It is probably safe to say that the significance of October 31, 2017 is not on the thought-radar for most of us. Unless...you are a die-hard church history fan...in which case you know that October 31st is more than just Halloween-on-a-Sunday this year. It is also marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Of course, the Reformation was not a single, one-and-done incident. Nonetheless, October 31st has been deemed the official anniversary date, mostly because it was on that date in 1517 that Martin Luther took a list of theological concerns, called the 95 Theses, and nailed them to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. It came to be seen as the start of a "protest" that would eventually divide the Catholic Church and the Protestant (protestor) Church.
Most historians agree that it was never Martin Luther's intention to create a schism in the church. He was just increasingly frustrated with the burdensome religious practices being implemented by church leadership. Luther, a Catholic monk, came to believe that the essential gospel message of Christianity was getting buried under what one professor called "religious clutter". The various practices, expectations, decisions and declarations by leaders fostered corruption and abuses of power within the church and created an oppressive religious environment for the common Christian.
Luther was adamant that the church needed to be reformed, thus he challenged the leadership to debate the various matters detailed in the 95 Theses. Now, we won't go into all those issues today, but suffice to say, Luther, and other reformation leaders, believed that the clutter and misguided practices were leading people further and further from the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Looking back, the Reformation movement was a 16th century religious, political, intellectual and cultural upheaval...some of which is might not be worthy of celebration. Yet, at the heart of it all was a deep desire to redirect the church...to transform it...and restore the essentials of Christianity as its focus.
For the Reformers, these essentials were captured in five bold theological affirmations known as the solas which are listed on the front of your bulletin. In Latin, sola means "only". So, according to the Reformers, the core message of Christianity, stripped of all the clutter, is this: only scripture, only Christ, only grace, only faith, and only to God's glory.
In other words, the Bible alone is our highest authority of revelation. Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King. We are saved by the grace of God alone. We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. We live for the glory of God alone.
This is, in the simplest of terms, what Protestants believe it means to be a Christian.
Unfortunately, 500 years later, it seems that a whole lot of clutter has made its way back into the Christian faith. Political, doctrinal, and theological clutter, as well as policies and declaration clutter getting in the way of the church being a living, breathing reflection of the gospel. We have become distracted by many lesser things.
So in light of this anniversary, and as an effort to help us focus specifically on the core message of Christianity, today we begin a five-week series on the five solas, which will conclude with a service of Reformation celebration at the end of the of October.
This week, we begin with the message of "only grace". A message that Paul lays out for us quite clearly in the letter to the Ephesians. By grace you have been saved. It is a gift from God.
It really is that simple. And it really is that incredible. And there really is no catch. Even though we definitely tend to try to put one on there. We want to add a qualifier to who the "you" is. And we often put a semicolon at the end of the statement followed by a condition on the grace.
However, Paul...and the Reformers...will tell you...when it comes to God's grace, there are no qualifiers, conditions, if, ands or "buts". By grace you have been saved and it is a gift from God. PERIOD.
Furthermore, salvation, or being saved, is not just a matter of being earmarked for heaven...nor is it a choice we make or do...it is what God has done for us. Salvation is a transformation from this "before" sin state...to the "after" state of new life in Christ.
God's grace...freely and unconditionally offered out of love for us...is the bridge that moves us from the "once you were " to the "now you are". It is the bridge from "what the world would have us believe about who we are" to the "who God says we are".
So, let's talk a bit about this whole "once you were dead", state of existence that Paul describes. He basically focuses on three aspects: sin, Satan and self. For us, Paul's language is odd, but we can still relate to the ideas conveyed. First of all, we understand that state of deathliness called sin. To us, sin represents all the things that humans do and think that are damaging to us...things that are killing us from the inside out, sometimes in ways we can't see, don't see or won't see. And folks I'm not just talking about the biggie sins...like the seven deadly ones...sin is anything that deadens our spirit and keep us from being alive to Christ.
We also get the idea of Satan who Paul refers to as the ruler of the power of the air, or the spirit at work among the disobedient. For some folks, Satan is a specific being, whereas for others, Satan represents any and all forces of evil that are at work in the world. Forces that try to enslave people...forces that control...forces that steal our freedom...forces like addictions, or greed (which is in itself a sort of an addiction), forces like hatred or racism or sexism. Forces like those tapes that run through our heads telling us we are not enough...that we need to be different or better or richer or smarter or prettier or thinner or more athletic...or some other ideal that is more than what we currently are. Satan represents the evil that enslaves us to an unholy, unhealthy lifestyle...or manipulates our thoughts and actions.
Really, sin and Satan together encompass pretty much any and all forces that mess with our self-esteem, create fear and anxiety, or raise self-doubt. All the things that result in a damaged self. A self that is void of the image of God in which it was created....the self that has been given over...beaten down..or as we often say, broken.
The self that is so broken that there is no life in it.
And, according to Paul, that's who we were...every single one of us.
BUT...God who loves us said no, no, no. Not my beloved...this is not who I created them to be. I created them for much greater things. And these forces of sin, Satan, and damaged-self are not going to define them.
So, out of his love and mercy, God offered all people...not just some but all...his grace which comes to us through Christ and makes us alive. Paul goes on to say that in Christ, we're not just alive but we are lifted up with him in the heavenly places. Notice, though, he doesn't say will be lifted up...he says we already are.
By grace. Unearned. Unmerited. But offered lavishly to us..as a gift...so we would become the people we were created to be. God's grace is the agent of transformation...taking us from what we were to what we are meant to be. Even better...it sets us free from that old life and gives us new life in Christ.
And...here's where it all gets tricky. If we have been given grace...saved by grace...and have this new life in Christ...then why do we still mess up? Why do we still slide back into sin...or give evil a voice in our hearts and minds? Why do we remain broken?
I mean, Paul makes being saved by grace seem so complete and matter-of-fact...and given the tense of his verbs, it has already happened. Grace came to us through Jesus. Once we were dead, but now we are alive. It should be so simple and easy. But we all know that it is not.
I remember struggling with this question when I was younger. Of course, part of the struggle was because I believed that once we accepted Christ and were immersed in baptism our sins were washed away. We came out of the water as a new, unbroken, non-sinning person. In fact, I distinctly remember having a sense of hesitation about responding to the altar call because I wanted to be sure I was done with all my sinning before I went forward to once and for all became that new person. So, it was a weekly wrestling match every Sunday...would this be the week I could quit arguing with my brother...or sassing my parents...or getting in trouble...FOREVER?
I guess I was just waiting to make sure I had it all out of my system. Eventually I did respond and went forward to be baptized.
On the Sunday I was to be baptized, I and so nervous, but excited, about getting my clean slate. Well, when I arrived at the church that morning, the pastor, Brother Bob, told me that I was not going to be able to be baptized that day. It turns out that a bat had flown into the baptistery and the health department required that it be drained and sanitized before it could be used again.
Of course, in my warped thinking, that could only mean one thing. It was a sign from God that I was not allowed to be baptized yet because I was not done sinning.
By the way, I was baptized a couple of weeks later. And on the first Sunday after my baptism, I was contemplating whether I could go back up for another altar call. You see, once again, I'd had gotten into some sort of trouble that week. And you talk about a crushing blow. I really believed I would become perfect after baptism..and was so disappointed when I did not.
Seriously though, when we look at a passage like this one from Ephesians, it could make a person wonder if, given all my continued failures maybe grace does not apply to me. Or perhaps somehow, I never really received the new life...or is it that I'm just not capable of living into it.
That's why it's important to understand that Paul is describing two opposite realities...dead and alive...before and after...the "worldly" realm of disobedience versus God's realm of good works...and we, God's people on earth, live in the intersection of both.
Yes, once we were all dead...and by grace we have all been made alive...transformed into a new life. And someday, when God's perfect rule has been completely established, that new life will be our only life.
However, until then, we are resigned to live in this sort of straddling mode...both in the earthly realm where we encounter sin and the heavenly realm where we rise above it. Christians are forced into this odd duality of sort within ourselves. Salvation is ours. It is completed by grace through Christ and cannot be taken from us...but we still have to deal with those forces that try to draw us back to the old life until, as they say, our baptism is complete -- meaning until we die and are raised to be only and eternally with Christ. Or, until he comes again...which by the way, despite all wacky predictions was not yesterday.
So for now we live in the "here but not yet". In God's kingdom here and now, but not yet fully in place. That old person that Paul describes...it is not who we truly are...not in Christ. It might be who the world tells us we are...or tempts us to be...but God's grace says it is not. Grace has lifted us out of it...saved us from it. We are free of its grip, free of the sin and the evil, healed of the damaged self...but sometimes, while we are still here, we just need to be reminded.
Reminded of who we are...and who we were created to be. Reminded that we are loved...just as we are. Reminded that we were created for greater things. Reminded that new life is available.
We need reminders of God's grace. Reminders like the waters of baptism that are poured out each week to help us remember that we belong to God. His grace is upon us even when we do not know it. Reminders like the communion meal where we encounter the promises of life and salvation...gifts that we receive over and over every time we share the bread and the cup. Reminders like the cross...the liturgy...the hymns...the prayers...our fellow believers...not as religious clutter but as reminders that point to God's grace.
We also need experiences of grace in the here and now. In fact, these glimpses of grace are probably the most powerful reminders of all. Creating, living and sharing grace stories may be the most important good work for which we have been saved.
Author Ann Lamott once said, I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. These are the transformative grace stories the world longs to hear. We don’t need to explain how grace works…we can’t. But we can share our own stories of God’s grace.
Stories of healing - in our body, mind and spirit. Stories of hope for a different path, a new day, a fresh start. Stories of folks rising from the rubble of life. Stories of baby-steps toward recovery, or forgiveness, or reconciliation. Grace stories from our own lives...offered as gift to others. This is our work to do…and rest assured, someone is ‘dying” to hear them.
Folks, life in the here, but not yet, is neither easy nor perfect. We are going to have hard days...failure-filled days. We're going to feel alone...excluded...unnecessary...without purpose. We are going to face challenges and temptations. And we are going to make mistakes. Plenty of them.
Still, remember this...by grace we have been saved. Period. And that is all we need.
Only grace. Only faith. Only Christ. Only Scripture. Only to the glory of God. Amen.