Back when I was pastoring a local church full time I had an extraordinary experience. After worship one Sunday, someone with a deep Southern Baptist background came to greet me at the door of our sanctuary. With much emotion he told me "I have been in the Baptist church for years and this is the first time I have ever heard a message of grace preached from the pulpit." Now, to be honest, my first impulse was to welcome the meal which fed my oversized ego. I answered "Thank you for your kind words!" But after further examination I admit, I don't believe him. Southern Baptists might not see eye to eye with United Methodists on particular issues of theology but my granddaddy was a southern Baptist pastor and I know he believed in grace. So why did this faithful Baptist disciple believe this was the first message of grace he had heard in the church? Because, though we preach both law and grace, our pew sitters are more likely to feel the heavy hand of the law and never hear the grace.
The Roman Catholic church is meeting this week regarding family issues, divorce, civil unions, indissolubility of marriage, acceptance of gays and lesbians, and who might be able to receive communion. Don't expect any real change in church doctrine at this meeting, yet a breath of fresh air has collided with the keepers of tradition. Pope Francis, in an AP article this morning written by Nicole Winfield, gave this counsel to a gathering of Cardinals and Bishops: "The church's law cannot be an impediment to its mission of mercy." He continued, "Be open to the surprises of God."
Grace over law seems to me to sum up the message of the New Testament. Karen Vannoy, my life companion and career co-pastor with me, has said many times: "When I get to my time of accountability before God I will trust myself to the mercy of Christ. Whenever confronted with a decision between grace and law, I chose grace every time." That is a great way to live out our faith.
So my prayer is grace abounds in all our Churches, through both doctrine and practice. It seems that the Good News indeed has law taking a back seat to the amazing grace of Christ.