Several years ago I attended an Easter Service where communion was to be served. Prior to distributing the cup and the bread a lady got up and read from Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel. She read the part where Manning describes how Jesus overturned the customs of the day by dining with anyone who would eat with Him – sinners, Pharisees, all were welcome. The rules of table fellowship, as practiced by Jesus, said that it did not matter who you were or what you had done. The only condition for Christ’s acceptance is that you had to want it. If you would dine with Him you have to open the door and let Him in.
The Easter lady explained that Jesus showed grace by inviting sinners to His table. She then did the exact opposite by inviting sinners NOT to partake of the communion that was about to be passed around. She closed a door that Jesus had opened and I did a face-palm.
Like that lady, many in the church pay lip service to grace but they don’t show it. I am not saying they are mean-spirited or deliberately ungracious. It’s just that they don’t get it. They understand grace in theory but not in practice. Still it is strange that this lady missed it since she had read The Ragamuffin Gospel and this book is about the relentless love of Abba God as revealed in Jesus, the friend of sinners.
Grace accepts the unacceptable
In his book Manning takes aim at those “so-called Christians who disfigure the face of God, mutilate the gospel of grace, and intimidate others through fear.” He finds it unthinkable that the church rejects those who are accepted by Jesus. Jesus loves those whom the Father loves. If Jesus accepts sinners then God accepts sinners – and He does. How can any of us enter the Kingdom except that God accepts us in our sinful state? (See Romans 5:8 if this troubles you.)
The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for those who are burned out, beat-up, and bedraggled. It’s for those who are sick and tired of a religion that only pays lip-service grace. It’s a book about the gracious and mind-blowing acceptance that we have in Christ:
Grace calls out: you are not just a disillusioned old man who may die soon, a middle-aged woman stuck in a job and desperately wanting to get out, a young person feeling the fire in the belly begin to grow cold. You may be insecure, inadequate, mistaken, or potbellied. Death, panic, depression, and disillusionment may be near you. But you are not just that. You are accepted. Never confuse your perception of yourself with the mystery that you really are accepted. (p.29)
Grace is so simple it confounds the wise. Many just don’t get it. They either don’t believe it (“we must author our own salvation”) or they think we don’t need to do anything to receive it (“everybody is saved regardless of whether they want to be”). In his ministry as a vagabond evangelist, Manning encountered both errors:
I have encountered shocking resistance to the God whom the Bible defines as Love. The skeptics range from the oily, over polite professionals who discreetly drop hints of the heresy of universalism, to the Bible thumper who sees only the dusty, robust war God of the Pentateuch, and who insists on restating the cold demands of rule-ridden perfectionism. (pp.36-7)
Perhaps grace is not something we can easily catch from a Sunday sermon. Perhaps grace comes to us better through story and intervention. In that case, grace-preachers ought to be story-tellers and Manning certainly is. His book is full of brilliant stories with characters ranging from about Fiorello La Guardia, the former mayor of New York, to people Manning has met at AA meetings.
Manning’s best stories are his own. In a world of be-suited and toothy preachers, Manning gives us a warts-and-all testimony of raw honesty. You don’t have to wonder at his faults because he comes right out and tells you. We learn that he became an alcoholic after he was saved and that he broke his priestly vows by getting married. It is not hard to imagine that his experiences have exposed him to the ugly, unaccepting side of churchianity.
Manning has no time for ungraciousness. It’s un-Christlike. It’s the basis of dishonest religion where we dare not confront our faults. Manning argues that the sooner we stop pretending that we have it all together and start loving each other for who we really are, the better. I wholeheartedly agree. Pride hinders grace. God gives grace to the humble and those who honestly admit they are poor and needy.
But in his calls for greater honesty Manning sounds much like Philip Yancey who, in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, takes a generally dim view of those who call themselves saints. Both authors admire the AA program and seem to think the church could learn a few lessons from it. In that world a core value is the view that once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. I understand the logic behind this: the only way to receive grace is to be honest about your ongoing need for it. But I have to disagree with the conclusion that in Christ we are just “saved sinners” or “sinners saved by grace.” I was a sinner, but when Christ came into my life the old went and the new came. I’m not claiming sinless perfection. I am claiming a new identity in Christ. I am saying that grace changes us and that it is dishonest to talk about ourselves as though we are still who we used to be.
Honesty brings an end to pretense through a candid acknowledgment of our fragile humanity. It was always unpleasant, and usually painful, and that is why I am not very good at it. But to stand in the truth before God and one another has a unique reward. It is the reward which a sense of reality always brings. I know something extremely precious. I am in touch with myself as I am. My tendency to play the pseudo messiah is torpedoed. (p.138)
Honesty keeps us real but believers operate in two realities – the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. The honesty that Manning speaks of seems to me to be the lesser of these realities. Focus on self and sin and you’ll end up self-conscious and sin-conscious. This is not the way forward. There’s no grace in your navel. Whatever your problem the solution is not to take a long hard look at yourself and your faults, but to fix your eyes on Jesus and His wholeness. Yes, you are just a crumbly jar of clay, but you have a great treasure inside! Treasure the Treasure.
Where The Ragamuffin Gospel really shines is in our dealings with people. If you are looking for more reality in your community life, then this is the book for you. It’s about the furious love of God, the Really Real and the life that we share in Christ. But read it in the understanding that the grace of God is truly transformative – it can change you from something you are into something you are not. Jesus heals cripples. He delivers the oppressed and depressed and raises the dead. If He can do all those things then He can heal alcoholics and deal with whatever other problems you are facing.
Understand that I am NOT passing judgment on anyone who enjoys a drink. I am saying that grace and unbelief don’t mix. If you don’t think He can heal you, guess what, He probably won’t. Go around telling people that you are this and that and you speak death over yourself. You will experience a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t recommend you do that. Instead, agree with what Jesus says about you. You were a sinner, now you are a saint. You are not a saint because you act like it; you begin to act like it because it’s who you are in Christ (see 1 Cor. 1:30). Brennan, you are a saint!
St. Brennan the Brave
I have read many good books on grace that left me marveling at the author’s depth of revelation. This is probably the first time where, having finished, I just want to give the author a big hug. Brennan Manning is one special guy. He has seen the church at its ugliest and rather than run away he stayed to preach grace. That takes a lot of heart. He reminds me of Jesus who got involved and took responsibility for a mess that was not His own. Brennan Manning is a grace-giver in spades.
The Ragamuffin Gospel is a modern classic. When it was first published in 1990 it resonated with many. It inspired musicians (Rich Mullins and the Ragamuffin Band), artists, poets, and not a few bookstore owners. The metaphor of the ragamuffin continues to capture our attention because many are hungry for the gospel. They are the poor in spirit who have heard of the Kingdom and have perhaps entered it, but they are not living in the fullness of God’s amazing grace. Ragamuffins include Christians who have been force-fed a toxic diet of grace and law and remain unsatisfied, still hungry. If that describes you, then the good news as told by Saint Brennan will set you free.
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