By Pastor Cherie Johnson
Several decades ago, a group of theologians gathered in England for a conference on comparative religions. They wrestled with the question, “Is there one belief completely unique to the Christian faith?”
As they debated that question, world-famous theologian and author CS Lewis walked into the room. “What’s going on?” he asked.
Someone told him that his colleagues were discussing the question, “Is there one belief unique to Christianity?”
CS Lewis responded, “Oh that’s easy: it is grace.”
By the end of the conference, the theologians agreed with Lewis. The one belief that is completely unique to Christian faith is grace: God’s unconditional love and acceptance of us just as we are.
That is why Jesus is in trouble with the Pharisees again in today’s Scripture passage, which comes from Matthew 9: 10- 13.
Matthew 9:10-13 NIV
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In Anne Lamont’s book, Traveling Mercies, she shares her journey towards faith in Jesus. Years ago Anne found herself broke, drunk, bulimic, depressed, and addicted to drugs. She said, “I could no longer imagine how God could love me.” Have you ever felt like that? I know that I have. Desperate, Anne set an appointment with an Episcopal priest.
She told him, “I’m so messed up that I don’t think God can love me.”
The priest replied, “God has to love you. That’s God’s job.” 
Anne’s priest was absolutely right. God works full time offering unconditional love to all human beings. Gods affirming and forgiving love, what theologians call grace is God’s best gift to humanity.
What is grace? It is one of those words that we hear a lot in church, and I talked about it a bit back in November. But, what does it mean? What do you think it means?
It is defined as (in Christian belief, by the mighty power that is Google) as “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” 
The definition in the Holman Bible Dictionary starts its one and a half page definition and explanation with, “unreserved acceptance and love received from another, especially the characteristic attitude of God in providing salvation to sinners.” Which we all are. Don’t be offended. When we say things like, “Nobody’s perfect,” we are saying that we are all sinners. 
So grace is not something that only God can extend to us as humans. We can also extend it to each other. I remember watching someone in front of a group of people, much as I’m doing here, and he was having a hard time. He lost his place, lost his train of thought. People were ready to criticize, laugh, walk out, but I prayed for him. I extended him grace, as I hope you will do when I get into that state. But, I do that in response to God’s grace for me.
The song “Amazing Grace” that we sang a few minutes ago illustrates a profound truth. The more grace that has been extended to you from God, the more you realize it, the more you appreciate it, the more willing you are to extend it to others. Chris Tomlin added a refrain to that song, which can help our understanding of grace.
My chains are gone
I’ve been set free.
My God, my Savior,
Has ransomed me.
Chains…set free…ransom…These are all captive or slavery words. We are held captive by the world’s expectations, of this transactional existence. So much of what goes on in the world depends on these transactions. I will only do something for you if you do something for me. If you are nice or kind, it must mean you want something from me. If I don’t measure up, if I don’t perform to your satisfaction, if I don’t look right or act right, you won’t love me. That’s what the world perspective is. Is it any wonder that when we hear that we are accepted that we are suspicious? Is completely backwards from what we are taught to expect from the world.
But through Jesus, we are set free from this. He has paid our ransom. Now, we hear the word “ransom,” and we think of someone who has been kidnapped. It also is a term for buying someone out of slavery, paying their debt. Jesus has done this for all of us. The refrain goes on…
And like a flood
His mercy reigns,
This is the description of the unconditional, no strings attached love the God has for us. It floods over us and surrounds us. It is never ending. The wonder and its awesomeness is that we could never do enough to earn it, and there’s nothing so terrible that we could lose it. We can turn away from God. God does not force himself on us, but God will always be there waiting when we are ready to turn back.
That is the good news of the gospel. You have been ransomed or redeemed from the powers of this world. You no longer have to be held to its rules. There is nothing you have done, thought, been, had done to you, participated in that disqualifies you. You can still be tempted and give in, but it no longer has the power to rule you.
When you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, you receive the gift of grace. With it, God says, I see you as completely forgiven, as if you have never done anything wrong. It is as if God sees us through a “Jesus filter.” What is true of Jesus, his righteousness, all the ways we could not hope to measure up, God credits to us. God sees our best self, the self God created us to be. Are you accepted? Absolutely!
Does that mean I should sin more to receive more grace? “By no means!” as the Apostle Paul would put it, and does in Romans 6:1-2.
Jesus helps people, accepts them, forgives them, but after this, sometimes he also tells them to sin no more.
There’s a story in the Gospel of John chapter 8 about a woman who was brought before Jesus in the Temple accused and found in the act of adultery. Scholars aren’t sure this is an original part of John, but it sounds so much like what Jesus would do.
So, she is brought before Jesus in the Temple. In Jesus’ normal fashion, he completely turned the situation upside down. Accusers effectively become the accused. In adultery cases both parties should have been brought. If they caught her in the act, there should have been no problem about bringing both parties. The accusers, themselves, weren’t following the law. Is it possible that this particular accusation was false? The woman had a reputation, but she had not been caught in the act this time? In that case, the accusers would be subject to the same punishment she would have had to face, death by stoning. The accusers leave one by one, but through this whole thing the woman has not said anything, hasn’t denied the accusation, even after the accusers left.
Jesus asks her, “Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus says, “Then neither do I condemn you.” The presumption throughout is that she is guilty of the charge, yet Jesus accept her, gets the charges dropped, and says he does not condemn her.
However, he finishes the encounter by telling her, in the NIV translation, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” You may be more familiar with the King James Version where it says, “Go, and sin no more.” Jesus accepted her no matter what, but he encouraged her to improve for life.
A great story about God’s radical acceptance and grace is told by Tony Campolo, well known Christian pastor, author, and speaker. This story is becoming famous. You may even be familiar with it. I heard it last year at a conference in Boise.
Years ago Tony traveled to Honolulu to speak at a conference. Upon arriving, Tony went to his hotel and fell asleep. He woke up at 9 a.m. his time, but in Honolulu it was 3 a.m. Wide awake and hungry, Tony walked to a small diner near the hotel in order to coffee and a donut. At 3:30 a.m., a group of provocatively dressed prostitutes walked in the door. Their loud and crude talk made Tony uncomfortable, so he prepared to leave.
But then he heard one of the women say, “Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m supposed to be 39.”
Her friend responded, “So what do you want from me, birthday party? You want me to get you a cake and sing you happy birthday?”
“Come on!” said the woman, “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I want one now?”
When Tony heard those words, he made a decision. He stayed in the diner in till the women left. Then he said to the owner, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah,” he said, ‘You can set your clock by it.”
Tony said, “What’s the name of the woman who sat next to me?”
“That Agnes,” he replied.
Tony said, “What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”
A smile crossed the owners face, and he said, “That’s great! I like it! I’ll even make the cake.”
At 2:00 the next morning, Tony went back to the diner. He put up crepe paper decorations and a big sign: Happy Birthday, Agnes! The workers at the diner obviously got the word out because by 3:15 just about every prostitute in Honolulu crowded into the place. At 3:30 sharp, door swung open, and in came Agnes and her friends.
Tony had the entire group scream, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes, absolutely stunned, felt so overwhelmed her friend had to hold her up. Everyone in the diner began to sing, “Happy Birthday to You!”
When they brought out the cake covered with 39 candles, Agnes began to cry. Too overcome with emotion to blow out the candles, she let the owner of the diner blow them out for her. Before she cut the cake, Agnes hesitated. She asked if she could take the cake down the street, show it to her mother, and then come right back. The owner of the diner said that would be fine, so she did.
When the door closed behind Agnes, silence filled the diner. Tony broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?” It probably seems strange for a room full of prostitutes to bow their heads in prayer, but that’s what happened. Tony prayed for Agnes and for the other prostitutes in the diner, affirming that they were beloved daughters of God, with great value, worth, and promise.
When Tony finished the prayer, the owner of the diner said, “You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In a moment of divine inspiration, Tony said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” 
Are you accepted? Unequivocally yes! The doubts, the accusations, do not come from God. God figuratively extends his hand to everyone. Everyone. Even that person down the street it is so annoying. Even Me. Even you. God loves you and wants you to become the extraordinary person God designed you to be. Are you accepted? Without a doubt. That is one thing that you absolutely must believe to be a Christian. You are accepted!
Next week, we will be looking at Jesus’ work: where is God in the world? How does God work in the world? It can sure seem like a mystery sometimes.
 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 45.
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 43.
 Google.com https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=grace
 “Grace,” Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 573.
 Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You a Story: Life Lessons from Unexpected Places and Unlikely People (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 216-20.