Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 12 and 13
I don’t know about you, but I probably wouldn’t pay twenty bucks for a hamburger. Maybe ten, for a good one, but I’d prefer five. In 2008, I hated paying four fifty for a gallon of gas, but I did it anyway. And I’ve come to expect a difference in a three dollar cup of coffee and a one dollar cup of coffee, and I make that decision based on how much I want some caffeine.
We make a thousands of these choices every day, millions of these choices over a life time. Some with minor consequences, some with tremendous consequences. Remember that’s what happened during the Great Recession when the bubble burst on the housing market. Somebody somewhere said that they weren’t going to buy that mortgage backed security and the whole thing popped. Whether it’s the cost of something as simple as a hamburger or as complex as an entire economy, we all make those decisions, weighing this against that; judging worth and value and price constantly.
And while that may help us navigate our finances, it leads to great danger in our spiritual lives. We’ve been so accustomed to making these market type decisions, that this mentality has crept its way into Christianity and the Church. It is dangerous to treat our discipleship with the Lord Jesus as if it is a transaction. Here’s why.
The work of Jesus Christ upon the cross for the forgiveness of our sins is a gift from God. A free gift given without any strings attached. God’s forgiveness does not come with a cost like a hamburger, or a tank of gas, or a house that we have to buy. It is simply given. It is as simple as this – Jesus Christ died upon the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The psalm says it best: “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, not rewarded us according to our wickedness” (103:10). In other words, we have not been given what we earned. God has not delivered what we have bought. Sinners that we are, God has chosen to put away that fact. Our brokenness, our anger, our hatred of other people, our stinginess, our self-centeredness has not made it into God’s calculus. We have simply been forgiven. “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, not rewarded us according to our wickedness.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us” (103:12).
There is nothing you can do or not do that will make God choose to not forgive you. The theological word for that is “justification.” Though we are mortal sinners, God has chosen to justify us, to make us righteous, simply because God loves us, without us having to earn it.
Christians have done a few things with this liberty and freedom over the centuries. First, we have chosen not to believe it, and we’ve defaulted to the ways of the world, thinking that we have to buy or deserve God’s grace. You’ve heard this all before – “if you don’t give money to the Church, God won’t bless you.” “Don’t go backsliding because God will never forgive you then.” “You have to do this x, y, and z in order to get to heaven.” Let me put it this way – that’s a bunch of hogwash. Believing that you have to earn God’s grace contradicts the whole idea of the gospel
Swinging to the other end of the pendulum, some have taken this freedom and liberty to the opposite conclusion. “I’m free in Christ so I can do whatever I want!” “I can sin all I want because God will forgive me!” And while the scandal of the cross is that God will always forgive, we sense that there is something wrong living as hedonists.
So what about the middle? What about us, good Episcopalians, who always want to find the middle way? Well as you can guess, that’s where I’m going with this. See, this whole time we’ve just been talking about justification. About the work of Jesus upon the cross of making us righteous in God’s sight. But there is more to the Christian life.
Theologically, this is what we call “sanctification.” Sanctification, or “becoming holy,” is the next step in our Christian lives. Sanctification is how we learn to live holier lives. Sanctification is all about our free gift back to God. The Spirit of God empowers us for ministry, for prayer, for works of mercy and charity. We do not do those things to earn our salvation – that’s already been taken care of in justification – we do these things because we are grateful to God for our justification. And so we give these free gifts back to God in gratitude. That is our sanctification.
For instance, we baptize babies because we know that God has claimed them as God’s own. But as we grow we go to confirmation class, to Sunday School, we learn how to pray. Not as a way to earn God’s grace, but as a way to thank God for God’s grace. We grow in our faith, we have Bible Study, and small groups, not because you have to go to one of these in order for God to love you. We do all that so that we learn more and more how to live holier lives. Here’s the scandal of it all, and here’s where the Christian life runs counter to our market mentality – you won’t get anything in return for your works of prayer or charity or ministry or mission. As God has given to us freely, we freely give back.
And next week we kick off our annual pledge campaign at Holy Comforter. We don’t ask you to give money to the Church in order to receive a blessing from God. No, God is going to bless you whether you give your money or not. We ask you to give money to the Church because this is one part of sanctification. Speaking personally, money represents to me my hard work and labor. When I give that money back to God and to the Church, I shouldn’t expect anything in return. It is my free gift to God. It’s about learning how to thank God with even my most treasured possession, and learning how to give it away without any strings attached.
So what I’m saying is this – your life with God is not a transaction. There is nothing to weigh or to value. God chose to make us righteous, to die upon the cross, not so that God would get anything in return but simply as an outpouring of love. That is the gift of justification. In the same way, do not serve your neighbor, do not pray, do not give to the church expecting anything in return – do all of that as an offering to God. That is the gift of sanctification. Do not buy what the world is trying to sell you. Because the good news of Jesus Christ is that there is nothing to buy. It has all been given to you. “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, not rewarded us according to our wickedness.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.”