Grace Must Answer Grace
Rev. Chris Rice, New Life Evangelistic Center
I think there’s a terrible misunderstanding about what a gift is these days. We’ve all become so accustomed to buying and selling and paying for subscriptions to various services, that the quality of free gifts has become swallowed by the maxim, “the first one is always free.” Gifts are used as incentives anymore. A bait and switch tactic. Draw them in with the gift and then hook them. Keith Green sang about how Jesus was not a “salesmen who will sell you the things you just want to hear.” What sort of quality do we look for in gifts anymore? And what is expected of the giver? More importantly, what sort of gift was it when God gave his only son for this world?
Now if I offer you this antique taxidermied squirrel, would you think that strange? Or this dapper bowler hat, could you use that? Most of you would answer no. We’re accustomed to picking out our own items carefully, irrespective of what people might think we need. We might take a gift so that a giver won’t feel bad, but we don’t have a special attachment to it unless the giver knows something about us and offers us something we really need.
Dear Heavenly Father, your Son Jesus tells us that it is your good pleasure to give us your Kingdom. (Lk. 12:32) We are your children. We enter into your presence with joy and we trust that every good gift and perfect gift comes from you (Js. 1:17). Fill us with your presence as we wait for you. Do in us what we cannot do for ourselves. Grant us your grace and love for Jesus’ sake. Amen
Understanding Gifts As Favors
David A. deSilva did a study on the way gifts were given and received during the time period when the Bible was being written. A lot of what I’m going to share today comes from that study. He says that the Bible writers understood favor, gifts, and giving in terms of a particular social system of bestowing grace. The word used again and again in the New Testament is charis, often translated grace or favor. We would think of this system as patronage today, and in European and American culture that has very negative connotations anymore. Access to goods, position, or services is enjoyed by means of personal relationships and the exchanging of favors rather than by impersonal and impartial systems of distribution. Where it does occur it is kept quiet, under the table. In our society we believe in earning wages, drawing a paycheck, and winning our own favor in our ability to buy stuff or buy things to win favors. Even so in the world of the Bible, “personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement.”
Grace referred to three things: the patron’s willingness to grant favor, the patron’s beneficence, and the gratitude of the client. If the client was not grateful, it was not truly a gift. The patron-client relationship was dis-graced. The relationship did not continue. Seneca envisioned three goddesses dancing in a ring: giving, receiving, and returning. A gift was always reflective of the giver and returned with gratitude by the client.
What is truly surprising about God’s Grace in the New Testament is that we find he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Jesus teaches us love for enemies, and the direction of all his grace is reconciliation of all people. That kind of favor was not imagined by the world outside the Christian faith. It was too daring, too trusting, in short impossible. What believers know is that God’s Spirit allows us to take all of life as itself a gift for which we return gratitude. The love we share is God’s love in us. This is a redemption and reimagining of patronism, one that includes all people.
Learning to Receive Gifts in God’s Household
It can be truly difficult to enculturate new believers to the household of faith. People are looking for power structures like those they’ve experienced outside the church so that they can capitalize on them. They don’t know what to do with patient attention to household norms. They go back to “whose house is it, and who are you, and who am I?” all the time. They want to do everything or do nothing. Taking ownership of a task or a space looks really different to different people and it takes a lot of time and patience to learn to get along.
Ask four people for directions to one place and they’ll all stop and come up with “better” ways to get there. So to avoid all that confusion, most of us don’t bother to ask for help at all. We stay quiet and content to figure things out for ourselves. As members of God’s household we often DIS-grace ourselves when we take God’s good gifts and use them selfishly. Community property becomes “my property” when no one is looking. Those bowls and tinware for common use? I’ll just take that to my room. No one needs to know. They’ll buy more. That toilet paper for everyone in the bathroom, I’ll just hide it under my bed so it’s always there. I don’t want to have to ask anyone for anything.
And that’s exactly how all of life becomes disgraced. We don’t recognize God as the giver and don’t treat the gift as a holy thing. Instead we take what we can get and then tell God it is not enough.
I know I’m stepping on some toes here, but I need this message as much as anyone. There is an attitude that is developing in this country about churches who redistribute food, clothes, and offer shelter. It says that churches are actually unholy places when they welcome strangers in need and offer them life affirming necessities. Oh it’s not that food, clothes and shelter are bad in themselves, but when “those” kind of people get together they bring sickness, crime, and ugly to the neighborhood.
So what’s happening is that the churches are being told by the neighborhood that they really haven’t heard from God because God doesn’t want strangers in their backyard. The things that are given by God as grace like housing, food, and clothing are looked at as commodities and are taken for granted. They’re treated as an unholy thing.
We can’t be overcome by that attitude. We should never apologize for loving Jesus or doing the will of God, especially where it calls us to be salt and light where it’s not wanted. But our biggest foe is not people who misunderstand God’s grace and our calling. Our biggest foe is our own propensity to dis-grace God’s gifts by not receiving them with gratitude.
When you work all year round offering help to people in need it can actually make you less grateful, not more grateful. It can make you bitter instead of better because you can focus on the articles and programs themselves, the logistics of free store and shelter management, the logistics of staff training, the maintenance of the property and you can get to where you think you own everything, know everything, and want God to give everything to you on your terms. God save us all from this attitude!
All of life and everything we have is a gift! Our faith is a gift! Our ability to reason, a gift! Our ability to function, a gift! These are gifts given in trust that we will use them to God’s glory!
Gratitude for the grace of God, the charis of the Spirit of God is what holds us together, bearing each other’s burdens. David deSilva said, “The fundamental ethos governing relationships of patrons and the clients, benefactors and beneficiaries, and friends is that grace must answer grace: the receiving of favor must lead to the return of gratitude, or else the beauty and nobility of the relationship is defaced (dis-graced). As we grow in our appreciation of God’s beneficence, we are thereby impelled to energize our commitment to make an appropriate response of gratitude to God. When the magnitude of God’s generosity is considered, gratitude and its fruits must of necessity fill our speech, attitudes, and actions” (“Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament”).
Giving in Return
Paul gives us an example of the attitude we need for God’s work in Phil. 4:10-22. In this passage he expresses gratitude and joy for a gift this church gave for his ministry. He describes the gift as their “opportunity”. He describes his need not with complaint, but with contentment. He says he knows the secret of facing plenty, hunger and want. Then he utters that famous passage “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (vs. 13). This attitude is truly the secret to enjoying life in the favor of God. This is the life worth living, a selfless life of giving in return for God’s favor.
Paul found true gratitude because (vs. 17) he wasn’t seeking the gift from the church, but the favor of God through whom the gift came. That is true gratitude. Paul awoke in the morning expecting only good things from his Heavenly Father, whom he knew he could trust. That’s how we are to be! Paul, knowing God’s goodness, spoke confidently that “My God will supply all your need according to his riches”, then he gives God all the glory. This is true reciprocity! We are part of the divine dance of God’s favor and grace. He supplies from his riches for our every need to his glory. We return all that glory back to him in thanksgiving and service.
Thank you Lord for considering us worthy of your favor because of Christ. Thank you for this beautiful dance that is receiving your grace and glorifying you with our lives. I lift up this community of believers to you now. I pray that where there is brokenness and sin in our church that you heal and deliver us. I pray that you empower us to simply serve one another in love. I pray that our love for one another would be a sign of your grace in this world.
Yours in Christ,