On a final exam question in one of my seminary classes, the professor posed us with the question: “what is wrong with the song “Amazing Grace?”
We all know the song, and it is a beautiful hymn. But it was written by John Newton, the former slave ship mariner and eventual Anglican priest, so it does come from a Protestant perspective. And while there’s a lot right with it, sometimes the words can be a little misleading and need further explanation.
Among them is how a quick reading of the lyrics might think that through grace one is born again and, voila, one is saved. Grace though is no magic trick. Yes, grace does save. But it requires us to participate in it as well. Mr. Newton did do just that; he realized he had turned away from God, and turned his life over to him. But he grew in that faith by learning it, and let grace work on him so he became a voice for the ending of slavery in England, something he eventually lived to see.
This week in the Gospel, Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a good man, but he’s a man on a journey. Earlier in John, he shows up at night (not wanting to be seen with Jesus during the day) to talk to Jesus about His teachings. Nicodemus is a name we’ll hear on Good Friday too, as after the crucifixion he appears to provide embalming spices and assists in burying Jesus. In our Gospel this week, Jesus has a conversation with him about how faith requires a response. Whoever does wicked things hates the light, but those who live the truth come to the light “so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
Here’s where the rubber hits the road. God loves us, and nothing will change that. There is also nothing we can do to merit our salvation or get it on our own. But God also challenges us. The salvation offered to us is a gift, but not a guarantee. Think of Jesus not as the answer, but as the question requiring a response. Lent, in particular, gives us the chance to look at how we are answering that question.
For one, we can ask “how do I choose the darkness?” Newton chose grace; but he had to continue to reform his life and work on his commitment. Lent is a time where many celebrate the sacrament of confession prior to Easter (and I’ll be hearing confessions an extra hour next week and Palm Sunday). Sometimes sin can creep up on us, and we can fall into it, or we can become neglectful of things we should do to live out our faith. Doing a daily examination of conscience can help us learn how to apply grace to every aspect of our lives and grow in holiness.
So, too, does the Gospel require suffering. Nicodemus, if he’s going to become a disciple, can’t stay in the shadows of night. We can’t be a part-time Christian. So it’s worth asking, are we willing to suffer to grow in our faith? Are we willing to suffer to help others? Living the faith takes commitment. There’s an element of suffering to working hard at school or to provide for the family; to sacrificing time to help people; to avoiding certain behaviors because we know they are wrong. There’s also suffering for proclaiming our faith in the public square. But doing so will not only help ourselves to become better people and grow in faith, it will help others to come to the faith.
I’ve said many times one of the things I appreciate most with my Catholic faith is that it takes work. The good news? God journeys with us every step of the way, and His love is infinite. We celebrate that every time we come to Mass, recreating the sacrifice that happened on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Communion is our food for the journey, but just as the apostles were told not to look at the sky when Jesus ascended but to baptize and proclaim the Gospel, we have the same job. Like them, we too will suffer. But also like them, we can grow in holiness and build up the Church when we say “yes” not just to conversion or to accepting Jesus, but also “yes” to taking up our crosses daily to follow Him.