Grace and Fear
A sermon on Luke 5: 1-11 & Isaiah 6: 1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 8 February 2004

Extravagant grace can be terrifying because it asks nothing of us but a complete change of life!


Four weeks ago I had a birthday, and you folks very generously surprised me with a special birthday meal and two fabulous presents. But I received another gift on that occasion: a startling confrontation with some of the ugliness smuggled in my own heart and the consequent need to spend some time trying to understand better who I am and what goes on inside me. Because, on the spur of the moment that night, my reaction to your generous expression of love and appreciation was embarrassed, prickly, dismissive and downright ungracious.

At first I explained it away as concern for others who might not receive such gifts, and I convinced myself on the grounds that if you had done this for the tenth anniversary of my induction as pastor, it would have seemed more appropriate. But I now see that the real reason I would have been more comfortable with that is that it would safely confine the attention to my professional role and I would feel more in control, as though I had earned the gift instead of just being given it gratuitously.

The truth is that I was scared. Being valued, loved and appreciated frightens me, and when it is expressed in ways which are extravagant and generous I am scared spitless. It confronts me with my fears that I do not deserve your love and that if I am given something beyond what I have earned, I will then have to set about earning it retrospectively, in an attempt to repay a debt incurred by your grace.

I think something similar happened to Isaiah, and definitely to Peter, in the readings we heard earlier. Both received generous gifts. Isaiah was given a stunning experience of being brought into the presence of God. Peter was given the gift of a lottery-like catch of fish that he knew had nothing to do with his considerable ability as a fisherman, but was an unearned gift from the God who had come to him in Jesus. And startled by the sheer grace of these gifts, they both fell on their faces, overcome by their own unworthiness, and begged for the gift to be taken away. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a filthy sinner!” says Peter. Don’t make me accept what you are giving me. I’d rather work my guts out all night for half as much fish so that I owed nothing to anyone but myself.

Those of us who are confident in our abilities can use them as a hiding place. I can get up here and preach about grace, but make me the recipient of grace, and I recoil in terror. I can craft a sermon about it, but when it comes my way, it is out of my hands. I can’t control it and it unmasks me. I can talk the talk, but still secretly feel that I’ll manage to earn my own salvation through hard work, and not be dependent on anyone, even God, to give me anything for free.

Part of the reason we follow this pattern of worship each Sunday, is that it doesn’t ignore our fear, but leads us by the hand through this experience of grace. We gather and praise God’s generous love. We confess our unworthiness and hear the promise of gracious forgiveness. We hear God speak to us and we pray that God’s grace might heal the world, including us. We receive God’s gracious self-offering placed into our hands, and feed on gifts we could never earn or deserve. Gifts vibrant with life and love. Gifts of sheer grace. Gifts that have the power to unmask us and open before us the destiny for which we were created.

And perhaps it is precisely in that power that we find the paradox which makes grace so terrifying. On the one hand, grace is just sheer gift, extravagant and gratuitous, and asks absolutely nothing in return. But on the other hand, it asks everything of us. It demands nothing, but it confronts us with the possibility that we could live our lives on the basis of grace. It is an in-your-face question about whether life should be an endless cycle of debt and repayment, earning and being paid in kind, or whether we can turn our backs on that and live free in God’s economy where everything that matters is given gratuitously and nothing is ever owed or paid. And while that doesn’t ask of us any payment for the gifts of grace, it invites us to become people of grace, to give everything we are just as generously and extravagantly as we have received. It challenges us to give ourselves wholeheartedly to Jesus, to follow him, to join his community, and to be part of his body pouring ourselves out for the life of the world. It calls us to offer, “Here am I, Lord, send me.”

I don’t need to say anything more about this tonight, because in a moment we are going to be enacting the Christian response to this grace as Monique reaffirms her baptismal vows and we welcome her into the membership of the grace-formed community in this place. And so I’m going to allow the liturgical action to preach the rest of the sermon!