“Grace and truth. When Jesus came into this world on the first Christmas he was full of both of these things – grace and truth. We’ve considered both of them separately, but now, consider how we can’t have one without the other. Imagine a world full of grace, but empty of truth… imagine a world full of truth, but empty of grace. When it comes to grace and truth, we can’t have one without the other.”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021 at Trinity on the Green
Between the words that I speak, and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.
Today is the day after Christmas! Perhaps you, like me, are finding that this is your third day in a row of church services. Or perhaps you happened upon us here at Trinity for the first time this morning in which case – welcome.
Our readings for this morning continue our Christmas theme – although instead of reading the famous nativity story from the Gospel of Luke, we read a variation on this story as told in the Gospel of John.
The first chapter of John is a nativity story, though it might not seem like it at first. “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” At this point you might be confused, since this doesn’t sound at all like the Christmas Story we have heard over the past few days. We might think of the Gospel of John as an abstract artist’s interpretation on the life of Jesus. If Luke is Rembrandt, Andrew Wyeth, or Norman Rockwell, to name a few realistic painters, then John is Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, or Georgia O’Keefe. John does not tell us the plot of the nativity story. Instead, he tells us the essence of the nativity story. And the essence of the nativity story is this, in the words of the Gospel of John: “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” That is what Christmas is all about – the Word became flesh and lived among us. And that is why we read these words on the first Sunday following Christmas.
The words of the Gospel of John, Chapter 1, are like abstract art – but they are also, perhaps more literally, like a poem. In fact, these words are widely believed to be an ancient hymn of the church, sung by some of the earliest Christians as a way of expressing core beliefs. These hymnic words are, basically, a poem – and like any other other poem, one could write a whole essay on any single word and all of the meaning that it carries.
This morning, I would like to focus on two of those words that we read in the Gospel of John today: grace, and truth. Grace and truth. These are important words, and they appear as a couple not once, but twice in this passage. It’s as if grace and truth need each other. You can’t have one without the other.
Let’s start with grace. The word here, in the original Greek, is χάρις. Like any word in a foreign language, χάρις has a range of meanings that we might not think of automatically in our own context of the English language. The word is sometimes translated as grace, but also sometimes as favor, blessing, gift, good will, or loving-kindness. Somehow, the word grace must stand in for all of these things. Christians often understand grace as a gift freely given, but not necessarily deserved – for example the gift of Jesus, entering our world to live as one of us; to save us from those aspects of our humanity that drag us down.
As human beings, we need grace. We need to be reminded that God extends loving-kindness, blessing, and goodwill to us human beings – and we need to remember that we didn’t earn that favor. God simply loves us – without conditions. And as followers of Jesus Christ, we not only receive that grace. We are also asked to share that grace with others.
Sharing grace can look like a lot of different things. It can look like giving a person the benefit of the doubt, if they didn’t get you a Christmas present or write you a Christmas card this year. It can look like giving a gift to someone who has very little in our community; someone who is struggling with poverty, or homelessness, or mental health or addiction. Giving grace can look like simply being kind. It can even look like giving grace to yourself; allowing yourself to make mistakes without beating yourself up about it. Extend the same grace to yourself, and others, that God extends to each one of us.
Before we get any further talking about grace, let’s also talk about that other word that always comes with grace, in our reading from the Gospel of John today. Let’s talk about truth.
Truth, in the original Greek, is the word ἀλήθεια. In ancient Greek culture, ἀλήθεια was understood to mean truth, not only in the sense of a “true fact” but in a sense encompassing the very fabric of reality itself. Ἀλήθεια means reality, sincerity; truth in a moral sense; truth that is the opposite of illusion.
Jesus came into the world full of grace and truth. When I think of that second word, truth, I am reminded of the earthiness of the Christmas story. Jesus became human, flesh and blood, just like us. This is the reality that Jesus was born into, and it’s a reality that involves aches and pains, dirt and straw, joy and sadness. Jesus entered the full truth of humanity, so that we might not be alone in our everyday lives; in our everyday truth.
But there is also another way to think of the importance of truth, in light of the life of Jesus. Jesus brought truth into our world. He illuminated the injustice and oppression surrounding people in the first century. He identified the selfishness and pride that separates us from God and one another. Jesus “cast the mighty from their thrones and he lifted up the lowly,” as Mary, his mother, prophesied in our readings from last Sunday. Jesus brought light and truth, wherever he went.
We, too, are called to be bringers of the light. We are called to speak the truth to one another, in love. We are called to recognize and name the ways that sin creeps into our society – through financial selfishness, through hatred and abuse, through prejudice and racism, through indifference. We are called to recognize and name these things so that we might change them, and make this reality closer to the reality that God has promised – the reality we call the kingdom of God.
Grace and truth. Grace and truth. When Jesus came into this world on the first Christmas he was full of both of these things – grace and truth. We’ve considered both of them separately, but now, consider how we can’t have one without the other.
Imagine a world full of grace, but empty of truth. It would be a world of endless kindness – but perhaps a variety of kindness that one questions. Is it sincere? Is it authentic? In a world full of grace, with no truth, we might be radically permissive of people’s actions, quick to forgive, even if those actions repeatedly hurt other people. Our kindness or generosity might be taken for granted, and we might never have the opportunity to clearly express the things that are important to our own health and wellbeing. In a world full of grace, with no truth, we might lose our sense of self in our effort to constantly please others. Those are some versions of a world full of grace, with no truth – and that is not a world I wish to live in.
Now imagine a world full of truth, but empty of grace. It would be a world of strict accountability – no one could tell a lie. And yet the truths that we might face about ourselves and one another would be too painful for us to hold. How could a person handle an awareness of their own complicity in racism, sexism, or any number of ways that we hurt one another, without a sense of grace? How could we handle a catalogue of our personal sins and failings? We would be utterly overwhelmed by truth; paralyzed by our mistakes and regrets. Again, that is not a world I wish to live in.
When it comes to grace and truth, we can’t have one without the other. We can’t. I’ve been thinking about this recently in a very practical way, as I’ve considered people’s relationships with family members who aren’t vaccinated. I was very proud of my sister in law this past week, when she reached out to an unvaccinated family member to tell them that she would come to Christmas at their house, with appropriate precautions. But she also urged them to get vaccinated. In a thoughtful and courageous message, my sister in law shared her concerns about the health and safety of her loved ones, citing real stories she knows of people who have died of Covid. This was what my sister in law had to do to exercise the grace of being with her family on Christmas Day, while expressing the truth of her convictions and concerns.
For you, the balance of grace and truth might look a little different. You might make different choices. Nevertheless, grace and truth need each other. We can’t have one without the other.
It can be hard to find the right balance of grace and truth these days. But no matter what, remember this: “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” With Jesus as our guide this Christmas Season, we remember that we need both grace and truth – not in half measures, but in full glory. May we live our lives after the model of Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth. Amen.