“The Free Gift”
This October stands as the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation if one begins the Reformation movement with the publishing of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther. Two Reformation Events are available to our church. The first is a Reformation Celebration on behalf of the Michigan District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to be held on the campus of Michigan State University on Sunday, October 15th at 5:00 pm. The second is the Kalamazoo United commemoration of the Reformation to be held at Wings Stadium on October 29th at 4:00 pm. The Kalamazoo United event is a joint effort of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo led by Bishop Paul Bradley and by Protestant churches led by Pastor Jeff Wenke of the Bridge. I attend to attend both events and have an active participant role in the Kalamazoo United event.
The typical Reformation text to consider on Reformation Day is from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 3:
We know that whatever the Scriptures say applies to everyone under their influence, and no one can say a thing. The whole world is brought under the judgment of God. Not one person can have God’s approval by any effort to follow the laws in the Scriptures. These laws show what sin is.
Now, the way to receive God’s approval has been made plain in a way other than the laws in the Scriptures. Moses’ Teachings and the Prophets tell us this. Everyone who believes has God’s approval through faith in Jesus Christ.
There is no difference between people. Because all people have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory. They receive God’s approval freely by an act of his kindness through the price Christ Jesus paid to set us free from sin. God showed that Christ is the throne of mercy where God’s approval is given through faith in Christ’s blood. (Romans 3:19-25)
This text clarifies who we are (sinners) and what Christ does for us (gives us a gift.) Faith is how we receive this gift. Both St. Paul and the Reformer Luther focus on the prophecy of Habakkuk:
God’s approval is revealed in this Good News. This approval begins and ends with faith as Scripture says, “The person who has God’s approval will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
The challenge that we have is the challenge of communicating and applying this Reformation (and Biblical) truth to our ministry in the Kalamazoo area. To proclaim the Reformation principle of salvation as a gift alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) because of Christ alone (propter Christum) is a powerful “what” that is our theological reason for being. To communicate this effectively however we must answer the “so what?” question of our Christian and non-Christian neighbors.
The “So What?”
I believe that St. Paul addresses the “so what?” question effectively as a missionary into the Greco-Roman world. His application is given in his first letter, the Letter to Galatia.
You are all God’s children by believing in Christ Jesus. Clearly, all of you who were baptized in Christ’s name have clothed yourselves with Christ. There are neither Jews nor Greeks, slaves nor free people, males nor females. You are all the same in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 26-28)
The world of St. Paul, the Greco-Roman world, was a culture that was nothing if not completely divided by class, race, culture, slavery and gender. For to insist that all were equal in their status as sinners (for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God) was a dangerously radical assertion. And then to assure that all became equal in their “approval status” by something as simple (and hard) as faith because of the gift of God in Christ was beyond comprehension. The difficulty of receiving Christ was not a new concept. St. John begins Chapter 1 of his Gospel with a similar thought:
The real light, which shines on everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into existence through him. Yet, the world didn’t recognize him. He went to his own people, and his own people didn’t accept him. However, he gave the right to become God’s children to everyone who believed in him. (John 1:9-12)
Sometimes we define the word “grace” as undeserved and unmerited love. I certainly have and will teach such a definition but it leaps to something that is true but is also
one step removed: that God loves us. He does love us. But the literal word that St. Paul uses is “gift.” God gives us a gift in Christ Jesus.
Grace is the gift of God in Jesus through His incarnation. Grace is a gift of God in Jesus through His crucifixion. Grace is a gift of God in Jesus through His Resurrection.
That gift is freely given because its source is the love of God. That gift is freely received because otherwise it could not be love and would no longer be a gift but an obligation. Faith cannot be coerced but must be free to receive the gift. Faith is what grafts us to the vine and then once connected receives the nurture of the root and bears fruit.
What made this revolutionary for the world of St. Paul is that the assumptions of religion accepted and even reinforced the idea that some people were more highly favored of the gods. Jewish tradition did have a sense of grace but was certainly structured in a way that was quantifiable: one does these things in this way and then receives this result. The idea of receiving a “free gift” made no sense to anyone. Remember how hard it was for St. Peter to break “holding kosher” even knowing as much as anyone the value of the gift of forgiveness through the Cross. It threatened not only religious thought, both Jewish and pagan, and it threatened the established social order. Between a third to a fifth of the Roman Empire were slaves. Only the most upper class and wealthy Roman woman had property and rights. The order and rationality of the culture was simply based on merit or fate or both. Grace was unpredictable, uncontrollable and therefore threatening. It is the midst of this that Paul refers to all as “slaves to sin:”
Now you have been freed from sin and have become God’s slaves. This results in a holy life and, finally, in everlasting life. The payment for sin is death, but the gift that God freely gives is everlasting life found in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:22,23)
My point is the oft repeated assertion that the 21st century in the Western world (Europe and North America) is just the 1st century in the Greco-Roman world. Grace is still radical and confusing to a culture that sees all success or personal happiness as either merited or fated. That all are, apart from Christ, “slaves to sin” defies the spirit of our age. That this condition is transformed into “slaves to righteousness” as a gift of God in Jesus through the Cross is as radical as it was when St. Paul preached it in Athens.
The “Now What?”
In our “return to the 1st century” we have the benefit of 2,000 years of church teaching and experience. I love when I can use the core logic of a sermon by St. Augustine (adjusted for our time and place) because it connects our worshipping community with history and tradition of the church. Everything I preach, at its core, ought to be able to be preached in any church in Christendom at any time and in any place. Because that core ought to proclaim the gift of God in Jesus.
That really is simply all we are tasked to do going forward. Like Saints Peter and Paul, we go where we are called, preach and teach as we are able, get rejected a lot, maybe even die. But the Gospel is heard and lives are changed and our culture is transformed because of the power of the Holy Spirit. We have nothing to worry or be anxious about. We need no longer be critical of each other. The era of institutional infighting in a “post Christian” world is long ago an anachronism. We need our Roman Catholic, Reformed and Evangelical partners to survive let alone thrive once more. We will take our allies where God gives them to us.
The gospel is still the power that can change our community, our country and our world. We have a good and transformative message that is as much counter-cultural as it ever was. The power of that transformation is witnessed each time we gather for worship. We are Jewish and Christian. We are rich and poor. We are slave and free. We are male and female. We are from many ethnicities, languages and colors of our skin. We are so different but then we are one: people who share a free gift of God in Jesus.