A Work of Grace

April 30, 2023 homily on Psalm 23 and 1 Peter 2:19-25 by Pastor Galen

For grace is clearly at work when a person accepts undeserved pain and suffering and does so because [they are] mindful of God. – 1 Peter 19:25 VOICE translation

Grace is more than Getting Away with Something

Every morning when I drive my kids to school, my kids and I listen to the local Christian music radio station, whose tagline is “Encouraging, uplifting songs that help make your day better.” One song that’s quite popular on that station right now is a very upbeat happy song called “Grace Got You”.  The first verse goes like this:

Have you ever met those who keep hummin’ when the song’s through?

It’s like they’re living life to a whole different tune. And have you ever met those that keep hoping when it’s hopeless? It’s like they figured out what the rest haven’t yet.

The song goes on to say that they’ve figured out that “grace got you.” And then the chorus says:

Laugh, ’til your whole side’s hurtin’ Smile like you just got away with somethin’, why? ‘

Cause you just got away with somethin’ Ever since, ever since Grace got you

One day I started listening to the words of the chorus, and I thought, wait a minute. Is that what grace is really about? “Getting away with something?” Does grace mean that we’re just let off the hook, and that it doesn’t matter what we think or say or do, because God has already forgiven us?

Well, I believe we’ll see in our Scripture lessons this morning, that grace is much larger and more comprehensive than that. Yes, we are forgiven because of God’s grace. God’s grace pardons and cleanses us, and grace is in fact “freely bestowed on all who believe” as we sang in our opening hymn. But grace is also what draws us in and helps us to trust in Jesus in the first place. And it’s what heals us and restores us, and sets us back on the right track. Grace is what empowers us to do the right thing even when it’d difficult. And ultimately grace is what transforms us more and more into Christ’s image and likeness so that we want to do the right thing, and so that we become agents of God’s mercy and grace to others. So let’s dig into our Scripture lesson in 1 Peter chapter 2, and then we’ll turn to Psalm 23.

Grace Empowers

Here in 1 Peter 2:19, Peter says, ”grace is clearly at work when a person accepts undeserved pain and suffering and does so because [they are] mindful of God” (1 Peter 2:19). Notice here that grace is not about getting away with doing bad things, but rather it’s a force that empowers us to do the right thing, even if and when we may be persecuted for doing so.

Now if you remember from a few weeks ago when we began our study of 1 Peter, this letter was written to a new generation of Christians, many of whom were Gentiles who had been born after the time that Jesus lived on this earth, and so they had never met or even seen Jesus in the flesh. They had only heard stories about him from Peter and the other disciples who had walked with Jesus. 

And because of the many misunderstandings about Christianity in the broader society of that day, they were often persecuted for their faith in Christ. Even if the Christians weren’t being physically persecuted, they faced rejection from family, and economic hardships, because people were sometimes hesitant to hire the Christians or do business with them because of their faith.

And this was because Christians were seen on the one hand as being narrowminded since they refused to participate in the cults of the Greco-Roman gods, and they only believed in and worshipped Jesus. On the other hand, the Christians were seen as dangerously progressive because, in their church services, women and men, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people worshipped freely together. When they came together in worship, people of every stratum of society prayed and prophesied and held positions of leadership and authority. And this sort of radical egalitarianism made the Romans fearful that Christianity was going to upend the very social mores of the day.

And so the Christians faced a lot of challenging circumstances that could have made them want to hide the fact that they were Christians, or to give in to the social pressures of the day, or to retaliate when they were mistreated. But Peter encourages them by pointing out that God’s grace was at work within them, empowering them to do the right thing despite the persecution they were facing. 

He goes on to say that we don’t receive any blessing or credit for enduring hardships when it’s our own fault, or when we’re punished for doing something wrong, but rather grace it as work within us when we “do what is right and yet are punished and endure it patiently…[then] God will be pleased with [us]” (1 Peter 1:20). And then Peter gives the example of Jesus Christ, who endured suffering and mistreatment, not because of any wrongdoing of his own, but rather Jesus suffered because of the sins that we have committed, and for the wrongs that we have done. 

In other words, Peter is saying, if people don’t like us because we’re jerks or if we are punished for disobeying the law, there’s no blessing in that, but if we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and we responded peacefully and without retaliation like Christ, that is God’s grace working within us.

Grace Forgives and Heals

And then, after recounting the way that Jesus bore our sins on the cross, and suffered and endured hardship without retaliation, in order to take the punishment for our sins, freeing us from the burden and guilt of sin, Peter closes by saying, “For there was a time when you were like sheep that wandered from the fold, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your lives” (1 Peter 2:25). In referring to God as our Shepherd and the Guardian, Peter is referencing a motif found throughout the Hebrew Bible, and particularly in passages such as Psalm 23. 

Here in the first part of Psalm 23, we see another aspect of God’s grace—a type of grace that Methodists have often talked about as “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace is the grace that was at work in our lives even before we were aware of God’s presence. Maybe you had parents or grandparents who took you to church, or maybe there was a Christian in your life who modeled what it looks like to love the way Jesus loved. Grace is all around us, always drawing us in and pointing us toward God, whether or not we realize it. Prevenient grace is the green pastures and still waters in Psalm 23—those blessings from God that help us learn to love and trust and depend on God. 

Here in Psalm 23, we have this beautiful image of God as our Shepherd. Looking out for us, protecting us, as a shepherd protects his sheep. But towards the end of the passage, I always thought that David switched to a different image. In verse 5, when David talks about God anointing his head with oil, I thought he had moved on from the imagery of sheep and a shepherd, and was talking about how God had anointed him to be king. But that was until I listened to a podcast interview this week with a young man who grew up in the county of Ghana with a grandmother who was a goatherder. 

In the interview, the young man described how his grandmother would tend to her goats, seeking out fresh pasture for her goats to graze in every day. And he went on to talk about how the goats would often butt heads with one another, and get bruises on their heads, and flies would come and attack the bruises on the goat’s foreheads, and how his grandmother would have to take oil and rub it into the wounds on the goats’ foreheads in order to keep the flies away, and how she would mix in medicinal herbs to help heal the wounds on the goats’ foreheads. 

And when it came to that part of the interview, all of a sudden the end of Psalm 23 began to take on a whole new meaning for me. I realized in listening to the story about the Ghanain goatherder that Psalm 23 follows this imagery of God as our shepherd all the way through. Yes, God provides for our needs, as a shepherd provides for her sheep, but God also ministers to the places where we’ve been hurt and wounded, like a goatherder administers oil to her goats that have gone astray, or who have butted heads with one another and gotten bruised and wounded.

And I began to see how Psalm 23 fits together with 1 Peter chapter 2 to provide such a beautiful and comprehensive and all-encompassing picture of grace that goes far beyond the idea that grace is simply “getting away” with doing bad things. I saw that yes, grace includes forgiveness, but it’s also about healing, and restoration to wholeness, it’s about drawing us closer to the presence of God as our Shepherd, and forming and shaping us to be more like Jesus, and empowering us to be agents of hope and healing and redemption and forgiveness in this world. 

Because you see, when the goats are butting heads with one another, it’s not always easy to determine whose to blame. Goats butt heads for a variety of reasons, including establishing dominance, relieving stress, and communicating danger, but they also sometimes do it for play. But no matter why they are butting heads with each other, they can become bruised and wounded all the same. 

And this made me think about how sometimes we too get a bit banged up and bruised, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we may be misunderstood or maligned. Sometimes we may even feel stressed or backed into a corner and we may make decisions that turn out not to be so good. Often we end up hurting ourselves or others, or getting hurt by others, and it’s not always so clear whose fault it is.

But that’s where I like to imagine God in God’s grace as that grandmotherly Ghananian goatherder, mixing the medicinal herbs into the oil and gently taking each and every one of her little goats into her arms, and rubbing the oil and medicinal herbs into their foreheads.  Just loving on her goats, without judging them, or scolding them, or trying to figure out whose to blame or who started it. Just ministering to their needs, because they are hers, and she is theirs.

Grace Makes Us More Like Christ 

This morning I’m sure there are some of us who have gotten a bit banged up and bruised by life. Maybe it’s because of choices we’ve made, maybe because of what others have done to us, maybe a bit of both. Sometimes it’s not clear. We know that we should not see God’s grace as a license to do whatever we want, but so often despite our best efforts, we fall short of doing the right thing. We make choices that we think are best for ourselves, but we end up hurting others, or getting hurt in the process. That’s where God’s saving, justifying grace comes in. We can lean heavily on that grace, knowing that God is right there, ready to welcome us back home. So this morning, if you’ve strayed away, know that Jesus is ready and waiting to administer healing to you this morning. Listen to the voice of the shepherd, and come home.

But there may be some of you here this morning who have been trying to do the right thing, but you’re facing persecution and challenges for doing so. Maybe your friends or coworkers want nothing to do with you because you’re a believer or because you go to church. And this is where you also will need to lean into the grace that God offers us to do the right thing despite the challenging circumstances. Lean in to the power of the Holy Spirit to not retaliate in anger, or to try to get back at them or get even, or even to see what you can get away with. But rather ask God to empower you to love them with Christ’s love, to be an agent of mercy and grace, and healing and forgiveness, even as Christ has forgiven us.

God’s grace is more pervasive, and more comprehensive than we could ever imagine. And so this morning, may we lean in to the power of grace. May we listen to the voice of our Shepherd and Guardian and accept the grace that is given to us to grow more and more into Christ’s likeness, and may we be empowered to live as agents of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness in this world. Amen.

Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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