Shocked by Grace

John 3:1-21 (January 26, 2014)

We are in the book of John – it’s the 4th gospel  – Matthew, Mark and Luke being the other 3 – that speak to the good news we find in Jesus Christ.  John’s Gospel is filled with images that hold a sort of code: darkness and light, black and white.  Faith and doubt. Evil and good.   So, darkness symbolizes unbelief; light is belief or faith.  So quickly, we come to see the code.  Light is good; dark is bad.  Faith is good; doubt is bad.  Evil is evil, and the world is evil.

WorldIn the book of John, when the word ‘world’ is used, the writer is referring to the world that hates God. It is a world that is opposed to God.  It is a God-hating world.  We even read part of that together today: And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  Seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it?


Now, Pharisee is a word mentioned in this reading. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader that applied and interpreted Jewish law to every day life.  Many times, throughout the Gospels, Jesus ends up in lengthy discussions and arguments with the Pharisees, criticizing their rigidity of interpretation of the law.

So isn’t it interesting, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to see Jesus in the darkness of night?  Under the cover of darkness, here comes a religious public leader who often disagrees with Jesus, to question Jesus on his own. One on one.  I wonder if he sought out Jesus in the dark so his reputation would remain in tact?  So he could continue to be seen as a man of faith, a keeper of the law?  So his fellow Pharisees wouldn’t see him either?

This is where all these categories I’ve trotted out for you fall apart.  Darkness and light; faith and doubt; evil and good.  Nicodemus complicates all of these categories.  They do not stay boxed up in their neat definitions but instead bleed over, one into the other.  The lines are blurry. It’s a mess.  A man of God out in the dark, asking questions a professional believer should already know from a radical Jew, out causing problems for the establishment.

Which, I am here to tell you, is good.  Good in the way that feels unsettling.  Good in the way that calls up questions.  God’s love for us is certain and our questions won’t change that. Our behaviors won’t change that.  Our strong, awesome faith won’t change that. Our question-riddled faith won’t change God’s love for us.

Barbed_wire_fence_by_archaeopteryx_stocksI get a magazine called The Christian Century and in it this week was a story from a pastor, reflecting back on his earlier years of being a pastor.  It’s when he was new at it  that Pastor Matt was invited to visit David, an inmate on death row.  David had been on death row for over 20 years for having brutally murdered a teenaged girl.  Matt had never been to a prison before, much less death row and he commented that he was scared and discovered that  “Death row looked more like the DMV than a dungeon and was all the more menacing as a result.”

His story continues:

I was there to ask him about God. I noticed right away that every time God’s name was mentioned, David referred to God’s mercy; he spoke of “God’s mercy” over and over again in a sort of litany. Each time the words grace or mercy were mentioned he prefaced them with adjectives familiar to any Protestant: “unmerited,” “freely given,” “undeserved.” 

Bandying sacred language back and forth with a murderer unnerved me. I loved doing this with members of my congregation. But there in the prison, church talk became unwieldy, uncontrollable. The ease with which David spoke the spiritual language bothered me and pushed hard against my faith. All those years ago I was sure that I knew who deserved unmerited mercy—and I was not certain that David deserved it. So I pushed back.

I scolded him with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s caution about cheap grace: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance. . . . Cheap grace is without discipleship, without the cross, without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Then I asked him if the weight of his sin had perhaps caused him to seize upon God’s love too easily. Had he grabbed for mercy before truly reckoning with the horror of his crime?

I was about to learn that a young pastor didn’t need to chasten a murderer who’d had 21 years to ponder these things.

He knew all about cheap grace. He had found the concept organically through years of reflection and had wrestled with it, walked right through it and come out the other side. Here’s what he said to me:

The gospel requires us not simply to be sorry, but to be transformed by our sorrow. For me, this is a daily transformation. I’ll never forget my crime. It is always deeply, deeply disturbing to me. But there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself—not in order to justify your actions, but in order to accept God’s love. 

Then he told me a story, gesturing with his hands so that the chains tying them together clanked and rattled in accompaniment. Outside his cell, said David, there are two fences, each about 20 feet high and covered with roll after roll of barbed wire. The space between the fences is empty, a no-man’s land designed to strand escapees.

A rabbit lives between the fences, David said, and he watches it every morning. “The rabbit has no sense of where it is. It doesn’t know it’s living out its life in a maximum security prison. It eats clover and dandelions and wakes up early. It has no sense of being restricted by all these fences. It’s the same for me. I’m in prison, but I’m not letting myself be restricted simply because I’m wearing shackles and handcuffs.

I’m a person, and I’m a person who is loved and forgiven by God.”

I was shocked. In front of me was a man who had brutally killed a teenager;

in front of me was a man who is loved by God. I was so startled that I jumped back from the table and stalked out of the room.

We chime in with Matt and with Nicodemus in asking, “How can these things be?!” We know how it’s supposed to work. We’ve got it figured out. We know who deserves what, don’t we? A murderer is a murderer.  There is an order we must follow. How can this be?! dark is dark, light is light. 

Turns out, we have Nicodemus to thank in this story.  A man of the law, a man who was supposed to have all this figured out shows that doubt and questions are part of his faith.  Because you’ll notice Jesus doesn’t shut him down but instead engages him in his questions.

What are your strict dividing lines?  Where do you find yourself with strong reactions, instantaneous judgment? Where is your certainty when you see these pictures?


From John: And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

The light comes into our lives and exposes the things we’d rather have covered up.  It exposes our doubt and shame; it exposes our questions and wrong doings.  This light. This very same light is the light that saves us.   The story from The Christian Century concludes this way, with Matt confessing:

What I had either forgotten or never learned is that right next to all of this is something that’s out of control: the power of God. It’s a surging and crackling energy, a wildness that the church hints at but doesn’t own. When I felt it come alive in that prison it made me jump because it defied a deeply ingrained, childish belief in justice and decency. How could a murderer grab hold of the same love I’d been given?

Sitting there with David, I’d felt the pressure of a greater reality pushing against the neat division in my heart between those who are unworthy of God’s love and those who are worthy. David Steffen had been forgiven. He’d claimed the love of God as his own, and that claim threatened me. I never would have guessed that the most unnerving thing I would encounter on death row was the grace of God.

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the God-hating world but to save the God-hating world.  That’s the scandal. Of course we know God loves the creation God set in motion.  Of course we know God loves the best parts of the world.  But it’s something quite different for God to love a world that hates God.

David, the death row inmate, was born again. God loved David before David even had a chance to love God. Through this confinement with nothing but time on his hands, he encountered God.  He encountered the light that exposed what he had done. And God certainly judged him.  But God did not leave David where God found him. God transformed his heart.  Blurred the lines; destroyed the neat categories of right and wrong.  Declaring him a person, a child of God, worthy of God’s undeserved grace.

Your questions or doubt won’t keep God away.  Not even your certain categories of who God is supposed to love and forgive cannot keep God contained.  Not even a fence with barbed wire. Not even a murderer’s heart. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  And we say, thanks be to God. Amen.

Read the entire story I told from The Christian Century: