Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
July 28, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I have told you many times recently that Romans 8:38-39 is my favorite passage in all of the Bible. We just heard it: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." I use it often as the words of assurance after our prayer of confession at the beginning of our weekly worship service. I used it in my sermon last week, even though that sermon was based on a passage from Genesis and not on anything from Romans 8. And here it is, in the Epistle reading from the lectionary for this week. So what was I to do? Obviously, I had to preach on it.
But let me start somewhere else. Last week at the Sunday morning Bible study weíve been doing, we considered the Sermon on the Mount, that collection of Jesusí teachings found in Chapters 5 through 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. We were all struck by how radical Jesusí demands of us are in some of those passages. Not only shalt thou not murder, thou shalt not even get angry with another person. Not only shalt thou not commit adultery, thou shalt not even look at a woman (he doesnít say anything about looking at men, but we can assume the same rule applies) with lust in your heart. We all pretty much agreed that there wasnít one of us in the room who hadnít violated those directives. I doubt that thereís anyone in this room who can honestly say he or she has not violated those directives. Someone raised the question: So what are we to do? Good question.
Let me give you an example of what one person did. Some of you may have heard of a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I mentioned him briefly in the little homily I gave on Palm Sunday called The Cost of Discipleship. That phrase, the cost of discipleship, comes from the English title of one of his most famous works. You see, Bonhoeffer was one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. He lived in Nazi Germany. He was one of the founders of the Confessing Church. The Confessing Church was a group of Reformed (Calvinist) and Lutheran German Protestants who refused the demands of the Nazi regime that the Church recognize the leadership of Adolph Hitler and support Nazi policies. In 1934 they issued the famous Barmen Declaration, which the UCC recognizes as one of its own foundational documents. Itís on the UCC website. Itís worth reading.
Near the beginning of World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined a conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer was, among other things, a great Christian ethicist. His book on Christian ethics is still widely studied and admired. He knew full well that killing is a sin. He never deluded himself that what he was about in the assassination plot was anything but a sin. He willingly and freely undertook to commit an act that the Christian church has always considered a mortal sin-the murder of another human being.
Why did he do it? He did it because he saw no other way of ending the massive, unspeakable evil of Adolph Hitlerís Nazi regime. He saw no other way to stop the massive suffering that Hitler was inflicting on so many people-German people and other people. He saw no other way to end the war. He reluctantly came to the conclusion that the death of one man was such a lesser evil than what that man was doing that he was willing to take upon his own soul the guilt and the consequences of sin-really serious sin, about as bad a sin as it is possible to commit.
Thatís why he did it; but how was he able to do it? Since he was such a conscientious Christian, why didnít he adhere to the faithís nonviolent ethic and refuse to participate in a plan whose aim was to cause the death of another human being? He was able to do it, I think, because he knew that the ethical demands of the faith are only one side of the life of faith. That side of the Christian life is very real. We saw it expressed in powerful terms in the passage we read from the Sermon on the Mount this morning. Not only is murder wrong, Jesus says. Even feeling the emotions that can lead one to take a life is wrong. Our faith has many other ethical demands as well. We heard some more of them in the Gospel passage this morning. We all know what they are.
And, I think, if we are honest with ourselves we all know that we canít live up to them. Not all the time. Not without exception. How many of us truly love our enemies? I have enough trouble not hating the landlordsí attorneys that we come up against in my legal services practice, and they arenít my personal enemies. I certainly donít love them. I know Jesus said I should, but most of the time I canít. Most of the time I canít even drive down the freeway any distance without getting angry with some other driver. I know Jesus said I shouldnít, but I do. Under more extreme circumstances, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that Jesus said he should not kill, but he tried (unsuccessfully and ultimately at the cost of his own life) to do it.
You see, Bonhoeffer knew that the ethical demands are only one side of the Christian life. He knew, and I know, that there is another side to that life. It is the side we see in that passage from Paul that I love so well: Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That other side of the Christian life is grace-Godís unfailing, utterly reliable, unconditional love for us just as we are. Yes, God calls us to be better than we are. God wants us to do better than we do. If we love God, we will strive constantly to be better than we are, to do better than we do. But the great Good News is that God loves us and extends divine grace to us even when, or maybe especially when, we fail. When we do wrong. When we sin. When, to use another of Paulís expressions, we fall short of the glory of God.
The church through the millennia, however, has so often gotten it wrong, and so much of the church continues to get it wrong today. Perhaps in an attempt to control peopleís behavior as an agent of the state to which the church has so often capitulated (and not just in the Roman Empire under Constantine or in the German Third Reich under Hitler), the church has more often than not taught that we have to earn Godís grace, Godís love, by believing certain things or behaving in certain ways. But the truth is that grace we have to earn isnít grace. Love that is conditional isnít love. In her wonderful book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen has written that all love is unconditional. Anything else, she says, is just approval. The cosmic model for such love is Godís love for us. It isnít mere approval. It doesnít always include approval. It can and does include judgment; but it is always unconditional love. We donít have to earn it, which is a very good thing; because if we did, I know I would be in a whole lot of trouble.
So, to return to the question I asked at the beginning of this sermon: What are we to do? Does the unconditional nature of Godís love for us mean that we are free to do anything we want, that it doesnít matter whether we at least try to live the way Jesus taught us to live? Well, yes and no. It depends on what you mean by "it doesnít matter." Nothing we do will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That promise is certain. On that promise we can rely. But how can we be unmoved by such a profound gift? How can we not love this God who first, from the very beginning, loved us? And if we love this God, how can we not respond? How can we not at least try to live the way our loving, grace-filled God wants us to live? If we truly understand the gift of love that God has given us, we must respond in love by trying to live as we know God wants us to live. Paul in his day had to combat some who said: If grace overcomes sin, should we not sin abundantly that grace may abound? He answered: Of course not. Thatís not the appropriate response to Godís grace. Our proper response to Godís grace is a transformed life, a life dedicated to doing as God would have us do, dedicated to loving God and our neighbor the way God loves us-unconditionally. And remember too the fact of Godís grace doesnít mean very much to us if we arenít aware of it, if we donít try to live grace-filled lives. A grace-filled life brings satisfaction and peace. Living as though Godís grace were not present doesnít mean it isnít present; but it does mean that we deny ourselves the benefit of that grace. We deny ourselves the peace and satisfaction in our lives that can come only from knowing Godís unfailing grace. Yet t Yet we should always remember: Godís love and amazing grace come first. They arenít earned. They arenít conditional. And nothing, nothing at all, nothing in all creation, can separate us from that love and that grace. So, what are we to do? Do our best, try to live grace-filled lives, and rely on Godís grace for all the rest. Thatís all we can do, and itís all we need to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.