2 Corinthians 5:17-21
So then, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old way has gone away, and look, a new life has begun!
All this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ, and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. God has entrusted us with this ministry of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors who represent Christ and God is making an appeal through us. So we implore you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!” How? In Christ!
For God caused him - the one who never sinned - to take on sin for our sake, so that through him we could become the very righteousness of God.
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In the Reformed tradition, the Word of God is at the center of our faith. As we read the scripture, feel free to read along, or if you prefer, simply listen
Ephesians 2:1-10 (adapted from The Message, the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version)
At one time you were like a dead person, mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You used to let the world tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with a destructive spirit of unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat; it’s like we were like children headed for punishment. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, God embraced us. God took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. You are saved by God’s grace!
God raised us up with Christ and set us down in highest heaven with Jesus. In all the ages to come God will shower every generation with the same grace and goodness God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; this isn’t your own doing, it is pure gift, from God. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can boast about. No, we neither make nor save ourselves. We are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do. This is the way God planned for us to live our lives.
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One of the central tenets of the Reformed faith is ‘salvation by grace through faith.’ It’s simple to say, but what on earth does it mean? Well, for starters, you have to assume that people need something called ‘salvation,’ whatever that means. And then you have to figure out what ‘grace’ is. And how does grace actually work to bring about this thing called salvation? I guess you’d assume that the ‘faith’ part is faith in Jesus Christ, but how do you explain what Jesus has to do with it?
And pretty soon you’re into a thicket of theology and everybody’s eyes start to glaze over. I’m not surprised. When we announced we were doing a sermon series on the “Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith,” the universal response was, “Oh, goodie…”
So let me start with something else instead. Let me start with a poem - I’ve shared it with you before because I love it so much. It’s called “Baptism,” by Jim Autry.
There’s something about this,
about putting the people under the water
and raising them up
in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
something that makes the people cry,
that makes them want to want
everything to be all right,
and makes them want to leave this place
and be better,
to immerse themselves in their lives
and somehow be washed clean
of all the things they think
they should not have done
and should not still want to do.
Not the other stuff,
the star in the east,
the treasures in heaven,
or any of the old stories.
Not even life after death.
It is only to be new again.
(James A. Autry, “Baptism,” in Life After Mississippi)
There’s something that makes us want to want everything to be all right, the poet tells us. There’s something that makes us want to be new again. That’s the best description of salvation I know. Having things be the way it feels they’re supposed to be, being able to live our lives the way we’re supposed to live. Being set free from everything that gets in the way of our being the people God made us to be – that, to me, is salvation.
God knows that a lot of the time, we aren’t the people we’re supposed to be. Deep in our bones, we know that is the simple truth. And God knows the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t take something like Las Vegas to convince us of that. There is so much evil everywhere, so much tragedy, so much hatred and violence and cruelty. Even when things aren’t horrific, there is so much just plain nasty meanness.
“Total depravity,” John Calvin called it, and sometimes that sounds about right. What else would you call a mass shooting? But Calvin wasn’t shining a spotlight on a few wretched souls that do heinous crimes, acts of unspeakable evil. He meant all of us; each and every one.
Total depravity. It’s a term people don’t like much, and you can see why. It sounds like everyone’s actions are lumped together in one boat – the tiny micro-sins and the horrific macro-atrocities. It sounds like there’s not one drop of good blood in any of us, and we know that’s just not true. Just look at the heroes, the first responders and the regular men and women who jumped in to save others. Just look at the good in the world.
It sounds like John Calvin had a pretty small view of human nature. The irony is, it’s just the opposite. We are made in God’s image – in God’s own image! - and we should be capable of so much more, more love and goodness and generosity and courage than we ever seem to manifest. It’s not that every ounce of us is sinful; we know better than that. No, it’s about our propensity to sin, the inevitability of it, the sheer stubbornness of the presence of sin, and how it’s as hard to get rid of as a roach infestation.
It’s the sad, honest truth of how far sin separates us from God and from each other. Selfishness. Arrogance. Resentment. Meanness. Jealousy. Despair. Rage. Greed. It’s all around us. It’s in us. When sin crops up and takes root, it kills our relationships, and our own souls. When sin takes hold, even the things we know we should not want to do, we still do anyway. Even when we know better. Even when we know the damage we’re doing. That’s the stubbornness of sin. It doesn’t matter if other people are worse than we are. That’s not the point.
Martin Luther was tormented by the sense of his own sin. His internal struggle was what got the Reformation going, as much as his fight with the corruption of the church. As one writer puts it, he “felt intensely the distance between the Holy God and his own flawed self.”[i]
It was in reading the Bible that Martin Luther discovered the power of grace. It isn’t that we’re such bad people; it’s that the power of sin is just so great. “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the very thing I hate,” Paul writes; “Wretched man that I am!” [cf. Romans 7:15-25] That’s how Martin Luther felt, and it was a comfort to know it wasn’t just him. No, Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and Luther agreed wholeheartedly. [Romans 3:23]
When Martin Luther rediscovered the writings of Paul, it was an utter relief. Paul lays out the reality that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves from the sin that clings so closely, and trying to do it on our own just brings us to frustration, even shame. But God has not left us hopeless and bereft. Jesus came into the world to do what we could not do for ourselves. [Romans 7:24-25]
And what Jesus did, is what we call grace.
“Salvation is by grace through faith….and that it is not our own doing, but is a gift from God.” [Ephesians 2:8] For Martin Luther, this was a game-changer; when he understood this, he felt like he found life, and freedom, and peace. Grace is so different than the idea of divine rewards and punishments that so many of us still carry with us. We don’t get what’s coming to us based on what we do or don’t do. As John Calvin explained it, “In the maxims of the law, God is seen as the rewarder of perfect righteousness and the avenger of sin. But in Christ, His face shines out, full of grace and gentleness to poor, unworthy sinners.”
There is a profound humility to this idea of grace – and it doesn’t come easily to most of us.
God’s kingdom is not a meritocracy, and God’s economy is not based on achievement. It’s not that “the good get the goods.” It’s not about success at all. If anything, it may be our failures that help us more. As Calvin said, “Faith brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the blessings of God.” [ii]
I think I first began to really understand all this when I was in seminary at Union in New York. I was taking a class on the theology of Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, very much in the manner of John Calvin. But it wasn’t the class itself that made me understand; it was the intersection of that class and something else that was going on in my life.
I had started to attend Al-Anon meetings.
Some of you know this – I’ve talked about it from time to time - that my mom was an alcoholic. Years ago she gave me permission to talk about it openly, in case it might help someone else. Her sobriety started when I was 23 years old, and she started attending AA, and she found life. I began to go to Al-anon, not just to understand her more, but for my own healing. And there I found the power of grace.
The first three steps in AA and Al-anon’s 12-steps are like a primer on grace.
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
It’s like a light bulb went off inside me, and I suddenly understood what Paul was writing in his letters, what Martin Luther discovered, what Calvin was saying, what Karl Barth described. I understood in my gut and in my head what the power of grace really is.
It’s about admitting our powerless over sin; that our lives have become unmanageable. It is not our own wisdom, or power, or self-control, or willpower, or goodness, that saves us. We just can’t save ourselves.
It’s coming to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore our lives; we are not left bereft and alone.
It’s deciding to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who took our sins on himself so we could be free from all the weight they carry.
Any recovering alcoholic will tell you: it’s not about the alcohol. Any Al-Anon member will tell you: it’s not about the alcoholic. It’s about the brokenness and the healing of our souls.
Immersing ourselves in our lives and being washed clean. And the power to be new again. A power that can only come from God.
In the ancient church, when a soul was to be baptized, they walked down into the water of the baptismal pool, down three steps, symbolizing their death to sin. And when they were baptized, they walked up three steps on the other side, symbolizing their rebirth. Then they had a robe wrapped around them, a pure white robe, wrapping around them like a mantle of light. They put on the garment of salvation; they were clothed with Christ.
To this day, that is what I think of when I need to remember God’s saving grace to me. That garment of salvation is always there for me, like a pure white robe that I can slip on over my own flawed skin, like a mantle of light surrounding me. I can slip my arms into its sleeves any time and wrap myself it that pure light of Jesus. I cannot save myself. But I can put on Christ.
And I am new again.
Thanks be to God for this indescribable grace.
[i] Joseph D. Small, To Be Reformed: Living the Tradition [Louisville: Witherspoon Press, 2010], 66.