Sermons 2002

Sermons 2003

Are You Walking in Grace?

Genesis 21: 8-21 & Romans 6: 1b-14

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 13th July 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville, Maryland

“The detail of the pattern is movement,” T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) once wrote.[1]  “The detail of the pattern is movement.”  The orbits of planets and stars, the cycle of seasons, the process of life from birth to death and birth again all contain movement.  Movement is the pattern of a God who creates and acts within creation.  What is true for creation is equally true for the creature.  From Jesus Christ, who was present at and the means by which the universe was created, we learn that to come into contact with him means we are involved in a movement.  To follow Christ is a transforming movement from what we are to what we are asked to become.  Taking leave of the person we are, we assume a new identity.  From despair we move to hope; from alienation to reconciliation; from sorrow to joy; from death to life.

This is what the Bible calls salvation – the movement from sin to grace.  This is what the Christian life is all about, right?  An individual’s movement from a state of sin to a state of grace.  It was the question of how one gets from a state of sin to a state of grace that was behind the compelling evangelical zeal of Paul – and by evangelical I mean the desire to preach good news.  This was his primary motivation:  to preach to every corner of the world that God’s grace towards humanity is a fact and the proof can be seen in Jesus Christ.  The question, however, is how does one move? 

Paul knew all of this to be true because he knew life caught in sin.  His chief desire was to put in plain words for all to understand what God through Christ had done in his life.  This one-time murderer of Christians became Christ’s chief evangelist to the Roman Empire.  Indeed, Christ extended to call to him even while he was in the process of persecuting Jesus’ followers.  This is because God’s grace is always greater than sin.  The truth he held on to and sought to live out, the truth he preached despite persecution and ridicule, was the grace of God.  He knew this grace was priceless because he knew what it was like enslaved to sin.

To know grace one needs to come to terms with the nature of sin.  We’re reluctant to do this today.  It’s a troubling word and concept.  Theological conservatives focus too much upon it, looking for sin under every rock.  Theological liberals have difficulty seeing it anywhere.

For Paul, sin is almost never used in the plural form.  In his letters, Paul refers to sin in the singular.  Listen again to Romans 6:11:  “You . . . must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  Here, sin is not so much a description of rights and wrongs, what is lawful and what is not.  In our society we often refer to particular offensive acts, such as the seven deadly sins.  For example, several years ago The New York Times ran a series in the Sunday Book Review section asking various contemporary authors to comment on the seven deadly sins, one sin each week.  If Paul was around today I can imagine him writing off an angry epistle to the op-ed page editor.  It is precisely this preoccupation, obsessively listing various types of sin that Paul calls legalism.  It is life under the Law, trying to please God by identifying what is ethical and then striving towards it in the hope of receiving God’s approval.  According to Paul this is a load of rubbish.  Sin is singular because it has less to do with doing, than with being. According to Paul, an individual commits various sins because one is enslaved to sin.

Sin is a seductive power, a negative, destructive force at work within creation, within our bodies, within our minds, within our relationships.  It is what we are, sin-ful.  It is a subtle and deep, devious and pervasive.  This type of power, suggests Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner, is “centrifugal.”[2]  It pushes everything and everyone away into the oblivion of the periphery.  Sin separates.  It creates deep, black holes and gaps between everything and everyone.

We have gaps within us.  When we seek to do that which is good, but something pushes us the other way.  When we try to be accepting of ourselves, but then we hear the voices within that say, “You’re no good,”  “You don’t measure up,”  “Don’t let anyone see who you are for then they won’t like you.”  There are gaps within us.

We have gaps between us.  When we try to have a meaningful conversation, but something triggers anger and animosity and before we know it we’re screaming and saying what we don’t really mean.  When we are in pain, hurting, alone and instead of accepting help from a friend (which we know is what we want), we say, “No thanks.  I’ll get by on my own.”   We all have gaps within us.

The same gaps that separate us from ourselves and from others are present fundamentally because there is a gap between humanity and God.  The psalmist writes, “Against you, you alone, [O God], have I sinned. (Psalm 51: 4)” This gap might be difficult to see.  Sure we can say, “God is love,” but deep down we don’t really believe we’re good enough for God to love us.  So we try harder, striving to please God, trying to be good, decent people.  The more we try to earn God’s favor the more we push God away.  To sing along with Frank Sinatra and proclaim to the world in full voice, “I did it my way!” is an insurrectionist act in which we as creatures question our dependence upon the Creator, seeking to live our lives out on our own, saying, “Thanks, but no thanks, God.  I’ll get by on my own.”  The power of sin rules our lives when we say No to God, No to one another, No to ourselves.

Here are some other ways to think about sin.[3]  One theologian describes sin as “active, self-centered idolatry,” where we reject god and make ourselves absolute.  We place ourselves at the top and from there divide up the world according to our likes and dislikes.  This is the “prideful, titanic, egocentric self.”  We become rules of our own little private worlds.  We bully and manipulate people, refusing to see the needs of others because we have our faces glued to the mirror.  We see this at work in our technological world that uses people and the world of nature to serve our own ends.  Putting oneself above others creates class distinctions and fosters feelings of “racial and national superiority,” which are alive and well in our day.

There’s another way to look at sin, a perspective not frequently talked about in the church (but needed).  This is sin as a “passive, other-centered idolatry,” where instead of putting ourselves upon pedestals we throw ourselves to the floor and allow other people, nations and ideas to take control of us.  This is the sin of self-hatred, where we reject who we are as children of god.  This results in lives that are ordinary, mediocre, completely uninventive and boring because we are always at the mercy of others.  Here we are afraid to reach out.  Fear and cowardice prevent us from daring to be who we are in God’s eyes.

Sin is enslavement.  It wears us down.  It paralyzes. It frustrates our desire to move.  This is the human condition.  What Jesus came to reveal was the degree to which we are all caught up in this power of death and don’t even realize it.  Jesus’ life was like a mirror held up to us in whom we are allowed to see who we really are. But not liking what we saw, we shattered the mirror.

We really don’t desire to be in this state, although we are.  But, how do we move from sin to grace?  How do we get out of this mess?  The answer, the Bible tells us, is one we don’t like to hear:  we can’t.  There’s nothing for us to do because there’s nothing left to be done.  This is because all we could ever need in our struggle with sin has already been given to us.  The good news – the best news we will ever hear – is God has provided a way through in the cross of the Son.  This is grace – Paul’s word for the undeserved forgiveness of God.  This can’t be earned.  To do so would only cheapen it.  It must be received as a gift.

What is this grace, then?  It is Christ crucified on the cross, putting our sin to death and in its place offering new life.  Grace is the resurrection where God takes what humankind meant for ill (in trying to kill God) and transforms it into something beyond belief.  Despite our attempts to separate ourselves from God, God continues to move towards us and moves us towards God’s grace.  If sin is centrifugal, grace is centripetal, in that it draws all things and people together.  In the midst of the our destructive chorus of negation, in the midst of our ever-widening gaps of separation, we hear in Christ a different word, we hear God proclaiming to us across the aching void of our existence, God’s indefatigable, Yes!  YES!  With every hearing of this word – Yes! – we are drawn closer and closer into God’s presence.

Grace is the opposite of sin.  So that to be in grace means that sin has no power over us.  Grace is what defines us as Christians.  We need to remember that we are, right now, living by grace.  Grace releases us from enslavement to sin and makes us into new people.  Theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) put it this way:  “Grace digs sin up by its roots, for it questions the validity of our present existence and status.  It takes away our breath, ignores us as we are, and treats us as what we are not – as new men [and women].”[4]

Here we are back to Paul’s primary argument – the goal of the Christian life is the movement from sin to grace.  It is a movement that begins and ends in the love of God who seeks to move us closer to God’s presence.  Grace, “ignores us as we are, and treats us as what we are not – as new men [and women].”  If only we could fathom how much God desires that we become new women and men, to know that God says to us in Christ, “YES!”  If only we could see that God has provided a way for us to “walk in newness of life.” We merely have to receive it, to act on it.

Kierkegaard (1813-1855) tells this parable.  There once was a town where only ducks lived.  It was Sunday morning in Duckville and, as was their custom, all the ducks waddled out of their homes and down their streets to the First Church of Duckville.  They waddled down the aisle of the church, waddled into their pews, and squatted.  Shortly afterward, the duck minister took his place in the pulpit and the more church service was underway.  The scripture text for the morning was taken from the duck Bible and it read:

“Ducks, God has given you wings – you can fly.
Ducks, because you have wings you can fly like eagles.
Because God has given you wings
no fences can confine you,
no land animals can trap you.
Ducks!  God has given you wings!
And all the ducks said, “Amen!”  “Amen!”  And they waddled home.

“So you . . . must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.”  We need to acknowledge what we have and who we are:  forgiven sinners by God’s grace.  What is required then is a change of mind, an attitude that allows us to walk in grace.  Both will come when we say “Yes” to God’s “Yes,” when we claim with our hearts that by God’s grace we are saved.  Then, instead of merely “talking the talk,” we’ll be “walking the walk” – walking in grace.

[1] T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” from Four Quartets, The Complete Poems and Plays:  1909-1950 (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971), p. 122.

[2] These images come form Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC (New York:  Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 88-89.

[3] These two examples are taken from Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding:  An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 130-131.

[4] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (1921), trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London:  Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 190.

[5] Cited in Tony Campolo, Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong (Dallas, TX:  Word, 1992), p. 185.