(There but for the grace of God go I)
Have you ever had the experience where your friends have been invited to a party and you didn’t get an invite? You feel let down, left out, and a bit jealous of your friends all having a good time while you remain at home. You question why they didn’t invite you as you try to stem the rising bile of bitterness and resentment welling up inside you. If you’re like me, even at fifty years old, I find my self acting like a sulky child and saying, “I didn’t want to go to their stupid party anyway!”
Or, occasionally, you may get an invite to something very special, for example, a wonderful wedding or to a smart dinner with the governor. You excitedly place your invitation — the one with your names in bold print on the front — in a prominent place on the mantelpiece and your thoughts are excitedly consumed with what you will wear, the wonderful experiences that have yet to come, and how many days and minutes you have left to go.
Invitations matter don’t they? They carry weight and importance. To be invited to something means you matter and have worth in the eyes of the sender.
Jesus, in his teaching, talks a lot about invitations, and what our attitude should be to them. In telling his parables or stories he makes the point that we should express both humility and generosity. For example, when we are invited to a wedding banquet he says we shouldn’t sit down at the place of honour — i.e. next to the bride and groom — in case someone more important than us has been invited. Instead, we should sit down at the lowest place, so that we may be asked to come and sit closer to the top table. In other words, our attitude must be one of humility. Jesus goes on to tell us that when we throw a dinner party, we shouldn’t only invite our friends, family, or rich neighbours but invite the poor, marginalised, broken, or hurting. In other words, our attitude must also be one of generosity.
One of the pervading attitudes of our culture is that we don’t think that others are deserving of our love and support. We look at the circumstances of others — especially those that fall into the category of poor, marginalised, broken, or hurting — and label them as lazy, negative, self-obsessed, or in need of a good kick up the backside.
But here’s a thing. God sees every second of our lives lived, and experiences it as the present. God does not see us as who we are in the here and now, but who we have been, and, more importantly, who we will become.
The truth is that we do not know what someone else has lived, the pains they have endured, the traumas they have experienced, and the losses they have incurred — all of which have shaped their emotions, their character, their attitudes, their sense of self-worth, their sense of safety and security, and yes, their current circumstances.
I once worked in a prison with young offenders, and when I heard some of their stories of lack of support, lack of a loving family, absent parents, and the abuse and neglect they had suffered, it became abundantly clear that if I had lived their life and experienced their experiences, I would be exactly where they were; I would be the one in prison.
There is a proverb we say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It may come from a mid-sixteenth-century statement by chaplain to the king, John Bradford, who upon seeing a group of prisoners being led to their execution, exclaimed, “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” In other words, it is a statement of humility, that it is only by God’s grace that we are not living the mistakes, crimes, pain, or suffering of others.
The gospel, or good news of Jesus Christ, is an invitation. It is an invitation to a new life found in Him, and a new way of life inspired by Him. Christians are called to model God’s way of life and extend God’s invitation to all. It is a way of life marked by a combination of both humility and generosity.
A life that experiences the love of God is a life that begins a process of transformation. Christians, as Christ’s ambassadors, are called to be conduits of Christ’s love. As God’s Spirit lives in us, we extend God’s love to others. As we are witnesses to the difference Christ has made in our own lives we become excited by the possibilities of transformation in the lives of others. No matter where someone is in their life journey; no matter what mistakes they have made; no matter what circumstances they find themselves in; there is an open invitation by God to his banquet. There is an invitation with their name printed in bold on the front, and we are the ones to do the inviting.
This week, you will no doubt encounter those that are poor, marginalised, broken, or hurting. Journey with them and extend God’s love to them. Try to see them as the summation of their whole lives, and, importantly, through God’s transforming love, see who they might become in Him.