Monday, October 23, 2017

Grace Alone

John 1:14-18 
Sola Gratia
October 22, 2017

What are you thinking about? Why do you hesitate to convert yourself? 
Why don't you have fears about your sins?
Why don't you confess now?

You priest, nobleman, merchant, wife, virgin, you married people, young person, old man, enter into your church which is for you, as I have said, and visit the most holy Cross. It has been placed there for you, and it always cries and calls for you. Are you perhaps ashamed to visit the Cross with a candle and yet not ashamed to visit a tavern? Are you ashamed to go to the apostolic confessors, but not ashamed to go to a dance? Behold, you are on the raging sea of the world in storm and danger, not knowing if you will safely reach the harbor of salvation. Do you not know that everything which man has hangs on a thin thread and that all of life is but a struggle on earth? Let us then fight, for the day it is well, but ill tomorrow. Today alive and tomorrow dead.
You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins. Why are you then standing there? Run for the salvation of your souls!
Don't you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, “Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.”
Now is the time to hear the voice of God. He does not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live. Convert yourselves then, you are outside the fellowship of the Church. No masses, no sermons, prayers, sacraments, or intercession can help you.
Convert yourself with all you heart and use the medicine that has been given to you.   

This is part of a sermon of Johann Tetzel,
the Catholic monk who made
Luther so mad that he started the whole Reformation.
“The alms in the coffer” were called indulgences.
Basically indulgences were money given to the church
and it made things easier between you and God.
or between your dead loved ones and God.
It was an offer you couldn’t refuse.

Now Tetzel gets a bad rap, but
I don’t think Tetzel’s heart was in a bad place,
He was just doing what hundreds of other priests
were doing around Europe at the time.
he was just following the practice of the Christian church
Which in its own way just trying to
figurine a way around the crazy system that had
been developed over the last 1500 years.

The crazy system that had been developed said this:
If you wanted to go to heaven, you needed to be
in a “state of grace”. That is you needed to be in a
place where all your sins were forgiven
and you could be in God’s presence free and clear.

If a person fell out of a state of Grace,
by committing a sin 
there was a process whereby you could get
back into a state of Grace.

So when a person sinned, they would acknowledge it,
and repent of the sin, then they would have to confess it
 to a priest or another church official.
  
After they confessed, then they would
receive a penance to do to erase the sin,
depending on the gravity of the sin,
that might be days spent in prayer, or fasting,
or it might be as much as a pilgrimage to a holy site.
(funnily enough, it never seemed to be
apologizing to the person you sinned against)

Then when repentance, confession and penance were satisfied,
the person was again in a state of grace --
in harmony and fellowship with the church and God,
and ready and confident to face death
without the threat of purgatory –
which was like a mini hell, a place
where a person would spend centuries
in a nasty place between earth and heaven
paying for the sins they did not repent, confess or do penance for.

Now, I don’t know about you, but just this morning,
I have sinned in thought, word, and deed  
several times before I got to this point today
and I’m not even done with my sermon.
And with work, and homemaking, and whatever else
it is I have to do to take care of my life now,
I would imagine that I would fall behind
on the satisfaction of my sins pretty quickly.

And the man and woman of medieval times
had considerable more responsibilities and
time-consuming duties than most
of us could imagine -- just to stay alive.
So most people lived in fear of the torture
that would happen to them after death
They also lived with the horrible reminder
of what was currently happening to their
dead relatives who never got back in a state of grace either.

People lived in constant terror of God’s wrath.
They believed in an angry God,
who spent all his time judging every
move we made and every thought we had.
Who was writing out eternal check lists
and keeping track of ever sin and misstep.
They believed in a God who seemed determine
to punish us if we didn’t do the right things.
This was the crazy system that Christians had developed over 1500 years 
because humans have a tendency to make things more complicated 
and nasty than they need to be.

So imagine what a relief it would be to hear
John Tetzel, a monk from Leipzig tell them
that for just a bit of money, a little donation, 
They could get through the process a little easier?
For just some money, they could stop worrying
about their loved ones that the church told them were in purgatory?
Imagine how much would people spend for that relief?
Actually, quite a bit of money,
enough to build a very large church in Rome.
Millions of medieval dollars.

But Martin Luther didn’t see mercy.
He saw a scam, extortion. A way for the church to graft­­­­­­­­­­­ money
and reap inadequacy in people. He saw how the church made people
act out of terror and fear of God instead of out of love for God.
He saw how it put an awful distance between God and those
who needed God’s love the most.
And he saw how the power of forgiveness
was taken out of God’s hands and put in the hands of the pope.
Luther knew that this was wrong.

Luther found his answer to this in scripture,
specifically in Paul’s letter to the Romans
and the Ephesians where Paul writes:
 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”
Luther realized that the answer was 
Grace Alone.

Now the word grace had been used before, but
God’s grace was only talked about in the way
that if you worked at it, if you did your part,
and you confessed, repented and fulfilled your penance
that God would eventually have grace on you.
Do A, B and C and God would have grace D.

But Luther’s answer was Grace Alone.
God forgives even when we haven’t earned it.
D became A. 

God’s grace came first. God’s forgiveness came first.
because that’s how God was.
Grace Alone. Not works then grace,
or indulgences then grace, or prayers then grace,
or clean living then grace, or a good attitude then grace.
Just God’s Grace alone has done it for us.
Everything else could come after that.
Every prayer and service we offered
would grow out of our gratitude for God’s grace.

This was Jesus message, this was the message
of Christ’s cross and resurrection.
It was so simple and so revolutionary
that human beings couldn’t believe it
How could God just love us? There’s no free lunch.
So we made Jesus into something so complicated
and contrived – actually the opposite of
Jesus message -- and it held the world captive for years.

So this is Luther’s gift to the world.
Uncovering the gospel which was hidden for so many years.
Grace Alone. The ability to say “God loves you”
without any qualifiers, without any hesitation.

This is outlined in the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession,
the document which clarified the position of the new church
that had been created out of Luther’s discovery and inspiration.
It says: “Human beings cannot be justified before God
by their own powers merits, or works.
But they are justified as a gift
 – a gift, gratis, free of charge, Grace.

This was the good news. 
This is still the good news.
I remember the first time I read that sentence.
I was in a class on the Lutheran theology that I was taking on the weekend. 
This was before I ever thought of going to seminary.
I can remember where I was sitting,
how the light was coming in the window.
I remember reading those words.
I remember feeling surprise, shock, joy.
I remember thinking with urgency, “people need to be told this”
and saying to myself, “It would be great to have a job
where you could tell people this.”
After 500 years, it was still a revelation to me.

Because even after 500 years of this stuff,
the world still doesn’t get it.
The world is still stuck in the A-B-C
and then grace, then forgiveness, then love.
The church still doesn’t get yet either.
How could God just love us? there has to be more to the story.

We still have churches that like to fill you with fear of God
that want to scare you into doing A,B and C.

We still have churches that use God to graft money
out of fearful people, or people hoping for God’s blessing.
People’s purses and pockets still open wide
with the hope that some hard cash will appease God.

The Lutheran Church still has a clear message
to those that still think that God’s love needs to be
rationed out to the select few who pass the test
or get the right answers.
To those who think that God’s love only
goes to those with the right sexuality or
the right morals or the right beliefs or
the right number of zeros in their bank account.

We have something to say to those
that want to make Jesus into a symbol of patriotism
and wrap Jesus in a flag.
We have something to say to those that claim that
God is the possession of any one country.

The message is that it is God’s
grace alone that saves us.
It’s not what country we’re born in.
it is not what we’ve done or haven’t done
We can say, “God’s loves you”
to everyone without reserve or hesitation.
Because it is Grace alone that saves.

And this world outside the church
today still needs this word of Grace alone.
We have leaders who say that the only way to help things
is more laws harsher penalties, making an example of more people.
We have a world that spends its time trying to get
an upper leg on others, that see that the only way to win
is to overpower others, to force them into submission.
The world needs to know the great power of Grace.
The world needs to know that more gets accomplished 
with understanding and forgiveness than force and coercion.

And the world needs grace because it still
 deems some people worthless and as throw-aways 

because of how little money they have or because of the color of their skin.
I mean we have some who are saying that the  people of Puerto Rico
don’t deserve to be helped because the country has a large debt.

The world needs to share this grace that each of us has been given.
To remember that no one is worth more
than another in the eyes of God.
That no one has more value than another because
they can leverage the system more than another.
As Martin Luther wrote on a slip of paper before he died:
“We are all beggars. That’s the truth.” And that is the truth.
Grace alone has brought us here, so no one can boast.

And this world still needs God’s Grace right now because
this world has so much it needs to be forgiven for.
Hatred, violence, racism, sexism, callousness, apathy, fear.
There is so much holding us back, so much keeping us from being
the individuals and the people that God created us to be.

But God’s grace and God’s forgiveness always gives us the ability
to start over again, every day, every hour.
Grace Alone is new life. Grace makes the impossible possible.

As Luther wrote:
“The law says “do this” and it is never done.
Grace says “believe in this” and it is already done.”

Believe in this.
God’s grace is the only thing that has saved us,

and Grace Alone is the only thing that will save this world.