Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
On this day, we have some profound words of wisdom by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians about the concept of grace. Paul says in part, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us…brought us to life with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Ephesians 2: 4-9).
Every since I was a child in Catholic grade school, the concept of “grace” has been confusing to me. I think part of the problem is the way the word is used in everyday life. Sometimes it is used to refer to the way people behave as in this sentence: “The politician’s concession speech was made with great style and grace.” Other times, it is used to refer to the state of a person’s soul as in: “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” And at other times, it is used to refer to some special help that God gives people to help them maneuver through life as in this sentence: “As I drove through the night, I was suffering from pneumonia, and I could hardly see anything because of the heavy fog and rain. Only by the grace of God did I make it home safe and sound.”
In each of these sentences, the word “grace” means something totally different. No wonder the concept has been confusing to me. But before attempting to clarify grace and the different kinds of grace, let’s look at the following story by Steve Strang, a story that uses grace as a divine help that God showers upon people to do their earthly tasks.
Steve tells the story of a Methodist pastor named Phil Chamberlain and his church, Palestine Grace United Methodist Church in Palestine, Texas.
When Phil took over the little church, the number of members had dwindled to 35 people and was in danger of closing. Phil says, “We weren’t on death’s doorstep, but we were in death’s front yard. The people were desperate for a vision.” Part of the problem was that the church had experienced a scandal ten years earlier, and everyone in the area knew about it.
Instead of focusing on the past scandal as a “lemon,” Phil decided to use it to make lemonade. He gave the little church a new tagline: “The People of the Second Chance.” Phil began focusing on the grace of God found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke (chapter 15). The theme, therefore, was that the grace of God is for all sinners and, because everyone is a sinner, the church is for everyone.
Soon, the little church began filling up with people, and Phil used to say, “We used to joke that everyone was welcome except the fire marshal.”
As time went on, Phil realized the little church was much too small, and they had to move. Just then, a woman in the congregation suggested that the former country club was for sale. Everyone laughed and said there was no way they could afford that. But, to humor the woman, Phil checked on the country club price. He learned that the price had just been reduced by $300,000 that morning.
Within a few months, Palestine Grace United Methodist Church bought the country club and its golf course. So, they used the building for church services, and they leased the golf course and ran it as a public golf course so that students could learn the basics of business management and related subjects for college credit.
Today, the little church that almost died is now thriving. Not only is it thriving, it has plans to build a new worship center, discipleship school, and other buildings.
From the story of the little church that rose from near-death to an exciting and vibrant congregation, and from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we can learn many things. Here are just three.
First, in religion, grace refers to the kindness of God to the human race. It also refers to the gift that flows from this kindness. Grace is a gift, not a wage. That means we do not “earn” grace. As St. Paul notes, grace is “…a gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” In Catholic Christianity, we learn about different types of grace, and I’ll talk about only two: actual and sanctifying.
Second, actual grace refers the divine help that God gives us to perform salutary acts. Salutary acts refer to behaviors considered good or meritorious. Performing corporal or spiritual works of mercy would be examples of “salutary acts.”
Third, sanctifying grace refers to the supernatural state of being infused by God that permanently inheres to the soul. This is the type of grace that makes us holy and participants in the divine nature of God. When we talk about sanctifying grace, we find ourselves talking about such concepts as justification (or God’s gracious act of making us holy), and salvation (the condition in which God brings humanity to heaven).
But what about the idea of God watching over us, as seen in the statement, “But for the grace of God go I,” or “Only by God’s grace did I make it home through the foggy night”? Well, I think we could legitimately called this God’s grace, also, for both reflect God’s kindness toward us and his actions based on this kindness. But, as I mentioned in the beginning of this homily, the concept of grace has always been – and continues to be – a very baffling concept for me.
The good news is that I don’t have to know all about grace. Only God needs to know all about grace, and as long as God continues showering grace on you and me, I’m quite satisfied, thank you very much!
And that is the good news I have for you on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2018.
Story source: Steve Strang. “Here’s an Inspiring Story of Grace and a Leader with
Vision,” The Strang Report, Charisma Magazine, May 12, 2015.