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Dr. Forell was my Seminary professor who taught the “Lutheran Confessions” course to our class. This was an important systematic theology class in which we studied the Augsburg Confession, the Catechisms and the 95 Theses, which touched off the Reformation.
As some of you may suspect, I was and am a theology geek, and so I really liked that class and I learned a lot! But thing I most remember was a story that Dr. Forell told us about his first call as a parish pastor.
Dr. Forell was ordained in 1941, and began serving this little congregation somewhere in New Jersey. And he told us that when he went into his first congregation, he was determined to teach and preach that people were saved by grace – that is “justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law”, just as Paul says in our second reading today.
That is, you have a relationship with God, because God wants to have a relationship with you. You are “saved” because of what Jesus did, not anything you did, or might do in the future. You are God’s child because God accepted you, not because you accepted Jesus.
And so, Dr. Forell said he preached this in each and every sermon, regardless of whether or not it was Reformation Sunday. He incorporated this idea into every class he taught. And he honestly felt like he must be a broken record.
He did this for three years. And then, he accepted another call someplace else. And as he was getting ready to leave, one of the little old ladies who had been in church virtually every Sunday came up to him after church and said, “Oh, Pastor, we’re really going to miss you.” And Dr. Forell said, “I’m going to miss you all, too. But, you’re a good, healthy congregation and you’re going to be fine without me.”
And this lady said to him, “Yes, you’re right Pastor. It’s just like you always say – “we’re fine as long as we live a good life.”
And Dr. Forell wanted to scream “NO! That’s exactly the opposite of what I’ve been telling you for 3 years! God’s grace in your life has NOTHING to do with whether you live a “good life”!
And I think the reason I remember that story – and the reason Dr. Forell told us that story – was because communicating the gospel of being saved by grace through faith isn’t hard because it’s so difficult for preachers to explain. And it isn’t hard because it’s like quantum physics and so difficult for hearers to understand.
Being saved by grace through faith – declared to be right with God apart from any works we do – is difficult because it’s completely backwards from the way we live the rest of our lives.
If God actually loves and accepts me apart from anything I did, or anything I am doing, or even anything I have the potential to do, then that arrangement – the thing we call “Grace”:
- Offends my sense of justice and fairness – God is good; God is fair; and God is just; these are our ideas of God; and honestly, I’m OK if somebody (even God) cuts me some slack once in a while! But in general, things are “fair” and “just” if each of us gets what we “deserve”; but grace means I get what I DON’T deserve; grace means you get what YOU get what you DON’T deserve; and even thought that’s good news, it’s really the opposite of what “just and fair”…
- Removes any sense of control or entitlement in my relationship with God – Grace means I’m accepted NOT because I’ve done something good (or at least avoided something bad); or because deep down, I’m inherently lovable; Grace means I’ve God loves me because of God and it doesn’t have anything to do with me or my personality; and that means all I can do is trust God (that’s what faith is all about); and trust is hard. That’s why so many Christians want to hedge their bets by “doing something” to at least prove they’re “worthy”…
- Is completely opposite from how I live my life every single day; after all, no matter how much you like me, if I don’t come in and do my job, I don’t get paid! The same is true for you. If I don’t help others, eventually, others probably won’t help me. If I ignore others, eventually others ignore me. How can it NOT work that way with God?
And yet it does. And that’s why this idea that we’re justified apart from works is so hard for us. It’s not that the concept is so hard to understand. It’s just that it’s so completely upside down from the way our lives work in this world.
That’s why we need a reminder everyday that God works in our lives in ways that just seem impossible. That’s why we need to keep reminding ourselves about this “grace”, even when our instincts say “we just need to live a good life.”
And that’s really why we continue to celebrate Reformation Day every year. This day really isn’t primarily about the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, or the 95 Theses or even Martin Luther. It’s really about remembering that God’s grace and love in our lives is a pure gift, which is all about God and God’s love, and not about us.