GOD’S GIFT OF GRACE
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. Romans 5:12-19. February 13, 2005.
Yet the rescuing gift is not exactly parallel to the death-dealing sin. If one man’s sin put crowds of people at the dead-end abyss of separation from God, just think what God’s gift poured through one man, Jesus Christ, will do. There’s no comparison between that death-dealing sin and this generous, life-giving gift. (The Message)
– Romans 5:15
A few days ago I was going over some bulletins from past worship services, and in one of them from not too long ago, I saw that the title of the sermon was very similar to this one for today. The title of that sermon was The Gift of God’s Grace, while for today the sermon title is God’s Gift of Grace. This similarity reminds me of the old saying that most preachers only have four sermons, and sometimes I wonder if that is being generous. But if there is some truth to that saying so that I have only four – or maybe even six sermons – and that I just keep serving them up in different ways, then I am very glad that one of those sermons is about God’s grace. In fact, I hope that in some way they are all about God’s gift of grace whereby God’s love – which can never be earned or deserved – is offered to us freely.
In that regard, there is something ironic this year about Lent beginning at just about the same time as Valentine’s Day. Why at first blush, you and I might think of them as being at rather opposite poles – with Valentine’s Day having to do with a whimsical kind of love that we think of as Cupid shooting arrows into the hearts of young people. On the other hand, we think of Lent as being serious church business, dealing with giving things up and making sacrifices. Whatever does that have to do with light-hearted Cupids and Valentine cards and candy? we might ask.
Well, maybe nothing. Maybe they have nothing at all to do with each other. Yet let us not forget that It is really Saint Valentine’s Day. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there were three St. Valentines – all of whom were martyred, and two of them on February 14. In the same article, it also says that the popular customs that we know today began in England and France during the Middle Ages at a time when it was believed that birds began to choose their mates exactly at the middle of February – the 14th. Over time this day became specially consecrated to lovers, and is time of writing love letters and sending love tokens. And people who chose each other as mates during that time became known as – guess what? Valentines. (Today we might say, “Love birds.”)
So, let us recognize that both Valentine’s Day and Lent have to do with love, and – when we consider those three martyred saints – these times have to do specifically with God’s love. Most years, of course, these two events do not come at the same time on the calendar; but since they do this year, it gives us the opportunity to explore their mutual meanings, doesn’t it? So let us enjoy Valentine’s Day, and let it also remind us that our love for each other is based in God’s love for us.
Now I do have to admit that when we just pick up the Bible and read today’s passage from the book of Romans, it doesn’t sound very much like love. In fact, the whole book of Romans can be like that. It is a closely argued and sometimes dense book where St. Paul tries to cover all the bases of what the gospel is about. So it is sort of Paul’s “systematic theology,” and like other books of systematic theology, Romans has a particular vocabulary and a particular logic and style that Paul uses in making his case. As such, it can read something like a lawyer’s brief, and Paul was a person who was steeped in the law. At times, then, this book can seem to be rather obtuse – particularly when we just pull a passage out of context, and not get the full sweep of what Paul is saying from the beginning of the book to the end. This is why I read from The Message this morning – it is non-technical and helps us get at the gist of what Paul is saying here.
Tom Wright, the Church of England New Testament scholar and now bishop, says that today’s reading is a “tight-packed little section.” What is at work is that Paul, as a Jewish theologian of his time, is concerned with the original sin of Adam and how it can be undone. And what Paul says quite clearly is that this sin of Adam was undone by Christ. Bishop Wright puts it this way: he says that “the obedient act of Jesus Christ was . . . . doing for Israel what she could not do for herself.” (Climax of the Covenant, p. 39) And so sin – Adam’s sin – was dealt with by Jesus on the cross. What no one had been able to do by their own efforts to keep a religious code of right and wrong, Jesus did on the cross. And this was God’s act of love, or God’s gift of grace.
Now this is just a thumbnail sketch of a topic that deserves and rewards a detailed study. But this is what the season of Lent is about, and this is also what the sacrament of communion is about. Yes, Lent – and communion – are about God’s love being evident through the sacrificial gift of Jesus giving up his life on behalf of us all.
This past week I had an interesting conversation with one of our members who reminded me that Lent is not so much about giving things up, as it is about taking things on. Perhaps we find that when as Christian people we take more on, then we do give up some things that are really not so important. In this way Lent is about our manifesting God’s gift of grace, so that it may be accepted and embraced by more and more people. Let us each ask ourselves how we might do that.
And do you know what? There are times when we aren’t up to doing that. There are times when I am not up to being gracious, and I suspect that is true for everyone. Yet it is precisely at those times that God comes and says, I did this for you. And here is the proof. It is in this bread and this cup. Jesus says to us, “Eat this bread, drink this cup; come to me and never be hungry. Eat this bread, drink this cup; trust in me and you will not thirst.” (Robert J. Batastini and the Taize Community, 1982)
This is our invitation, this is our summons, this is God’s promise. The table is ready. Come.