Do you expect to receive something for nothing? Or do you expect to pay for what you get? Do you remember the commercial used by a brokerage house some years back that went something like this: "We make money the old fashioned way; we earn it." It's a commendable ethic and we applaud it.
But aren't there some things we cannot earn? Don't we receive gifts that are completely free, even undeserved every day? Men, how about that time when you tracked mud over your wife's just cleaned kitchen floor, and she let you stay in the house anyway? Or what about a bird's beautiful solo in the early morning (although I could do without that raucous crow)? Or what about the other gifts of God's creation -- beautiful fall colors, brilliant rainbows, and bountiful harvests? Did we earn them? Aren't they in some way simply unearned, even undeserved gifts?
That is the meaning of "grace". The classic theological definition is "unmerited favor," receiving God's favor even though it is totally unearned and undeserved. The word translates the Greek word "charis" which means simply a "gift". At the center of our world is a God who gives gift after gift after gift. Paul understood how important grace is in our lives and said in Romans 3:23-24, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God [but we are] justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus."
Paul uses a legal term, "justified," in this text. Thomas Long, professor of preaching at Emory University commented on this when he said in a sermon that in one of his courses in seminary he was assigned to spend some time in criminal court, simply observing what was happening there. He quickly learned that criminal court is not like Judge Judy or the People's Court or Perry Mason. In a real criminal court, most of the defendants have been there a number of times and the real question for them is not will they be found guilty or innocent -- most of them are expecting to be found guilty. The question for them is, 'who's the judge in court today?' Some judges are hard and tough and some are compassionate and kind, and they're hoping for a judge with some mercy.
The apostle Paul is using the language of the court in this text and he seems to see us standing there, knowing that we are guilty and wondering, 'who's the judge today?'. And then the door to the chambers opens and the judge is none other than Jesus Christ, who died for us and loved us to the end and loves us still and is our advocate. And the verdict that day is a surprise. We know we are guilty but the verdict is, "innocent!"
So we come to the communion table, this table of grace, with thanksgiving as it reminds us of the verdict made possible through the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. At this table we understand why John Newton wrote, "amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me." We come to this table as sinners, but we leave with Paul's words in Romans 8:1 ringing in our ears: "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."