Last week I quoted from Paul Tillich’s sermon entitled: You are Accepted. Richly dense and worth every hour of thoughtful reflection from the reader. He begins by admitting that: “There are few words more strange to most of us than “sin” and “grace.” … But there is a mysterious fact about the great words of our religious tradition: they cannot be replaced.”
Tillich then proceeds to dive into the depth of our human existence to rediscover the meaning of these two great words. Near the end of his sermon he describes what happens when grace strikes us. Seldom have I read words that provoke such longing:
We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it.
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.
After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may riot believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others … We experience the grace of being able to look frankly into the eyes of another, the miraculous grace of reunion of life with life. … We experience the grace which is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between [humanity] and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belongs to life. … And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to ourselves. … For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self-complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. … But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say “yes” to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we say that grace has come upon us.”
Grace is not just amazing. It’s radical and revolutionary. Political and personal in saving scope. Transforming relations between nations as well as transforming our inner most being. If these words also provoke a longing within you, may our longing be our prayer for grace to strike.