actually used the word “grace,” he shared stories that highlighted its importance in the Kingdom of God: a loving father’s passionate joy in welcoming home a wayward son, the sacrificial kindness of a compassionate Samaritan, or the blessing of rain falling on both good and evil alike. And one of his favorite images of grace was that of a feast to which everyone is invited, rich and poor,

A contemporary version of that story happened in Boston about twenty years ago. An engaged couple booked their wedding reception at the downtown Hyatt hotel, and after choosing all of their china, silver and flower arrangements for the tables, they left a check for half the amount, which came to $6500. But on the very day the announcements were going to be mailed, the groom got cold feet and said he wasn’t sure he was ready.

When his angry fiancee returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the events manager was entirely sympathetic. She even told the story of her own broken engagement. But she was nonetheless unable to refund the deposit, according to the terms of their contract. She could only return $1300, a fraction of their down payment.

It so happened, however, that ten years previously the would-be bride had been living in a homeless shelter herself, and the more she thought about it, the more excited she became about the idea of putting that money towards providing a feast for the less fortunate in the city of Boston.

She changed the menu to boneless chicken--”in honor of the groom,” she said--and sent invitations to the city’s rescue missions and homeless shelters. When that evening came, Boston had never seen anything like it: Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served exotic appetizers to ragtag senior citizens on walkers; and people who were used to foraging dumpsters for half-eaten pizza feasted on chicken cordon bleu, sipped champagne, ate rich wedding cake and danced to big band music late into the night. It was an “all are welcome” banquet, and a celebration worthy of the Gospel of grace.

And, of course, Jesus’ own life itself was the supreme illustration of grace: the embodiment of the saving love and mercy of God offered to purely as a gift. All of us are loved just as we are, with a perfect, unconditional and unchanging love. And the cross of Christ stands as the ultimate expression of the reality and depth of that love.

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