The Measure of Grace: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Trinity
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Suppose I were to ask you how long the front edge of this pulpit was. You might have a good guess, but the only way to know exactly would be to measure it with a reliable tool, like a ruler or a measuring tape, which had a standard that could be counted on to be accurate. Imagine if you hired a carpenter to do renovations to your house and you found him using his hands, thumbs, hips, and shoulders to guesstimate the measurements of your house. Quickly you would probably invite that person to take his skills elsewhere. You wouldn’t want to live in a house built by such guesswork – it wouldn’t be safe. Well, when it comes to the question of living a good life, which is far more complicated than building a good house, we have a culture which encourages moral guesswork. Like our imaginary carpenter who eyeballs what makes a reliable house, we look at issues of right and wrong and use an inner sense of what feels acceptable to us. But the problem is that with such guess work, we are building a house of cards. How can we build a good life on reliable principles? Well, just as the builder of a house leaves blueprints in case another person might come work on it, the author of life has given us Scripture to measure our lives, a theme which we can see at work in our Epistle and Gospel lesson today. The fundamental measuring tool of Scripture is grace, the grace God extends to us. This grace manifests in three ways: through the law, through the Gospel, and through our new life in Christ which flows out from that Gospel. We will look at each of these measures of grace today.
The Measure of the Law
It may sound odd to call the measure of the law a matter of grace, as often we hear these things set in opposition to one another. But in fact, as God is One, he is always consistent with himself, which means that the God who sets the standards of goodness also sets the standards of forgiveness and grace. Although it is vitally important that we do not fall into the error of legalism, we should also see in the Gospel that Jesus does not teach that the Law has no bearing on our lives as Christians – rather, shockingly, he says, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” We’ll discuss more what he means by that shortly, but the weight of this statement won’t hit us properly if we only think of the Pharisees as bad guys, as they often were in Christ’s ministry. They were in fact dedicated to the effort of measuring their lives by the law, and although they failed to submit that goal to grace, that effort had truth to it. See, as with the construction worker trying to build a house without good tools of measurement, in our efforts to build a good life, without a reliable guide we don’t know if we’re on the right path. We might be going astray, and Scripture is there to let us know – to be a light unto our path, as it says in Psalm 119. If someone you love is going the wrong way, you would tell that person as an act of love to put them on the right way. For example, consider what Christ says in our Gospel lesson this morning: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” This teaching, which clarifies that God wants our acts of worship towards him to be done in fellowship, clarifies the point that we cannot fulfill the first greatest commandment when we neglect the second. Without God’s revelation, because of our moral confusion we wouldn’t know when we’re off track or not. So God revealed to Moses the right track, and this offers clarity as to where we are. And in many practical ways this can be quite the relief, because it answers questions about how to live that we would never know for sure. In this way, the measure of the law is a means of grace.
However, there is another, even more important way, though, too, which is that the measure of the law shows us the need we have for the Gospel. Which of us can say we know the law as well as a Pharisee did, or that we strive to live it out as ardently as they did? But Christ says that our righteousness must exceed theirs. And that poses quite a problem. See, Romans 3:23 teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Think about how much impact a few small mistakes in building a house might have. A few weaknesses in the foundation and there might be a collapse. Some errors in the wiring and there could be an electrical fire. Such dangerous buildings have to be condemned. Well, measured against ultimate, perfect goodness, the blueprint which God has laid for individual righteousness, we are all building soul-shaped houses that on our own effort will receive, in view of the law, the same status: condemned. You know, people tend to speak as if the Old Testament law was impossible and Christ came along and made moral living easy. But actually, what he did was to show that the moral law is even harder than it appears. He says, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” I find it pretty easy to not kill people – so far I’ve managed to keep the letter of that law my whole life. But Christ teaches the spirit of the law is to not kill people with my words or with my heart, and I confess that in that respect, something is deeply wrong with my heart in a way that just obeying the commandment not to kill doesn’t fix. If it’s true that we’re all just basically nice people who just need some love and some kind words and some cake and coffee, then Christ dying on the cross seems like a lot of fuss over nothing. Mind you, I have nothing against cake and coffee. But what the law shows us is that we do not measure up to perfect goodness. And doing so awakens a longing to be set right, to have our hearts be restored to the way God meant them to be. And just as a broken house cannot fix itself, we cannot make ourselves worthy – we have to turn to a supernatural power that has righteousness which exceeds that of the Pharisees. It’s no accident that Jesus was a carpenter by trade – and he continues to be one, but in a greater, spiritual sense. We need to let Christ take over the project of renovating our lives. Knowledge of that comes from understanding the measure of the law.
The Measure of the Gospel
The Law alone can make our sense of shortcoming feel hopeless. How can we as sinners ever hope to approach God? We might refuse to see our own flaws, out of fear of seeing things we really don’t like. But fear of our imperfections is the wrong use of fear. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and when we do fear the Lord, and fear Him more than we fear our own sin, we find that his perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Because God knows that we fall short and cannot make ourselves right with him, that is why he sent Christ, to do for us what we couldn’t do on our own: make us worthy to stand before the throne of the Father. This is what Paul is teaching in Romans 6:23, today’s Epistle reading, when he says, “KNOW ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” So in proper Christian living, there should be no place for spiritual pride. We were all born with the same spiritual condition, and if we were born in a church going family, we should never think we are better than those who were not by virtue of any merit apart from our baptism into Christ. In the first generation of Christians, nobody was born in a Christian family. Every Christian individual or household was converted from a state of separation from God. We all start as pagans in our sin nature, and because God loves us, he is inviting us into adoption into his family through the finished work of Christ on the cross. When we see people outside of the church sinning, our attitude should be, I understand that struggle, because I have that same impulse in me. When we see people who are in church sinning, we should see that as fellow soldiers as part of the same fight. You in your sin are just as rescued by Christ as I am in mine. When I was younger, I sometimes wondered why when a person becomes a Christian God doesn’t just zap us and make our sin disappear. But Hebrews says we have a high priest who understands our condition – Christ knows what our temptations are like. And so every evangelist, every Christian has deep sympathy with the struggle of sin because he is still dealing with it, and so can say to the person seeking God who wonders, How could God ever accept me? The Christian can and should honestly reply, “I wonder that about myself too.” And the Christian who feels like a phony because he continues to sin has in his company St Peter, who lied about being Christ’s friend and Thomas, who doubted his Lord’s resurrection, and so many other examples of saved Christians who went to Heaven not because of what they did for God but because of what God did for them. There won’t be a single person who gets to Heaven because of what he did for God, not one. Everyone there is there because of the measure of the Gospel, which overwhelms our shortcomings and saves us from ourselves.
The Measure of Life in Christ
But if we turn to Christ and make him our Savior, that doesn’t mean we live in complacency with our sin either. One of the means of grace God provides through the Holy Spirit is repentance. What repentance does is relieve us from the burden of sin we might slip into while striving to live the Christian life. When we take our sin and measure it against our salvation, what we realize is that our sin is undesirable. Paul teaches, “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” We discover that we don’t want sin around us, because it is deadening and we want to be alive in Christ. We don’t repent merely that we can be saved, but because the joy of a life in Christ is hampered by sins which separate us from him. Christ’s salvation secures our life after death, but we want to repent now because we want to have life before death! We want, and should want, to have it now! Christ wants us to live more abundantly, not just to be in a battle with our sin until we die! Paul said, “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” When I read this Epistle I am reminded of “A Rose for Emily,” the story by William Faulkner. It recounts the funeral of an esoteric woman named Emily, whose strange behavior had become the talk of the town. After her death, they discover that she had been keeping her deceased husband’s corpse in her bed, and had been sleeping by it because she couldn’t bear to let him go. Disgusting as that image is, it is an evocative metaphor for what it’s like to keep our old man around in our hearts. Our old life of sin was never good for us, and continuing to invite it in is like sharing space with the corpse of a former life. The truth is, until Christ returns and we see the final consummation of the Church with Her Lord and Savior, we will always be fighting that old man. John makes this clear in his first Epistle, where he writes to the Christian community, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Yes, we still struggle with the old man of sin. But we shouldn’t for that reason surrender to him. For the sake of an abundant life in Christ now, for the sake of our testimony to others, for the sake of our gratitude and joy at having our relationship with God restored through the cross, we should not be complacent with our sin. John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness,” and this is the important work we do in the prayer of confession and of humble access. This is where the measure of grace is most important, to realize that if any Christian sin, “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.” And every time we stumble we can ask him to lift us back up, and to measure ourselves by the grace of God who loves us so much that he sent Christ to die not only for the sin nature we were born with but for every specific sin we would actually commit! Christ went to the cross knowing the sins of every wicked thought, of every harsh word, and every unwholesome deed we would each commit, and saw them as surely as he saw the soldiers crucified him and said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those words bring to mind one of my favorite hymns, which reads this way:
1 Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted!
2 Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
As it says in today’s collect, God wants to pour into our lives such good things as pass all understanding, by letting Christ’s victory against death on the cross bring us back to life. There’s no guesswork or faulty carpentry in God the Father’s Christ-centered plan for rebuilding our lives, which is for us to have an abundant life filled with love of our God and love of our neighbor – that is the miraculous measure of grace. Amen.