The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
–Philemon 25 (ESV)
In a piece of music, grace notes are added, not because they are needed to make the melody, but because they make the melody more beautiful. The Graces of Greek mythology, Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”), bring charm, beauty, human creativity, and fertility. People who are considerate or thoughtful are said to have “good grace”. A particularly skilled dancer is said to be “graceful”, while an agreeable or charming personal quality is sometimes called a “saving grace”. You can sometimes receive something unexpected through another’s “good graces”. Archbishops are referred to as “Your Grace”. Are you starting to see the picture?
The Greek word charis, as we’ve already discussed, means gratitude, favor, joy, and goodwill. The English word “grace” comes from the Latin gratia which means favor, charm, and thanks. It is, for my money, the most beautiful word in our language, and one that has remained uncorrupted. To hear this word is to breathe a sigh of relief, to relax one’s shoulders, to even let a smile creep across our lips. Grace is not necessary for life, but what is life without it? Without grace, we are mere animals, slaves to the instinct to destroy and hoard, living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. The world leads us to expect nothing but tragedy. Grace is the spirit of comedy, the unforeseen joy so absurd that we cannot help but laugh. Grace opens us to creativity and adventure; every newborn baby is grace incarnate. If you’ve ever caught your breath at a beautiful sunset or gotten lost in a conversation over a cup of coffee or danced to your favorite song or had a really good cry, you’ve experienced just a taste of grace. It is the most superfluous thing in the world; it is the most essential thing in the world. Trying to define it is like trying to remember a dream after you wake up. “For by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8). It’s about so much more than heaven. It’s about being saved: from misery and death, from failure and despair, from the mundane and ordinary, even from ourselves. It’s what our faith is all about.
Paul ends his letter as he began it, wishing grace upon Philemon or, more specifically, on his spirit. In Greek, that last word is pneumatos, which means spirit but also wind and breath. Our spirit is as insubstantial and essential as our breath. As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Grace speaks to that part of ourselves that we cannot get a hold of, just as you cannot catch the wind. Paul wants, more than anything, for Philemon to experience grace, because only through that experience can he truly welcome Onesimus back as a brother. More than that, it is only through grace that all of them — Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon — can enter everlasting life. For the Holy Spirit is offered as a free gift by our Heavenly Father through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is a foretaste of heaven. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “Grace is but Glory begun, and Glory is but Grace perfected”. Eternal life does not begin when we die; it starts today. Instead of telling the world about heaven, wouldn’t it be better to give them a taste of heaven by showing them grace? Maybe we should start by offering it to ourselves.
Only Christianity is foolish enough to make the love of God unconditional. But that is our message for the world. Even if you are a thief and a runaway, even if you are a rich man making money off the backs of the poor, even if you are a prisoner condemned to die, God loves you. God loves you, God has forgiven you, God is not mad at you, and God will never leave you nor forsake you. Let us allow the grace of God into our spirits so that we may offer it to a world literally dying for it. Author and minister Frederick Buechner summarizes my point better than I could ever hope to:
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.
Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too. (Wishful Thinking, p. 38-39)
May the grace of Jesus Christ be with all of you.