When I was a kid lying in bed at night, from time to time, I would get miffed, imagining a scenario where I, who had given my life to Jesus at the ripe old age of 4, did what I could to live faithful to God all my many decades and then passed away (surely a near saint by my old age), and Josephine Schmoe, born my same year, did whatever she wanted her whole life – partied, broke all the rules, ignored God, I mean, really lived it up, and then, gasping her last breath and timed just perfectly, gave her life to Jesus – and we would both be standing side by side before God’s throne in glory. Oh, it made me mad. So unfair!
Today we are going to talk about grace.
Grace is God’s stance toward us – God’s side of the relationship, Grace is God’s Yes, and it is so big that no matter how big your No is, God’s Yes is always bigger. In fact, Paul says in the verses just before this – God’s Yes is so big that the biggest No you can give can’t ever trump God’s Yes. And he explains it this way – through one person – Adam – came all our separation from God, humanity’s No, sin, that leads to death, then much more so through one person – Jesus Christ, comes all of our righteousness, or completeness, fully living in connection to God. The free gift is not like the trespass, he explains, Where sin increases, grace abounds all the more, Paul says.
In other words, There is nothing you can do to push God away forever, nothing you can do to make God give up on you, nothing in this world that is so big and terrible that God’s love is not greater and cannot come through – leading all toward the end when all will be righteousness – right relationship with God and each other.
And grace comes first and last- even before sin, even before the relationship is broken, God has already decided that nothing can stop God’s Yes to us, it will always be bigger. So it wasn’t a quick reaction to our severing of the relationship; it is what defines the relationship to begin with. God says, I will always love you, I will always choose you, I will always have life and joy and hope and love in store for you –that is what I made you for and I will never stop holding you into that promise. Regardless of what you do or don’t do.
This sounds highly suspicious. Not at all logical.
So, naturally, some of us then ask, How far can I push? What can I get away with? And we want to test the limits. Others of us get worried about those of you who want to test the limits because we think we can impress God and keep this thing going pretty well on our own. Both of us are wrong- by the way, neither of us has grasped the concept of grace in the least.
Paul asks, Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? And then the phrase we more delicately translate, May it never be! Or By no means! But the literal Greek translation is perhaps an even stronger version of, “Hell, No!”
Even the question itself- to sin that grace may abound, shows that we are still trapped in sin’s transactional way of being – where I do things in order to get you to do things- I earn my value, I hedge my bets, I protect my heart and I guard my assets, I am wheeling and dealing to get the most out of this because it is up to me to advance me, or I will be overlooked. That is the way of fear, the way of sin and death.
But here’s the thing, Paul says, we are actually dead to this way of living. It is as though we were corpses, absent of all breath, not even present in the room – that’s how much control sin has over us. We don’t have to live in the way of sin, we have been made free to walk in newnewss of life.
But it’s hard to hear that- because I found myself living out of sin many times in the past few days. Forgetting that I am free, that I am not actually bound to whatever form sin takes in the moment – jealousy, rage, comparing myself to others or to some false ideal, believing I am worse or better than someone else, gossip, even choosing to avoid talking about something that matters because I wanted to avoid conflict – as though conflict could destroy me, or fear gets to be in charge of who I am, as though we don’t really belong to each other, as though I am not free to be for my neighbor and instead must try to be free from them, on my own.
We are meant to live into the Kingdom of God, the reality that is coming in from the future and will last beyond time, which is even now breaking in and claiming the world. Paul talks about Jesus’s life and death in the past tense, it has happened, and our newness of life as the future reality breaking in now, it is happening and will happen – we live toward the day when God’s big picture will be all in all. And remember, it is not by what we do, but by the faith of Christ – by what Jesus has done, what God has done in and through Jesus – we are drawn into the righteousness of Christ, the wholeness and connection to God that Jesus has, that is where we now live as well, Paul says. Imagine trusting in that!
So while I laid in my bed as a teenager, wondering what real living I was missing out on by following Jesus, and what kind of scam someone else was planning to run with their deathbed conversion that might one up me, I was still believing the lie from the serpent in the garden, that what God wants is to restrict me and limit my fun and what the world wants is to satisfy me with pleasure and happiness. Even in my so-called faith I was still living as a slave to sin’s lies. When the truth is, what God wants is fullness and joy for everyone and all the earth. God wants human beings living as they are meant to live – in wholeness and connection to God and each other, not bound by sin or hate or anger or jealousy. But free to be fully alive, now and always.
A while back we had a service at St. Joe’s, and we asked the kids to describe the best life they could imagine – life as it was meant to be lived, what would it look like? What would the world be like if you could make it however you wanted it to be?
They said things like, everybody has enough to eat, nobody is teased, all people have homes, you get to be creative, everyone belongs – and we put all of them up on a board in shapes of cars and houses and flowers, so that we had created a life scene, a little world parading across our canvas announcing this world they longed for, and then above it we wrote, “God wants a world where….”
And then we broke down the Ten Commandments and showed how they were meant to describe this kind of life, and to preserve freedom for people to live whole, connected, productive lives where all people matter and contribute and everyone is cared for and nobody is overlooked.
This is the life God is calling us all to be living in, right now, alongside each other, and yet over and over again, we choose sin and destruction, and we’ve set up systems that glorify sin and structures that reinforce the way of fear so it seems like the real reality.
We are so afraid of getting hurt that we hurt others first, or we close ourselves off to being known. We are so worried what other people will think of us- as though our whole self were determined by their opinion – that we hide who we really are, or try to make ourselves somehow better, shinier, cleaner, more interesting.
We so buy into the lie that we need to have it all together that we hide the broken parts and bury the pain, or the addiction, or the anger, and find ourselves just surviving instead of trusting that showing those parts to other people will actually allow God to make us stronger and more whole.
In fact, we swallow the lie of sin and death so completely, that even when shown the enormity of grace, we try to figure out how to harness it and use it to trick God, to get away with something, to prove ourselves worthy or better than someone else, to have our cake and eat it to. We almost can’t even grasp with our imaginations that God chooses us so fully and completely that we can’t mess that up. Surely it will be lost if we don’t do something to secure or earn or maintain it!
Paul is calling the bluff.
He is exposing the illusion for what it is. And he is saying we are freed – totally set free – from living like this. We don’t have to – we can live in newness of life. You’ve already died, Paul says, you’re so drawn into Christ’s relationship with God, so completely united with him that his death is your death and his resurrection will be your resurrection, so nothing, nothing, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not in this life or the next.
But even when we hear it, or know it, we’re going to forget it.
A thousand times a day we will forget.
And I will tell you, the lazy way is to forget; it’s easier to succumb to the urges than to exercise self-control.
To judge and dismiss others is simpler than confessing your own weakness and being willing to be changed.
To shut people out is simpler than opening up and risking being known – for a while.
To forgive is harder than keeping a grudge– up to a point.
To indulge in what feels good in the moment feels better than having to think about the future or your responsibility to yourself and those around you – until it doesn’t.
All these things feel good or easy for a while, and then they feel crushing. They feel like shackles and chains. They feel like death, and they lead to more death, loneliness, isolation, shame, hatred, and despair.
But when we trust in God’s love, in the grace in which we already stand, we find ourselves empowered by God’s Yes to do the hard thing despite our fear – to be brave, to be open, to step out, to speak up, to confess, to forgive, to live free from the baggage and the corrosion.
And grace leads to more grace; it multiplies and spreads. So when we forget, the grace is there to meet us and pull us into life once again. When we forget – even if we forget so far we feel stuck, we are never beyond the grace of God, that invites us to live the truth, the real reality – that in Christ Jesus we have been set free.
When we experience grace, when we really taste forgiveness and freedom and life in the way God made life to be, it makes us want to respond out of that fullness, to keep living in its freedom. It makes us want to walk in newness of life.
Grace, real grace, makes us want to have chosen Jesus when we were four years old and keep on trusting God every single day, because we discover that living that way brings joy.
And it sparks the imagination!
What if we lived in God’s yes every day, as often as possible, like we really are free? What if we were guided by love instead of fear?
Free to forgive someone who hasn’t earned it?
Free to help a stranger just because?
Free to say no more when we need rest?
What if we lived like we were really free to share our true self, even if it might be rejected?
Free to admit weakness and help each other stand?
Free to breathe through the defensive anger bubbling up inside and give ourselves a time out?
Free to see others and ourselves through the eyes of God’s love and act out of that place? What if we believed there was enough for everyone and so we shared generously and freely?
What if we trusted that God loved us all so we respected and honored every single person?
What if, each day, we presented ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness, that is, we said, Dear God, use me to bring your healing, peace, love and hope, to a sin-sick and weary world?
So, then, sisters and brothers, if nothing can stop God’s Yes to us, should we continue in sin that grace may abound? Hell no! We are dead to that game. Let’s walk in newness of life! Let’s live in God’s Yes, in the joy and freedom that grace empowers, and see what happens next!