by the Rev. Christopher Potter, Vicar
“… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” Romans 3: 23-25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5: 1 (from this Sunday’s readings)
What happens for us this Sunday, and perhaps by now is well integrated into your life, is a reminder that in Christ, we are “saved by grace through faith.” What a seemingly innocuous sentence. Yet alone, this idea has been the battleground for theologians, churches, and pastors for centuries. It is largely the source of the dissolution between the Roman and German/English churches in the 16th century. It accounts for the spark that led Martin Luther to denounce the practice of buying and selling indulgences and to post his powerful 95 Theses in Wittenberg in 1517. Accounting for this contention is, at least partially, the internal disagreements which exist in scripture itself. Paul, the first to frame this belief, is quoted above. Yet in the same letter – in the same chapter – to the church in Galatia, Paul writes, “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things [a long list of mostly sexual sins] will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Further, about a hundred years later, John the evangelist writes in the long farewell of Jesus at the Last Supper, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he [light of the world, co-equal with God, etc.].”
Another perspective on this gift freely given is that it cannot be lost. No amount of sin, this view holds, can erase the salvation of God. This, of course, is anarchy! What would it look like if we were all unafraid of the eternal punishment of hell because of our sinful, evil acts? Further, what would be left to motivate us to good behavior if God always forgives and never reneges on the gift of salvation? [Are you finding sarcasm here?]
Almost universally, protestant theology holds that salvation from God is a gift (a ‘grace’) given freely which cannot be earned. It is counter-intuitive for human beings to accept what amounts to the most significant gift ever offered without earning it or even asking for it. Perhaps from feelings of personal ‘unworthiness,’ we would rather slave for such a prize rather than simply accept it.
Further, it also flies in the face of human reason to think that such a gift wouldn’t require a sort of ‘maintenance fee’ or of sacrifice, obedience, and tithing to keep it. (From a pastor’s perspective, this would make life SOOOOOO much easier if it were widely believed!) Perhaps it is because of the ease by which we came into this gift that it can exist so grossly under appreciated.
An afternoon of Google searches on “justification by faith” showed me, surprisingly, that most protestant – and even evangelical – churches who make their reputation (and fortunes, too) initially insisting on this ‘free gift of salvation’ have fallen back (a special kind of backsliding) on the instinct that salvation is a transactional gift – one that can only be earned. “Unless you repent and give your life over to Christ…” is a familiar trope that insinuates salvation is dependent upon an act of my volition. Or, more subtly, it is only the act of assenting in faith to certain doctrines that will account for my salvation. They also go the extra mile to insist that if you fall into sin and not ‘confess it to God,’ you effectively lose your salvation because God has become displeased with you. (I can’t get over the arrogance conveyed in this thought: I can control God’s feelings and behavior by what I do!)
I wonder if churches who really preach and believe in this free gift discover that this message removes fear, absolves us always from sin and decreases the generous contributions of adherents. After all, if religion teaches that you are forgiven, that salvation is already yours, that you did nothing to earn it and you cannot lose it, what purpose does church serve?
Just one. OK, maybe two. The first purpose of the church in such a non-transactional relationship with God is to encourage pew-sitters to go out and bring the good news of this freedom to people who are living under any sort of oppressive regime – systemic or personal. This assumes a particular response to the gift of salvation offered by God: realizing and accepting God’s gift changes us utterly. When we accept such a gift, we live, as Paul suggests, by the Spirit. Fully appreciated, we would turn away from what distracts us from the Spirit (most usually self-serving gratification) whenever it occurs, because we are so overwhelmed by its generosity that we can only live in concert with it. (I often think of the silly parallel of being given a mansion to live in and, because it was free, the recipient chooses to live in the doghouse in the backyard.) Because we are human, and because we will always do so, only repentance – a conscious statement of guilt, a prayer for conversion and amendment of life – holds promise for a better self.
The second purpose of the church is to offer us hope by creating a loving community that stands to support us whenever we get “distracted” or when life hands us a bag of shtuff. It is this holy purpose that is reflected when, in our baptismal covenant, we promise to resist evil and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. This promise makes sense and offers hope only when I am in relationship with others who love me and who love like Jesus.
Finally, there is an inescapable conclusion from this proposition. If salvation from God is given freely, not dependent upon me, and is given to all, that means that indeed – there is no distinction among the people of God. This makes us inextricably one – and it is a lie to stratify one group, one religion, one person over another.
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We’ll see you at St. John’s this weekend:
• Saturday worship at 5 p.m. in the Chapel; potluck following
• Sunday worship at 8 a.m. (in-person only)
• Sunday worship at 10 a.m.
(in-person and ZOOM)
• Godly Play and Nursery at 10 a.m.
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June 26: St. John’s Blood Drive! Stop by the Cardinal Gym SUNDAY to check for open spots, 8:15 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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We’ll see you at St. John’s!