October 31, 2010
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
My small group has been sitting around our living room on Monday nights for a few weeks now. We’re a diverse group; some have been around Nassau Church for a long time, others just a short awhile. A couple in the group, in addition to me, have been to seminary. A current seminary student is with us. The diversity of education and experience in the room ranges from law to education, science, marketing, business, management consulting, development, computer programming, non-profit work, theater, television, food service. Mind you, there’s only 14 of us, counting me. Life long Presbyterians, former Catholics, some Anglican tossed in, along with some rich inter-faith family experience. I describe the complexity of the room because my guess is that you could easily imagine yourself sitting there. Our small group, we are you.
“So what is it about being Presbyterian and reformed that rests deep in your bones?” I may not have worded it exactly that way, but it was close. I was asking the group to think about what part of the theological tradition makes any difference at all. What themes or threads coming out of the Reformation have any play in how you think about God and faith and your day to day life? Are there aspects of the Reformed Presbyterian heritage of doctrine that make their way into your own spiritual life? I have just unpacked the question a whole lot more than I did last Monday night. I just sort of tossed it out there a few days prior to Reformation Sunday to see what, if anything, is there down deep, part of our DNA, part of our Reformation genes.
I didn’t know what to expect, really. The answers could have been very practical about how we do church: the little cups and bread cubes passed rather than coming forward, communion not every week, male and female clergy who are married, no bishops, the session as the ruling body. The answers could have come more from a historical perspective or what was learned from a textbook: the importance of the printing press, consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation, church and state, 95 Theses. There could have been no answers at all. In a post-denominational, consumer-driven, congregationally-centered, Presbyterians disagree about whole lot of things anyway age, it is not at all clear that a Monday night small group would have any answer at all to what difference it makes; our reformation genes.
Our rag tag theology of the reformation class did pretty well. “I am thankful that it is just me and God when I pray.” The reference was to the priesthood of all believers and the lack of needing a priestly intermediary in one’s relationship to God. “How about that we are sitting here just like this with bibles open and studying the Word together in community?” That’s the importance of scripture in the language of the people and its availability for all. “Not only that, but that we are wrestling to discern what difference the bible makes today in our lives, in our community, how it functions with authority.” Or in other words, “the church reformed, always reforming according to the scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Someone else chipped in about how the emphasis is more on God and less on us. “One of those fancy words covers it, omni-something, but it is important that it is more about God than about me.” Yes, and then there’s God’s election and predestination and all that” came a response, “I mention it because it’s part of the tradition, not because I’m necessarily comfortable with it.” That’s the sovereignty of God we were wrestling with. We talked a bit about good works, about good works not necessary to prove one’s righteousness but good works that bear the fruit of Christ in our lives. “A God of mercy and compassion, love and faithfulness is what is important to me. Rather than a God who keeps score or operates by justice alone. If it is only the scales of justice when it comes to God, it’s all over.” I think we were zeroing in right there on prevenient grace.
If we had a white board in my living room, we would have been making a decent list. An artist among us could have been drawing the DNA strand of Reformation influence. Maybe not doctrinally or historically complete but relevant and authentic when it comes to how Reformation faith informs relationship to God and identity as a follower of Jesus and participation in the church as the body of Christ. I haven’t mentioned the very first response out of the small group to my Reformation question Monday night. It was an immediate response and it kept coming back around the room in various ways throughout the evening. It was like the first melody of an overture that you can hear again and again from the orchestra throughout the play.“For me, it is just so much about grace. God’s grace. Saved by grace.” Other phrases sounded the similar notes and rhythms. “It’s such a gift; the life of faith; it is about gift implementation.” “I can’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, I can’t control it.” “Not your own doing, not your own doing, not your own doing.” “The immeasurable riches of God’s grace, grace beyond description.” “God’s love and me, even me, just me.” Saved by grace. Our whole conversation on Monday night was a riff on “saved by grace.”
Yes, we had read Paul and Ephesians 2:1-10 on Monday night. So the phrasing of our conversation sounds familiar. But Paul could have just as well been listening to us, and our fishing for the words to describe what it means to live for Christ Jesus when you have been saved by grace. Saved by grace. It’s a reformation affirmation that just blurts out. It starts in the marrow of the bones and comes out every which way. You heard here in Paul, Ephesians 2:5, he sort of sticks in right there in the middle of a sentence, “by grace you have been saved”. Bible editors aren’t sure what to do with it, it just sort of hangs there. Some make it a parenthetical statement, others put it there with some dashes or brackets. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
It is not some parenthetical, passing, oh by way, footnote, kind of though.…Rather, it is the rock solid foundation of Pauline thought and Reformation faith, part of the DNA. and Paul can’t help himself from blurting it out. Here at the end of v 5 and throughout. God, who is rich in mercy, by grace you have been saved…out of the great love with which God loved us, by grace you have been saved....the immeasurable riches of God’s grace, by grace you have been saved….this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, by grace you have been saved….we are what God has made us, by grace you have been saved. Or as it was said in small group on Monday night, “For me, it is so much about grace.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his book The Book of Discipleship this way; “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Cheap grace is contrasted by costly grace, which for Bonhoeffer is understood as the giving of your life in discipleship in the following of Jesus Christ. Cheap grace, for Bonhoeffer, is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Of course the whole of Bonhoeffer’s seminal work is about cheap grace and costly grace. But right in the beginning he defines cheap grace as a “doctrine, a principle, a system….forgiveness proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian conception of God.” Cheap grace for Bonhoeffer begins as nothing other than a concept to talk about. Such grace flourishes when it is little more than an intellectual assent to a nice idea. A conversation starter instead of a guttural affirmation that comes from your very bones.
It is a bit tricky really, that something so close to the core of who we are, something deep in our bones as Reformed Christians, such an affirmation, a refrain, that it could be such a threat. That our understanding and response to grace could be such a threat to the life of faith. For Bonhoeffer cheap grace is about forgiveness without repentance, and forgiveness of the sin without transformation of the sinner. Cheap grace suggests, in Bonhoeffers’s words, “my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace is the bitterest foe of discipleship.” The beginning of cheap grace is thinking that it is all just a nice idea.
You could imagine another small group discussion somewhere around Nassau Church where a question is tossed out about which doctrine or theological theme or part of the Creed gives you the most trouble, the most pause, causes you the most questions. Virgin Birth? Authority of scripture? Bodily resurrection? He descended into hell? Double predestination? Universalism? The Atonement? There is no shortage of question, doubt, engagement, in the life of Nassau Church when it comes to our desire, our attempt to live the faith. It is part of our identity as an inclusive and welcoming congregation; embracing folks and making room for all along this journey of faith to which we are called, from church school to small group, from youth group to new members, from proclamation to bible study. But if Bonhoeffer is correct, our most vulnerable theological place is not a complex doctrine, or an unanswerable question, or an all out argument with God. The risk comes in not living and being and relating like it is so much about grace. The threat comes in leaving “saved by grace” there on the table as something just to talk about.
Because it is so deep within you, in your bones, in your genes, deep within your heart; so much so that one day, maybe every day, maybe today, you come face to face with the truth that there is absolutely nothing you can do, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can learn, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can earn, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can fix, by grace you have been saved…. nothing you can control, by grace you have been saved… nothing you can do. The truth is, here in this historic university town of Princeton, New Jersey, where the heights of achievement are etched in stone, where success in our communities is expected and clearly defined, where our identity is shaped and influenced by pretty much everything other than being a child of God, here in these pews at Nassau Church, this might be the most controversial thing you ever hear from this pulpit…by grace you have been saved.
Surrendering, receiving, saying yes to God’s grace….it is much less like a college application where you try to write the perfect essay and much more like an infant who can do nothing but cry out. Much less like an exhortation to pull yourself by the bootstraps and work hard and seize an opportunity, and much more like being stranded in an airport realizing no phonecall, no elite status, no amount of sweet talk or belligerence is going to get you home. Much less like some kind of mandate of privilege or rights guaranteed, and much more like finding yourself in a crowd of nameless folks just like you taking one day at a time powerless before the forces that be. Surrendering, receiving God’s grace. It is contrary to everything, absolutely everything we have been taught.
When that time comes when you actually can’t fix it, or control it, or make it happen, or all your hard work didn’t pay off, or when you did the right thing but it didn’t go so well, or when you realize once again that you are not a grade, or a salary, an admit, a waitlist, or a didn’t get in, when that time comes today, tomorrow, everyday, may God help you to hear it, feel it, know it, live it…..by grace you have been saved.
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