Sermon, February 10, 2019 – Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Last week, Barbara, Holly and I attended a retreat at a nearby Presbyterian church in Sacramento. The speaker mentioned two different ways that people typically approach Christianity. The first way is the way of merit. With this way, the Christian thinks “If I follow Jesus, then God will accept me.” We love God because we want God to love us. We think that God loves us when we live well, believe the right doctrine, follow the right rules, and practice the right spiritual disciplines. We figure that if we do these things, then we aren’t as bad as other people. If we’re better people, then surely we’ll merit God’s love.
If we approach the Christian faith with this way of merit, we might feel better about ourselves if we focus on how much worse other people are than ourselves. We are tempted to look for the faults in others because that helps us convince ourselves that we are better than them. They aren’t as orthodox as we are, they aren’t as committed to social justice or equality as we are, and they don’t pray or attend church as often as we do. This often leads to pride within ourselves and a graceless attitude towards others.
The second way one can approach Christianity is the way of grace. Following the way of grace, we obey God because God has already accepted us through Jesus Christ. We know that we are all broken and sinful and in need of forgiveness and that Jesus gave his life to save us from our sins. We are so full of gratitude for what Jesus did for us that we follow and obey him. What’s more, we know that Jesus has reconciled the world to God, and we’d like to share God’s love with others.
Under the way of grace, we acknowledge that we are in need to God’s grace and forgiveness. We realize that we don’t win God’s love because of how special we are, but instead we know God loves us because of how gracious he is. We acknowledge that we are no better than anyone else in the world. We look at others who are experiencing difficulties or struggling with more public sins, and think “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
This past week, I reflected more deeply on what I heard on the retreat as I read a very interesting blog post that was reflecting on a controversial interview with the actor Liam Neeson. Neeson had recounted a story of when he was younger and experienced a dark time of great rage after learning about the rape of a close friend. He admitted that in this dark time, he harbored violent, racist fantasies of killing someone who looked like the person accused of raping his friend. In his confession, he condemned the racist and violent thoughts that he had, and warned how dangerous mindless rage was and how it could poison our hearts. His interview was a confession of sin and a public repentance. Undoubtedly, Neeson thought that people would respond with grace and forgiveness. But he was wrong.
In response to his confession, many commentators denounced Neeson, and the studio that produced his film cancelled its planned red-carpet premiere. Those who initially reached out to Neeson with grace and understanding were subsequently attacked for doing so. Now, I am no great fan of Liam Neeson, but this is just one example of a disturbing trend on social media in which online mobs seek to signal their own virtue by gracelessly condemning others. Apologies, repentance or long lives of service don’t matter. All that matters is the public shaming and condemnation of the transgressor. The author of the blog post commented that typically, the condemnation remains even after the person confesses their wrongs and repents. He wrote “we have created a culture that despises repentance and condemns grace.”
In this blog post, there is a quote from Alan Jacobs, a Christian commentator. Jacobs wrote a couple of years ago that “When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains a [vague] sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors.”
Our readings today speak very powerfully to these themes of condemnation, forgiveness, grace, redemption, and self-righteousness. It’s a message that our culture badly needs to hear. In fact, I think one of the big reasons why Christianity has lost its influence is that the Church has too often embraced the way of merit and moralism instead of the way of grace. We are always tempted towards the way of merit, because it puts us in the driver’s seat. It allows us to call the shots, condemn others and feel good about ourselves. And so, it is no surprise that as our culture drifts from its Christian roots, it is the way of merit that it clings too, while forgetting about grace.
So let’s take a look at our readings. In our passage from First Corinthians, Paul makes a very powerful statement about the way of grace, offering us a short summary of what our faith is all about. Paul writes “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins, and this is of first importance. Indeed, Paul tells us that it is by this gospel we are saved, and that if Christ didn’t die for our sins, our belief is in vain.
Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was buried but was raised on the third day. As the Book of Common Prayer tells us, God, our heavenly Father, by his tender mercy gave his only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption. And Jesus made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Christ paid the penalty for our sins. In Isaiah 53, the prophet tells us “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The Scriptures make it very clear that Jesus Christ had to die for our sins, because we aren’t really the wonderful people we so often like to think we are. We have no cause whatsoever to boast or to think we are better than anyone else. None at all. And Paul makes it really clear that he understands this. Paul places himself dead last in his listing of the apostles and says “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
Paul is admitting to the early Christians that he was one of the most ardent persecutors of the Church. He was a bad guy. He encouraged killings and the destruction of lives. He acknowledges that it is only by the grace of God that he is what he is. Not because he was clever, or high born, or more virtuous. He was none of those things. God saved Paul out of sheer grace. And so Paul preached forgiveness, grace and redemption and he was the perfect illustration of it all.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, and the gospel we should preach, is a gospel of forgiveness, grace and redemption. This is the message that our world shuts out, but one that so many need to hear. And yet, so many in our world today have a negative view of evangelism, with a negative stereotype of Christians. They see us as being hypocritical moralists intent on condemning them. I think that this stereotype has arisen because the Church all too often falls into preaching the way of merit instead of the way of grace. And, as we know, if we follow the way of merit, we can become prideful and condemning of others.
We need to preach the way of grace. And our readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel show us the way. In our passage from the Old Testament, we hear about Isaiah’s initial call to be a prophet. Isaiah was one of the greatest of the Old Testament prophets writing incredible prophecies looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. But Isaiah realized he was a man not worthy to be in God’s presence. In his vision, an angel touches a hot cleansing coal to his lips and declares “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Before he could be a great prophet, Isaiah had to embrace humility. He accepted that he was a man unworthy to speak for God, and it was only through the power of God that he had anything at all to say.
But once Isaiah acknowledged his own sinfulness and the incredible mercy and grace of God, his attitude transformed. No longer did he shrink away from God in fear, but instead, he embraced God’s call on his life. Isaiah writes that he then “heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” We can only communicate to others about grace if we have first accepted God’s grace in our own lives. We first, like Isaiah must acknowledge our own brokenness and unworthiness before God, and then embrace the joy and grace of God as he raises us up, not by our own merit, but because of God’s goodness towards us.
Our Gospel reading is one of the most famous stories in the Gospels concerning evangelism. In our reading, Jesus tells Peter and his fishing companions to fish in a certain place after having a bad night and not catching a thing. Peter’s first response to Jesus was that they had already tried but came up empty. But Jesus persisted and so they did what he told them. And this time they drew up so much fish that their boats almost sank. Peter was astonished, but note what his first response was. He didn’t congratulate himself on his fine fishing skills. No, instead he recognized that this was God at work and he fell before Jesus and declared that he was not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus. Peter confessed his unworthiness. But Jesus told him not to be afraid and declared that just as he brought in so much fish that day, in the days to come Peter would become a fisher of people.
Let’s look at bit more closely at this fishing story. Peter and his companions were working hard, fishing all night. But they weren’t catching anything. The church today seems to be having similar luck with its evangelism efforts. It was only when the disciples had to trust Jesus and his instructions that they had success. It was only when the disciples humbled themselves before God and acknowledged their sinfulness that they were able to fill their nets with fish. I think that there is a lesson in this for us.
Our world is starved for a message of forgiveness, grace and repentance. We long for someone to come alongside us, and tell us that God forgives us and that he loves us. This is the gospel. It is the way of grace. Evangelism isn’t telling people that they need to be better so that they can be loved by God. Preaching that will lead to empty nets. Rather, evangelism is telling people that no matter how unworthy they might be, God loves them so much that he gave his only son to die for them and cleanse them from their sins.
When we do evangelism, we should not look down on others, but rather look on them as our sisters and brothers, no worse nor better than we are, but who are equally in need of God’s forgiveness. A deep personal humility is a pre-requisite for evangelism, and that starts with the attitude of Paul, Isaiah and Peter. Lord, I am a sinner not worthy to be in your presence, yet by your grace I have been made worthy to be the son or daughter of God.
But this message is not for you alone. It’s not for St. Luke’s alone. It is not for the church alone. It is a message of grace and redemption for the whole world. Who does the Lord send to tell the world? Remember Isaiah? And, then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord asking “whom shall I send to tell the world?
Let us join now with Isaiah when he replied “Here am I. Send me!”
Let us pray,
Almighty God, by whose grace alone we are accepted and called to your service: strengthen us by your Holy Spirit and make us worthy of our calling. We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.