When summer rolls around, I think of the many years I spent in Course of Study at Duke Divinity School. From 2005-2013, I never once spent a July with my family. Instead, Cheryl and the girls spent the month waiting patiently for me to finish my four weeks of school and come home.
One summer, I took a class taught by a professor named Dr. James Efird. That summer marked his 52nd year as a teacher of Biblical literature at Duke. He is a gifted Biblical scholar, and I’ve never met a man who knows the Bible as thoroughly as he does. If you were to ask him to quote a passage from the Old Testament he’d reply, “Do you want to hear it in Hebrew or Aramaic?”
During that particular class we covered the following books: Job, Jonah, Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, Revelation, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Yes, that’s a lot of reading! For our final exam, we had to know the following information about these books:
Authorship; date of composition; history or context (what was going on in the world when it was written and how those events affected the work’s contents); the composition’s literary style; and the general meaning of the book. Dr. Efird also expected us to be able to identify and comment on passages quoted from the various books.
I sat with my laptop in class each day furiously typing notes on everything he said. When it came time for the final exam (the only grade in the class), I sat down with my fifty-five pages of typewritten notes, three text books written by the professor, and the biblical texts themselves, and spent more than nine hours studying.
Dr. Efird had a nickname: “The Smiling Assassin.” On the day of the exam, all of us in his class learned why. When we walked out of the classroom after the test, we all knew we were dead. It was, perhaps, the most impossible exam in the history of civilization. At the moment, we had our doubts that Jesus himself could get a passing grade! We were standing in the hallway at Duke in shock, our eyes looking like we had witnessed a disaster of the magnitude of the Hindenberg explosion. With this test score as our only grade, we all knew we had failed his class.
Prior to the exam, I had planned to give Dr. Efird a framed and signed cartoon as a gift in appreciation for all he taught me. But now, I feared that giving it to him might seem like I was bribing him for a passing grade. The idea of giving it to him now seemed like a bad one.
When he handed back our test papers, mine was all marked up with red ink. In the section on scripture identification, I got a ZERO on half of them, and on the others I only got partial credit. I knew I had failed. Yet, when I looked at my grade at the bottom of the last page, I saw that Dr. Efird had given me a C! And he gave me a B+ for the course!
Folks, this is what grace looks like. A gift that we do not deserve, but we receive anyway because the giver wants us to have it. Paul writes: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). I did not deserve a passing grade in his class – nor did most of the students – but Efird gave us passing grades out of his love for us as his students. None of us deserve forgiveness for our sins, but God gives it to us through Christ out of His love for us.
As Wesleyans, we talk a lot about grace. You’ve heard me preach a lot about grace, and you will continue to hear me do so. Why? Because when you receive a gift you don’t deserve, and it’s given simply out of the goodness of the giver’s heart and their love for you, how can you NOT talk about it?
When our class ended that summer, I gave Dr. Efird the cartoon and he was deeply touched. Prior to the exam, I had wanted him to have something to remember me by. But in the end, I gave it not so he would remember me, but because I would forever remember him. He taught me about more than Scripture that summer. He taught me about grace.
How grateful are you to God for His gift of grace? Grateful enough to show Him?
See you in church!