Grace Defined

Transcribed from the sermon preached March 12, 2017

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor


Scripture Readings: Romans 4:1-15, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Last week we looked at the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. There he turned down, and warned against allowing the desire for prosperity, popularity and power from eroding our freedom to worship and serve God. Today we find another kind of vice which tempts some people from the experience of God and God’s grace: reason, thought, and the desire to manage and control. Our passage this morning speaks to those who are tempted to let their mind get between them and God. We think that gaining second hand; objective knowledge will get us to a spot where we can step easily into firsthand experience. But faith doesn’t work that way. We can read about the biology of love and the tricks to catching a mate, but we still know not love until we get into relationship. We can read how to swim, we can read the descriptions of others experienced with swimming, but until we get into the water, we have not the experience of swimming.

The Sufi poet Rumi writes:

Some Kiss We Want


There is some kiss we want with

our whole lives, the touch of


spirit on the body. Seawater

begs the pearl to break its shell.


And the lily, how passionately

it needs some wild darling! At


night, I open the window and ask

the moon to come and press its


face against mine. Breathe into

  1. Close the language- door and


open the love window. The moon

won’t use the door, only the window.


Theological and philosophical thinking has its limits. We might say that understanding and comprehension and systematization have their limits. Clearly God gave us reason for a reason. On that note popularity, prosperity and power have their place too. Yet they are limited in their ability to bring happiness and contentment, limited in their ability to bring peace and enlightenment, in their ability to give us eyes to see the kingdom of God. There are all sorts of bright and talented people who are neither content nor wise. This does not mean gifts are of no use, just that we ought not become addicted or idolize them. And perhaps we are in need of closing the language door and opening the love window.


Jesus notes that those born of the Spirit are like the wind; it “blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.” There is a mystical aspect to faith, we can see and feel its effects, but we can’t fully understand it. We cannot grasp hold of it and say, “Aha, I caught you.” Now that I have captured you, I can study you, define you and take the mystery away, the leap of faith away. We cannot say, “I have studied and read enough about love that I know what it is without being in love.” It doesn’t work.

Nicodemus is coming to Jesus to understand. He senses Jesus is someone special but wants to be talked into following the way. Nicodemus is a devout Pharisee, a “member of the ruling Jewish council and a “teacher of Israel.”   He comes in to have a reasoned, privileged, educated man’s conversation with Jesus, to figure it all out so he could know the right way. Before he risks too much, before this self contained man comes in the full light of day to dedicate his heart and soul, he wants to get it intellectually.

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Nicodemus’ grasping for a reasonable hold won’t work, he has to let go, he has to risk death, the privilege and respect that comes from his position and education, and in so doing, he will discover rebirth.

This is Jesus the mystic calling us to rebirth.

Jin Y Park notes that Enlightenment occurs when the usually automatized reflexivity of consciousness ceases, which is experienced as a letting go and falling into the void and being wiped out of existence…When consciousness stops trying to catch its own tail, I become nothing and discover that I am everything.

It may be a common trait of we Reformed Presbyterians, descendants of Puritans to think that we are doing the world a favor by postponing our own enlightenment or union with Christ until we have managed to understand and then fix the world. It is a salvation by works, but being righteously humble as we are, we see that we don’t deserve to enjoy our salvation until everyone else has it too. The problem is that the wisdom, grace and power to live into and sustain the work of the Spirit are realized in the Spirit. We love because we have first been loved.

When I go to church I want the preacher to challenge me, to surprise me, to make me think in a way I might not have anticipated. What am I missing? What haven’t I seen about this passage, about life? So I try to write sermons that challenge and enlighten me intellectually, and in the process, I hope they challenge and enlighten you. So I resonate with Nicodemus, I would love to sneak into Jesus crib one night and argue and pick his brain.

One of the troubling thoughts I had recently, after a surfing accident my brain and body stopped functioning properly, just as the world seemed to have taken a giant step backward, is that racism may exceed my ability to fight it, poverty may continue after I am gone, bigotry and selfishness and distorting the Gospel of Jesus Christ for selfish and national gain is beyond my amazing and glorious wisdom and work. It is not fair, don’t you see, that I, in all my righteousness, do not have the wisdom and power to make it all right before I die, or before my brain stops working. How could this be?

If I can’t think, or protest, or defend, or surf, or do yoga, or argue, who am I? When we lose those things that we think stabilize our identity, what is left? What is left if we can’t figure it out, when we can’t write and follow enough laws to make everything all right? When we can’t reason our way to God, what then?

That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. What is this crazy idea, that somehow God came into the flesh, lived, loved, suffered and died, willingly, lovingly, with patience, wisdom, joy and thanksgiving and death could not deny or contain him.


By the grace of God may we be stripped down naked, free from the trappings of the world as the day we pop out from our mother. May we find ourselves in relationship with God, like a fish in the sea, as one in love, knowing love by being found, filled with the spirit, and born again.   Perhaps the connection and understanding of God is less about inheritance and thought than about experience, coming out into the world of the Spirit. May God grant us the humility and courage to open to the experience of the Spirit of Christ, to move us from knowing about God secondhand, to experiencing first hand, from thinking about love to feeling God’s eternal love for us, now and forever.