What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?
In Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, he argues that God’s grace is always greater than our sin.
Sin and grace are ancient words of the faith. But they sound oddly out of place in modern life. “Amazing Grace” is not only the most popular hymn for Christians, it is probably the most popular song on the planet. But that does not mean we are comfortable with grace. And before we can really understand grace, we need to understand sin.
Contrary to what we see in the popular culture, sin is not about dessert and it is not about sex.
Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth (or any other) century, argues that another word for sin is separation. In his famous sermon, “You Are Accepted,” he contends that to be in a state of sin is to be in a state of separation: separation from God, from others, and from ourselves.
Just as we cannot be born without separating from our mothers, so we cannot exist without separation from our essence, which is with God. Existence necessarily means separation and estrangement. We are not only separated from God’s being, we are also separated from God’s will. And we know that. If we were not separated from God’s will, then we would never do things to hurt others and ourselves.
We know that we are also separated from others. That is obvious physically. But it is more than that.
Immanuel Kant once said with courageous honesty, that there is something in the misfortune of our closest friends that does not displease us. When something bad happens to someone else, we are sad, but we are also relieved. Somewhere deep inside a voice echoes: “Thank goodness it wasn’t me.” “. . . it’s not my child.”
But our situation is deeper than that. Our separation is greater.
One of the hardest things for those who have lost a loved one is that life goes on all around as if nothing had happened. Even close friends soon go back to their own business.
Those who have lost a parent, or a child, or a spouse, or a close friend are left alone. Sometimes people ask why he or she doesn’t “get over it.” When we are grieving, we feel as if the world should stop, at least for an instant. But it goes on, as if nothing had happened. We are separated from one another. We are estranged.
We are also separated from ourselves, from our best selves. Sometimes we experience this acutely and we say that we don’t know who we are. Or when we do something which we know is wrong, we say, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me.” In the story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells us that “when he came to himself” the son decided to return home.
Grace is the opposite of sin. If sin is separation, then grace is union, or more accurately, reunion. By God’s grace we are reunited with God, with others, and with our selves.
The word which Paul Tillich uses to help us understand the working of grace, is acceptance. To experience God’s grace, is to be accepted by God. God’s acceptance of us enables us to accept others, and even to accept ourselves.
For many years I have used this concept of acceptance as the basis of a benediction. The general idea came from my late friend and mentor, Bill Ziegler. To be honest, I cannot say precisely how what I say differs from what he said, and I don’t think that the differences are terribly important.
It begins with the proclamation of God’s grace:
I send you forth with Good News.
That God loves you.
And accepts you just the way you are.
This acceptance is not something we have earned. It is not something which God will give us after we fulfill certain requirements, after we have been to counseling, or lost weight, or conquered our bad habits. It is a gift. And real gifts have no conditions. God takes us as we are.
This does not mean that we should not change and grow. I have a long list of things I want to change or improve about myself. And my family could probably give me an even longer list. There are plenty of things in our lives that we ought to change in order to become what God calls us to be, but that change and growth is not a condition of God’s acceptance.
The same thing is true in our personal relationships, with children and parents, with spouses and friends. It is hard for people to change unless they are accepted as they are. It is that unconditional acceptance, that gift, which gives us the freedom to change and grow. The gift of acceptance makes me want to change and grow, and that gift also makes it possible.
God’s acceptance is personal. God loves you and accepts you. This is not just a general statement. It is specific and personal. It is addressed to individuals.
And by that love and acceptance,
calls to you and to me
to accept this day
and this life
as God’s gift.
This is the challenge. God’s gift calls for a response. As God accepts us, so we are called to accept, and affirm, and claim, the life that God has given us.
That is not easy. Unless we are remarkably comfortable, it is not always easy to affirm life as a gift. When I look out on Sunday morning and see the hurt and grief that people bring to church with them, and realize that there are other hurts that I don’t know about, it would not surprise me at all, if, from time to time, people looked up and thought to themselves, “easy for you to say!”
There are many times when life does not feel like a gift. And at certain points in my life as a pastor, I have thought that perhaps I should send folks out with some other word. When people are hurting, what right do I have to tell them that life is a gift?
I felt that concern acutely during the many months that a young friend was struggling with cancer. But when we were planning his memorial service, he told me specifically that he wanted me to use that benediction. “I love that,” he said. “I want you to remind people that God loves them. And life is a gift.”
We are often more comfortable with yesterday, and we may be more hopeful about tomorrow. But today is what God has given us, and today is what we are called to live.
To live it to the full.
And we are called to “live it to the full.” Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The apostle Paul said that we are more than survivors. Our challenge is not simply to endure. He insisted that we are “more than conquerors” through God’s love. The great Methodist evangelist, E. Stanley Jones, said that Christians are called to “victorious living.”
Several years ago Bishop Dale White gave a wonderful sermon at the Memorial Service at Annual Conference. He used Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and his text was “Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice!”
He recalled hearing Dr. Christian Barnard, the pioneering heart surgeon talk about joy and suffering. Dr. Barnard spoke of visiting two children in South Africa. One little boy had lost his eyesight when his father, in a drunken rage, threw a kerosene lamp at him. Now the plastic surgeons were rebuilding his face. The other little boy could not walk and had both legs in a cast after several operations.
When he opened the door to the children’s ward, the nurses were out of the room and these two boys had commandeered a food cart. One could not see and the other could not walk, but together they careened around the ward at high speed, to the squealing delight of the other children.
Before Dr. Barnard could think of how to restore order, they crashed into the brick wall at the far end of the ward. The dishes clattered to the floor and it was a mess. But the boys were thrilled.
As he pulled them up, they were laughing and smiling, and one of them proclaimed, “Did you see that? We won!”
They were winning the race of life. They were living victoriously, in spite of the odds.
To share God’s love and hope and joy
with one another.
Finally, we are called “to share God’s love and hope and joy with one another.” We do this poorly, even on our best days. But it is still what we are called to do. And we know that there are times, when we look at one another, when we listen to one another, that God’s grace comes alive for us. What more important work could we have than that? What greater witness could we give to the Gospel?
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.