The Parable of the Vineyard

parable of the vineyard

…’Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Matthew 20:15-16

What looks like failure is success
And what looks like poverty is riches
When what is true looks more like a knife
It looks like you’re killing me
But you’re saving my life

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On Sacraments

communionThroughout its history, the church has often been divided over its praxis of certain sacred actions, with baptism and the Lord’s Supper forming the center of this debate. Pointing to the work of God witnessed in the Incarnation, some have chosen to call these actions “sacraments” and claim that God is present and active in one way or another when these actions are performed in worship. Others reject this claim and have instead chosen to focus on scriptural obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ by referring to these actions as “ordinances.” As a variety of faith communities have formed and re-formed over the centuries, all have sought their place on the praxeological spectrum between sacraments and ordinances. My personal journey has led me through several faith communities occupying a variety of locations on this spectrum. After being a member of Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and conservative, evangelical, non-denominational churches, I have now found my way to yet another branch of the Protestant church family: the Vineyard church. In its statement of faith, the Vineyard church affirms its belief in the two ordinances committed to the church by Jesus Christ in the New Testament: water baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[1] This paper will explore and critique the theological traditions which undergird Vineyard’s belief in these ordinances. It will conclude with a presentation of my own understanding of the sacred actions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacramental ordinances.”

The Vineyard Church began in the late 1970s on the west coast of the United States and came to be associated with a “Third Wave” of charismatic renewal.[2] John Wimber, who led the movement from 1982 until his death in 1997, drew from his heritage in the Quaker church to focus his mission on empowering “ordinary” believers to do the works of the Spirit.[3] Wimber’s fundamental “desire to give the ministry back to the people” along with his emphasis on personal experiences with the Holy Spirit locate the Vineyard Church comfortably in the anti-liturgical tradition of the Free Church, which gave birth to the Quakers, the Baptists, among others.[4]

According to Robert Webber, a key characteristic of the Free Church tradition was its understanding that God personally communicates saving grace in response to an individual’s choice for salvation, which rejects the notion of baptism as God’s chosen means of communicating saving grace.[5] This was a significant development because it allowed individuals to receive salvation apart from baptismal rites administered by a hierarchical church authority, which had been severely corrupt in the past. This Free Church idea originated in the thought of Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Reformer, who “was convinced that faith came through the Holy Spirit alone apart from physical channels or external means.”[6] Subsequent Free Church traditions adopted Zwingli’s Bible-centric approach to worship, which gave value to a direct, “supremely inward” experience in the minds and hearts of individuals.[7] In this kind of worship, there was no place for any physical thing or human tradition which deigned to mediate God’s grace, like bread, wine, or water; individuals were freed to receive the grace of God for themselves.

Within this theological tradition, the sacred actions of the church were defined simply as “ordinances.” In opposition to a sacramental view which understood the communication of God’s grace in or through the sacred actions, ordinances were conceived as “emblems, symbols, or expressions of the grace already imparted through Jesus by the Spirit [emphasis added].”[8] The Vineyard Church’s statement that the ordinances are “available to all believers” highlights their belief in the presence of faith in the individual before an ordinance is ever performed. The term “ordinance” also defines why the church continues to perform its sacred actions: Jesus Christ “ordained” these actions for the church in the New Testament. The ordinances are performed out of obedience to Christ’s command. This dimension is also clearly reflected in the Vineyard Church’s statement. As an ordinance, baptism functions as the believer’s public confession of faith in Jesus Christ and as a symbolic participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.[9] The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper functions as a memorial – a “devotional act” performed by a believing worshipper who “remembers, meditates, thinks upon, and recalls God’s great act of salvation.”[10] The Vineyard Church’s praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper directs individual worshipers to “follow biblical commands and to remember what Jesus did on the cross.”[11] In conclusion, the impetus of the ordinances falls on the faith and action of the individual worshiper.

While it is necessary to preserve an individual’s freedom to know God’s grace and be empowered for ministry, this freedom should not form the foundation of the Vineyard Church’s praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These sacred actions invite the church into deeper life with the Triune God who exists as perfect communion. The Parent, Child, and Spirit are not individuals, but persons. The person is inconceivable apart from a mutual relationship with another in which both identities have freely chosen to affirm the absolutely unique otherness they see in each other. The life of the Trinity reveals a kind of freedom that is for another; a freedom that is “identical with love.”[12] The reality of God’s Triune life reveals a way to preserve personal integrity without compromising community through individualism. If the praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Suppers in the Vineyard Church is to be an acceptable act of worship to the Triune God, it cannot be a private, individualistic act. Rather, these acts should be performed as signs which point to all the ways in which God pours out grace through the mutual, reciprocal, loving relationships in the life of a local faith community.

I believe this praxeological shift will require the Vineyard Church to allow for a more sacramental theological understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The current praxis, which places a heavy emphasis on a very individualistic doctrine of salvation, needs to be enriched by a restored doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the church sees that “God wills, indeed, delights in using tangible, earthy means to draw near to his [sic] image bearers.”[13] A healthy understanding of the Incarnation should remove any suspicion held towards the possibility that God’s grace could be received through physical objects like bread, wine, and water. This understanding also reminds the church of God’s communal vision for creation and of their vocation as image-bearers to “keep” the creation in a way that nurtures and protects the ability of all created things to fulfill their God given purposes and come together in mutual, life-giving relationships.

My understanding of the praxis of baptism and the Lord’s Supper leaves room for God to be present and active in the sacred action alongside the faith of the worshiper. The freedom of the worshiper is not impeded by a sacramental theology; the worshiper has no real freedom apart from the freedom they have in God, which is not an individualistic freedom from others, but a simultaneously personal and communal freedom for and with others. This freedom is found only in communion with the Triune God who is experienced in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. While I affirm the Vineyard Church’s belief in the sacred actions as ordinances, I believe these actions are more than exercises in individual piety. I believe that God is especially present and active as the church gathers to celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God is free to communicate grace through any person and any physical means. The church should be open to receive God’s grace at all times, but especially during these sacred actions. In conclusion then, I believe I hold a moderate position on the sacrament-ordinance spectrum which could be described as a belief in “sacramental ordinances.”


[1] The Vineyard Church USA states in their pamphlet of core values and beliefs: “We believe that Jesus Christ committed two ordinances to the Church: water baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both are available to all believers.” A hard copy of this statement is attached.

[2] Wonsuk Ma, “A ‘First Waver’ Looks at the ‘Third Wave’: A Pentecostal Reflection on Charles Kraft’s Power Encounter Terminology,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 19, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 189.

[3] Donald E. Miller, “Routinizing Charisma: The Vineyard Christian Fellowship in the Post-Wimber Era,” PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 25, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 219.

[4] Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 114.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 112.

[7] Ibid., 112, 114-115.

[8] Amos Yong, “Sacraments and Ordinances,” in Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity, ed. Stanley M. Burgess (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), 345.

[9] Ibid., 346.

[10] Webber, 245.

[11] Rev. Larry Ellis, “Baptists (Evangelical Denominations and Independent Baptist Churches),” in The Complete Library of Christian Worship: The Sacred Actions of Christian Worship, ed. Robert Webber, Vol. 6 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 8.

[12] John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 358.

[13] Christopher A. Hall, Worshipping with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), loc 140, Kindle edition.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: Proclaiming Peace

As I consider the relationship between church renewal and evangelism, the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians come to mind: “[Christ Jesus] proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.”1

In the Ephesian context, those who were “far off” were the Gentiles; the “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”2 The world today is full of “Gentile” people who are estranged from God, God’s story, and God’s people.

For Paul, those who were “near” were the Jews; the chosen, covenanted children of Abraham. Many of the Jews did not listen to the testimony of Paul concerning the saving work of God in Christ Jesus, but some, along with many Gentiles, heard this testimony and believed. The communities they formed became the foundation for the vast, diverse network of communities and institutions known today as the church.

By the Spirit’s power, Christ Jesus still comes today and announces peace to all people in all times and in all places. This universal work of peace provides a framework for understanding the relation between church renewal and evangelism: church renewal is what happens when the peace of Christ comes by the Spirit to those who are “near” and evangelism is what happens when this same peace comes by this same Spirit to those who are far off. In either case, the purpose and goal is for all people to be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” in order to “gather up all things in [Christ].”3

While Paul’s words in Ephesians highlight the unity between church renewal and evangelism, they should not be used to obscure the differences between these two works of God’s saving grace. “Church” renewal implies the existence of a church: a community which has responded to God’s call to be God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. This group of people is constituted by their corporate and individual response – a conversion – to God’s gracious presence. However, this response is not a singular event. It is an ongoing journey through history which God’s people must walk together with “fear and trembling” as God gives them power to do so.4 This power is none other than the presence of the Spirit who continually evangelizes the church as it struggles to live out its identity as God’s people for God’s world. The church is renewed by its continual conversion to the peacemaking, reconciling ways of Christ who confronts all of its idolatrous tendencies to seek its own good and ignore others.

This process of renewal is one by which God invites God’s own wayward people back into God’s mission in order to bring greater healing and wholeness to them and to the world. It must be noted that church renewal, while originating in God and coming only as a gift of God’s grace, is a set of practices which continually prepare the church to receive its renewal and enter more deeply into the reign of God. Through practices such as hospitality, Sabbath, thanksgiving, forgiveness, Eucharist, spiritual discernment, public worship, prayer, and evangelism the church makes space for the Spirit to come and bring new life.

Evangelism, on the other hand, is a practice of the church whereby God’s people help others say yes to God’s invitation and become active participants with God’s people on God’s mission for God’s world. Through evangelism, the church announces the good news of God’s reign to all people: the peace and love for which the world groans has come to life in Jesus Christ and is real today through the abiding presence of the Spirit who calls and empowers all people to restore and renew all creation.

This announcement is both verbal and embodied; the church’s life is shaped by the story it tells. In fact, the church should be a living demonstration of that story. While this announcement is universal, it must also be particular. The church does not exist in abstract but in specific times and places formed by unique histories and guided by differing values. In order to proclaim peace, the church must know its place and how that place uniquely suffers from a lack of peace. This dynamic process of becoming “all things to all people” is essential to the church’s work of evangelism.5 It is one way – a vital way – that the church fulfills its identity as God’s people who participate in God’s mission for God’s world. Without evangelism, there would be no church to renew.

1 Eph. 2:17, NRSV.

2 Eph. 2:12.

3 Eph. 2:22, 1:10.

4 Phil. 2:12-13.

5 1 Cor. 9:22.

Amos, Over-Realized Eschatology, and the “Here and Now”

This morning at church we introduced a new worship song to be our “anthem” for the coming year. It’s called “Here and Now” and it was written by Eddie Kirkland out of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s a great anthem song… just take a listen:

It’s got that “Let’s go change the world” kind of vibe right? If there’s one word I would choose to describe this song, I think it would be: confident… possibly too confident. Just read the chorus:

Let Your mercy rise
Let Your hope resound
Let Your love in our hearts be found

Let Your grace run free
Let Your name bring peace
Heaven come in the here and now

That’s a bold claim: heaven come… right now! If that line sounds familiar, it’s because Kirkland borrowed it from Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about how to pray. In Matthew’s version of the “Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus tells his disciples to pray “Our Father in heaven,hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). When Kirkland sings “heaven,” he’s using a shorthand version of “[God’s] kingdom come, [God’s] will be done.”

But, what do we usually think of we think of the word “heaven”? Most Christian folk would probably think of angels, clouds, harps, no tears, perfect peace, life with God, etc, etc… They might also think of the “opposite” of heaven, ie hell, fire, brimstone, judgement, eternal punishment, and all the rest. When we ask about heaven and hell, we’re asking about what happens when we die;  will we exist throughout eternity and what will that look like? Basically, we’re asking this: “what’s the end game here? when I come to my end (ie death), what happens next?”

In the wide and wonderful world of theology, these are questions about eschatology; personal eschatology to be precise. So, how do we make sense of these personally eschatological questions about heaven and hell in light of this song? It seems like the song has a different understanding of “heaven” since the lyrics are asking God to bring “heaven… in the here and now” – not when we die. For those who sing this song, “heaven” seems to be a reality that is experienced in normal, everyday life. God’s mercy and hope, grace and peace, God’s love is here – right now! Why wait till your dead to start living right!?!?!

The theological perspective behind this song is what most theologians would call a “realized” eschatology. Instead of thinking that eternal life with God will only be real some time in the future, after death, eternal life can be “realized” today, here and now. We can see it and touch it and feel it; life with God can be “real”-ized, ie become real. Personally, I think this is a great approach. Eternal life begins now. Nowhere is this clearer to me in Scripture than in Jesus’ “mission statement” in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, there’s a lot of great stuff in this verse, but I want to focus on that last phrase: “the year of the Lord’s favor.” One important thing to note is that Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah; mostly Isaiah 61:1-2 and some other phrases pulled from other parts of Isaiah 40-66. Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet and who was writing to God’s people as they were exiled in Babylon. In chapters 40-66, Isaiah is proclaiming a hopeful vision; God will bring Israel home; a new end was in sight for Israel, a new day was dawning – the “day of the Lord.” You could say that Isaiah 40-66 is all about eschatology. Israel’s future is at stake and they need hope. When Jesus quotes this passage, he’s saying that the “day of the Lord” has arrived, the “year of the Lord’s favor” has come, Israel’s hope was to be “realized” in him! This passage is a cornerstone for those who espouse a “realized eschatology.” You can see strong influences of this passage in the lyrics of “Here and Now.”

So, this is all great stuff but what’s the point? Realized eschatology is cool and all – “Heaven come! Now!” – but it can go too far. We Christians can sometimes get so fired up about how powerful and loving and just God is that we get a bit over confident. Our eschatology becomes over-realized. In our zeal for “the day of the Lord” to come, we forget how God became vulnerable, emptied himself, and overturned all the expectations of God’s people for a quick, catastrophic overthrow of the Roman empire and a triumphal return of Israel and its king. We forget that Jesus was murdered on a Roman cross.

I mention Amos in the title of this post. I think this prophet has a good word for us to remember as we long for “the day of the Lord”

Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
 It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

Amos wrote these words to a group of people who had lost sight of what it meant to live as God’s people. Even though they “worshiped” the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, injustice had become the norm in their society; the poor were trampled and sold for a pair of shoes. For this people, Amos says the “day of the Lord” – the day when justice rolls down like a mighty river and righteousness like a rushing stream – will be a day of reckoning, a day of emptying, of crucifixion. These folks just didn’t realize that God actually despised their worship.

As I sing this song at my church over the next few weeks, the words of Amos will be looming large in my mind. Can I really sing it with authenticity? Do I really understand the cost of following Jesus into the “day of the Lord”? If “heaven” does come, will it be “as though [I] fled from a lion only to meet a bear”? The world I live in is very much like the world of Amos; violence, injustice, and suffering seem to rule the day while I live in relative comfort and security. In other words, I have a lot to lose. Realized eschatology is great, and I’ll still sing this song, but I must remember and begin to live as if I really believe that God’s grace, this experience of eternal life that I can see, feel, and touch right now, is not cheap: “[Grace] is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship).

May God continue to lead me, to lead us, on the downward way of Christ. May I decrease, so that Christ may increase. May God’s light shine into the darkness of my heart and my world to expose the ways I bring “hell” to myself and others all while praying for “heaven” to come.

Will Campbell on Hope and Discipleship

[Jesus] never demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever.

He talked of such things as a cup of cold water. Ah, but we must build a global sprinkler system. And while we are appointing committees and electing boards and creating giant agencies to build the global sprinkler system the one near at hand perishes from dehydration as we pass by on the other side.

The inherent danger in creed, in belief over faith, Edith Hamilton said, is that belief is passive. Faith is active and leads to discipleship. Creed, or belief, simply requires recitation. What’s the point in believing a whale swallowed a man unless we understand that it is a story about justice?

The problem with biblical literalism is that it is biblical illiteracy. The words are known but not the tune. The Bible is a book. A book about who God is. It is not a scientific dissertation to be required in Caesar’s academy. But again I wander.

Where, then, is there hope? If not in institutions, in bigness, in belief, certitude or creed, where is it? In freelance acts of discipleship, I believe. Certainly grace abounds and there is hope.

…There is hope, for there the star of Christmas shines again and there the Star of David glows anew. For there is Immanuel: God with us.

Will Campbell, in remarks given to the Associated Baptist Press in 1994.

A tough word for a seminarian to hear, but a good word nonetheless.

My Credo

[At the beginning of last semester, I had to write a personal Credo for my systematics class. The Credo expressed my belief in the Trinity, creation, humanity, the Bible, sin, and grace. Last week, I began the spring semester, which means another systematics class and another Credo. This one expresses my belief in Jesus Christ, salvation, the church, the Holy Spirit, and the “end.” These Credos are like snapshots; they express my faith “right now” (or a few months ago) in 400-600 words. I would probably change some of the things I said in my first Credo after taking my first systematics course and I’ll probably want to change some things in the Credo I wrote for this semester, but that’s the whole point. What would you say in your Credo?]

I believe that God exists as a single, completely unified Trinitarian plurality – Parent, Child, and Spirit. In this Trinity, God is revealed as a community of mutually indwelling persons engaged in an eternal, ongoing act of self-giving love. This God is active, creative, holy, good, just, and full of steadfast love. I believe that God is always on the move with a purpose: the Parent sends the Child to redeem the world; the Child and Parent send the Spirit to empower the Church, which is sent into the world to enter and receive God’s Kingdom.

I believe that God created all that is seen and known along with all that is unseen and unknown. This act of creation was an outpouring of God’s infinite, creative love. It is a good gift in which God is pleased. While it is separate from God, Creation serves as a reflection of its communal Creator as it reveals complex, interdependent relational webs amongst its creatures and their environments which are characterized by trust, care, and nurture.

I believe that human beings are God’s creative masterpieces. They are creatures, but they are set apart from the rest of Creation because they – male and female – are made in God’s own image. God takes delight in these image-bearers and calls them very good. I believe that human beings are created for perfect communion with God, others, and all of Creation. This communion reveals the goodness of God which evokes continual praise and adoration from all God’s creatures.

I believe that sin is any attempt to live life on human terms in opposition to God. Human beings are always prone to sin. This tendency infects every human individual and every human system. Sin causes brokenness and suffering as it corrupts the goodness of all Creation by leading it towards death.

I believe that Scripture is composed of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments found in the Bible. It is inspired by God, but this inspiration does not disrespect the humanity of its authors. It is the authoritative narrative to which every follower of God must be committed. Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it reveals and points to the Word of God.

I believe that grace is God’s unmerited favor secured for all Creation by the perfect life, sacrificial death, and miraculous, embodied resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the Child of God. In Jesus Christ, grace is freely available for all who would receive it. For those who would receive it, it is the present-day power of new creation life that overcomes sin and death. While remaining free, it commands complete surrender and obedience to the work of God.

I believe that Jesus Christ is God: the absolutely unique Trinitarian person who exists as God in eternal, mutual relations with God the Parent and God the Spirit. I believe that Jesus Christ was born into this world as a Jewish baby in a small, Palestinian village during the time of the ancient Roman Empire. Existing simultaneously as both truly God and truly human, Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah of Israel who accomplished God’s work of salvation for all creation.

I believe that salvation is participation in the life of the Triune God for all eternity. This life is the experience of shalom: the peace, justice, reconciliation, healing, forgiveness of sin, and restoration for all creation revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. This reality of salvation can begin in the present by all who would receive the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ whose sacrificial death and victorious resurrection has defeated death and inaugurated a new reign of life.

I believe that the church is the body of Christ in history. The church is a community of all those who have made Jesus Christ their way to truth and life. The church is a public, social, communal embodiment of salvation; an imperfect demonstration of the way of life which only makes sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. The church is a pilgrim people: citizens of this world who strive to love the world as God has loved it, but whose ultimate citizenship lies in the new creation world which is coming to life even now.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is God: the absolutely unique Trinitarian person who exists as God in eternal, mutual relations with God the Parent and God the Child. The Spirit is the power of God at work in the world bringing about the new creation. The Spirit indwells the church to be a people of shalom. The Spirit gives gifts to empower and build up the church. The Spirit is comforter, guide, and advocate for those who seek the salvation of God.

I believe that the future belongs to God. The sin and suffering of the world will be eternally damned and God’s reign will be experienced for all time by all people, places, and things in a new creation which perfectly reflects the glorious life of love witnessed in its Triune Creator. I live with hope because God is on the way.

Marriage: A Gift of Grace

[Just to clear up any confusion: I wrote this sermon for a preaching class I’m in this week. I wrote it with my sister-in-law Hannah and her fiance Nate in mind. While I won’t have the honor of delivering this at their wedding (however, I do have the honor of being a groomsmen!), I hope it encourages them and all of us who are striving to faithfully love each other in all our various relationships.]

Weddings are big occasions. While they can be wonderful celebrations of love, friendship, and family, they can also be a lot of work. Of course, I’m a man, so I actually have little idea of all that has to happen, except for one thing: gift registries. I don’t know who invented this tradition, but we’re officially NOT friends. Of course I enjoy receiving gifts – who doesn’t – but going to all those stores and signing up for plates, and silverware, and bed sheets is just not my thing. But, as couples often do, my wife Cassie and I made a compromise when it came to making our gift registries: I would come along and help but only if I got to be in charge of the little barcode-scanner gun. I had a great time at Sears – you know those little scanners kind of sound like lasers?! I was actually a little excited when we left Sears and went to Bed, Bath, Beyond, but then it all fell apart. What happened? Apparently, BBY thinks that couples need an employee to follow them around the store so they can ask us a 1000 times if we’ve thought about nice it would be to have our own pasta maker, or sweet tea kettle, or some other vaguely useful kitchen appliance.  Oh, and this employee got to hold the barcode scanner – not me; that was a deal breaker. (Nate, I hear you had a similar experience?) After it was all said and done, we ended up with a lot of very nice gifts that we really needed and appreciated very much. Weddings are full of gifts aren’t they? Registries, parties, showers. Amidst all the shreds of torn wrapping paper, the sparkling ribbons, and the big pretty bows, we should be careful not to forget that one, essential gift that we can’t put on our registry: marriage. Hannah and Nate, your marriage is the best gift you’ll receive today.

In his novel Hannah Coulter, one of my favorite authors Wendell Berry speaks of marriage beautifully through the words of the main character who is most appropriately named Hannah. She describes her marriage with a metaphor – a “room of love”; a place “where giving and taking are the same, and you live a little while entirely in a gift.” Now, since there are kids around, I don’t think we need to go into all the details of what happens in the “room of love.” At any rate, I think Hannah helps us understand how marriage works as a gift: it’s a place “where giving and taking are the same,” where what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, where we’re simply together and free to offer ourselves and receive the other in love. Sounds like grace to me. Marriage is a gift because, in marriage, we open ourselves to grace.

What makes this possible? Our lives are opened to grace in marriage because marriage is a covenant – a solemn promise which requires the commitment of all we are for another. But marriage is a covenant that points beyond itself to another, greater covenant – God’s promise of love and justice towards us and all creation through a particular people, which was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are here today, Nate and Hannah, to consecrate your lives in covenant with one another. A covenant founded on the promise of our God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” The marriage covenant you make today is a gift of grace because it binds you together with the God who exists as communion of perfect love, who is supremely good and eternally faithful – a God whose promises never fail.

Of course, this promise is simply too big for you to keep on your own. You’re not standing here today because you’ve sat down with each other and come to some understanding about how each day of your lives will unfold in order to maximize each other’s happiness. Let’s face it: you have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into up here! Thankfully, you’re not alone. Your promise to each other is made within a community bound together in the covenant of baptism. In a moment you’ll exchange rings. These rings deeply symbolize your personal commitment to one another, but they are also a very public announcement of your marriage. Your married life should reflect this dual purpose of your rings: intimately personal yet lived publicly within the grace of a community of fellow believers. As members of community, the gracious gift of your marriage is transformed into a gift of love and hospitality for others. They say it’s better to give than to receive; how will you share the gift of your marriage with others?

Marriage is a gift of grace, founded in the gracious covenant of God, to be shared with each other and with your community for a lifetime. However, every time we open ourselves to receive grace, we simultaneously expose ourselves to the wound of grace denied. The very people we love the most, the ones we commit our lives to, are the ones who hurt us the most. We are all wounded people who wound others in return. There is no avoiding this truth. Hannah, Nate: you will hurt each other and being married only makes the pain worse. Will you shut yourselves off? Will you fight back in anger, in fear? Will you accuse and point fingers? Will you keep score? You’ll be tempted to do all of these things and more. None will do any good. Unfortunately, marriage leaves you with only one option: forgiveness. The grace-gift we share in marriage is sustained by our acts of forgiveness.

Henri Nouwen says it best: “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” God has created us with limits. We don’t know everything, we don’t see or hear everything, and we can’t be in two places at once. We’re also created uniquely with different needs, wants, struggles, hopes, and joys. On top of that, we’re always changing and growing. These realities make it hard to love each other well and we often do it poorly. After all, we’re not God.  Forgiveness, then, in the words of Nouwen, is about continually being willing “to forgive [each other] for not being God – for not fulfilling all [your] needs.” Forgiveness is not easy; it’s nearly impossible. Again, we come back to grace: we love and forgive because God has first loved and forgiven us. Nothing is impossible for God. Learn to forgive each other, just go ahead and plan on it.

Nate, Hannah: live freely in grace. Embrace the gift of your covenant. Love each other as God has loved you. What an awesome day of celebration this is! What a display of grace! What a gift! Praise God from whom all blessings flow! May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always. Amen.