A few days ago I was privileged to interview some Methodist presbyters for a role within the life of the Church. They were asked to describe some of the things that were distinctive about Methodism and, without exception, each had something to say about the all-inclusive nature of God’s love. I was reminded again of the breadth, depth and height of embracing grace that is at the heart of God’s relationship with human beings and indeed all of creation.
This concept of grace runs like blood in the veins of Methodists – the idea that God loves all, however wretched we might be; that God longs for our flourishing, however unwilling we might be; that God is at work within us and is transforming us, however unworthy we might understand ourselves to be. If, however, we only understand grace in this way, we can become comfortable, grateful and self-referencing – relieved that we can be saved and, indeed, saved to the uttermost. Our attention can remain focussed on a false duality of how very ‘bad’ we were and how very ‘good’ we are now that God’s work has been fulfilled in us. Left in this mind-set we might build the walls of the Church a little higher, make the doors a little stronger and remain content; demonstrating an unattractively sanctimonious attitude that turns God’s true economy of grace upside down.
If we were to consider the less comfortable and comforting aspects to grace, we might be prompted to a more outward looking and inclusive understanding of our relationship with God and with the world. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16) might help to illustrate the uncomfortable nature of God’s grace.
When I read this parable the first question I ask myself is, ‘who were the workers chosen first?’ In the context of the business world that we see around us it is not difficult to imagine the landowner choosing the fittest, the most attractive, the one’s who come with good references and the right experience. As the day of this bumper harvest continues at it becomes clear that the work cannot be finished without more help, the landowner returns again and again for more labour. Now the question becomes, ‘who were the workers chosen last?’ Again, in our world of payment by results, of the survival of the fittest, we can imagine that those in the market place close to the end of the day would be the weakest, the widow, the orphan, the alien – in today’s terms, the asylum seeker, the disabled person, the ‘strange’ person who, for whatever reason, does not fit in.
When it comes time for payment each is given a day’s wage, however many or few hours they have laboured. Those who worked for longer are furious – crying out ‘it’s not fair!’ and, to be honest, if you measure things by our contemporary, capitalist way of understanding business – it is not. ‘Fairness’ is not the point of this parable. To have paid anyone less than a day’s wage was to condemn them to death! The day’s wage would just about stretch to cover the basic needs of a labourer and their family. In God’s upside-down economy of grace, a ‘living wage’ is the least anyone might expect – God longs for us to have life and life in all its fullness.
So what of grace? The parable of the generous landowner points us to just how uncomfortable grace really is. We are delighted and relieved that God loves us just as much as God loves those we hold in high regard – just as much as Martin Luther King, Mary Seacole, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Boenhoeffer and anyone else we honour as examples of astonishing saints. What we find much more difficult to accept or celebrate is that God loves those we despise just as much as God loves us. God’s longing for all creation to be one does not exclude those who voted differently to us in the EU referendum, it does not exclude those who flew planes into the twin towers in New York, it does not even exclude those standing for President in the USA! That is the deep challenge of accepting God’s grace and in recognising that, we move beyond a safe, comfortable, self-righteous piety to a risky place where mission is prompted by the question, ‘If God’s longs for all to have life and life in all its fullness, what part do we have to play in making that a reality?”