Almost 243 years ago, in the year 1779, one of the most beloved hymns of all time was written by a converted slave trader named John Newton. This particular hymn has been translated into at least fifty languages, making it one of the most translated songs in history and it’s estimated that this famous hymn is performed and recorded more than 10 million times every year. This beloved hymn is, of course, Amazing Grace. Yet despite the incredibly immense influence of this hymn over the course of nearly two and half centuries, I’m convinced that most of us don’t really get what grace is all about. Even if we have learned the official Prayer Book Catechism definition of grace. Even if we understand at a basic level that we are ultimately saved by grace. Even if we have memorized all thirteen original stanzas (yes, thirteen stanzas) of John Newton’s famous hymn. At the end of the day, despite this theological and liturgical knowledge, I’m convinced most of us still struggle to grasp the grandeur and gravity of grace!
This struggle, I believe, is rooted in the fact that we have turned grace into a concept to be comprehended rather than an experience to be entered into. In other words, we can read about grace, we can talk about grace, we can think about grace, but the real question is, “Do we experience grace?” The 20th century theologian Karl Barth once said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” And I think part of what he means is that to understand laughter, you can’t just read about, or talk about it, or think about it. You have to experience it! And it’s the same with grace. So, it should be no surprise that when Jesus teaches about grace, he doesn’t give us a Prayer Book Catechism definition of grace. He doesn’t give us a theological explanation of grace. He describes the experience of grace. And the image that Jesus uses over and over again to describe the experience of grace is the image of a party. And not just any party, but one of the most lavish, extravagant, over-the-top parties you can imagine! According to Jesus, the experience of grace is above all an experience of celebration!
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells one of the most famous and beloved parables of all time. Many of know this parable simply as the “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Sometimes it is called the Parable of the Lost Sons or the Parable of the Compassionate Father, but the central image of this parable the image of grace as a celebration! The parable begins with a father who has two sons. The younger son comes to his father and asks for his inheritance. Once he receives his inheritance, the younger son travels to a distant land, he gets as far away from home as possible and squanders all his money. And to make matters worse, a severe famine has decimated the land. The son finds himself broke and broken, the only job he can find is a job feeding pigs, which is not only demeaning, but it seriously violates his Jewish identity.
But when he comes to himself, he develops a plan to go back home and beg his father for job. And when young man makes his way back to his father’s house, while he was still a long way off, the father sees him, is filled with compassion, and runs to meet his son. The father throws his arms around his son and kisses him. The son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am not worthy to be called your son.” What happens next is remarkable! The father doesn’t reprimand his son. He doesn’t lecture his son. In fact, in the parable, the father never actually speaks to his younger son. Instead, he calls his servants and tells everyone around him to get ready for a party! And not just any party, but one of the most lavish, extravagant, over-the-top parties you can imagine!
Bring the best robe you can find! Bring a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet! Kill the fatted calf! Let us eat and celebrate and dance and rejoice! For this son of mine was dead and is now alive; he was lost, but now is found! Grace in this parable is not a concept to the comprehended, it is an experience to be entered into; it is an experience of celebration!
But in our gospel reading this morning, there is one person who is angry and resentful, and who refuses to join in the celebration, and this person is, of course, the older son. The one who has always played by the rules. The one who has done everything right. The one who deserves to be honored and recognized for his loyalty and devotion. Unfortunately, in his anger and resentment, the older son is unable to enter into the experience of grace. When the parable ends, we don’t know if he has ultimately joined the party or not.
But aren’t their times when we behave like this older son? Aren’t there times when rather than extend grace, we hold onto anger and resentment? Rather than offer mercy, we convey condemnation. Aren’t there times when rather than entering into the celebration, we stand at a distance with our arms crossed and hearts hardened, because we think that it’s not fair? But, you see, that’s the whole point.
GRACE is not fair.
GRACE is not about what we have earned or deserve.
GRACE is not determined by the quality of our spiritual report card.
GRACE is extravagant.
GRACE is scandalous.
GRACE is outrageous.
Unfortunately, when we look at the world around us, we see a culture, in many ways, dominated by the mindset of the older brother. A culture that is dominated by the mindset of competition, in which, by necessity, there winners and there are losers. And far too much of the rhetoric of our present age is fueled by anger and resentment and condemnation. But you and I, as children of God and followers of Jesus, have been summoned to be the honored guests at God’s celebration of grace. We don’t have to fully comprehend grace. We simply have to enter into it. We simply have to show up at the party. We have to recognize that our whole life is a visible icon of God’s grace.
Spiritual writer, Frederick Beuchner, put it this way. He said, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, you exist, because the party would not have been complete without you.” My friends, the experience of grace is an experience of celebration. And when you and I enter into that experience, when we show up at God’s party, that’s when we discover precisely why we call grace…AMAZING!