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Along the Journey  |  

Grace Upon Grace

From God’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. John 1:16

I’m not sure what I imagined seminary would be. Classes, reading, writing papers, and many late nights for sure. Hopefully, there would be new friends, a deepening vocation, and lemon poppyseed muffins in the wood-paneled refectory that hinted at mystery and magic. 

The pastor of the church I used to attend advised me not to enroll in seminary. His disapproval swirled chaotically in my mind as I listened and tried to make sense of his motivations. I only remember clearly that he didn’t want me to “waste my time.” 

I walked out of his office, burst into tears, and entrusted myself to the care and keeping of the Holy Spirit. My studies began at Greek school that summer, and I can happily report that seminary changed my life for the better. Zero wasted time.

Was it the instruction and learning that was efficacious? Was it the deep dive into theology and scripture? Was it the lifelong friendships that were made, the leafy campus, and the unforgettable alternative context trip to Mexico? It was all those things, but something much more.

In a class on the gospel of John, Professor David Bartlett mentioned, almost casually, that the much-loved verse in John 1:16 about receiving “grace upon grace,” was actually mistranslated in most versions. The more literal translation is “From God’s fullness we have all received grace instead of grace.” It’s a bit clunky in English and hard for the translators to manage.

Dr. Bartlett taught with a generosity of spirit so common to many of my professors at CTS. In the conversation that followed he helped us see Jesus as the ambassador of what I now call the Big Story. 

God’s law had been given by grace to our spiritual ancestors, but John 1:16 presents Jesus as the embodiment of a new form of grace. This grace is the favor of the One who loved beyond law, became flesh, lived among people, and eventually flamed brightly as the energy of indwelling Presence. Ever-renewing grace instead of (and in addition to) the original law-giving grace. 

My biggest lesson from seminary is story, spaciousness, and deep favor. The story of God’s work in world and of each human life, is so much bigger and better than I had imagined. There is spaciousness for all to explore, grow, be, change, fall, fail, get lost, get found, and try again. 

In a world narrative dominated by big pain and small-mindedness, we might easily forget the even more incredible story of a God with us and within us. Jesus’ life shows us just how good this story truly is. The carefully tended hedges of my religious upbringing had been a certain kind of grace, but seminary introduced me to a God whose favor is ever-renewing, who invites us beyond all limited ways of knowing, and whose generosity of Spirit takes surprising forms. 

Kate is a graduate of Columbia (MDiv 2007) and serves in private practice as a spiritual director and certified holistic life coach. She is passionate about soul-centered living and nurturing sacred feminine presence. She writes about Grace & Guidance on Substack, and she can be contacted through her website or by email at skcoffey@yahoo.com.

Along the Journey