Sermon preached by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, June 10, 2001, Trinity Sunday, dedicated to Allison Marie Asp in honor of her baptism and always to the glory of God!
Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
"By faith, we attain the status of those who have been declared righteous before God. By faith, we are what we are not," wrote Karl Barth. (Barth's Commentary on Romans, p. 149). We stand before God, today and every day, by faith. We have little to prop us up if we fail to stand, little to lift us up if we fall while standing, but faith. It is faith that creates us, gives us life, and makes us what we are not.
It was in this knowledge that the Apostle Paul crafted his Epistle to the Romans. Paul knew that it was faith in Christ Jesus, not works in God's name, which brought peace with God. He knew that humanity's attempt to control God was not possible. He also knew that only through God's grace could we gain access to hope. The gift of grace is a gift which brings hope and ultimately peace. Nothing we do can make it happen. Grace comes about through the power of God. It comes about through the power of faith. Nothing more, nothing less.
Yesterday, I experienced firsthand how this happens. It happened on a baseball field while I was coaching 9-10 year olds. The team that I coach has thirteen wonderful players, but they have struggled mightily to hit, run, and field the ball. We have never had the lead in any game. When they came off the field after the first inning, I pointed out that in our games thus far, not one out had been made by the defense. The pitchers have had to strike out the side to get out of all innings because the other eight players have not been able to make an out. So, I asked if they knew what this meant. One player answered with great sincerity, "It means we have really good pitchers." And everyone cheered the pitchers! My point about the need for solid defense was lost. But, a message of hope was delivered from an unlikely source!
Now, I believe that each child on this team is a gift from God. Each one teaches me something. I am sure they teach their parents, too. But, until the last inning of our game yesterday, I did not know they could win together. Down by six runs, they came back to win the ball game. They scored more runs in one inning than they had scored the rest of the game. After all the hugging, high fiving, and celebrating was over, and we were half an hour removed from the field, one of my players innocently asked, "Did we win coach?" "Yes," I answered with a smile, "we won."
At that moment I realized that hope and delight for this child, yes, even victory, for him, came not in winning or losing, but in being there and playing the game! How many of us live life that way? How many of us count our victories or losses as measured by faith and grace as opposed to the measure of worldly success or failure? There is grace abounding in such lessons of life. Often, I miss them - and I'm sure you miss them, too. However, it is also true that often I miss, not only the lessons of grace, but the grace itself in which we stand.
Paul writes that we come to God in Christ who gives us access to faith and grace. These words are from the pen of the man who was and still remains the embodiment of the paradox of grace. He continues in 5:3-5, "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."
Paul comes to Christian faith as its Jewish destroyer. As Saul, he set out to make sure that the Christian movement would be terminated, leader by leader, baptized believer by baptized believer! In Jerusalem, he oversaw the stoning death of Stephen. He also saw to it that many others were arrested and killed. Based on his deathly successes in Jerusalem he sets his sights on Damascus and heads there with the expressed intent of uncovering, uprooting, arresting, and killing more Christians. On the road to Damascus, Saul meets the Risen Christ. Christ asks, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" In this encounter, Saul is dissolved, blinded, and broken. He who would hide behind his Jewish faith to destroy other men and women of faith is converted from persecutor to prophet. Only when he is dissolved, blinded, and broken does he begin to love God. Only then does he know God as the Creator and Redeemer of humanity. Only then does real zeal for God begin to come to life in him. When true love for God becomes real for Saul, he begins know the mercy of God. He becomes "possessed with peace and hastened with God. In his weakness and insignificance, Saul's attention is directed toward God." (Barth paraphrased, p. 152).
Again in the words of Karl Barth:
Pressed onward irrevocably by the power of God, he became what he is - the messenger of Him before whom every person is dust and ashes. He is what he is not; he knows what he does not know, he does what he cannot do - I live, yet not I. This is the grace in which Paul stands. (Barth's Romans Commentary, p. 152).
Saul (who becomes Paul later in his conversion) is the paradox of grace. That is, when we seek it, it evades. When we claim it, it smiles silently upon us. When we embrace it, it calls us to embrace others. God's grace is simply and absolutely God's alone for the giving.
But, is grace alive in our modern times? From Bible to daily belief, how do we name and claim this often elusive and faith-based gift? Harvard's psychologist, Robert Coles regards an understanding of grace in the biblical sense essential for moral transformation of the individual and the society. He writes in Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular:
I remember a conversation with Erik Erikson back in the late 1960's. He himself was remembering a conversation with some psychoanalytic colleagues. The subject was Gandhi, his method of taking on the British, his way of living life. Erikson had spent years trying to understand the Mahatma (the result was Gandhi's Truth), and in so doing had come to realize how difficult it was to explain psychologically the astonishing moral vitality of such a person.
As he tried to tell these colleagues what qualities of mind made for a particular leader, he found himself using the word "grace" again and again. Eventually they challenged him. What did he mean by the word "grace?" How could he define it? What explains its appearance in one or another person? "I told them," (Erikson told Cole,) "that I didn't know how to answer their questions- that if you are in the presence of grace, you sure know it, and you sure feel grateful."
(Cole finishes) His colleagues were not satisfied. Nor it is fair to accuse that handful of psychiatric specialists of being especially obtuse, wrong-headed or narrowly reductionist....Words such as "grace" are a relic of another age, when men and women didn't understand the way the mind works, the way society comes to bear on an individual. (R. Coles, Harvard Diary, Crossroads, NY, 1988, p. 203).
Although it is hard to pin down the experience of God's unconditional grace, we absolutely know grace when it has stood by us. When he was a child, Frederick Samson, pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Louisville, KY heard his grandmother tell the story of the lynching of her son. He had been accused of raping a white girl, and a mob seized him and lynched him before the authorities had the opportunity to find out and prove his actual innocence. When his grandmother heard of his murder, she went to the jail and claimed his body. She took her dead child home and washed his body. Then she dressed him in his Sunday clothes and buried him in secret. Sampson's grandmother returned home, changed into her maid's uniform, and walked up to the big house on the hill where she worked for a white family. She went into the two children's bedrooms, kissed them and woke them as usual, then prepared their breakfast and sent them off to school.
At this point in his grandmother's story, Sampson interrupted her and demanded, "Grandma, why didn't you kill them white kids the way they killed your boy?" She took him in her arms and looked him in the eye and said, "Sonny boy, when you've got Jesus in your heart, you can't hate anybody." (This story is told in The Misunderstood Jesus: 10 Lost Keys to Life, by Clyde Fant, Peak Road, Macon, GA, 1996, p. 23).
The grace in which we stand calls us to new places, new ways, new victories. When you have Jesus in your heart, you cannot hate, you cannot judge, you cannot be disdainful. When you have Jesus in your heart, you can say with Paul, "I live, yet not I." When we stand in grace, we glory in hope - which is the glory of God. When we stand in grace, we become what we are not; we come to know what we do not know; and our doing is what we cannot do. All this because - when we stand in grace - we are standing in the unconditional love of God. Amen.
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