I received a phone call last week. Thankfully I was not available to actually pick up the phone because later, when I listened to the message, I heard:
“John Lentz, you entered a contest on March 21st at Beechwood Mall for a brand new Jaguar. You won! Call me at (number) to find out more information about this prize. Ask for Kim!”
Well, I didn’t call, although Kim sounded nice. And why I filled out that contest form in the first place is beyond me. Because I know what would have been on the other side of that phone line, if I had called.
Certainly, there would have been a catch. Certainly, I was one of many who received that same phone call. Certainly, there would have been many, many steps and probably a whole bunch of purchases before I even got to the really final stage of winning any Jaguar.
It happens all the time. “FREE three-day cruise.” But I’d have to travel to West Virginia to take a full-day tour of some property. And even if I did that, I’d find out that the FREE three-day cruise was only one of several prizes that I could win. I’d probably come back with a new alarm clock.
“FREE 90 day membership to a health club!” I almost bit on that one, but the relentless pressure to join turned me off.
“You are the 1,000,000 visitor to this web site, you win a new Ipod. Click here!” One time I actually followed the many steps to see if I could really get to the new Ipod. I had to fill out a product use survey, pick five that were most useful to me, or something like that, and agree to receive direct advertisements for the next 2,500 years, or whatever…. it wasn’t worth it.
Yes, there is always a catch. True, there is no such thing as a free lunch. One must be very skeptical of anyone offering a free gift.
No wonder, then, that we can’t get our minds and hearts around the most radical truth of Christian faith – and that is GRACE. “Grace” comes from “charis,” the Greek word with many derivatives. Charisma is one of them – that special presence that some have. All eyes turn when the charismatic person enters the room.
“Charis” means gift. And grace means free gift, no strings attached. You don’t earn it. It is yours whether you like it or not.
Some form of the word charis (or gift, or grace) is used 7 times in this morning’s passage alone. If you read on in chapter 6 of Romans, Paul goes nuts with the word. What it comes down to is this: You and I are saved by grace through faith and there is nothing that we can do about it, except accept it and even if we don’t accept it – we get it anyway. So there!
I know that last part might sound a bit heretical, but it is a foundation of biblical faith. You all are loved by God… PERIOD. It is a done deal. You can run but you can’t hide. You can chose to live a destructive life but damn, if you won’t be embraced by grace, anyway.
St. Paul was a good rabbi, which means teacher. In his letter to the Romans, and in the passage that is before us today, he shows himself to be very adept at a well known rabbinical rhetorical devise which begins by describing something and then comparing it to something else. And the rhetorical devise is this: “if the first thing is true, then HOW MUCH MORE true is the second thing.”
So in verse 12 Paul begins: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man (ADAM – and you don’t have to believe the literal truth of the Genesis creation story – it is metaphorical, poetical, getting at a deeper truth than mere historical, materialistic reality), and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . .”
All Paul is doing is stating the obvious – there is brokenness all around. Read the headlines. Be honest about your own life. As the great theologian of the second half of the 20th century Reinhold Neibuhr once said: “Original Sin is the only verifiable doctrine of Christian faith.” And all sin is based on our own determination to be the master of our own little world, driven by the fear of what might be outside of our little constrictive boundary.
I think it was Ellie Wiesel who once said, commenting on the Adam story, that Adam’s sin was when he first opened his eyes and said “where and who am I?” Instead of “who are You?” to God. As William Slone Coffin once said: “There is no smaller package in the world than that of a person all wrapped up in himself.”
God gives us a gift and we want to package it, tightly. What a waste.
But then did you hear what Paul does? He says this: “But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”
If, and I hope you can follow me, all have sinned in Adam – if we are all tainted by this sin, how much more are ALL saved because of the one man Jesus Christ. All is all. Paul is making a staggering claim. In Adam all sinned. In Christ all have been made alive. He didn’t say: “In Adam all sinned and in Christ those who say the right words, or who do the right thing are saved.” I didn’t choose to be part of Adam’s stupidity, I have enough of my own. Likewise, I didn’t chose to be part of God’s grace.
This is radical grace. There is no catch. No follow up phone calls to Kim, or whomever, to begin a process where you might win a toaster instead of the Jaguar.
God loves you so much that God is more than willing to pre-approve you without you lifting a finger. “Pre-approve” – I know that credit cards can be a sham too. But I remember one episode of the popular TV series “Friends.” The really stupid male character, Joey, opens up a form letter telling him that he has been pre-approved for a credit card. He says, “I have never been pre-approved for anything.”
And how many of us feel that way? That we are not pre-approved, not worthy, not able? Try as we might, we can never reach the goal of satisfying some unknown, and unreachable goal of satisfaction – we can never please ourselves, or anyone else for that matter. We just never measure up.
And the magnificent good news of Jesus Christ comes like a bolt – “Yes! You are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased. Yes, my grace is sufficient to meet all your needs, so lay YOUR burden down, because it is YOUR burden – you are carrying a load you don’t need to carry.”
I think that this issue of self-worth, and of not measuring up, is the universal dilemma of our lives. It poisons us. It poisons me.
I think that Christianity has really mistaken this grace thing. So often we tell people that grace is freely given, but we want a particular response. We dangle HELL and damnation over folks heads. We make grace a special gift for some. We emphasize a sub-group of humanity called Christian that will get the prize where everyone else will be left empty handed. We guilt, obligate, scare folks to death about not measuring up or not getting the right answer. We seem to delight in this wrathful God who is going to make someone PAY for all the evil in the world.
It reminds me of a silly little verse that rightfully describes what many Christian believe:
“We are the precious chosen few:
let all the rest be damned.
There’s only room for one or two:
we can’t have heaven crammed!”
It is the craziest thing I have ever heard and you will get no part of it from my pulpit. God’s grace is absolutely opposite of a wrathful God. I have been asked, “John, what if you are wrong?” I may be. But, I simply do not believe that God will damn me or anyone else because we have overestimated the love of God.
We have seen baptisms today and another one last week. The thing that I loveabout infant baptisms is that it stresses this grace – before these kids know, we have declared that they are in the kingdom, of the kingdom and that the indelible mark of baptism cannot be erased. And even if they weren’t baptized – it doesn’t matter in terms of their status before God – it just means that the parents, or they themselves haven’t claimed what is already a given. We are just claiming the promises, not making them.
Sure, this grace thing is strange. You can go out and live reprobate lives. You can. But really, do you want to? Is that what builds up community? Is that what really makes you feel good? Why waste time running after things that are of no real value?
And the grace of Jesus Christ is so profound that I think (heck if I know for certain) yes, after death there will be big surprises – huge surprises about who is in. All our words will falter, and all theologies will fade away. We will all be wrong, and yet it won’t matter as we fall on our faces and declare “Hallelujah!”
Now look, don’t get me wrong – believing in the absolute priority of grace, does not mean that we should tolerate everything, and never speak a word of judgment, or fail to stand for anything or call evil, “evil.” I am simply stating that grace, God’s free gift of love, is our foundation. And because we are beloved and believe that everyone else is too – we enter the world’s pain with compassion, energy and power. Just like Jesus.
Grace is the reason we are who we are. Grace is good news and we need to spread it around – tell others. Because so many are deceived by a false notion of who Jesus is, and what his church is all about. And if we don’t witness to a deeper truth, who is going to?
Brennan Manning, author of a wonderful book entitled The Ragamuffin Gospel writes:
Over the years I’ve seen Christians shaping God in their own image – in each case a dreadfully small God. Some Roman Catholics still believe only they will graze heaven’s green pastures… There is the God who has a special affection for capitalist America, regards the workaholic, and the God who live only the poor and underprivileged. There is a God who marches with victorious armies, and the God who loves only the meek who turns the other cheek. Some, like the elder brother in Luke, sulk and pout when the Father rocks and rolls, serves surf-and-turf for a prodigal son who has spent his last cent on whores. Some, tragically, refuse to believe that God can or will forgive them: my sin is too great. (p. 40)
But our God is a big, awesome God, bigger than we can imagine. God’s grace is huge, more than we can fathom and it is for you and me and all; those who claim Jesus and those who don’t, those who live pure lives and those who don’t, those who can see a light at the end of the tunnel and those who are lost in the darkness.
For as Dostoevsky writes in Crime and Punishment:
At the last judgment Christ will say to us, “Come, you also! Come, drunkards! Come, weaklings! Come, children of shame!’ And he will say to us: ‘Vile beings, you who are in the image of the beast and bear his mark, but come all the same, you as well!’ And the wise and prudent will say, ‘Lord, why do you welcome them?’ And he will say: ‘If I welcome them, you wise men, if I welcome them, you prudent men, it is because not one of them has ever been judged worthy.’ And he will stretch out his arms, and we will fall at his feet, and we will cry out sobbing, and then we will understand all, we will understand the Gospel of grace! Lord, your kingdom come!
Last week, “sin.” This week, “grace.” Next time, “repentance.” (I think.) This is the lexicon of faith. We need to know these words if we are going to be evangelists – telling the story, witnessing to the truth that grace abounds and the love of Jesus Christ is for all.
It is the message the world needs to hear.