Today I want to talk with you about the difference between power-over grace and empowering grace. In the end, it is empowering grace we want. You see, power-over grace comes from a particular understanding of sin and forgiveness called substitutiary atonement. Marcus Borg reminds us this newer understanding of a more transactional atonement was not the default of Christian faith for the first thousand years. St. Anselm articulated it for the first time in 1098 in his treatise on “Why God became human.” In this formula of transactional, officially called substitutiary atonement, what we’re calling power-over grace, Christ died on the cross in payment for our sins. Sin has a price that must be paid before God can forgive us. This means that God’s love is conditional on our sins being wiped away. God’s love is conditional on us being clean, so to speak. It also means that when we are forgiven, we follow this pattern, this formula for ourselves, where there is a price to our forgiveness. There are conditions. The substitutiary atonement kind of grace, the power-over grace is most often traded out of some sense of superiority, and in this way, forgiveness becomes a high ground that can distance us.
But empowering grace allows us to forgive in a way that frees us up, because it pours out of God’s unconditional love. When we follow a pattern of being forgiven by God’s natural and steadfast love for us, the suffering of the cross is a model of God’s solidarity with us. Christ saves us not by paying for our sins, but by loving us so well that Christ couldn’t help but suffer alongside us, that it is simply in God’s nature, it is who God is, to fully know life and death and resurrection with us. We are already forgiven always, not because of who we are, or of what Christ did, but because of the Love of God, of who God is. And the world got to witness the Love of God walking on earth, we were given assurance of it. From that witness, not formula, but witness, we can accept empowering grace. Forgiveness then comes from acceptance of this empowering grace - from so fully embracing God’s love of you in your heart, that there’s nothing left to prove, no one and nothing that could cause you to feel unworthy or rejected. So Pastor Larissa help us out here, that was a bit technical, what does that actually look like? Well, we can see the stark difference between power-over grace and empowering grace in our stories today.
Joseph had a reconciliation with his brothers - but I think we can argue that it wasn’t a full healing, full freeing up, for those in the relationship. Now being in a greater position he had all this power in his hands. That forgiveness wasn’t coming from a place of embracing God’s grace. (The story at the beginning sets us up for this: Joseph dreaming that his brothers would bow to him. Joseph is infamous for misusing power.) He and Benjamin wept with each other, the two between whom there was never any break of relationship. Notice, Joseph’s brothers never wept - they talked with him, but they did not weep as Joseph and Benjamin do. The insinuation here is that while they talked with him, there wasn’t a freeing up. Perhaps we can understand this. Joseph basically used his magnanimity to assert his importance, yet again. His graciousness flowed from a vast superiority, and certainly was conditional. “I’m not just giving you what you need. Here are the conditions: You move your homes and your families to where I am, and I’ll look after you.” Also, “Make sure dad knows how much of a big deal I am here in Egypt.” This is what he tells his brothers. (And we’ll learn later, this becomes the foundation for the people being enslaved in Egypt.)
But Thecla, finally having what she went out for, having gained Paul’s admiration and respect and commissioning, now pays it no mind. She finally hears the words she has longed for, only to realize, she needed something else first. Rather than immediately begin to preach, she goes back to Iconium. She goes back home, to the people who betrayed her first and worst. Thamyris is dead, but her mother isn’t and she goes to see her - the woman who called for her to be burned at the stake. She went back, and the only thing that was different was her faith experience. She hadn’t gone higher in position, and while she had the far away protection of a new mother, Thecla was still quite in danger having left that behind to continue her commitment to preach and teach. Her struggles had reinforced such a sense of God’s unconditional love for her, she naturally began to live that out. With the love of God burning in her, she didn’t need anything from the one who once hurt her, and she could forgive to continue on free, preaching and teaching to a ripe old age of 90, in one ending.
We’ve all been Thecla’s mother and Joseph’s brothers. What is the difference? How does it change us to be on the receiving end of power-over grace, and empowering grace? Take a moment and think of a time someone forgave you with conditions. Now think of someone who has forgiven you in the freedom of who they are, as one enfolded in God’s love. This last, this is how God loves and forgives you. It is God’s free gift to you, that you may be empowered to love as well. And we can be kind and patient with ourselves as we continue to learn to imbibe empowering grace. We can be gentle when we feel stuck, or shocked, or unable to forgive. We can hold onto the breakthrough moments when we witness an unconditional forgiveness, a loving that burns and simply is. As all great spiritual teachers continue to try to do, keep learning to forgive and love and live in freedom through those witnesses.
My offering to us this week is to embrace grace that it may empower us to forgive, such that we are free. Let us practice empowering grace, rather than transactional grace, one that leads to a forgiveness that frees us up, rather than a forgiveness that asserts superiority (which is conditional and therefore cannot last not be fully healing). Be empowered to remember that no matter what has happened to you, how you’ve been hurt or betrayed, it does not change the fact that you God’s beloved. It is from this place we can come into relationship stating truth without defensiveness, being firm in our dignity while respecting all the ways another hurts and perhaps can’t be in relationship. It is in this embrace of empowering grace that we can accept those things we can’t control and moving forward into the things we can.