Ash Wednesday: Real Means, Real Grace

Did you hear what Jesus just said? “Whenever you give alms.” “Whenever you pray.” “Whenever you fast.” Our human ears zero in on the negatives: don’t sound a trumpet before you, don’t be like the hypocrites, don’t make your face look dismal. But before the negatives, before the “how not to do these things,” Jesus gives us three clear commands: Give alms. Pray. Fast. These three spiritual disciplines are not optional for those who follow Jesus. Sure, Christians have been trying to wiggle out of them for as long as we’ve been around, and even today most of us find substitutes or ignore them altogether because we think, we’re sure, that we can bank on God’s grace. You didn’t give alms this week? Tell God how bad you feel about it—God’s grace is sufficient. Don’t like to pray, or still content with praying the way you did five, ten, twenty years ago? God’s got you covered—don’t worry about it. Never fasted? Not sure why you’d want to? Grace is there for you, too.

We’ve made an idol out of God’s grace; I’m convinced of it. Not that God’s grace isn’t real, or that we aren’t saved through faith by the grace of God. No. But we have separated the grace of God from who God is. And we desire this separated grace as much as we desire anything. We worship the divorced grace. It’s an idol.

In our meager attempts to follow Jesus God’s grace has become an infinite supply of “the good stuff.” You know, the pills we pop to keep the pain away—the morphine, the Oxycodone, the codeine that numbs us. That’s what grace has become to us. Grace was supposed to be part of the cure, part of the process that turns us back to God and empowers us to live as God made us to live. It’s like the medicine—but we want the medicine without the cure. We don’t want to be any better than we were; we just want to feel better. We want grace without God, medicine without cure, change without transformation. We’re addicted to cheap grace.

So we find ourselves each year kicking off Lent on Ash Wednesday and wondering why it’s not any easier this time around, why almsgiving and praying and fasting aren’t more natural to us. And the reason is quite simple: we’ve been banking on the wrong kind of grace The stuff that goes down easy has no power beyond the quick feel-good fix.

Real grace, the stuff that actually works, the medicine that’s part of the cure is very different from the cheap grace we bank on. Real grace does not come through a feeling. Real grace, grace that flows from the wounds of Christ upon the cross, comes through the means of grace. The means of grace are the parts of this world where God says, “If you show up at these points, I promise I’ll meet you there.” Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship with the body of Christ, caring for the poor, the sick, the orphan, and the widow, anything God has commanded: these are all examples of the means of grace. Turn to the means of grace, make use of them, and you will receive real grace. Ignore the means of grace, and you’ll keep taking hits off the quick-fix Oxycodone grace, feeling good but never experiencing real transformation.

In Matthew 6, Jesus commands us to give alms, to pray, and to fast. But these aren’t just marching orders. They’re an offer of the means of grace: turn to these things, Christ says, and I promise I’ll meet you there. If we don’t take advantage of the offer, should we be surprised when we don’t receive the grace?

Too often we Christians draw a sharp distinction between law and gospel, between grace and obligation. Law, we think, is the stuff people had to do before Jesus came. Gospel is being free from having to do that stuff. Obligation is working for our own salvation, or so we’re told, and grace is letting God do the saving for us. But the means of grace cut across these neat lines. They have no threat of retribution standing behind them—no “Do this, or else!” Missing them is its own punishment. It’s like refusing to take the medicine the doctor has prescribed. The doctor won’t come after you for it, but you’re not going to get any better.

Almsgiving, prayer, fasting. This Lent, at Centre, we’re going to focus our attention one of these means, on prayer. We’ll have sermons on prayer and an evening study on prayer and we’re launching a short-term prayer group this coming Sunday, too. But focusing on one doesn’t mean we should neglect the others.

Showing mercy to the poor, or giving alms—that’s essential. The grace we receive from God, the real grace that has the power to transform our lives, is our Lord’s almsgiving to us. God gives us the alms, the mecry, of his Son. It is the height of ingratitude, of unthankfulness, to refuse to give alms, to hold back mercy, from those in our world who need it most. Show mercy, give alms, as you have received alms, as you have been shown mercy.

Fasting—training our bodies to seek the joy of the Lord and not the pleasure of our bellies—is just as important. Giving up a favorite food or drink or activity is a good start. Not eating one meal a week is another step. But real fasting, taking a day or more away from food, or from any food beyond a little bread and water, is necessary for our transformation into more and more faithful disciples.

When we turn to these means of grace, almsgiving, praying, and fasting, we risk a new encounter with the grace of God in Jesus Christ: an encounter that has the potential to do what the addictive, cheap, feel-good grace can never accomplish: real, Christlike transformation. Here are real means, for real grace.

And real grace is at the heart of what Lent is about. (Move to Communion Table and continue with Invitation to Observance of Lenten Discipline, BOW 322)

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