Ruth Jackson spoke to the Right Rev David Williams, Bishop of...
First Word - October 2017
Grace. A word largely incomprehensible to those outside the Church and often misunderstood by those inside it.
As the sister of two thespians, one of the ways I ponder and solidify my theology is through musicals. Obviously, like any good Christian, my favourite musical is
Les Misérables (handy as my sister’s currently in it and gets cheap tickets!), because it’s packed full of grace.
The scene that consistently moves me to tears is in the bishop’s house at the start of the show. Branded criminal Jean Valjean, having been refused work and shelter everywhere else, falls on the bishop’s mercy and is taken in, fed and given a bed for the night. Valjean, doing what many desperate men would, abuses the bishop’s kindness, steals from him and flees. He is caught and dragged back to the bishop to confess his crime.
Not only does the bishop not charge Valjean, he lets him keep the stolen items and bestows on him a further gift - expensive candlesticks - saying: "My friend, you left so early. Surely something slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also; would you leave the best behind?"
Sheer mercy. The bishop withholds the judgement and punishment that Valjean deserves. Such grace. The bishop offers a broken man so much more than he deserves.
Les Mis geeks will know that in the 2012 film version of the musical, the bishop is played by the actor who originated the role of Jean Valjean in the West End and Broadway. The symbolism is stark. He was the one who encountered grace and was brought from darkness into life and now, as the bishop, he brings grace to the next Valjean. Jean Valjean’s life is utterly transformed by grace and, from that place, he is able to extend grace to everyone he meets.
Martin Luther’s life was also completely changed when he experienced God’s grace. And, through studying his theology at university, so was mine.
As I read about the German reformer’s realisation – that we approach God with open hands, knowing we have nothing to offer – I was blown away. I don’t think I’d ever heard the gospel laid out so starkly.
In his article about the Reformation, Glen Scrivener quotes Martin Luther’s profound words: we are like a "poor, wicked harlot" and Jesus, the "rich and divine bridegroom" marries us so that "all his is mine and all mine is his".
500 years ago, a pious monk, who may or may not have had a penchant for mildly vandalising church doors, rocked the Western world. That Halloween night in Wittenberg kick-started a movement to return to the core gospel message. Grace.
Ephesians 2:8 sums it up perfectly: "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God." (NLT)
Like Luther and Valjean, we too have been shown amazing grace, and our role as youth and children’s workers and parents is to extend that grace to our children and young people. And, more importantly, to point them to the personification and provider of that grace.
Glen shares his brutally honest story of abandoning his faith as a teenager, largely because he didn’t understand grace. Having now experienced God’s grace for himself, Glen challenges us not to be medieval in our youth and children’s work. What message are we sharing with our children and young people? Not only in what we say, but in what we do and how we act?
When Jean Valjean encounters the bishop’s grace, he struggles to receive it initially. He sings: "One word from him and I’d be back, beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom."
Valjean later extends the same grace to Inspector Javert, who cannot accept it. Javert’s inability to accept grace and freedom ultimately results in tragedy (no spoilers!).
We have all, to varying degrees, been caught red-handed with stolen goods, and been offered the precious candlesticks. How will we respond to this freedom? And how will we share it with our young people?