smallCatechism, the Creed, Article 1
Grace isn’t what god gives; grace is who god is!
Well, it’s that time, again. For the world, today is Halloween. The reïncarnation of King Arthur’s Day-of-the-Dead. Costumes. Parties. Tricks and Treats. But for us, here in the Lutheran Church, it’s Reformation Day. And this – all this – is pretty much it. A couple songs. A mouthful of prayers. A handful of verses. Once upon a time – long, long ago – the church sold forgiveness to raise money. And it worked. But along came Martin Luther, a priest and professor, who said, “No more!” In fact, he said it ninety-five times! That’s what we celebrate, today. That’s what we commemorate. Unfortunately, times change.
Used to be, we, too, shouted, “No more!” Now, we hardly whisper it. And the fire that raged in our bellies grew cold. There was a time, we Lutherans were considered a danger, a threat. We were radicals, revolutionaries. But all that changed. Maybe it’s because there’s more of “us,” nowadays. The E.L.C.A. is the fourth largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. Lutherans – as a whole – are number six, worldwide. That makes it simpler, easier. But there’s more of “them,” as well. Back in the day, we had to pick a side. We had to take a stand. But today? There are hundreds, thousands, tens-of-thousands of denominations scattered around the globe. So, it’s not as necessary. Not so essential. Knowing who we are. Understanding what we’re about. But, you know, the most challenging part of being church in the twenty-first century has to be the words! We all use the same vocabulary! The same jargon!
Think about it. There are only so many words, so many phrases, we use to describe believing! And we all use them! Each! Every! Some words are uniquely Christian! Uniquely church! Like fellowship. And salvation. Justify. Sanctify. Words you’ll hear nowhere else. Only problem is … those words … those phrases … mean different things to different people. Sometimes VERY different things. Take, for instance, the word ‘evangelical.’ Popular opinion, here in the U.S. says that ‘evangelical’ means ‘sharing the gospel,’ especially with the unchurched, with the unsaved. ‘Evangelical’ is what’s on billboards and bumper stickers. It’s what hangs on doorknobs and is slid under windshield wipers. ‘Evangelical’ is revivals and altar calls. For us, however, ‘evangelical’ is life! It means we’re anchored, rooted, in the gospel. Each breath! Every heartbeat! Nourished! Sustained! By the goodNews! Same word; different meanings! One is something we do; the other something we are!
But there’s one word, in particular, that’s used universally by all Christians. One word that sets us – as Lutherans – apart. One word without which we cease to be Lutheran. One word without which we cease to be church. That word … is ‘grace’! ‘Grace’! ‘Grace’ is love! A special kind of love! Love without strings! Love without conditions or preconditions! Love no ifs, ands, or buts!
For others, ‘grace’ sounds more like a treat that god drops in our goodie bag. ‘Grace’ is something god gives us that god doesn’t give others. And it changes us. Makes us different. Sets us apart from other people. What’s the saying, “There but for the grace of god ….” It’s something that can be counted and measured and weighed. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works. Not for us. For Luther – and Lutherans – grace isn’t something god gives. Let me repeat that. Grace is not something god gives. It’s who god is! It’s who god is! Love isn’t a quantity; it’s a quality! God is love! That’s what John tells us! God is love! God loves!
Love isn’t something god places under that tree on Christmas morning. Love is someone! Lying in a manger! Love is who god is! Love is what god does! Taking on flesh and blood! Dwelling among us! Filling the space between us!
Love’s not a marshmallow peep, at Easter. Love’s not a chocolate bunny. Hidden away In a plastic basket. It’s a man – a god – lifted up on a cross, the Friday before. Suffering. Crucified. Dying. Buried. Descending.
For us, being saved by grace means god saves us! Saved by grace is saved out of the goodness, the greatness, of god’s own heart! “I’m seeking and thirsting for nothing else than a gracious god!” That’s how Luther gave meaning to his efforts! Seeking and thirsting for a god who loves! Loves without apology and without excuse! Loves carelessly! Loves extravagantly!
But maybe, the place Luther defines grace the best is in his explanation to the first article of the creed! Believing in god the Father almighty, creator! I believe, writes the good doctor, that god created everyone and everything. God daily and abundantly provides! God protects! God shields! God preserves! And here’s the crux of the explanation … “And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!”
“And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy,
without any merit or worthiness of mine [– out of ours –] at all!”
That, my friends, is grace! That’s love! And god does it right from start, from the very beginning to the very end! Out of pure, fatherly, and divine! Goodness and mercy!”
It’s grace that saves us! It’s grace that creates us! And, like the song says, it’s grace that brings us home! It’s a gift! It’s all a gift! Sure, it’s a word everyone uses! But we – you and I – can’t use it without talking about Jesus! We can’t use it without talking about the cross! Because it’s only there that we see the commitment, the devotion. See the commitment and devotion of god! Only there that we see the grace! See the charity! See the love!
My friends, love, for us, isn’t a commandment to be obeyed! Love’s not an example to be followed. Love – grace – is a gift! Even more, love – grace – for us, is god!