AMAZING GRACE

TEXT: Romans 8:1-11

Most Saturday nights between 6-8 pm, you can find me listening to public radio to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. I remember him once saying that the church was putting itself in grave danger by preaching grace and forgiveness. "99.9% of all church work is done out of a sense of guilt," he said. Everybody serves on all those boards and committees either to try to make up for past deeds or to try to do enough good deeds to get them into heaven. If the church goes about telling people that all their sins are forgiven and that the whole project is about grace and not works, you won't have anybody left to run the church!"

Well, I thought that was pretty funny.. .and pretty true. If we really had an understanding of grace in the church, I could free up tons of counseling time. When I looked at the lectionary and saw Romans 8:1, I knew I had to preach about it. If I had a nickel for every time I have reminded someone, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," I'd be rich. For some reason, we seem to imagine that God spends every day with a big legal pad.. .making a list, checking it twice, trying to find out whose naughty or nice. Well, that's somebody else, not God. God is not a legalist, and that's one of the themes both in Romans and in all of Paul's writing.

So, where do we get this very pervasive notion that God is always watching with a critical eye, with a lightning bolt ready in one hand if we mess up? Why do we insist that God is a legalist? Before I try to answer that, let's look back at Romans 8 and define some terms.

Paul talks about the law of sin and death. He's talking there about the law of Moses which prescribed what was required when someone sinned. For a bunch of minor sins, people could simply bring an animal or some grain to sacrifice at the temple. That wiped the slate clean and they could start again. But for a bunch of other sins ranging from sassing your mother to killing your neighbor, there was no sacrifice that could make up for that. For those sins, the person was sentenced to death. So...the law of sin and death is the law that says, if you sin, you have to die.

The "condemnation" in verse one means death. You could also read verse one "There is therefore now no death sentence for those who are in Christ Jesus." It doesn't mean there are no consequences for Christians who sin. It doesn't mean God doesn't care if we sin. It means there is no eternal condemnation when a Christian sins. Our earthly lives may get all messed up, but our souls are safe.

The "law of the Spirit of life" means the law of God, which is love. The main point in this section is that it is not about law, but about love. God is not a legalist, but a lover. OK.. .But, there is still a snag. The reason, we are told, that there is no more death sentence for the Christian is because Jesus died in our place. Jesus was the sacrifice that satisfied the law.. .we were sentenced to death for our sin and Jesus stepped in and took the rap for us. There's no doubt that's a great and loving act...unsurpassed as an act of love in the history of the world. However, it does nothing to help the person who is struggling with God as a legalist because it still has death as a requirement for somebody.. .it is still demanding that the law be followed, that the debt be paid.. .it just changes who pays it. That still seems to make God very much a legalist, which keeps people worried and therefore bound to the law.

As I tried to prepare this sermon, I got stuck there. And I sat and I prayed and I read and I sat, trying to sort this through. The atonement...Christ dying on the Cross for our sins.. .it's the center of our faith.. .and yet I've never been able to really explain to people how that works. A number of people have explained how it works.. .and they're all different. You would think that after 2,000 years, there would have been some consensus on how the death of Jesus 2,000 years ago gets salvation for us. But there isn't. And I was about to scrap Romans 8:1 and preach on something else, when I thought of the whole thing in a different light.

Now bear in mind that most of the times I've had a new thought, I discover later that somebody came up with that idea a thousand years ago and got burned at the stake for it. So I'm not promising that this isn't heresy, but I liked the way the shoe fit when I tried it on. Suppose that God is not a legalist. Suppose that WE are the legalists. Suppose WE are the ones who demand that people pay their debts and atone for their deeds.. .weaving the law so tightly that there is no room for threads of mercy or forbearance. Suppose the history of God in the world went like this...

God says.. .it's simple.. ."Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself." Those are Old Testament verses.. .Deuteronomy and Leviticus. And the people say, OK, but they don't know what that means. So God lays it out in the form of laws...OK...the "love God" part means you don't put anything before God and you don't try to box God into one particular image. You don't take the name of God and use it for unhoiy things. And you set aside a day to worship God and to rest because it's important to love yourself too. The "love your neighbor" part means that you treat your parents with respect, you don't steal or kill or commit adultery or lie to get somebody else in trouble and you should be content with what you have instead of always being jealous of what other people have. That's what love of God, self, and neighbor looks like when you live it out.

The Ten Commandments proper contain no "or else" statements.. .no prescribed punishments. There are promises of good things if you keep them, but not threats of bad things if you don't. Those threats and punishments all come in the expanded law of Moses. Suppose we were the ones who decided that it wasn't enough simply to know what God wanted from us or to understand what it meant to love our neighbor or to love God. Suppose it was the people who insisted that rules don't do a whole lot of good unless they have some teeth to them and that it was Israel rather than God that insisted that the laws come with prescribed punishements.

Wouldn't that be just like human beings? Wouldn't it be just like us to be mad enough when someone broke the rules to want to teach them a lesson so they wouldn't do it again? And wouldn't it be just like us to rather rid the earth of a troublesome person than to get at the root of the problem? And wouldn't it be just like God to say, "OK, if that's what you want...here's a system," because if God didn't provide one, we would supply it.. .and it wouldn't be as good.

There's a Biblical precedent for that sort of thing. That's exactly what happened when Israel wanted a king. They want a king because all the other nations have one. They want someone to lead them into battle and destroy their enemies. They ask God for a king. "Bad idea," says God.. .it will cause you all sorts of trouble. But they insist, and God gives them what they wanted. And it did cause all kinds of trouble.

What I'm saying is.. .suppose the heartless demand for the fulfillment of the law isn't God's demand, but ours. The people cry "Do it right or die" and gleefully kill off those who refuse to follow the law. The law takes the place of God, and instead of love dictating the rule of law, love is forgotten entirely and only the law remains. And God cries out through the prophets.. .your sacrifices are an abomination to me.. .you have abandoned justice and mercy.. .all the Lord requires is that you do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God! But the people bow to the law now.. .no, if you sin you die.. .mercy has no place.. .we have to have principles.. .we have to have the law. The law has become an idol.. .adhering to the law has broken the law that says "You shall have no other gods before me." Jesus pointed out many places where keeping the letter of the law broke the Spirit of the law.

Suppose we are the legalists. . .and suppose we became so insistent that someone had to die if there was sin that God finally said... "Fine. If you insist that the law must be fulfilled and somebody has to die then quit killing each other and take me. I will give myself in place of all of you who have sinned and in place of all sin yet to come. Quit with this law business and get back to love.. .and if this is what it takes, then I'll do it. I am stronger than death anyway.. .I'll take the sting out of it, so even if you drift back to demanding death for sin, I'll make even death a reward."

Suppose Jesus had to die not because God demanded it, but because we did. Not just because first century Jews demanded it, but because the nature of human sin turns us into legalists. . .makes us demand the black and white lefter of the law that we can see and understand rather than wrestle with the difficult issues ofjustice and mercy that often can't be easily defined or determined. Maybe our pride makes us grab onto the letter of the law as something that we can control and use and manipulate for our purposes, rather than living by the spirit of the law, which leaves ultimate control in the hands of God who is the only one who can know our hearts. Maybe we would rather live without love than live without full control.

I believe from Genesis to Revelation, God has been saying in a thousand different ways that our earthly existence is about love not law; about relationship with God and with each other, not about doing things that are technically right or wrong. The purpose of the law is to serve the cause of love, not the other way round. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.

I talked to the children this morning about "grace." Grace is simply the way we experience that love of God. It's the way that God tries to say, "Relax.. .it's about love not about law. I'm in charge here, and I've taken care of things so you don't have to worry if you mess up. Your human friends may demand that you pay for your crimes, but if you'll just stay in relationship with me, I won't count them against you. Even if you end up dying as a result of what you've done, I've fixed that, too. There is no condemnation for those who love me. There isno death for you. I am the life, and if I dwell in you, death is impossible. If I am in you, life is in you by definition. Because I live, you shall live also. Relax. Yes, I'd like you to do the good and loving thing.. .and I'll help you not only to do it, but to want to do it. But don't worry when you mess up. There is no condemnation for you."

That is grace. It's not a commodity that you get from God, it's the way that God offers to be in relationship with us, even though we don't deserve it according to the law. I gave a dollar to the children this morning because it is nearly impossible to understand and accept the grace of God unless we have some experience of it on this earth. And we human beings are legalists. ..this world has very little grace at all

In this world we have to earn our way.. .we have to be deserving. We have to prove we are worthy to get into good schools, to have a bank account, to get a job, to have relationships, we even have to fill out applications for charity. Gift-giving occasions have turned from gifts into obligations, and occasions that once brought surprise and joy now we feel with weight and anxiety, hurt and shame. Is this gift good enough for so and so.. .if I don't have a gift for so and so, I'll never be asked back or I'll be cut off from the family. We are hurt that people don't bring us presents at certain times and when we give gifts we often expect a return in kind.

We don't know what a true gift is anymore... something that is given just because the giver wants to give it.. .it isn't an obligation to be repaid or a wage to be earned. It's not a reward that is due or an inalienable right. It's just a gift that requires nothing at all from you.. .not even a thank you note. We are fast forgetting what it means to either give or receive a gift And without that experience here, how are we ever to understand that the greatest gift of all.. .a loving relationship with the God who made heaven and earth.. .is a gift free for the taking? For the most part, we don't understand it. And so we try to earn the gift up front.. .or we take it and then try to pay for it later.., sometimes serving away on boards and committees and doing church work until we drop, trying to earn or pay for the gift that God offers.

I'm here to tell you the Gospel. ..the good news.. .you don't have to pay for it. It's free. You don't have to deserve it.. .God is giving it simply because God loves you.. .as you are. There is no condemnation for those who accept that gift.. .no matter what you've done before, no matter what you do tomorrow. The gift is still yours because it has nothing to do with your deeds. There are no hidden strings to God's gifts. It's a present because God loves you. Yes, God cares about your actions and will work with you to get the kinks out.. .but you are not condemned because of them...not now, not ever. The law of love has set us free from the law of sin and death. Relax. It's about love, not about law. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

1999, Anne Robertson


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