Say you serve Christ every Sunday by making and serving a breakfast for the poor and hungry, and about every fourth Sunday a church neighbor screams in your face. That neighbor is clearly not experiencing the love of God. Right? And you clearly are. Right? The kingdom of heaven is at hand and you’re there reaching out to touch it. You’re building it. And these neighbors—the ones using words like nigger, cunt, pedophile, drunk, lazy, bum—they’re trying to tear it down. It’s clear. Right?
So there you are in God’s kingdom and there are your angry neighbors who definitely are not. Having God on your side feels good. Knowing where you stand and that what you’re doing is the right thing is the greatest. And, of course, you owe it all to yourself. You’ve been responsible for making all the right decisions about your life. You go to the right church and have right-headed opinions about love and mercy, politics and economics, wealth and poverty. You would never call someone a nigger or a cunt, and you would never deny even the most distasteful person a hot meal and a cup of coffee. You’re on God’s side, and God’s side is over here with the poor, the stranger, the widow, the afflicted, and the suffering. You’re over here and those angry neighbors are over there. Good job.
Except you know down deep God is more than that. You sort of try to deny it or kind of ignore it. But it’s there in the back of your mind. And it hangs there in front of you beckoning you forward. But you’re over here doing God’s work with God’s people, keeping these outsiders, these so-called neighbors, at bay.
In Flannery O'Connor’s short story “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin knows just who she is and just where she stands in relationship to God and to everyone else in the world. She has worked it all out. She is thankful to be just who she is and no one else. That is until a girl named Mary Grace throws a book at her head and calls her a warthog from hell. Suddenly the bottom rail has been placed on top. The violent force of grace O'Connor illustrates for the reader has irrevocably converted Mrs. Turpin. Mrs. Turpin then has a vision. She sees her social order turned upside down —the bottom rail on top, she and others like her from the top rail on the bottom. She sees her world turned over and everyone singing and marching toward heaven. Among everyone singing and marching, she sees herself and the people with whom she has classified herself:
“They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
Thus the mystery of grace, at least as Flannery O'Connor sees it. Well, far be it from me to criticize a mystic such as she.
We should continue to respond to Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, in communion with our divine Mother-Father and all the souls who join us for breakfast each Sunday, or for PB&J in the park, or at an AIDS clinic, or in recovery from addiction, or… name a place where the church is doing its thing.
But let us not be deceived. We can no more know the true shape of the kingdom by our good works than we can know the shape of the future. Maybe we get a glimpse here and there. But our glimpses are an incomplete revelation of an ultimate reality that is surely populated by people who we would rather find their end somewhere else, away from us, with their distinctions intact. But there in the back of your mind, beckoning you forward, you know the grace of God is burning it all away.