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Accepting God's Free, Unconditional Love

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[Editors' note: This Advent season, we will be running a series of reflections on the Bread Blog from members of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. The lectionary readings for this post are Isaiah 29:13-24; John 5:19-29; Titus 5:1-16. Keep reading the Bread Blog for more Advent reflections each day.]

Today’s lectionary passages are a challenge for us because ultimately we believe in God’s offering of grace to all without preconditions or threats. The passages from John and Isaiah, in particular, sound ominous: either behave or be condemned to certain damnation. For a person who takes their faith seriously, the prospect of eternal condemnation could discourage that person from freely choosing God. 

When our daughters Jessica and Emma were very young, we would, on occasion, resort to bribes or threats of punishment -- an extra cookie or a timeout -- to encourage good behavior. Immediate gratification or punishment -- experienced parents usually agree -- can work with children who are as yet too young to be reasoned with, who do not yet understand more abstract concepts of fairness or justice, or who have not yet developed the ability to understand the full consequences of their actions. 

These Bible passages sound like the voice of someone instructing a young child who does not yet have the capacity to engage in, and begin to comprehend, a discussion of God’s grace.  John and Isaiah resort to clear, unambiguous threats of what will happen to those that do not behave. Paul’s letter to Titus, similarly, is a rather straightforward checklist of do’s and don’ts on being a good Christian leader. 

Our daughters are now young adults. Using bribes result in temporary or indifferent success; and they are certainly too old for a timeout. Influencing their behavior and choices now requires us to reason with them and appeal to their conscience and good nature to do the right thing and/or avoid bad choices. If, however, we are unable to convince them, we shrug our shoulders and shake our heads with exasperation. 

Yet we still prepare to support them come what may. Our love for them is unconditional. Ultimately, there are many paths to accepting God’s grace. The way in which we come to accept God’s grace is immaterial to God; whether it is through instruction (bribes and punishments), study of scripture, the counsel of a friend, or some other path. We believe that preparations for Advent -- for the coming of Christ -- remind us that God bestows grace as we choose to accept it, freely. 

Paul and Gwenn Gebhard are members of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Visit their website at www.nyapc.org.


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