Life-changing grace (May 5, 2024)

Brendan McLean writes on ​​​Romans 3:21-30.

Outlook Standard Lesson for May 5, 2024
Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: ​​​Romans 3:21-30

One of my favorite movies is director Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru (“To Live”), partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In the film, lifelong Japanese bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe nears retirement. The system Watanabe has dedicated his life to is demonstrated when a group of parents asks to replace a pit of industrial waste with a playground. They are referred to one department after the other in a seemingly infinite loop of red tape.

By any measure, Watanabe has accomplished a great deal professionally. He is paid well for a managerial position in which he does very little. He has a good pension. And yet, a wrecking ball comes in his life when Watanabe learns that he has cancer and less than a year to live.

As he wrestles with how to react to the news, a young employee, Toyo, approaches him to quit her job. Toyo’s love and zest for life inspires Watanabe to use his influence to get the playground built at the industrial waste site, even at the risk of “stepping on the toes” of other departments. A scene towards the very end of Ikiru takes place in the last moments of Watanabe’s life. Sitting on a swing as snow falls and singing a song, Watanabe smiles at what he was able to do for the children of his city.

Watanabe’s response to his terminal diagnosis in Ikiru says something profound about what can happen when we reorient our lives, however briefly, on the meaningful things of life. In the face of his terminal diagnosis, Toyo’s approach to life inspires Watanabe to break conformity and live radically, devoting himself to serving others. We all are capable of positive change. That’s what Ikiru demonstrates, and it is what Paul writes about in today’s Scripture reading. Romans 3:21-30 encourages us to consider our values and challenges us to reorient our lives to model Jesus.

“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” writes Paul (Romans 3:23). Regardless of who we are and what we have done, we are still human. We are still prone to make mistakes and hurt one another. The good news, however, is that we “are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (3:24). We are fallible but made more in Christ.

To Paul’s first-century audience, the idea of “grace” was seen in the context of patronage. If someone extends “grace” to you by financially supporting you and making new opportunities available to you, you are obligated to respond with the gift of loyalty to your patron.

Paul applies this model to understanding grace. God’s gift to us is the grace of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. While this gift is given without any qualifications, it is also costly because it is a result of Jesus’ death. Just as a protégé responds to a patron’s gift with gratitude and devotion, we are to respond to God’s free gift of grace with thanksgiving and faith.

This response changes our hearts. We begin to see value in loving and serving one another, meeting the needs of our neighborhoods, communities, and the whole wide world. Our works of love, compassion and solidarity grow out of our acceptance and faith of God’s unending love. They are not done by our own strength. As the writer of 1 John tells us, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

At one point in Ikiru, Watanabe explains to Toyo why she inspires him, saying, “You’re so full of of life. And me … I’m jealous of that. … please, if you can, show me how to be like you!” Our lives have been radically changed in our redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we are made new by the gift of grace, we are also called to respond to the world’s needs with hearts full of love and our hands ready to serve one another, following Christ’s example. God transforms us that we, with the Holy Spirit, may bring heaven to earth so that all may flourish.

Questions for discussion

  1. What does God’s freely given gift of grace mean to you?
  2. How do you respond to this gift of grace in your own life?

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