Ryan Fasani and Eric Paul-
“Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us.”
Every year at Christmas, my (Eric) Mom and Dad would pick up gifts for children through the Angel Tree Program at our church. I remember pouring over the lists of possible gifts we could buy, and I was always thankful that I was a part of a family that was giving beyond our familial boundaries. I assume that for many of us Christmas is a time that we give more; we recognize our abundance and want to share it with others, even if only for a short season.
After all, Christmas is the season of giving. As Christians, we recognize God’s gift of Christ for the world, “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). In this same passage, Paul admonishes us to then have the same attitude of Christ. As Christ is in the world, so ought we be in the world—servants. And so, gift giving has become a ritual that recognizes God’s gift of God’s self on behalf of the world’s brokenness. Christ is the gift of grace for us.
Over the past few weeks, I (Eric) listened to some friends talk about their recent experience with giving through the Salvation Army. Each year, the Salvation Army compiles a list of families who cannot afford giving gifts to their children and distributes this list to churches and organizations willing to help. These friends “adopted” one of the families and picked up everything off the list. A few days after the gifts were distributed, they received a phone call from the Salvation Army coordinator inquiring about the gifts that were given. Apparently, the family who had received the gifts called to complain that there were not enough presents, didn’t like the ones given, and was left unsatisfied.
The news hit pretty hard. They wondered whether they left something out, whether it was their fault. Then incredulity hit. How could this family have the nerve to call and say that the gifts were inadequate? How ungrateful! How rude! How self-entitled! Then one of my friends said, “The worst part is that this family just stripped me from the joy of giving. I no longer have that good feeling.”
I think we can sympathize with this position. Anyone who has worked for any amount of time with a social organization trying to combat poverty has come face to face with an array of responses, from sincere gratitude to outright rejection. Sometimes grace is received and sometimes it is even rejected.
Yet, how do we respond to grace rejected? What happens when the gifts of time, money, and friendship are trampled underfoot? Is our response to no longer offer our love and grace? Sometimes we think that if they cannot accept what we have to offer then it is better not to offer it. We would rather give to those who are willing to accept it, we reason with ourselves. In this scheme, though, our level of “charity” is in direct proportion to their level of “work.” Do they deserve these gifts? In this way, grace is no longer grace.
We ought to have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus.
John, in opening his gospel narrative, explains the incarnation in terms of giving and receiving. “He came to that which was his own and his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). It feels like an echo directly from the Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures in which The Lord tells Samuel that God alone has been rejected by the people (1 Samuel 8). This rejection of God’s gift culminates in the ultimate rejection: death on a cross. Miroslav Volf writes of this moment, “When God sets out to embrace the enemy, the result is the cross. On the cross the dancing circle of self-giving and mutually in-dwelling divine persons opens up for the enemy…We, the others—we the enemies—are embraced by the divine persons who love us with the same love with which” the divine persons love one another in communion (Exclusion and Embrace, 129).
The story of scripture is the story of a rejected Deity who refuses to be rejected. Grace is given despite the receiver’s response; God’s very nature is to continue showing grace and forgiveness. Like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God anticipates the return of the lost son, keeping a watchful eye on the distant horizon. Likewise, grace can be the only truly Christian response to the rejection of grace, just as Christ-the-Servant gave all the way to the cross.
There is a temptation here: that we would believe we have a “thing”—food, clothing, shelter, but namely, grace—like a present, which we must continue to give, even in the face of rejection. But that “thing” is not a thing at all, as if we have what the poor need, a commodity for giving. Christ was full (John 1:14), not because he was in possession of a “thing” called grace and therefore different than those in need, but that he could also be emptied (Phil. 2:7) and enveloped with humanity in the movement of God’s love. “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents” (Exclusion and Embrace, 129). We are not only the recipients of grace alongside the poor but we must continue being the extension of God’s first act of love. We are not the handlers of a gift but agents within a Divine drama of love in the face of rejection. In this way, agents who find themselves within the body of Christ give of themselves in such a way that creates space for receiving all into the life of love.
In such a drama—hopefully one that comes into focus during the Christmas season of giving—the lines of social and economic division dissipate and friendship and communion can be restored. But when the drama is reduced to the exchange of gifts, division re-emerges; when God’s grace is owned and its recipients are not transformed into agents, communion is severed (“This family just stripped me from the joy of giving”). And when the rejection of grace is reciprocated with resentment; God’s drama of servant-love found in Christ Jesus is distant. Alternatively, when grace upon grace is given despite circumstance, the community of believers begin to understand that when needs are met we are all blessed together.
-Ryan Fasani, Ex Director, and Eric Paul, Resident Theologian, are guest contributors of Micah Mandate from East Nashville Cooperative Ministry.
-ENCM is an East Nashville based, ecumenical ministry organizing neighbors and churches to develop a food-secure community through emergency food assistance, urban food growing and allocation, and nutrition and cooking education.