Sunday, May 30, 2010

Grace, Forgiveness, and Hope (Romans 5:1-8)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For 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 were still sinners Christ died for us.

Three ministers and their wives arrived at the gates of heaven, and they each approached St. Peter for entry. St. Peter looked over his notes, and said to the first minister, “It says here you’ve been a good minister, you’ve led a lot of people to the Lord, and you’ve lived a good life. But, hmmmmmm, it says here you love food too much. You love food so much you married a woman named Candy.” So, St. Peter pulled the lever and down they went. To the second minister, it was a similar list: “You’ve been a good minister, you’ve lived a good life, and you’ve built some impressive churches. But, it says here you loved money too much. You love money so much you married a woman named Penny.” So, he pulled the lever and down they went. The third minister looked at his wife and whispered, “It doesn’t look good for us, Fannie.”

Have you ever had a teacher say, “If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this?” My ears always perked up – partially because I knew it was important, partially because I knew it would be on the final exam. If you don’t remember anything else about the kingdom of God, remember this: grace. May we pray.

As I am working on a Microsoft Word document, at the top of my screen there is a little button that looks like a square made of horizontal parallel lines. This is the “Justify” button, and I click it if I want to have even, smooth margins down both the left and right side of the page. This creates a clean look along both the left and right sides of the page. It makes the margins aligned perfectly in vertical.

In our text today, we are told that we are justified by faith. In other words, we are aligned with the will of God by faith. Just as hitting the “Justify” button on my computer sets my margins straight, so too does being justified with God set us straight with God. It restores us to right fellowship God, that we may fulfill our chief end: namely, to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

John Wesley taught that justification is indeed making our relationship with God right through Jesus Christ. God’s mercy and grace, shown in the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf, pardons our sins and restores our capacity for love of God and neighbor. When we exercise faith, which is itself a gift from God, we actively trust in Jesus and receive God’s pardon and acceptance.

If you’ve hung around church for any length of time, no doubt you’ll hear one person ask another, “When did you accept Christ?” But before we can answer that question, there is another: “When did Christ accept me?” The answer is the same for each of us: Christ accepted you and Christ accepted me when he stretched out his arms in love on the hard wood of a cross, willingly entering into suffering on our behalf, in order that our relationship with God could be restored. Long before any of us reached toward God, God reached toward us.

God loves us before we ever even thought about loving God. Not because we’re special, not because we’re deserving, not because we’ve earned it, not because we’ve done anything – God loves us simply because God is love. We call this grace – the reaching of God toward us when we have done nothing to merit or earn God’s love. Specifically, we Methodists call this prevenient grace, from the Latin pre venie, meaning, “to go before.” Prevenient grace goes before us – before we ever reach toward God, God is already reaching toward us.

God has reached out in love toward each of us, but then God invites our response. And while our response is important, we deceive ourselves if we think that we make a decision for Christ only once in our lives.

Now, I don’t want to discount that moment if that’s part of your faith story. I know that for many of us, we can mark an important occasion in our past in which we responded to God’s grace, a day that marked a turn from self-centered living toward God-centered living. But I also know that for many of us, the move in our lives toward God has been a bit more gradual than that, and perhaps there is not one moment but a series of moments in which we actively pursued God.

Inevitably, someone hearing this sermon or reading it is thinking to themselves, “See, he doesn’t believe in salvation.” In actuality, I care about salvation so deeply that I refuse to reduce it to a single moment.

Thinking that we’re “saved” simply because we prayed a prayer or knelt at an altar 30 years ago is a dangerous position called complacency. Thinking we’re good enough, or that we’ve arrived is just deadly to our walk with God, because a walk doesn’t happen in one moment, but is a journey that unfolds over time.

We never know how and when God will transform and shape us. One little boy was overheard praying at bedtime: “Dear God, help me to be a good little boy. But if you don’t have time, don’t worry about it, because I’m having a real good time just like I am.”

Having prayed the sinner’s prayer when you found that urine-stained tract on the floor of the men’s room, responding to the altar call the preacher made in the church you grew up in, or having felt something move within you at Big Brash Brother Billy’s Backyard Bible Jamboree is fine and all, but God probes the question: What difference is it making in your life NOW? In other words, how have you responded to God’s grace in your life, lately? Is the grace in your life fresh, or has it gotten a bit stale?

Last week, we gathered around this altar and prayed for the Holy Spirit to be poured into our lives in fresh and new ways. We prayed for the Holy Spirit to sweep through our church not like a controlled burn, but as wildfire. Wildfire controls and consumes us. The reason we don’t want to pray for a controlled burn of the Holy Spirit is because any movement of the Spirit that we control or that we think we control is no movement of the Spirit at all. No, we pray for wildfire because we want the things that happen through this church to be so colossal that we will have no choice but to recognize it as a genuine movement of the Spirit. If we are able to boast in anything, it won’t be in our own abilities but only in what God is doing in us and through us.

In today’s text, that’s a theme that comes through clearly. We boast in what God does. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul has roundly condemned boasting, but here, he says it’s okay, provided the thing we’re boasting of is our hope of sharing the glory of God. In other words, don’t be puffed up with your own self-importance, but by all means, boast about what God is doing for you, in you, and through you. This is sure to give the glory and honor to God and not ourselves.

The failures I have seen in many congregations are too much of a reliance on our own abilities and not enough reliance on God. Let’s set a rule this morning: no boasting, unless we are boasting about what God is doing. Imagine the possibility of what God can do through a church that is a boast-free zone: all those conflicts that are territory-based and ego-driven all suddenly disappear! Not boasting allows each of us to take the attention off ourselves and put it on God. Not boasting opens us up to the movement of God in new and powerful ways and keeps any of us from thinking that the church belongs to us. Not boasting opens us up beyond visions that are simply human-size and allows us to have visions and dreams that are truly God-sized.

In addition to boasting about what God is doing rather than what we are doing, Paul allows us to boast in our suffering. Why? Because suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope.

I know when I was growing up, when I complained about any unpleasant chore like mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, or emptying the gutters, before I was even done, my dad would respond, “It builds character.” Let me tell you, I got pretty sick of building character. When Ben Wallace, guard for the Detroit Pistons was asked about winning and losing, he said, “They say losing builds character. I say it sucks.”

That’s the thing about the kingdom of God. Everything we think we know is turned upside-down. The kingdom of God doesn’t run how we would have run it. True greatness is actually marked by servanthood.

Paul tells us what the life looks like that is grounded in grace. It is not usually marked by earthly success and most certainly not blessed by earthly prosperity. Far more often it is marked by suffering. It is, after all, a Christ-shaped life that lives in grace. Grace is our dwelling place, and grace gives freely of itself for the good of others. If Christ suffered on our behalf, what would make us think that we’re exempt from suffering on behalf of others? But here’s the thing – suffering produces fruit, or better, grace bears fruit through suffering. The litany of the gifts of grace is a kind of sketch of moral and spiritual development for the person grounded in the grace of God. Start with suffering and move to endurance; from endurance comes character, and character produces hope. And hope doesn’t disappoint, because true hope is rooted in God’s love, lives the cross-shaped life, and is poured out through the Holy Spirit.

If you are looking to put your hope into something, this world in which we live offers us lots of choices, but I can promise you that putting your hope in anything other than God will eventually lead to disappointment. If you put your hope in yourself, in your family, in your church, in your nation, in your wealth, or in any number of human institutions, eventually a time will come when you are let down. True hope is rooted in the grace of God, and it never disappoints.

And then, Paul goes on to tell us something that, if the church would just get this point and start acting like it, I think you would see so many barriers to the church’s outreach in the world instantly broken down.

Paul tells us that at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. I’m gonna let you in on a secret here. The term ‘ungodly’ refers to all of us. It’s not that we inside the church are the godly folks and those outside are the ungodly. For Paul, everyone is ungodly. And brothers and sisters, this is a statement of Paul’s radical understanding of God’s grace – that it is not something reserved only for a select few, for the self-proclaimed saints and not the sinners, not only for the holy, not only for the believers, not only for the righteous and self-righteous – God’s grace is for everyone, insider as well as outsider. God’s grace erases the distinction between insider and outsider.

Think about that. We are all, according to God, outsiders. The church needs to realize that. We church folk have no right to act like we’re better than others to look down our noses at others, or that we are insiders and everyone else is an outsider. If we would all think of ourselves as outsiders, just imagine how that would change our witness in the world. We would not evangelize in order to get people to come to church or have them convert to our way of thinking or seeing the world. We would evangelize, we would share the good news of Jesus Christ because at one time we were all outsiders too, but the grace of God has made a difference in our lives, and we simply want others – even those whose behaviors, and lifestyles, and opinions seem strange to us – to experience the grace of God. Evangelism is not about growing the church. I know I talk a lot about numbers and growth, but numbers are never the goal for any church. Numbers are a by-product of the church being faithful to what it is called and commissioned to do, and when the church is faithful, yes, numerical growth is probably going to happen. But numbers are not a goal in and of themselves. I don’t want us to evangelize in order to grow the church, or to get more people in the world to come in and be “like us.” I want us to engage in evangelism because we recognize ourselves as outsiders, as unworthy, as beggars – and I simply want us to be willing to tell other beggars where to find food.

At just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, Christ showed extraordinary love, Christ lavished grace and forgiveness and hope on ungodly people like ourselves. He didn’t do that so we would look down our noses at those we perceive to be ungodly. We are no better than anyone else. We are still sinners – sinners redeemed by grace, perhaps, but sinners nonetheless. But Christ loves, sacrifices for, and even loves outsiders, enemies, the wicked, pagans, worldly people, sinners – and not only does Christ do this for us, as his followers, as his very body on earth, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, calls us to do the same. Once we were all outsiders, but through the sacrifice of Christ, we are given the opportunity become insiders. Once we were all enemies, but through the love of Christ, we are all treated like family. Once we were beggars scavenging for any morsel of something to eat we could find; but because of God’s grace and forgiveness, we are all invited to take a seat at the banquet.

This is the life of grace: since we are ALL ungodly (even and perhaps especially those of us who think we aren’t), Christ died for us. This is prevenient, abundant, selfless, sacrificial, reckless, non-discriminatory grace. If Christ was willing to include outsiders – ungodly people – like us, who are we to exclude others from experiencing God’s marvelous, infinite, matchless grace? Who are we to withhold forgiveness from anyone just because we don’t like something about who they are or what they do?

And just to drive the point home, Paul says it again: “God proves his love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” While we were still sinners – while we were still outsiders, enemies, rebellious, ungodly people – Christ died for us. Before we changed our behavior, before we repented of our sin, before we experienced the Holy Spirit within us, before we were nice or lovable, Christ died for us. A godly Messiah dies for ungodly people. There is no clearer expression of the grace of God. There is no stronger expression of forgiveness. There is nothing else that should give us such hope.

But having been given these gifts of grace, forgiveness, and hope, it would be wrong for me to hoard them and try to hang onto them. After all, they don’t belong to me in the first place. Each of us are called to offer the gifts of grace, forgiveness, and hope to the world, in the name of the One who first gave them to us.

Did you hear about the man who stood at the Pearly Gates, seeking admission to heaven? St. Peter asked, “Why should I let you in?” “Well,” the man responded, “I have attended church all my life and once went 12 years without missing a Sunday.” “Very good,” said St. Peter. “That is worth one point.” “I have also been very kind to children, given large sums of money to help the needy, and gone out of my way to help old people cross the street.” “Okay, that’s worth another point.” “Good grief!” the man complained. “At this rate, I’ll only get in by the grace of God!” “Bingo!” said St. Peter. “Welcome to heaven.”

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love toward us.

1 comment:

  1. remember the classic movie Sling Blade? remember the mom's boyfriend who viciously tore people to pieces with his comments and then said, ha ha I was just joking?