“Grace to you, and peace…”
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
December 22, 2019
I found myself cornered again by one of the more difficult personalities in the church. This was back when I worked in Indianapolis and I was in charge of their young adult group. Well, this guy had been a fixture in the group for several years and he had a problem. He creeped out all the women. He desperately wanted a relationship and that desperation was married to a particularly uncouth temperament. So we were walking and talking and he was just not a pleasant person to be around, but I was trying to stick it out. And he started talking about women. What he wanted, and I am paraphrasing here, is some woman to love him and care about him. He had reached the point where he didn’t understand why this had not happened for him, and further he was now fairly bitter about it.
His problem was an extreme form of one that many of us wrestle with. Do you recognize it? It is the inability to get other people to do or be what we want them to do or be. Come to think of it, this is the major challenge for most people in the world. If you want to boil down 99% of the conflict in the world, at every single level of human existence and community, it is this; the desire to get other people to do or be what we want them to be. And while most of us are not in as extreme of a situation as my friend in Indianapolis was, we all have numerous people with whom we are emotionally and spiritually wrestling today. We cannot get them to do or be what we want. It has become a problem.
Make no mistake, Paul is trying to get the Roman Christians to do things. He is trying to get them to contribute to his collection for the Christians in Jerusalem, and he is trying to get them in line with what will become the orthodox theological beliefs he is teaching to the churches he has founded. He needs them. He needs them for their credibility, he needs them for their connections, he needs them for their wealth, and he needs them for the foundation they can become. They are important. And like anybody that has a clue you don’t lead off your introductions with a big ask. You slow play it. You establish a foundation; a relationship. Only when this has been accomplished to you get to the meat of the issue and start trying to get the other person or people to do what you want them to do.
Thus, we have this introduction. It is pretty standard. Paul identifies himself as a servant of Jesus Christ and an apostle, before laying out a theological foundation from which to begin his conversation. Paul is articulate and speaks with a confidence and conviction which we can imagine made him a compelling character in his day. I could spend quite a bit of time walking through the theology of his introduction but that is not the point of our time together this morning. Rather, I want us to focus more on the conclusion of his words of greeting here. Paul writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I don’t know about you but when I read Romans and other letters of Paul, I do not linger on these words. It has always struck me as spending time on the word “Sincerely” at the end of a letter. But on the other hand, this is Scripture. The Bible does not waste words. And as I sat with this text this week, certainly in the midst of our present historical moment, these words kept rising up in my mind. “Grace to you and Peace.”
I think it is remarkable that we kind of brush past these words. They are powerful words, but they also speak to us as followers of Jesus. Grace, of course, is at the heart of our faith. It is grace that flows to us from Jesus Christ. It is grace that reconciles us to God. It is grace that prevents shame and sin from overwhelming us. Grace is God’s answer to fallen humanity and it comes in human form. Grace, for us, is everything.
Then there is peace. Peace calls back to the Hebrew word “shalom.” This word pervades the Old Testament and Paul would have been intimately familiar with it. Peace for us is not just an absence of violence or injustice. God’s peace pervades our life. God’s peace reminds us that no matter what is happening in our lives, God remains faithful to us and those promises are alive. Peace, and the ability to conjure it in life’s most challenging circumstances, is a vital part of our shared faith.
So Paul says, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In these words he is wishing these people well in the most profound and deep sense. And this brings me back to the challenge of these days; the challenge of getting people to do what we want. Let’s think differently for a moment. Rham Cunningham and I have been doing this little worship service at Fort Smith Coffee Co on Wednesdays. We sit in that little side room, if you have ever been in there and we pray, read scripture and receive a song. You can watch it on Facebook. Anyway, we did this just as an offering. So Rham, who is much better than me at walking up to random strangers, told a guy at the coffee company what we are doing. The guy seemed mildly interested but then he asked a question, “you all are going to ask for an offering, right?” “No,” Rham replied, “we aren’t.” More than anything in the conversation this caught the man’s attention. “Maybe I’ll come,” he said.
Millennials, my friend Mike McHargue told me once, are the most marketed to generation in human history. No group of people have ever had more people wanting them to do things than this group. None. Ever. And so when they are invited to a little worship service, it is not surprising at all that the first thing one would look for would be the strings. What do they want from me? And here is the thing, for those of us who are followers of Jesus, we are doing it wrong if look at a person and think first about what we want from them. This is not our calling. Paul models it for us. He introduces himself, then he doesn’t say what he wants from the Romans. He says what he wants for the Romans. That is fundamentally different.
We follow Jesus, you and I. We have everything we need. Everything. What this offers us is an opportunity not to want anything from anybody, but instead to enter the world and first and foremost want things for people. What do we want for them? These words are a good place to start. Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what we want. That is all.
This sentence can literally transform your life and the lives of all the people you meet. The woman serving you at the restaurant; grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The person in front of you in line, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The woman at the desk at the DMV; grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The flight attendant on your plane tomorrow, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Your friend who disappointed you, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I could go on and on and on. Do you see? Do you understand the change you can affect in the world from this sentence?
What if we, as a church, embodied this idea. We don’t want anything from anybody. Rather, we want something for them, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what we want. We don’t want you because you might give us money. We don’t want you because we want you to fill our sanctuary. We don’t want you because we think it will get anything at all out of you. We are people who follow Jesus, and we want for you! Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We bring this into the world, and we want nothing from anyone because we already have all we need through Jesus Christ. Amen