Typically, to get my creative juices flowing, in the hopes of artfully concocting a sermon message, I’ll head to a local coffeeshop to write, or sometimes even an area craft beer hotspot. That was the goal for this message as well. I had it all planned out, I’d stop into the church office Thursday morning, spent an hour tops getting a few minor todos completed, and then head out to a coffeespot around 9:30a. And then, around noon, I’d meet a friend for lunch at a local deli. And then, after chatting for perhaps another hour or so I’d get back to writing the message. By the time I’d head home at 5pm I planned to have logged six and a half hours on this message, which usually gets it pretty far along to being complete.
But this plan didn’t exactly roll out as I’d hoped.
It took longer to knock out the office todos than I’d guessed, and I didn’t leave the office until 9:55a. And then when I did I forgot the laptop charger, and had to run back. And when I ran in, I accidently locked my keys in my office, and had to ask our youth director Dan Hinderaker to unlock the door. When I *finally* got out of the office and headed my coffeeshop of choice, it ended up being closed. The owner is moving and shut it down this week, go figure. So I found another coffeeshop, ordered a drink, opened my backpack, and guess what, I’d forgotten my laptop! So it was back to the office to pick that up, and then back to the coffeeshop to write. At this point I’d lost over an hour from my planned schedule.
Noon rolled around, and I met my friend at the deli right on time. Ok then, I thought to myself, perhaps the day is back on schedule. And after an hour or so of sparkling conversation we left, and I headed to my car. Except it wasn’t where I’d parked it. Instead I noticed a sign, a little more clearly than before, that read, “Parking for barbershop customers only. Violators will be towed.” UH OHHHHH… I’d seen that sign when parking, considered it briefly, and figured lunch wouldn’t be too long and all would be fine. It didn’t exactly turn out that way.
And after one phone call to the tow company, one sheepish call to my wife asking for help, and one payment of two-hundred forty nine dollars and thirty one cents, OUCH, I was reunited with the car. You can imagine the guilt, the shame, the embarrassment of a moment like this. I screwed up. I broke a rule, got caught, and paid the consequence. Yes, this is your new pastor, making a slew of mistakes, of various shapes and sizes, over the course of just a few hours, guilty as charged. All was not well with this day.
All was not well in Martin Luther’s day either. To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation, Pastor Bryan and I are delving into many of the important concepts from that time in history, via sermon series. Today we’ll dive into the Latin term sola gratia, or grace alone.
In Luther’s era the concept of salvation looked a little different than how we understand it today. In those times the Catholic Church viewed salvation as a mixture of two things, a reliance on the grace of God, and being confident in your own works; essentially that you’d done enough positive things in life to make it to the good place.
The church of Luther’s day taught people to fear hell and the God who could send them there. While the church of this era also taught of Christ’s salvific grace, there was more to do if you wanted to avoid hell and make it to the pearly gates.
God the Father is willing to pardon you, the church would say, tho you dare not approach the terrible Judge directly. Even Jesus, at times, was probably angry about your sin, and he may not take your prayers to God. Instead, the church suggested, ask some of the saints already in heaven to go to Jesus with your prayer.
But remember, praying by yourself is not enough. Your priest has to pray for you too, asking God to forgive you. And even then God won’t listen unless you do good works, things like trips to Rome and Jerusalem, gifts to the church, gifts to the poor, the more the better.
Do you see how all that plays out? From this vantage, while Jesus offers salvation, God’s still really ticked off that you keep screwing up. Oh is he angry! Jesus is too sometimes, so, to be safe, you better pray to a saint. But praying by yourself isn’t enough, a priest has to pray for you too. And even when the priest asks that you be forgiven, God *still* won’t listen unless you do good works, and give money too. And the more good you do, and the more money you give, well, the better the odds you have of going to heaven. And to get all that accomplished you better hope the Holy Spirit is there in the mix, helping, encouraging, persuading everyone to play their role well.
From this vantage to arrive in heaven required the combined work of the Holy Trinity, saints, priests and you. How does that sound to your ears? To me it seems like an awfully complicated system. And a system where the fate of your soul is always just one good or bad move away from landing in heaven or hell. And you could never quite be sure where you’d land.
A New Paradigm
Fortunately, a careful reading of scripture led Luther to another understanding of salvation, that it is a gift from God, an act of grace dispensed by the Holy Spirit, made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The reformers coined the Latin term sola gratia, or grace alone. The act of salvation is of God coming to us, not the other way around. There are no works we can do on our part to get to heaven, because it’s all been done by Christ. I hope that sounds freeing to you, because it really is.
Now this isn’t to say that good works aren’t important, they are. As a church and as a people of faith we certainly do our best to live into the world around us in positive, transformational, Christ-like ways. Many of you here today do that very, very well. But the reason we do that isn’t to earn our own salvation, because there is no act needed on our part for that. Luther is famously quoted as saying “God doesn’t need your good works. But your neighbor does.” I love that quote, and find it very helpful, perhaps we’ll explore that more in a future message.
Scripture is filled with stories of God’s grace, of Jesus acting out of that grace, alone, on our behalf, especially when things go bad, with no works needed on our part. Today’s passage of Jesus turning water to wine is an example of that.
The text finds Jesus, his mother, and the disciples at a wedding celebration, when suddenly the wine runs out. In biblical times marriage was celebrated not with a honeymoon but instead with a seven-day wedding feast, with all your friends and family invited. To the family that’s responsible for keeping this celebration going, running out of wine, only three days into the week-long event, well, that’s a problem. Somebody screwed up. The potential for shame, embarrassment and guilt was real. In that moment all was not well with that day either.
So Jesus did what Jesus does, he acted, he fixed the problem. Six jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons, were suddenly filled with wine. That’s no small amount, 180 gallons, that’s about 1,000 bottles of wine. And this isn’t just any wine, it’s the good stuff, even better than what had just run out. The wedding festival, a celebration of new relationship, new life together, can continue. Crisis averted, all because of Christ.
Now notice what isn’t in this story. Jesus doesn’t ask who is responsible for the wedding festival snafu. He doesn’t place blame, point fingers, or judge. He doesn’t shame, embarrass, or guilt someone into doing anything. Instead he acts, out of grace alone, for the good of the entire party, making this celebration of new relationship and new life, together, even better than it was before. And with 1,000 bottles of wine God’s grace isn’t about to run out any time soon.
Grace alone. Nothing else. It’s Amazing, amazing grace.
Thinking back to my bad day this past Thursday I started out with the best of intentions, and had that day all planned out. And then, through a series of events that at times felt like I was being punked, and at other times felt like I was on some kind of candid camera show, the day got worse, until finally my car got towed. And that was on me, I should have paid more attention to that parking sign. There were earthly consequences to my actions, to the tune of almost two hundred and fifty bucks. But fortunately, because of God’s grace, none of that is tied to where I spend the afterlife.
You will have bad days. You will, every-so-often, do bad things. Heck, you may sometimes get caught doing them. Despite your best intentions, your best planning, your desire to follow all those great guidelines found in scripture, you will, on occasion, fail. You may drop the ball with wedding preparations and not have enough wine to last. Or you may ignore a parking sign and get your car towed. We are, after all, talking about the human condition, we can’t escape it.
And when those sort of things happen you may feel guilt, or shame, or embarrassment. But if you do, I’ve got good news for you, the fate of your eternal soul is not hanging in the balance waiting for you to act. Instead, take the guilt, the shame, the embarrassment and leave that at the foot of the cross. Because salvation comes not from what you do, but from what Christ has already done, by sola gratia, by grace alone. Amen.