Friday, March 20, 2015

Gospel, Grace & Gift (the Lutheran standard)

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesian 2:1-10

Two years ago the Christian Century poised a challenged to authors, theologians, pastors and the general public to articulate their understanding of the gospel message, the good news, in 7 words or less.  In our era of constant connection to media, 24 hour news tickers and the surge of branding and marketing experts honing in on our shrinking attention spans tells us that pithy, catchy and clear messages are crucial. 

Many of the responses to the Christian Century challenge sound like these…

Death is defeated by Jesus - follow him!

Love God.  Love neighbor.  Transform the world. 
Love your neighbor as yourself.

These are all biblical supported statements, important elements of the life faith and what it means to live like a Christian.  They also are the parts of Christianity that flow into our popular culture – challenge, transform, be perfect, do more, live a big, impactful, unforgettable life! These concise statements are actually talking about the great commission…what Jesus asks of his followers, the call of the church.  But this is not the gospel.  There are too many action words, the sentiment is all about our lives and about us doing stuff, good stuff certainly, but these statements are primarily about us.  This is not the gospel.

Then there are some other responses that Christian Century received, see if you can hear a different core to these 7 word phrases…

                God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.
                In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.
And this one, my favorite from the bunch, speaks the gospel message into our being,

                We are who God says we are.   We are who God says we are.

This seven words gospel nugget is as swift as it is intriguing.  For the people inside and outside and around the faith community, this pithy gospel slogan begs the question “If we are who God says we are…What does God say about us?!?”

If we are who God says we are…aren’t your curious about what that means? Well, both of our scripture passages today address this question quite directly, but I have a hunch the author of the 7 words was inspired by one of our verses from Ephesians…so we go back to this beautiful reading.

The author of Ephesians, first names our mortal reality.
                You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived…
We all have a past, short or long, that is marked with failures and flaws and that leaves us with scars from all the scratching and clawing we have tried to do on the way to being who we want to be.

All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

I am so grateful to the author of Ephesians, that this dreary and entirely too honest word ends with like everyone else.  As if to say, don’t feel too bad, because you’re just like everyone else.  It is unavoidable – the pull to chase after gods that fail.  The desire to give away our hearts to those that will break it.  The defeat we succumb to when struggling with worldly realities we’ve discussed here each Wednesday; isolation, mental illness, addiction, financial strain and the great idol of busy-ness.

 We, as a people have a history, the church has a history – it’s not exciting or summed up in seven words – but it is a part of who we are, and how we are who we are.  We are a people, a church with a past and that is the beginning of who we are. 

Then the pivot…the point when this Word of God leads us through our past and points us in a new direction. 

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses made us alive together with Christ.

Great love finds us, even when we were dead, Great love finds us and makes us alive together with Christ.  Brothers and sisters, listen up – because this is who we are.  We are not the failures, we are not the scars, we are not the sum total of our history or our trespasses. Nothing else gets to say who we are, not even our own self-loathing or self-congratulating selves.  We are alive together with Christ.

And then Ephesians gives us the battle cry of the Lutheran church, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

And, like everyone else, this just is.  This just is who we are.  Unable to wreak it, or spoil it.  Incapable of earning it or squandering it.  This just is who we are – recipients of the gift of God.

This seems like a good place to end my sermon.  Ephesians has brought us to the unexplained, extravagantly rich promise that we have been saved by grace through faith. 

But a nagging question has remained with me.  With Scripture texts such as these a sermon should have some pouring out this week with ease and passion and yet I found myself wrestling and wandering what this word of grace really means for us, Christians stumbling through a post-Christendom, post-modern world. 

I am not sure the church or the individuals who make up the church, or the individuals who don’t make up the church are really struggling with the question of grace.  I mean in the more classic sense of salvation and standing before the gates of hell and “being saved”.  Martin Luther once illustrated grace by saying it is like we are a helpless caterpillar, surrounding by a mighty ring of fire and God reaches down, pulls us up and rescues us.  I most certainly can be wrong, but I am guessing that by and large we are not a society that flees to church out of fear of damnation or a large ring of fire.  We have just progressed to a different place in popular belief, a more self-sufficient and self-surviving place.

Yet, there are still struggles.

I think we battle ourselves, our scars, our histories which make it difficult to surrender to the gift of grace.

I think the rise of individuality in our culture makes it difficult to understand such a radical gift and the horrors of our world and the systems of power and corruption plant strong seeds of doubt deep within.

And every single message that we receive every hour of every day telling us that we are not enough, or that we are too much and that we must earn our place in the classroom, in the office, in our homes, on our social media feeds or even in our families, that we must do more and be something other to earn our place on this earth.

When confronted with all this and the ugly, harmful ways this has a hold of God’s world….well, then that sounds an awful lot like the gates of hell in our post-Christendom, post-modern world.

We are who God says we are.  We are who God says we are.

It is a pithy gospel word – not simplistic, not watered down.  But it confronts our struggle with this word of grace, yes?

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

It’s not 7 words, but it packs the punch.  Saving us from ourselves.  Telling us plainly and finally that the gospel promise flowing from God’s great love is done in Jesus Christ alone.  The gospel is completed and has been for quite some time now.  So we can leave it alone, we can need not add to it, or chase after it – for it will not leave us alone.  The grace of Jesus Christ comes into our being in its intruding, controlling, liberating, renewing kind of way and says this is now your way of life.

We are who God says we are: new creations alive with Christ.

There is one more take on this grace thing I would like to close with.  Frederick Beauchner is a favorite Christian author of mine and he has this earthy, honest reflection on grace…just a tad longer than 7 words.

Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.
A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do.
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.
There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace is yours, reach out and take it.
Being able to reach out and take it is a gift you have been given too.

Thanks be to God of great love, the giver of all life and grace.  Amen.