4th Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
John 3:14-21, Ephesians 2:1-10
A dear friend of our family grew up in church. But in spite of all the faithfulness of her family and her own faithfulness, she ended up deeply wounded by the church. It was not her fault, it was the result of misconduct by someone there whom she admired and respected. For years, she was able to continue to attend worship with her family and often on her own, but later realized that it was at the cost of denying her experience and the deep damage it caused to her soul. She didn’t believe that it wasn’t her fault. She thought that she had caused the dreadful mistake and as all the pain came out in counseling, what she wanted most was to go to church and hear about God’s love for her. But the door to church seemed closed to her. She couldn’t go with her family to the church in which she’d been so hurt. She found that the rock music and the messages about being a better Christian in the more evangelical tradition didn’t work either. It didn’t feel like church, and she just felt more sinful than ever.
Because she is a friend of our family, she decided to try a Lutheran church. She was welcomed with open arms. She loved the structure of worship. When she told her story to the pastor on her way to becoming a member, he was kind and sympathetic and assuring that such hurt could be part of her past and not determinate of her future. But most of all what she loved was the message she heard every week from the pulpit. Every week the pastor assured her and the whole congregation that they were loved by God, not because of what they had done or not done, but purely because God is loving. Every week she heard that sins were forgiven by God’s grace. She heard for the first time in her life, that even though we are dead in our hearts and souls, we are raised to new life through God’s work in Jesus, and that it is a gift. She heard for the first time that all we do that is good is because we are saved, not because we must be good for God to love us.
It is so easy, even for us who have heard the message over and over again to slip into thinking that what we do must meet some qualification if we are God’s people. I guess it’s because our human nature is so focused on ourselves. But listen to Paul, “we are created anew in Christ for the good works God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” We are good because we ARE saved, we are not good in order to GET saved.
All my life, I thought faith was about agreeing with the right things, assenting to the correct doctrinal statements or beliefs. But it’s not. Faith is about trust. Faith is about who you cling to in the dark. And Jesus is quick to explain in John’s Gospel that he is the Light of the World. God called you and me out of darkness into the light of God’s love through the work of Jesus, who defeated the power of evil to ever separate us from our place with God forever. The eternal life that was won for us began the day we were invited into God’s family. For many of us it was the day we were baptized. For others it was as we came to know that God wanted to know us and we responded by opening the gift of God’s love later in life. We came to understand that God loved us so completely that Jesus came to be with us and even died at the hands of the evils of this world to win a place for us that is guaranteed forever. Our eternal life means that now we can live with the full joy of knowing we are loved, forgiven, cherished, and welcomed without judgment ever. It was not our decision that saved us, it was God’s invitation into the love that had been saved for us from the beginning of time.
I keep hearing about the decline of Christianity. The church is not what it used to be, and we have to fight for our place in the world. There is so much hand-wringing about the changing context in which we live, and how the world is falling apart. I don’t know about you, but I think that this is a wonderful time to be the church, you and me as The Church. It’s because as everything in the world around us seems to be changing, we are the bearers of the story about the one thing that never changes: God’s love for the world, and God’s grace that heals and forgives even while we are the worst of sinners. My church-going friend had never heard the story told that way in all her church-going years. She felt guilty and alone and had no way to find her way back to God until she began to see the quiet love offered by members of our family who assured her that she was not at fault for the great sin she bore. We didn’t preach to her, we just loved her. And she found that the love we offered was a reflection of the love we shared because God loved us first. And she heard the words from a preacher who bore the story of God’s grace like a flame, week after week.
“Preach the Gospel always,” says Augustine of Hippo, “use words, if necessary.” That is our mission in the world: to live out of the grace of God shown to us in Christ so that it lights up everything we do and say. We are so blessed. We are so loved. We have nothing to fear. Imagine what life would look like if we trusted THAT.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.