On Grace Alone: Sola Gratia
October 23, 2022
Luke 18: 9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Sirach 35: 1-2, 10
The one who keeps the law makes many offerings; one who heeds the commandments makes an offering of well-being.
Be generous when you worship the Lord, and do not skimp the first fruits of your hands.
Today’s sermon is titled, On Grace Alone: Sola Gratia.
Every once in a while, someone gets so fed up with what’s going on in the world and they do something radical. 505 years ago, Martin Luther, a German theologian and teacher, spoke out boldly against the church. In the 1500’s the church was a formidable presence, not to be questioned or crossed or your very life would be in danger. Legend has it that Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 questions and propositions to the door of the church. Historians now say that was unlikely. How he delivered them is irrelevant; what matters most is that Martin Luther risked his life in publicly questioning the church. At the heart of his outrage was the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were certificates of pardon for sins and the church was selling them, probably left and right, making money hand over fist, to build even larger and more opulent cathedrals. That business of selling forgiveness was so popular that the church began to offer them postmortem. Can’t you imagine the publicity? “Save your loved one from the fiery flames of hell; buy indulgences, while they last, at your local church!”
Martin Luther is credited with beginning what grew into the re-formation of church doctrine and at the heart of this change was, and is, the assurance that it is not through our actions that we are accepted as God’s own. The support for Luther’s position comes from one verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 3, “All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is Christ Jesus.” The one idea that sparked a revolution is this: it is through the grace of God that we are accepted, regardless of our actions. This may sound simple, but the implications are profound. If we are all accepted and forgiven, unconditionally, then there is no one who is “better than” and there is no one who is “less than.”
This is not the dynamic we see played out in the parable we heard this morning from Jesus’s teachings. Jesus paints what is akin to a caricature of the pious Pharisee priest praying at the temple alongside the guy everyone loved to hate, the tax collector. Tax collectors were despised in Jesus’s day because they were viewed as collaborators with the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. Tax collectors would travel around and give the bad news of what was owed the Emperor and then collect, often under threat of violence, the coinage that could so easily find its way into the back pocket of the tax collector instead of in the Emperor’s money bag. Tax collectors were famously corrupt and so even if there were honest ones in their ranks, they were all ostracized, nonetheless. It is easy for me to imagine the tax collector at the temple, as the scriptures say, beating his breast and begging for God’s mercy, while the Pharisee priest is inserting all manner of judgements and insults into his mockery of a prayer. He says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Who is this Pharisee praising with this prayer? He is praising his own Self and tearing down the other in the process. In the end, though, Jesus says it is the tax collector who is “justified by God.” It is the tax collector that returns home with the precious sense of peace and assurance that he is accepted, forgiven, and loved. He is justified.
How easy it is for the Pharisee to think that because he is a priest, because he does “the work of the Lord,” because he is educated, because he fasts and tithes, he is therefore righteous. That Pharisee is falling into the same trap that Martin Luther sought to forever dismantle. We are not justified by our works, our actions, or our accomplishments. We are justified by grace and grace alone…in Latin sola gratia. By grace we are forgiven, by grace we are accepted, by grace we are loved; we do not, we can not earn this, we inherit this, we are invited to live in this state of assured forgiveness and acceptance. It is free but it is not easy.
We humans are generally uneasy about our existence and prone to existential crises. Teenagers and young adults are especially prone to questioning, “Why am I here?,” “What is the meaning of life?” and “How do I know what I am supposed to be doing?” The seeming impossibility of answering these big questions, combined with the cultural pressure to do just that, results in despair, depression, drug use and sometimes premature death. These dots are not difficult to connect. Imagine also questioning, “Why am I judged because of my skin color? How can I tell my parents I might be gay? Why can’t other kids understand how hard it is to have this learning disability? If it really takes so many of the earth’s resources to keep me alive, would it be better if I were dead?”
There is a place where we can reliably find unconditional acceptance and justification for our existence. It is not a place we can physically venture; it is a place we can only reach through the working together of our hearts and minds. Prophets from many religions have written about this place. Our collection of literature in the Bible is oriented around one primary message: you are loved. Listen to the words of the prophet Jeremiah (31:3), “[Thus saith the Lord] Yes! I have loved you with an everlasting love; with loving kindness I have drawn you.”
Friends, I can not explain how I know, and I can not even prove that God exists except by saying that I know because I feel it to be true. It is not rational, nor is it logical to believe in something unseen, something only experienced, and yet I do. I have given my life over to my belief and I invite you to do the same, if the Holy Spirit so moves you. I invite you for the following four reasons:
To feel loved is the best feeling in the world.
In feeling loved, in spite of my mistakes, I am able to love others in spite of their mistakes.
In loving, especially in stretching to love those I find difficult to love, I know I am making a powerful difference in the world and therefore my existence is justified.
In knowing I am justified, I am able to then turn my focus outward in service to others without being depleted.
I invite you today to commit or to recommit your life to God. It is a small inward gesture of opening, of willingness. It can be as simple as saying, “I am willing.” I ask you now to allow for a minute of silence to inwardly reflect and, if you wish, to invite the love that is God to be your guiding light.
What Martin Luther wanted for all of humankind is to know that the grace of God is available to all, free of charge, to rich and poor alike. Martin Luther had inspired ideas that started a revolution and a reformation. He had other ideas that were racial and anti-semetic, however, so beware of our propensity to deify humans based on their contributions.
In closing this morning, I leave you holding this concept of sola gratia; it is by God’s grace alone we find repeated forgiveness, unquestioned acceptance and unconditional love. It matters not how or why. What matters most is that we experience it and to experience it, we need only to open up to it, to invite the love that is God to guide us in all we do. So be it. Amen.
God of our hearts and minds, we pray your blessings over all of humanity this morning. We have so much to learn about living together in peace. Speak to us and guide us in Your divine ways, that we may in some way become agents of positive change. Remind us, Lord, to start from within, to nurture ourselves without guilt and to make choices that foster health and strength. In the places we are hurting, shine your light of healing. In the places we hold fear, shine your light of assurance. Help us to make room for the Holy Spirit to work in and through us so that in our giving, we give love; in our sharing, we share peace; in our talking, we offer encouragement, and in aspects of our being, we testify to a God who is the source of all goodness. When we pray, may it be with all the sincerity of Jesus Christ. Amen.
I leave you with these words from 2nd Timothy, chapter 1; “God calls us to a holy life not because of anything we have done, but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.”
Go in peace. Amen.