(a sermon for March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday in Lent; fifth in a series, based on Luke 15:11-32 and Ephesians 2:1-10)
So… GRACE. What is it, and what does it really have to do with faith?
Not only a “frequently asked question” as regards faith, it’s a pretty good one as well; after all, so often when we use that word “grace,” we’re speaking apart from any kind of biblical or religious context. Outside of these church doors, for instance, grace becomes a way of describing the dancer’s leap or the poet’s word; it’s the manner by which we communicate our awe and admiration for those with the strength and ability to do something amazing or wonderful. To be “grace-full” suggests someone with the skill to do what they do beautifully, smoothly and without wasted motion; it’s that intangible something that just seems to fill a particular moment, whatever it is, with perfection.
We also tend, do we not, to equate “grace” with something really good that happens to us; or perhaps more to the point, with something really bad not happening to us! “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Now there’s a quote that dates back as far as the 16th century (attributed to the English Protestant Reformer and Martyr John Bradford), but how often have we uttered pretty much the same sentiment; usually referring to one specific situation or moment in time when we chose to take one road in life rather than the other, a choice which made all the difference between our success or failure, wealth or poverty, righteousness or sin, and yes, even life or death!
Now admittedly, this does bring us a little bit closer to our biblical understanding of grace; by speaking of what happens to us as being “by the grace of God,” we’re talking about a God who shows forth favor – often unmerited favor – toward those whom he loves. In fact, two words in ancient Hebrew that can be roughly translated as “grace” are, first, hen, which describes the compassionate response of a superior to an inferior, especially when that kindness is undeserved; and second, hesed, which is the word in scripture used to describe God’s loving-kindness and loyalty toward Israel, even when Israel turned away from God! So then, “by the grace of God” ends up meaning that you may well not deserve it and probably don’t, but nonetheless the divine and almighty God – the very Creator of heaven and earth – this God loves you, and so here it is. It’s yours, by GRACE.
I say all this as a way of preparing us for the hard truth of our Epistle reading this morning, in which Paul gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter of grace by letting the Ephesians and us know in no uncertain terms, “You were dead.”
That’s right… dead. Dead and gone: as in the words of Dickens, “dead as a doornail.” Dead “through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived;” dead in “following the course of this world;” dead from “following the desires of flesh and senses;” dead “by our nature [as] children of wrath, like everyone else.” Friends, I would submit to you that this is not the kind of obituary any one of us would want for ourselves! I’m reminded here of an obituary that ran in a Los Angeles newspaper a few years ago: it actually said that the deceased “had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. Her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing.”
Can you imagine (!); now there’s an argument for writing your own obituary ahead of time! Here was a final testament of life that included no highlights of this person’s existence, just the low lights; it was the record of a life with no redeeming qualities whatsoever! And that seems to be exactly where Paul is headed as he writes to these early Christians in the city of Ephesus (as The Message translates this, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience!”) and such judgment would seem to preclude any hope of their redemption or salvation at all! All you were, and all you could ever hope to be was… dead!
But… you’ll notice that Paul is very clear about using the past tense in that judgment; as in, “you were dead.” Because in fact there’s very good news to share here: “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.” “He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ…” (The Message again) and here’s the thing that is so amazing about it: “He did all this on his own, with no help from us!” It is “by grace [that] you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God.” If I might borrow a great line from the Rev. Donovan Drake, a Presbyterian pastor out of Tennessee, just when we figure that all is lost for us, here Paul “pulls away from the grave news and towards the great news:” that we are made alive in Jesus Christ so that we might join him in the work that he is doing and dwell with him in the highest heaven… even when we don’t deserve it!
I love what Drake goes on to say about this: “God has set forth a bail-out package of enormous proportions! The amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is gathering up our sins, our failures, our pains, our brokenness, our pasts, our presents, and our great illusions of foresight into the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection,” and we are saved. “This is huge,” concludes Drake, “so huge that many cannot seem to fathom its size and scope.” You and I, are all-too-human tendency is to decide that we somehow have to earn our way into the good “graces” of God (there’s another way we use that word!); that is, if we only act better, do better, be better than maybe – just maybe – we might squeak by with just a modicum of divine approval now and eternally. But that’s not grace: grace is the assertion that “while we still were sinners Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8) and rather than being dead, we are indeed made alive together through Jesus Christ. And ultimately, that this happens has nothing to do with us at all, but everything to do with the infinitely graceful gift of God unto those whom he loves; all we need do is accept the gift.
Like most of you, I suppose, I’ve always been very fond of our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son; although I must confess to you that every time I return to this parable of Jesus, the more convinced I am that history and tradition has misnamed it. Now granted, Jesus intended the story to illustrate the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” (Luke 15:7) so the story of the sinful younger son who “comes to himself” and decides to return home to his father and face the music does ring true. But more and more it seems to me the real truth of this parable is in what happens next; and what happens next is… God! In the story, of course, it’s the father who saw his son “while he was still far off” in the field and goes running after him, but in truth, it’s God!
Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to his son? That there’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?” And that there’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home; and that it’s only after all this that the son can manage to get his confession out of his mouth; and that even while that’s happening the father’s busy calling the household staff to get the party started!
And that’s why I really do believe this ought to be called the “Parable of the Forgiving Father!” Because such forgiveness is utterly amazing, isn’t it? The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time would have insisted (and quite honestly, so many of us even today would have to agree) that for such forgiveness to have taken place all laws and statutes would have to be followed to the letter, with everything from that moment on done properly and in good order; in other words, repentance followed by good (no, make that perfect) works being the only justification for any kind of forgiveness. But now here’s Jesus, saying with all boldness that ours is the God who just up and forgives the transgressions of this so-called “prodigal,” not because all the dots have been connected, but just out of love (!); all because of that relentless desire of God has that every one of his children should be welcomed home, and that there should be this unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
That’s what grace is, you see… because ultimately, in the same way the younger son couldn’t change the hopelessness of his own sinful situation, there’s nothing you or I can do about ours: you can’t change what’s been done in your life; you can’t fix what is broken between yourself and God; and you can’t raise the dead… only God can do that. But the good news, now and always, is that by grace, God does do that, and he does it for you and me by the redeeming power at work in Jesus Christ.
The story goes that during a British conference on comparative religion some years ago, the renowned theologian and author C.S. Lewis was asked in the middle of a very intense discussion what he considered to be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy… it’s grace.” And despite the brevity and simplicity of his answer, not to mention all the other sharp divisions that people of different faiths will sometimes espouse, on that one point, at least, everyone had to agree. I love what Philip Yancey says about this; he writes, “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law – each offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”
Turns out that our the glory of our Christian faith is ultimately is found not in our doing, but in our receiving; and so in that regard, I suppose that it’s not wholly unconditional, for it does require each of us to take hold of what we’ve been given. But when we do, we become the recipients of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” We are made part of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:9) And we are given life heretofore unimagined; full and abundant and eternal; all because of this incredible, unmerited amazing grace that’s borne of divine love.
In the end, you see, grace is all about love. As Frederick Buechner says so very well, “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.”
Dear friends, the good news of this and every day is that we are loved beyond measure and by grace we are saved; and in a sacrificial act that will change the world forever, God’s own son is about to show us just how true of a thing that is. So let us watch and wait, even unto the cross, for this gift of grace to unfold very soon now; so that we might embrace it as our very own. So that there, for the grace of God, will go you and I.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry