“I thought you might like these. They were Michael’s.” With that, Denise Spencer handed over a box of books that had belonged to her husband, our founder, Michael Spencer. There were baseball books and books on anger. But the books in the box that made me want to dance were the books by a former Anglican priest turned food critic, Robert Farrar Capon.
It was only a couple of years before that I had been talking with Michael about our favorite topic, grace. “If you want to read the best book on grace,” he said, “get Capon’s Between Noon And Three. But don’t let anyone see you reading it. It is scandalous and scary and will get you in no end of trouble.” With that, I ordered the book immediately. And that is when the trouble began.
iMonk commenter Dave D. said yesterday regarding Capon, “He was brave enough to tell me about grace without pulling any punches, and through him Jesus broke my jaw and knocked me sensible.” I could not have said it better. Capon’s writings changed my life more than any other author. All I thought was settled in my theology was sent flying into the face of a hurricane. I could almost hear Capon laughing when I complained that God’s grace could not be that free. The Good News could not really be that good. Could it?
As we gather this morning, I have invited Fr. Capon to share about this ridiculous, too-good-to-be-true Gospel of Grace from his writings. And while he has a new home now in Heaven, he has graciously agreed to speak with us today.
Our preachers tell us the wrong story entirely, saying not a word about the dark side—no, that’s too weak—about the dark center of the Gospel. They can’t bring themselves to come within a country mile of the horrendous truth that we are saved in our deaths, not by our efforts to lead a good life. Instead, they mouth the canned recipes for successful living they think their congregations want to hear. It makes no difference what kind of success they urge on us: “spiritual” or “religious” success is as irrelevant to the Gospel as is success in health, money or love. Nothing counts but the cross.
Congregations are equally guilty. Preaching is a two-way street: what is said in a sermon depends every bit as much on the listeners as it does on the preacher. If the folks in the pews are constantly running old, happy-ending films inside their heads, they’ll make sure he or she gets the message that they’re not going to sit still for anybody who tries to sell them a dead God on the cross. The incompetence of it all is just too much for them.
I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross—and then be brave enough to stick around while it goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.
Guilt is supremely useless—and unscriptural to boot. There is no word in the New Testament that corresponds to what we now mean by it. Our fascination with guilt is a blind alley because the New Testament isn’t about guilt at all; it’s about forgiveness. The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world, not laid them on us like a coat of tar. Furthermore, we celebrate that absolution every Sunday in the Nicene Creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Notice what a remarkable statement that is: it proclaims that by the grace of God, we live all our lives in an irremovable suit of forgiveness. It tells us that every sin we ever commit will be committed inside that suit—and therefore that every sin in our lives is forgiven before, during and after our commission of it. We don’t need to get forgiveness; we need to learn how to cheer up in the forgiveness we’ve had all along.
The life of grace is not an effort on our part to achieve a goal we set ourselves. It is a continually renewed attempt simply to believe that someone else has done all the achieving that is needed and to live in relationship with that person, whether we achieve or not. If that doesn’t seem like much to you, you’re right: it isn’t. And, as a matter of fact, the life of grace is even less than that. It’s not even our life at all, but the life of that Someone Else rising like a tide in the ruins of our death.
I think it was an early Christian writer who had the boldness to call the sentence of death pronounced on Adam in Genesis the “first proclamation of the Gospel”—of the Good News that our death, in and by Jesus’ death, with be our salvation. Even our death in sin. God will indeed take back the management of creation. But he will take it back only as he took it on in the first place: by letting things be, even by letting our sins be. With nails through his hands and feet, at three o’clock on a dark Friday afternoon, he will die our now unmanageable death, take our disastrous knowledge of good and evil down into the darkness of his dead human mind, and by refusing to play God by our rules, he will restore our freedom to be human again in the silence of Jesus’ tomb. All we can do, or need to do, is trust him.
Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting—no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you —you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead —and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.
My life is a witness to vulgar grace—a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up a ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request—”Please, remember me”—and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mind. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.
Let us pray.