Monday, March 16, 2015


The Rev. Robert RM Bagwell 
Lent IV+B +15, March 


St Paul's Parish, Savannah, Georgia
Numbers 21:4-9                                                                                               Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22    Ephesians 2:1-10                                                                                             John 3:14-21

 A boy was watching his father, a priest, write a sermon. “How do you know what to say?” asked the little boy.

 “Why, God tells me "he answered.

 “Oh, ..then he scratched his head for a moment and again inquired: why do you keep crossing things out?”

Today is Laetare Sunday.  Laetare means "be joyful" from the opening introit / entry of the procession for the Eucharist. In particular, the gospel this morning gives us reason to be joyful.

 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."  This is perhaps the best known verse in all of Christian history.  Martin Luther called John 3:16 "the heart of the gospel."  "Gospel" means: "good news."  But how are we to understand that "good news" and what effect does it have on our lives?

In our culture, we are constantly challenged to look at ourselves, not as God sees us, but as the world sees us.   We are constantly bombarded by judgment of what we drive, where we live, what our income is, what our social status is or our academic pedigree.  Are we too short or too tall, too skinny or too fat, too lazy or a work-aholic? If we live surrounded constantly receiving messages this, that we don't measure up unless we measure up to such things the Bible says are "passing away,"  why shouldn't we believe that God sees us in the same way?

How do we see ourselves and others.  I have heard phrases like:  "and you call yourself a Christian?"  or gossip about others who didn't measure of "Church-ianity" that would give an opportunity to judge them, to measure them.  In fact both in the Church and in the world we are all little "judiciaries" of others and those whom we judge 'guilty' we don't like, much less love!  It is largely about these thoughts and attitudes that both Paul and Jesus address in our readings this morning.  The problem is, we wrongly understand grace in ourselves and others when we see things this way. 

 Paul said this in our reading from Ephesians: "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else "  I mean popular wisdom from the culture says: "I'm ok, you're ok.  But if we're ok, why the rush to judgment of EVERYTHING?  In fact, not only are we little judges but we are also little accountants.  In other words, if our good works don't measure up with where we think we ought to be, we judge ourselves. "I blew it again," or we judge others, "I've volunteered for that job at church, at home, at work some number of times, now it's time for payback."  That is very human, but not at all the life of grace.  Although we may project such images upon God as others project upon others or we upon ourselves, that is not at all how God is.  Paul writes: " For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast." One of the most poisonous heresies of the church is that our standing with God in Christ is based upon our good deeds. I John 4 says: ""This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."  In the gospel:  God's love for us begets love in us.  In human love the acceptance and caring for another person, with unconditional acceptance begets love. It's Laetare, that means "rejoice" "be joyful"! This is Good News!

How many of you know that we do not fall in love because we met someone and demanded "love me"!  God on the other hand loves us and we can't do anything about that.  We cannot increase or lessen God's love for us. Love not moralistic law begets love.

I'd like to address another heresy here.  The idea of increasing God's love or favor because of what we do.  Paul again wrote: " For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life". When God sees us, he sees the righteousness of Christ.  Good works do not precede God's love but God's love precedes good works.  In another passage Isaiah writes: " All of us have become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;" 
When we compare ourselves to other people we might be "I'm ok, you're ok" but compare with Jesus????  That is why we must look to and realize who Jesus is and how he feels towards us.

The Children of Israel looked to the bronze serpent, an image that had been modeled after the snakes that were biting and killing them.  Jesus was raised upon a cross, an image that denoted death, guilty and criminal judgment and all who look to him for salvation will live.  In the mind and heart of God, "it is finished!"

In other words Jesus is saying: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."   Why then has the church all too often resorted to the image of God as some malicious being just waiting for us to screw up so he can say: "aha, I caught you"!  It is perhaps because we know our own natures and seem to think that God, the Holy Spirit cannot changer us from the inside out without some helpful safeguards.  We have to make some moralistic rules to "help God out!"  That brothers and sisters is religion, that is NOT GRACE!  This is the exact antithesis of what we read in the following verse, John 3:17: ""Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.".  Sisters and brothers, that is the Good News of the gospel.  We do good works because of what Christ has done in us not to earn his favor.

All of the readings for today speak of the Grace of God, as well as how we are counseled to recognition of that grace.  It sets up a paradigm of how we think we attain favor by attaining some standard of accomplishment, and God's  unattainable, un-earnable grace. Of course when we view life through this prism, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

The images of the serpent "lifted up in the wilderness," and the Son of Man being "lifted up", present to us a bit of a paradox.  The serpents caused death, we were 'dead' in our sins, Christ was to die for our sins.  The Bible says that sin brings death and we were born children of death.

If we live our lives with our eyes lived outside of self focus and focused on Christ Jesus, we will find life.  If our lives are focused on us, we will always find death. .  In the 1980's a Christian artist wrote these words: "My son, my son, why are you weeping?  You can't add one thing to what's been done for you. I did it all when I was dying, rest in your faith my peace will come to you."

Grace is an ego flattening thing.  Scorekeeping is a human reality but you always lose when you keep score. Our reward is not a matter of score it is a matter of grace. As we see in Matthew 20:1-16 God relates to us based on the greatness of His love and not our efforts or achievements. God in Christ has declared: “Game Over!”, it is finished!

As one author wrote: "To “believe” this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than “believing that;” it requires “trusting in.” To “trust in” Jesus is not simply to believe something about what happened long ago, but also to let our own lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story." It is a contrast with the so called "historical Jesus" and the Jesus of faith, trust and truth.  Risk the grace of living in the gospel of grace.

Justification by what I do rather what Christ has done bondage.  It weighs us down and leads to a joyless Christian pilgrimage.  Episcopal Priest Robert Ferrar Capon once wrote oof our dilemma with grace: " Look, I’m on my way to Jerusalem to die so you can be saved, free for nothing. I’m going up there to give you a dramatic demonstration of shutting up once and for all on the subject of the divine bookkeeping. What’s the point, then, of your keeping records when I’m not?’"  In other words:  "it is finished"!

Jesus' love TO US begets love IN US!  Good works follow when we have experienced, God's AMAZING GRACE!

Salvation is all of God, all of the undeserved favor we call grace.  Our love from God now becomes horizontal, not vertical. God loves us so we will love our neighbor.  The heresy the church has fostered has been that holiness precedes our justification, our standing with God in Christ. No rather God justified us, the former evangelicals may remember:  justification: " just as if I never sinned." Paul again writes"  It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1)

Whenever we are tempted to look at ourselves an tempted to measure up, just remember:  IT IS FINISHED1

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