Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
April 22, 2012


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.

Most of you have heard me say it before. I've been preaching it here for ten years now. God's grace is free. God's grace is universal. Everyone is saved. No exceptions. Not one. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. There is nothing we need to do to save ourselves. As far as God is concerned it's already done. It's already done because God has done it. We know that God has done it because we know Jesus Christ. If grace is truly grace and not something else, it is free; and it is for everyone. Thanks be to God! Amen.

So should I just introduce the next hymn now and move on? After all, there really isn't anything more that needs to be said, is there? God's free and universal grace is the bottom line of faith. It is the Good News of Jesus Christ. Proclaiming it ought to be enough; but, as I said, I've been proclaiming it here for the last ten years; and all that experience with proclaiming it makes it very clear to me that just proclaiming it is not in fact nearly enough. All that experience with proclaiming God's universal grace has taught me that there is a lot more that needs to be said. There is a lot more that needs to be said because of this objection that some have to the notion that God's grace is free and universal, that it is for everyone. It is an understandable objection. I mean no disrespect here to those who make it. I am convinced, however, that the objection reflects a misunderstanding of universal grace that can be cleared up with a little deeper probing of the meaning of universal grace. That's what I want to do this morning.

The common objection to universal grace that I'm talking about is the objection that if grace, that is, if salvation, is truly free and universal, then we don't have to do anything at all to be in God's grace. Nothing we do can remove us from God's grace. So at best we can just go on living as we have, with no change in our lives in response to God's grace, and at worst we are free to sin anyway we want because nothing we can do negates God's grace, nothing we do can revoke our salvation. This objection says that if God's grace is free and universal, then all motivation for us to live moral lives is taken away. On a superficial level this objection is true, but on a deeper level I believe it misses the mark.

We see how it misses the mark in our Epistle readings this morning. Paul was the first great prophet of free and universal grace, and he had to deal with this same objection when he proclaimed free and universal grace nearly two thousand years ago. We see him doing it in our reading from Romans. He says: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Then he says: How can we who died to sin go on living in it? In our baptism we died with Christ to an old way of living and rose with him in newness of life, into a new way of being, a way in which we seek at the very least not to sin. Paul is saying that if don't get that, we don't understand the grace in which we stand.

The author of the First Letter of John, writing decades after Paul, said essentially the same thing. He said to his audience “Let no one deceive you.” Deceive them how? Apparently by telling them that now it is OK to sin because in Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven. This author gives the same answer to that claim that Paul did. Referring to Christ and people who claim to be his followers he says: “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” I hear him saying with Paul: If you keep on sinning after you know God's grace in Christ Jesus you don't really get it about God's grace in Jesus Christ. If you truly get it about that grace, you will not sin. You will lead a sinless life not as a means of obtaining God's grace but in response to God's grace. You will avoid sin precisely because you know that you already stand in God's grace.

What Paul and the author of 1 John are telling us is that moral living, to the extent that we sinners are capable of it, isn't a condition of God's grace, it is a response to God's grace. When we truly know God's grace we respond by striving to live as much as we are able as we know God desires that we live. We don't do it to earn grace. After all, what sense does it make to try to earn something that you know you already have? We do it as a response to grace. We stand in God's love, so we respond to love with love for the One who loved us first.

OK, but just how then are we to live? Not sinning, yes; but how do we know what that means? In another of the verses we heard from 1 John this morning we see an answer to that question. This author says: Whoever abides in Christ ought to walk as Christ walked, that is, ought to live as Christ lived. That's how a Christian is to respond to God's grace, by living in imitation of Christ.

Again OK, but what does that mean? It means avoiding sin as much as possible, of course; and we know what sin is, don't we? The question of what sin is isn't as simple as may appear on the surface to be, but I think it means at least this: Sin is anything hat harms another of God's people, or that harms ourselves, or that harms God's creation. So imitate Jesus by serving others and loving God, and you will probably pretty much avoid sin.

But here's the thing about living as Jesus did. Not sinning isn't nearly all there is to living as Jesus lived. He did a lot more than just not sin, and he did a lot more than serve others, although that, of course, was a major focus of his ministry. More than serving the people he met, or at least in addition to it, Jesus laid out for us a radically new vision of life. It is a vision that he called the Kingdom of God. God's grace is free, but it comes with an expectation. It comes with the expectation that we will indeed do what we can to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, the expectation that we will do what we can to realize Jesus' alternative vision of life.

What is that vision? It is a vision of a world radically different from the one in which we live. It is a vision of a world free from violence in all its forms. Free from war to be sure, but also free from all forms of physical violence of one person against another and free from the emotional and spiritual violence that we sometimes inflict on each other, often without even realizing it. It is vision of a world of justice, a world in which, as the great prophet Micah says, each person shall sit under his or her own vine and her or his own fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. That is a vision in which everyone has enough because no one has too much. It is a vision of a world free from all oppression, be that oppression on the basis of gender, race, class, nationality, religion, or sexual identity or orientation. It is a vision of a world that is pretty much the direct opposite of the world the way it is, a world of violence, a world of oppression, a world in which the privileged few prosper at the expense of the many. God's free and universal grace is there even if we do nothing to help make that alternative world a reality, but God's grace comes with the expectation that we will at least do something, that we will respond to God's grace by working to make God's vision of human life a reality.

And you may still be asking: Why? Why should I take on that impossibly difficult work of striving to live like Jesus? Why take on that seemingly hopeless work of making the Kingdom of God real in the world? What do I get out of it? After all, I'm supposed to love myself too, aren't I? Well, yes you are; and that really is the reason to take on the impossibly difficult work of striving to live like Jesus. God's free and universal grace is always there, but we can live in and into that grace or not. God doesn't force it upon us. But here's the thing: Unless we appropriate God's grace for our lives, unless we seek to incorporate God's grace into our living, God's grace remains an abstract concept. It doesn't become a living reality in our lives.

If we do strive to respond to God's grace by living like Jesus, if we do respond to God's love by striving to embody that love in our lives and in God's world, we will reap all of the benefits in this life that can come with God's free gift of grace. We will find meaning for our lives. We will find peace for our souls. We will find hope and the courage to face whatever comes our way in life. We will have the satisfaction of knowing that we have done something to respond to the immeasurable gift that God has given us and not merely been passive recipients of that which we have not earned. God's grace is always there. It's up to us to make its benefits real in our lives and in God's world. That's why bother. The rewards are more than worth it.

What then are we to say? Should we go on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means. God's grace is free, but it isn't cheap. It isn't cheap, as the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, because we know it through the death of a man, Jesus Christ. It isn't free because it comes with expectations, demands even. And so we seek to live moral lives not to earn grace but to respond to grace. We seek to live the life of the Kingdom of God amidst the kingdoms of the world not to earn God's grace but to respond to it and to make God's grace real in our lives. That, then, is what we are to say. God's grace is free and universal. Let us respond with lives worthy of that grace. Amen.