Perhaps you remember the parable told by Jesus in which he describes a father and his prodigal son. (Luke 15:11 - 32)
One day the son asked his father to give him the son's share of the father's estate, even though the father was still alive. The father complied. Soon after, the son gathered all his wealth and set off for a distant country, where he squandered his fortune in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that country, and he began to be in need. So he hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. The son longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he realized his father's hired servants had food to spare, and here he was starving. He decided to go back to his father and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me one of your hired servants." So he got up and went to his father.
But, while the son was a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. The father ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But, the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate.
Was this father rewarding irresponsible behavior? What kind of "family values" would this father communicate by throwing a party for such a renegade? What kind of virtue would that encourage, if any. There was no solemn lecture, no "I hope you've learned your lesson!"
Instead, Jesus tells of the father's exhilaration ---- "This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found" ---- and then Jesus adds the buoyant phrase, "they began to make merry."
The story of the prodigal son delivers an astonishing message. From nursery school onward we are taught how to "succeed" in the world. We hear continually that: "The early bird gets the worm." "No pain, no gain." "There is no such thing as a free lunch." "Demand your rights." "Get what you pay for."
We know these rules well because we live by them, day to day. We do work for what we earn.
We do like to win. We do insist on our rights. We do want people to get what they have earned ----- nothing more, nothing less.
By insisting that we earn our way, people think we are being prepared for the "real" world, with it's relentless ranking of who is greatest. However, we often do not realize how quickly this has obscured our view of God. Perhaps we do need some unmerited divine assistance, to regenerate us? Church people call this gift "grace."
If we care to listen, we hear a loud whisper from the Gospel that we did not get what we deserved. We deserved punishment and got forgiveness. We deserved wrath and got love. We deserved debtor's prison and got instead a clean credit history.
But, the world does not seem to run on grace. Everything often depends on what I do. But, Jesus' kingdom calls us to another path ---- one that depends not on our own performance, but God's. We do not have to achieve, but merely follow God in our hearts. On the Cross, Jesus has already earned for us the costly victory of God's acceptance.
Author Philip Yancy asks: "What belief is unique to the Christian faith? ---- GRACE. The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seeming to go against every instinct of humanity. Other religions offer a way, a path, to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional, requiring only that we focus our lives on God, and not just on ourselves."
So, grace comes free of charge to people who do not deserve it. Grace comes from outside, as a gift and not as achievement. How easily it vanishes from our dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, look-out-for-number one world.
Grace does not depend on what we have done for God, but rather on what God has done for us. Grace comes undeserved, at God's initiative and not our own. God loves people because of who God is, not because of who we are. Grace baffles us because it goes against the intuition everyone has that in the face of our selfishness, some price must be paid. Grace makes its appearance in many forms. Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more ---- and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this spring at CPC.