Grace Presbyterian Church
June 14, 2020, Pentecost 2A (livestreaming)
You Didn’t Earn This
We’re “good people,” right?
I mean, we don’t go burn crosses in Black neighborhoods, right? We don’t use the n-word, or go off on those awful viral rants that keep getting caught on camera where white women go crazy screaming at or threatening Black people for no apparent reason, right? Right? We’re “good people,” right?
It is pretty unsurprising, in a time of great trouble and distress in society, to retreat into that kind of thought – a kind of reassurance that we are indeed “good people” or at least that we’re not “that kind of person, the ones who do the things that provoke protest or unrest. We’re better than that.
The Apostle Paul would call us up short on this one.
Writing to the people of the church in Rome, Paul comes pretty early in his letter to the need to remind his readers, in perhaps a subtle way, not to fall into this trap of self-reassurance. Paul – who had not been to Rome yet, and therefore did not personally know most of those to whom he was writing – feels compelled to remind his readers that any goodness they may have is not their own doing; they didn’t earn it.
This passage starts cheerily enough, following an extensive account of the faithfulness of Abraham to reinforce the notion that “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Don’t lose track of that last phrase, folks; it’s terribly important.
That discussion on Abraham and his example of faith had followed, back in Chapter 3, a discourse on the highly unpleasant thought that, in fact, no one is truly righteous. As Paul puts it there, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written; There is no one who is righteous, not even one…” No matter your background or where you came from – whether you came to this fellowship from a Jewish or Gentile background, you came with no advantage over the other in terms of righteousness. “No one…not even one.”
Now notice that here, even after this seemingly more upbeat turn in chapters 4 and 5, Paul can’t quite let that point go. He does talk about how we are justified by faith; how we have peace with God through Jesus; how we can hope to share in God’s glory; how even suffering is used by God to produce good things in us. That all, even despite the introduction of suffering, sounds joyful. But then the hammer drops: “For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.” Then again, at the end of verse 8: “…while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Paul won’t let us forget that any goodness we manifest is entirely God’s doing, and not our own. We didn’t earn this.
Remember that little slipped-in line about “this grace in which we stand“? God didn’t wait around until we were good enough. If that were the case God would never do much of anything with us. Any good that is in us is God’s doing, not our own.
This, you’ll not be surprised to hear, has – even has to have – ramifications in how we live. In light of current events, the most obvious point here is that any kind of bias or bigotry we may harbor against others for no reason besides who they are cannot stand; it is an utter denial and refusal of this grace from God that allows us to stand in any kind of goodness at all.
To put it bluntly: racism, whether individual or societal, is a rejection and denial of the grace of God, in that it claims that we somehow earn that grace and others do not. It is anti-grace, it is anti-being a follower of Christ, period. And the same can be said of any kind of bias in person or society or structure to which you might point.
It is to deny the grace that, in the words of the ever-famous hymn, “saved a wretch like me.” It is to deny the grace that, in words from that same hymn that we don’t normally sing, gives us hope that the God who gives that grace will continue us in that grace beyond our here and now, even beyond the bounds of our physical time here on this earth, even to the very end of all time and into eternity itself. And why would we want to deny that?
Whatever goodness you claim, whatever faith you name, you didn’t earn it. It is all of God’s grace, the – yes – amazing grace that saves and preserves us now and always. The same grace God extends to us God extends to all, and so must we. We didn’t earn this grace – that’s not what grace is – but we are compelled to share and extend it to all. Period.
When we were yet “ungodly,” while were still “sinners,” Christ died for us. Let us never exalt ourselves above that knowledge; instead, let us remember the grace that saves us, and let us live that grace towards all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #—, Amazing Grace, How Sweet The Sound