Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on the Second Sunday in Lent
8th March 2009
“it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace .”
God’s promise to us rests on grace; it is a gift, it is free. God’s love of us for no reason at all is the single most important thing in the whole Christian faith, but it is so hard to accept something so simple. Accepting grace can be a painful lesson to learn.
Going through a bad time, physically and mentally, during the years in the North, a book came through the post one Thursday morning; it was a book that I had not ordered, a book, which like God’s grace, came as a free gift. It was called “The God of Welcomes” and carried the sub-title, “For those who have almost given up”.
“Almost given up” summed up the mood that Thursday morning. I had been in hospital the previous month with pain that was as much due to stress as it was due to a physical cause and I had sunk into a rut. I had hemmed myself in with negative thoughts and would have given anything to have been somewhere else.
“Almost given up” seemed to leap from the cover of that book on that March morning. “I must read this”, I thought to myself, and pushed it into a pile of papers on my desk. “I must read this”, I thought to myself that evening, but I did not get beyond the introduction.
The next morning, I sat down to write my sermon. “I must have a look at that book”, I thought, “maybe it will give me some ideas”. The trouble was, I didn’t really want to hear what it had to say. I spent a while pushing things around my desk (something I can still do very well) and then went to the parish office to get under the feet of our administrator, who was trying to get things ready for Sunday.
The Friday lunchtime came and I thought to myself, “Perhaps it’s safe to look at that book for a while; then I can go and do some visiting”. I sat down at half past one and read for three hours until I reached the last page.
The book was written by Peter Ward, a Redemptorist priest who was living in Belfast. At the beginning and at the end of the story, there is one simple fact: we are saved by God’s grace; god loves us for nothing.
Of course, I knew that, I wasn’t a Protestant for nothing; I knew about God’s grace. Except the way I lived my life then (and maybe still do), suggested the exact opposite. I had a constant urge to be doing things; rushing around at a hundred miles an hour; making great big list of things to do and getting through them as fast as I could so I would have lots of ticks on the page.
Within the Protestant tradition, and within the community in which I grew up, there is a very strong work ethic, the feeling that you should always be doing something. I felt almost guilty at the idea of sitting and reading that book for three hours.
But why all the frenetic activity? To earn God’s approval? God doesn’t ask for constant activity. Salvation is not something we earn. God’s promise to us rests on his grace, it does not rest on how many things we do.
In the book, Peter Ward described his years as a Redemptorist priest in India, busy doing lots of things but always feeling dissatisfied. One day, on a long train journey, he has a wonderful sense of God’s presence with him, an experience similar to the conversion of John Wesley, and he has a new view of God and a new view of himself. From this experience of God, there comes a new purpose into his life, but it does not last, he slips back into his old ways. Losing sight of God, he has to go through the whole experience again to realise that God’s promises to us rests on grace, not on anything that we do.
It is very easy to lose sight of God’s grace, to feel that if only we did more or we tried harder, then we would somehow be closer to God. The Letter to the Ephesians repeats the point made in the Letter to the Romans, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast”.
God loves us for nothing; something that is not easy for us to accept. It challenges our natural pride; it makes us think about our faults and failings. If we are not worthy of God’s love in our own right; if we haven’t earned it, if it has to be given to us for nothing; then there must be a whole lot wrong inside us. This is not an easy thought when we feel that we live upright, decent and respectable lives. Yet the question we must answer is whether or not we accept this grace, this free gift to us. We cannot earn our own salvation, it comes only by grace.
Encounters with grace can be disturbing; encounters with God can be disturbing. Do you remember when Jesus firs meets with the fishermen in Saint Luke’s Gospel? They have been fishing all night and caught nothing and Jesus tells them to try again, so they do, and pull in a huge catch. Saint Luke tells us, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’“
If there are times when we have almost given up, we need to remember every day that we are sinful people. Like Simon Peter, we can be afraid when we meet with God, afraid of what he sees in our hearts, afraid of what changes he might expect from us. We might wish that God would go away
God knows what we are like. He knows every thought and every action. He knows ever word and every deed. We cannot escape God. The only question is whether we accept him, whether we accept this free gift.
I was glad that Peter Ward’s book arrived on that Thursday morning. Having almost given up, there was a feeling of being taken by the hand and pulled upwards. God loved me for nothing.
God’s promise to us rests on grace—it is ours to receive.