Wednesday, June 25, 2008

the grace of God (Romans 5)

Since we are justified by faith, the apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. The objective reality of the gospel is that we are justified by faith, we are put into a right relationship with God, and this is a gift, a sign of grace, it is like standing in the light, we do not produce the light, we simply find ourselves standing there, and it is amazing. It is like getting the password into everything we need to know to be set right:through Him, [Paul writes] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand;

We have obtained access, someone has given us this password, this code, and we are recipients of grace, we didn’t come up with all of this because we are so smart or so good, it was given to us, and so, we know, that there is a future and a hope. That is the core of Christian belief, that is the objective part, but there is something else, it is more subjective, it is real, it is our experience. Paul continues:

We also boast, we exult, we give thanks even for our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.

Two weeks ago I spoke of the power of God as salvation, as the salvaging of human life and indeed all of creation. I likened all of this to a piece of furniture that our family had found by the side of the road and salvaged and my wife had then gone on to restore. In this way God truly is an artist, the work of God is the continuing creation, and we are works in progress, all of us. We could describe this work in progress by using the language of Paul: There is suffering, and endurance, and all of this forms character, and all of this produces hope.

Pam and I are , I confess, political junkies. We read a lot, watch a lot of it on television, especially in an election year. I was saddened to learn Friday afternoon of the untimely death of Tim Russert of NBC news, who was one of our favorite commentators. Tim Russert had grown up in Buffalo, New York, on the south side. His father, a veteran of World War II, had worked two full time jobs, one as a newspaper deliverer, another as a garbage collector. In contrast to most of the powerful insiders of Washington, D.C., he did not have the benefit of an elite education or a political pedigree. I listened to the reflections on his life, mostly from his friends throughout the evening, and they used words like discipline and preparation and character and integrity and joy and laughter and hope and I thought of this life, well-lived, and the process of salvation that Paul is describing: suffering, endurance, character, hope.

Salvation is a process. Salvation is something God does for us, objectively, on the cross. But salvation is also something that we live into, that we participate in, that we claim for ourselves, over time. All of this is grace. Grace has been simply defined as something we do not earn, something we do not deserve, and something we cannot repay. Grace is at the heart of the New Testament----Jesus, hanging on the cross between two thieves---Father, forgive them” (Luke 23. 34); Paul, reflecting on what happened at the cross, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5. 8). Note that salvation is something God does in us and for us. Grace.

There really is alternative way to think about salvation, and that is the idea that we can save ourselves: that we can save ourselves by doing good works, or that we can save ourselves by believing the right things. But the Apostle Paul had been down these roads---they were dead ends, cu-de-sacs. If anyone could save himself by doing the right things, Paul said, it would have been me, I was a “Pharisee of Pharisees” (Philippians 3). Good works were not enough. Paul was also a rabbi, trained by the most prominent rabbi of the first century, Gamaliel. But knowing the right things was not enough. Salvation is not about doing the right things. Salvation is not about believing the right things. Salvation is about grace. Grace is the unmerited, free gift of God, that is sufficient for all of our needs. Sometimes we do not ask for the gift. And sometimes we are not ready to receive the gift. Yet here is the point. It is God’s nature to offer grace to us, grace that comes to us before we are ready to receive it. There is a wonderful hymn text:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me
It was not I who found O Savior true; no I was found of Thee.

(UM Hymnal, 341)

We do not find God. God finds us. And that is grace. John Wesley used the term prevenient grace in contrast to another common Christian doctrine, predestination. Predestination was the conviction that some are saved and some are not, and that God knows this beforehand. I grew up not far from what some called a “Hardshell, Primitive Church”. One of their core convictions was that God had predestined some to be saved, and some to be damned. And so, for example, this church would not send out missionaries, for they would only bring the unsaved in! John Wesley felt that predestination cut the nerve of both discipleship and evangelism. If we are predestined to be saved, why should we live a Christian life? And if God already has a plan about who is saved and who is not, why should we bother sharing the gospel?

We begin with grace, with good news. Grace is God’s gift of salvation, available to all. In other words, God’s grace is at work in the lives of people who are outside the church. This leads us to a fuller, richer understanding of salvation. Many of us can point to a time of decision or profession or first commitment, but many of us also know that God was doing something in our lives before that. In my own life I think of Sunday School teachers, my mother and my grandparents, a high school friend and his parents; I think of my home church which gave me opportunities to come closer to Christ---not that I always did---but something was happening. I think of retreats, and neighborhood canvasses and Bible studies, and youth choirs and mission trips. But grace was also a reality outside the church. As a teenager I worked in grocery stores, putting up stock, running a cash register, cleaning and mopping the floors. I think of a Christian man who worked in the grocery business, a member of my church, and how the store would feel different when he entered it. All of these were experiences that helped me to live into the grace that was there, all the time.

We don’t become Christians in the abstract, and it doesn’t happen, in its fullness, all at once. It is like a journey, and we can look back and see the signs. A few years ago I was watching a program on public television. It was the story of a Hispanic father in New York City who had lost his adult son. The son was mildly retarded, and was unable to read or respond to the normal channels by which missing persons were found. The family was poor, and they had no pictures of their lost son. Finally the father came upon an idea. He had pictures of himself made, and he personally plastered them on every signpost in that part of the city. In the end the miracle happened: the son recognized his father, and knew that his father was seeking him, and there was a reunion.

When we know that God loves us this much, a change begins to occur in us. This is called repentance, the turning of our lives in the direction of home, toward God. Jesus says, at the beginning of the gospel, the kingdom has come, repent, and believe in the good news (Mark 1. 14-15).

In the process of salvation we begin to claim the grace of God---He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. This is the movement from suffering to endurance to character to hope. To recall my experience from last summer, it is the recovery of something that is damaged, neglected, underappreciated, and the restoration of all of that into something useful and beautiful. To use an image from the Old Testament, it is the journey from slavery to freedom. To know freedom, as a Christian, is to live not under law, but under grace, which is, again, a gift that we did not earn, that we do not deserve, that we cannot repay. Paul reminds us of the core of the gospel:

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

In these verses we come face to face with the radical grace of God. Christ died not for the righteous, but for the unrighteous. Like one trained in the law, the Apostle Paul lays out a rational argument. We can imagine dying for a righteous cause, for a friend, for someone in our family, to protect the innocent. We can imagine doing something good or even heroic for the deserving. There was precedent for all of this in the rabbinic law and in the philosophy of the Greeks. But…there is that word—but. But God proves, demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We did not earn it. We do not deserve it. We cannot repay it.

A good friend is being assigned as the pastor of United Methodist Church, her first Sunday there is in a couple of weeks. She wrote me an email and asked for advice on what to preach on the first Sunday. I went back and read my first sermon here, which was late June, 2003. The sermon ended with an insight from Zan Holmes, the great preacher from Dallas, Texas. Zan said that a sermon should never end without some good news, and a sermon should never end without giving God the credit.

Let us give God the credit:

All of us are here this morning, not because we deserve to be, but because in God’s grace our lives have been salvaged, in some way, for some purpose. Many of us here this morning because we have found some measure of peace in this life through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Most of us here this morning would admit that we are “works in progress”, that God is not finished with us, but that God has also not given up on us.

Let us give God the credit:

We worship and praise a God who gives us not what we deserve but what we need. We worship and praise a God whose grace is amazing, whose grace is greater than all our sin. We worship and praise a God who breaks the power of cancelled sin, who sets the prisoner free! We worship and praise a God who makes the unrighteous righteous, who makes the broken whole, who makes the ungodly Godly, who makes the unholy Holy. We worship and praise a God who loves us. How much does God love us? This is the best news of all. While we were yet sinners, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.


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