October 15, 2017
Bible Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10
4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Let’s begin today with a little congregational participation. I’ll make a statement and if you agree you stand up. If you disagree you stay seated.
- God forgives our sin when we confess. (stand if you agree, stay seated if you disagree).
- There are some sins that God doesn’t forgive. (stand if you agree, stay seated if you disagree).
- How I live my life will determine if I go to heaven or hell.
- God forgives me even if I don’t confess my sin.
- My relationship with God depends on me having faith.
- People without faith have no relationship with God.
- God loves me unconditionally.
- God loves all people unconditionally.
- God loves Muslims unconditionally.
- God is present and active in our lives whether we want it or not.
The questions we just responded to were at the heart of the reformation, because the reformation had everything to do with the nature and character of God. Luther struggled with the question — what kind of God do we have and what does God want from us and what does God do with us. The reformation had everything to do with how we interact with God. The medieval view was that we are in trouble with God from the minute we are born and we are always working on getting out of trouble. It wasn’t called trouble — it was called Original Sin and ongoing sin — but essentially it means — you are in trouble with God. To make matters worse God is distant, unapproachable, vengeful and angry. The only hope was to be good enough to become acceptable to God. Each person had to hope they could earn enough merit through the church to get into God’s presence when you died.
There really wasn’t much hope for living in a state of grace or of feeling accepted by God. It was something you worked on, but didn’t achieve — at least not in this life. Reading sermons from medieval preachers you find a collection of superstition and a form of Christianity most of us would find unrecognizable. I’ll give you an example. This is from the 13th century.
I have heard from many, it happened recently, namely, that a certain tavern keeper on the Saturday before Advent, in selling wine and taking his pay, blasphemed Christ during the whole day. But when about the ninth hour, in the presence of a multitude of men, he had sworn by the tongue of the blessed Virgin, by blaspheming her he lost the use of his tongue, and by speaking basely of her, suddenly stricken in the presence of the multitude, he fell dead.
Because people in the middle ages had very little scientific knowledge of disease death was viewed as being caused by mysterious circumstances and God was viewed as someone who was out to get us, especially if we were bad. I wish we could say that the reformation offered such enlightenment so that from then on grace abounded in the church. And in some circumstances it did, but unfortunately, many in the church held on to the idea of God as a God of vengeance. It hung on and still hangs on. The famous puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards preached the sermon many of you have at least heard the title “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I’ll share just a few sentences from that sermon.
It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a… a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance… So that your punishment will indeed be infinite. Oh, who can express what the state of a soul in such circumstances is! All that we can possibly say about it, gives but a very feeble, faint representation of it; it is inexpressible and inconceivable: For “who knows the power of God’s anger?”
That is a view of God that has been taught by the church for centuries. The softer version says God is a God of wrath, but through Jesus and with some repentance there is hope. The harder version is characterized by what we just heard from Jonathan Edwards. Both give us a view of God as angry and full of vengeance. But what Luther discovered in Romans is an entirely different understanding of God. Luther writes,
Grace means properly God’s favor, or the good-will God bears us, by which He is disposed to give us Christ and to pour into us the Holy Spirit, with His gifts… grace does so much that we are accounted entirely righteous before God. For His grace… takes us entirely into favor, for the sake of Christ…
Luther’s view of God challenged all the others — not a God of vengeance and wrath, but a God of grace and acceptance. And faith is not the act of trying to please God, but surrender to God. Luther writes,
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God… a person is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown this grace…”
Luther shifted the focus from what we need to do to be acceptable to God, to God who is gracious and loving. The focus moves from our sinfulness to God’s grace, from our inadequacy to God’s power.
When I was doing graduate work I had a committee made up of faculty who supervised and advised me for about two years. I asked Stuart Brown to serve on the committee. He was a smart guy and a very good teacher. He was also a professed atheist which I thought would make him useful on the committee since my research had to do with preaching. I wanted him to find problems with my research so that I would have to work out the issues he identified. I didn’t anticipate his biggest sticking point. At my oral exam he asked, “You use the word grace in your writing, but you never tell me what it is.” I responded using the confirmation definition I had used for years. I said, “Grace is God’s love freely given.” He sat for a minute and then he said, “That doesn’t help me. I don’t know what that means.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I used the standard answer when you have no idea what to say next — “Let me think more about it and get back to you.”
Over the next year I attempted to respond to Stuart, but he was never satisfied. It remains an open question in my own theology — how do we express grace more completely or in a way that is more meaningful.
When I teach preaching I ask students to express God’s action in our lives as a part of their sermons. That’s when they unwittingly reveal they are functional atheists. I suspect that when pushed to express our faith most clearly most of us are humanists or atheists to some degree. We say we believe in grace, but we live as if all of life depends on our efforts and our work and that God is not really a part of life except maybe as someone who helps us if we happen to ask. We live as if day-to-day life depends on us and we ask God to help us out along the way now and then.
To believe in a God of grace — a God who is active in our day-to-day lives means that God actually does something other than save us from going to hell. God is active in life day to day, hour to hour. You see it. You know it. You are aware of it.
Ephesians says, “But God, who is rich in mercy… made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” That’s not a vision of the next life — that’s a vision for this life. We are in Christ here and now — already living the kingdom of God.
Ephesians 2:8 is the Bible verse for the ELCA Youth Gathering next summer. I love seeing this on the tee-shirts our youth are wearing. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” And the theme of the upcoming ELCA Youth Gathering — “This Changes Everything.” It does. It changes our view of God, our relationship with each, our relationship with every person we meet. It changes everything.