October 29, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
Do you remember the first gift you ever received? What is the first gift you remember receiving? How did you feel about it? Most of the time, we associate gifts with joy: with a holiday, with a birthday, with a celebration of some kind, with a note of gratitude, or even just some unexpected generosity, even out of the blue. Those are my favorite kinds of gifts.
Have you ever received a gift that felt awkward, like it was too extravagant, or undeserved? Have you ever received a gift you felt like you had to repay? Sometimes, no matter the reason they are given, gifts can cause a bit of awkwardness. Gifts are rarely intended to cause awkwardness, guilt, shame, obligation, or other uncomfortable feelings. I’m sure I am not the only one who has spent more time than one would think is necessary deciding on a gift that isn’t too cheap but isn’t too extravagant, isn’t too generic but isn’t too personal, isn’t too big but isn’t too small, isn’t too silly but isn’t too serious, either, and which fits perfectly with both the occasion and the recipient.
The section of the Bible we just read is all about a gift. It is about a gift which God gives without any intent to cause shame, to assign guilt, or to oblige anyone to repay. God intends to give the gift without any discomfort at all. But it has always been hard for Jesus’ followers to receive gifts like that. This section comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and he had to use the image of a gift because the members of the church were fighting over the rules and regulations about who gets to be a part of God’s people. To be one of God’s people, the logic went, you had to be righteous. So what made a person righteous? That church wanted to say that the judgement of righteousness only goes to the people who deserve it. It was only for the people who were born into the right family, that is, a family that could trace their lineage all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the genealogy was not enough. Those who wanted to be considered righteous had to show that they had been obedient to the law their whole lives. They had to follow all ten of the commandments, along with all the rules that came out of them: rules about when to make which offerings and how, rules about what to eat and what not to eat, rules about when to work and when not to work, rules about giving and sharing, and all the rest of the rules.
Then Paul comes along and tells them no. No, you don’t have to be born as a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to receive God’s gifts. And no, you don’t have to have followed all those rules your whole life to receive God’s gifts. In fact, he said, when we start thinking about all those rules, we start getting confused about things. We get confused by thinking that it must be possible for all of us to follow all the rules all the time. No one in the history of God’s people had ever followed all the rules all the time. The set of rules, which Paul called the law, is there to show us God’s righteousness. It is there to remind us that God is always faithful, God is always fair, and God is always providing for us and protecting us, just like God said God would. But we start getting all confused when we start thinking that if we just follow all of those same rules, then we will be righteous just like God is. We start thinking we are more like God than we really are.
We really are not like God in any way. We have never been able to live up to God’s expectations. We have never been as faithful as God. We have never been fair, and we have never provided for ourselves nearly as much as God has provided for us. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul said. The law doesn’t function to require us to live up to God’s expectations; the law really functions mostly to remind us that we are not like God, and we will never live up to God’s standards.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but it doesn’t end there. Paul goes on: all are “now justified by his grace as a gift.” Alongside the law, which shows our failure, God gave us a gift. That gift is “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…effective through faith.” All of that argument about who has the right genealogy and who has followed all the rules, all of that judgement about who is righteous and exclusion of those who are not righteous, all of that is wiped out by something much bigger than anyone who has such narrow thinking can imagine. All of it is wiped out by a gift, God’s gift. And like any good gift, it is freely given, not because it is deserved, but just because the giver wants to give it. The gift is big enough and spread widely enough that no one can brag about anything they do, and no one can brag about who they are; anyone covered by that gift can only brag about what God has given them without any judgement about whether they deserved it or not.
And that is where this gift of God’s starts to feel awkward. Because there are always some people who want to feel superior to other people. There are always some people who want to tell you that you are not worthy to receive what they have. There are always some people who want to make others afraid that they do not measure up. And why? Sometimes, I suppose, it is simply an ego trip: it makes them feel better about themselves if you feel worse about yourself. Sometimes, it is guilt: folks just need some way to justify that they deserve what they have. That’s what seemed to be going on in the church in Rome when Paul wrote his letter; the people who had been told they were God’s people their whole lives did not like to think of having to share their status with just anyone who walked in and said that they believed in Jesus, too. But more often, some people want to make other people feel like they don’t measure up because there is some power that the one who feels superior can exert over the one who is made to feel inferior. If you are undeserving, then that person who is deserving can get you to do something you would not otherwise have done.
That is what was happening 500 years ago in Europe. There was a widespread fear of death. Decade after decade, the people of Europe had experienced crusades, plagues, wars, crop failures, and famines. Safety was not everything that it could be; the reformer John Calvin talked about how someone might simply be walking down the street, some tiles might slip from the roof above, and that person was lying dead in the street. People kept asking themselves, “What must I do to be saved?” How can I guarantee that, when I die, I will have earned God’s love, or at least enough of God’s love that God will save me from eternal damnation? The leaders of the Church could only answer the people’s anxieties by telling the people to keep trying. Those leaders also offered people the opportunity to feel better about their chances of being saved by God. Naturally, a donation proportional to the severity of one’s sin or the availability of one’s fortunes was expected of those who were taking advantage of those opportunities.
At the same time, the church was losing power in the world. Scandals in the church had made people question whether the church could legitimately claim to represent God. Kings were becoming more assertive, saying that the church had no right to meddle in the affairs of their kingdoms. So the leaders of the Church embarked on elaborate building programs, constructing some of the grandest and most beautiful buildings which still grace Europe’s cities. The funds which were raised through the forgiveness which the church offered to anxious believers were essential to continue that program of building new edifices to show the power of the church.
This is the situation Martin Luther challenged. A particularly aggressive seller of these indulgences showed up in the region where Luther lived and worked as a pastor and professor. He wrote up his 95 theses, mailed them to his archbishop, and assumed that the excesses of this particular salesman for the church would be admonished. But that is not the way things happened. His statements made their way to Pope Leo, who felt his power threatened by some of what Luther said.
All Luther wanted to do was to lift up what the Bible says. All he wanted to do was to point out how God’s gift really works. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” But Luther was asked again and again to recant his assertion that we are not saved by anything we do, but only by the freely given gift of God. Over three and a half years, Luther argued with bishops and scholars, until eventually he was threatened with a death sentence if he did not recant. Who ever thought that someone would threaten to kill a man who testified to a gift? Who ever thought that receiving a gift would take a profound act of courage?
Did God know that God things would be so complicated when God gave us that gift of redemption through Jesus Christ? Did God suspect that things would get awkward, with some people so unsure how to accept the gift freely and completely? Did God know that the people of the church in Rome Paul wrote to, or the people of the church in Europe Luther challenged, would so desperately want to hold onto their egos, so desperately want to judge and exclude others, would so desperately feel the need to bolster their power, that they would refuse to accept God’s simple gift? I don’t know. But I do know that God still gives the gift, and God still wants us to simply accept the gift. God still wants us to know that we are made righteous, not because of something we do, and not because of something we fail to do, but only because of God’s choice to give it.
Friends, God wants us to accept God’s love and salvation and righteousness as a gift. My prayer this day is that we will be able to accept that gift. My prayer is that we will set aside our egos, or cease our impulse to judge and exclude, or let go of whatever power we derive from making other people feel inferior. My prayer is that we will free ourselves from any awkwardness, guilt, shame, obligation, or other uncomfortable feelings we have learned to associate with such a generous gift. My prayer is that we will simply accept what God wants us to accept: we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”