By Dave Johnson
On New Year’s Eve it is natural to look back on the year and think about what happened in your life — so think about your life in 2017 for a moment. What were some of the highlights? Did you or your family cross a milestone like a graduation or a wedding or the birth of a child or a job promotion? Did you travel to some place you always wanted to see that broadened your perspective? Maybe you saw some movies or plays, or read some books that really impacted you. Maybe you experienced some healing or reconciliation in relationships that were wounded or broken. Perhaps you experienced the love of God in some new ways.
What were some of the low points of 2017 in your life? Did you or a loved one have a major physical illness or diagnosis, or suffer a severe financial setback? Did someone you dearly love expectedly or unexpectedly pass away? Did you experience a breakdown in a significant relationship? Did you not receive that job promotion you were convinced was yours for the taking?
Every year my family receives many Christmas cards with photos of family and friends, some of whom we rarely see. I enjoy seeing the changes in their appearance, or how some seem to never change at all, and am sobered to notice who may no longer be present in the photos. Some of these cards come with update letters about successful careers, or amazing vacations, or super smart and accomplished kids and grandkids—letters that often read more like resumes. I think it would be fun to read a Christmas letter that contained a little more honesty…“Took the kids to Disney and listened to them bicker about the heat and long lines”…“Kayla’s boyfriend of four years dumped her”…“Spent the money we had put aside for vacation on legal fees instead”…“Uncle Dan is back in rehab, again.” The reality is each year has both blessings and challenges for all of us.
Or how about your New Year’s resolutions for 2017 — how did those work out for you? If you kept your resolutions, congratulations — way to go; if not, be encouraged, because I suspect you are not alone.
In one of my favorite movies, the classic 1994 film Forrest Gump, a film replete with high octane gospel, Forrest Gump and Lieutenant Dan are in a crowded New York City bar on New Year’s Eve, 1971. Two women named Carla and Lenore stand near them and Lenore wistfully says in her New York accent, “Don’t you just love New Year’s? You can start all over. Everyone gets a second chance.”
Later as the crowd counts down the final seconds a television displays the neon ball at Times Square as it descends until it stops and a huge “1972” sign lights up. The bar overflows with cheering and clapping, hugging and kissing, blowers blowing and confetti flying. As the crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne,” Carla and Lenore kiss Forrest, and Forest in turn, with his bright green Happy New Year hat, bends down to Lieutenant Dan, who is confined to his wheelchair because of losing his legs in Vietnam, and Forest yells, “Happy New Year!” Lieutenant Dan is not cheering or clapping, not hugging or kissing anyone, not blowing any blowers — and as the confetti falls upon him he silently stares into nowhere. 1971 had not been a good year for Lieutenant Dan.
But Lenore was exactly right — New Year’s indeed means “you can start all over” and “everyone gets a second chance.” Regardless of the blessings and challenges experienced this past year, regardless of whatever resolutions successfully or unsuccessfully kept, this is very good news because, as Bruce Springsteen observes in his song, “Long Walk Home,” “Everybody has a reason to begin again” (from his 2007 album Magic). As we begin a new year tomorrow, what is your reason to begin again?
Today I am preaching from the powerful prologue of John’s account of the gospel, which has good news for those looking to start all over, good news for those in need of a second chance, good news for those with a reason to begin again.
There are recurring themes in John’s account of the gospel — Jesus as Light, Jesus as Truth, Jesus as Life, Jesus as Love—and yet in the prologue John emphasizes something that captures all these and more: Jesus as the ultimate revelation of the grace of God—as John wrote, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17). John emphasizes that in Jesus Christ God has given all of us “grace upon grace,” no exceptions.
Here at Christ Church I preach and teach often about grace, not because it is my favorite theological topic, but because grace is the heart of the gospel—no grace, no gospel. As soon as you start moving away from grace, you start moving away from the gospel—and inevitably that will take you to a place you do not want to go, often back to the law.
Now please do not mishear me. Obviously the law of God, particularly as summed up in the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ Summary of the Law in the New Testament is good, a gift from God. Again, as John wrote in today’s passage, “The law indeed was given through Moses.” If you keep God’s law your life will go better, plain and simple. Imagine a world in which everyone kept all the Ten Commandments and the Summary of the Law all the time, always—as Lois Armstrong used to sing, “I think to myself, what a wonderful world” (from his 1967 hit,“What a Wonderful World”).
But the world at large is not always a wonderful world, and your personal world is not always a wonderful world because none of us, regardless of how hard we may try, regardless of our New Year’s resolutions to do or be better, none of us keeps God’s law as God intended.
This is especially true in relationships. Think about the relationships in your life for a moment. Broadly speaking, there are generally two kinds of relationships: law-based relationships and grace-based relationships. Law-based relationships lead to judgment and resentment, and grace-based relationships lead to healing and love. In his brilliant book Grace in Practice, Episcopal priest and scholar Paul Zahl describes the always negative result of law-based relationships:
The law plays out in startling and appalling ways in everyday life. Every time a person feels “uncomfortable” before somebody in his or her family; every time a grown child bristles at a parent’s “advice”; every time a husband tries to change his wife; every time a Christian tries to “speak the truth in love” in order to straighten out a friend—it is the same old story. It is the law in its wounding persona. I think we could go so far as to say that the law is the origin of every clash that takes place between people in their emotional life (30-31).
There are some easy “litmus test” questions that help you understand whether the relationships in your life are law-based or grace-based. When you are around that person, are you at ease or on edge? When you write that person a text or email, is it natural and free-flowing, or do you have to struggle to ensure you phrase everything exactly right and that there are no grammatical mistakes? When you are around that person do you feel accepted or tolerated, affirmed or judged and found wanting? When that person speaks with you, is it a conversation or a lecture—do you feel like you are “listened to” or “talked at”? Does being around that person build you up or pull you down? How do you feel after an interaction with that person—encouraged and lifted up, or discouraged and angry? How would you answer those questions about the relationships in your life—and if you want to be even more uncomfortable—how would others answers those questions about their relationship with you?
Regardless of whether your relationships with others are law-based or grace-based, your relationship with God is always grace-based, because in Jesus Christ you have been given “grace upon grace.” This was and is God’s decision, not yours. Listen to how Paul Zahl describes this grace of God:
What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of lovable…Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures…Grace is one-way love (Grace in Practice 36).
And this grace, this “one-way” love, is what God has given us in Jesus Christ—abundant grace upon grace. The Apostle Paul emphasizes this grace of God as transcending the law, this grace of God as being the heart of the gospel—as he wrote to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)—or as he wrote in today’s passage from his Letter to the Galatians, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5)—or as he wrote to the Romans, “you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).
God’s grace has nothing to do with your New Year’s resolutions, or any of your resolutions. God’s grace is based on who God is and what God has done for you in the death of Jesus Christ, when Jesus lavished “grace upon grace” to an angry world. In his death on the cross Jesus fulfilled the law you and I could not and cannot fulfill. In his death on the cross Jesus replaced “the law in its wounding persona” with grace in its healing persona. In his death on the cross Jesus confirmed that God’s relationship with you has always been and will always be a grace-based relationship.
Back to Lieutenant Dan for a moment…it was not the law that changed Lieutenant Dan’s life for the better, it was grace. Throughout the film Lieutenant Dan was given “grace upon grace” by Forrest Gump—grace in Forrest’s rescuing him from certain death in the Vietnam jungle—grace in Forrest’s persistent kindness and friendship even as Lieutenant Dan understandably wallowed in anger and self-pity after losing his legs—grace in Forrest’s inviting him to be a part of his shrimping business that eventually made him very rich.
Near the end of the film Forrest marries the love of his life, Jenny. Before the wedding Forrest and Jenny are standing in the front yard of Forrest’s beautiful Alabama home. And along comes Lieutenant Dan…no longer in a wheelchair, but walking with a cane, accompanied by his fiancé. Forrest walks up, “Lieutenant Dan!” Lieutenant Dan is beaming, “Hello, Forrest.” Forrest exclaims, “You got new legs!” “Yeah,” Lieutenant Dan grins, “I got new legs.” He pulls up the left leg of his pants and reveals a metal leg, which he taps with his cane, “Titanium alloy. It’s what they use on the space shuttle.” “Magic legs,” Forrest says.
Lieutenant Dan continues, “This is my fiancé, Susan.” “Lieutenant Dan!” Forrest says. Susan reaches out her hand and gently greets him, “Hi Forrest.” Forrest then says, “Lieutenant Dan, this is my Jenny.” “Hey,” Jenny says, “Nice to meet you finally,” and she kisses Lieutenant Dan on the cheek. And Lieutenant Dan smiles at Forrest, a smile full of gratitude, full of relief because it had been a good year for Lieutenant Dan, a year in which he had experienced grace upon grace.
And on this New Year’s Eve that is my prayer for you, that as you begin again this upcoming year you too will experience God’s abundant grace upon grace.
The Rev. Dave Johnson is rector of Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta, Georgia.