This is the manuscript of the sermon I preached today at Universalist National Memorial Church. The texts, from the Revised Common Lectionary are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.
Thank you for having me in the pulpit of Universalist National Memorial Church this morning, and thanks to Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me.
Today, you heard this from the Apostle Paul
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved
And you have heard this from the Gospel of John
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. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
I’d like to walk with you briefly through these passages. To do them justice might take the rest of our lives. First, from the relative tolerance and pluralism of the early twenty-first century, it’s easy to look at these words and cringe a bit when meeting the judgment that’s implied in them. We must put aside any initial discomfort and persevere through so we can get to the meaning.
John 3:16 is one of the small number of biblical passages that have such an iconic status that they’re known just by the citation. The 23rd Psalm is another; so is First Corinthians 13. In fact, so iconic that we’re expected to know the passage, because the citation posted on a sign, at a ball game or a public demonstration. No biblical passage stands for evangelical Christianity—at least the American version of evangelical Christianity—so clearly as John 3:16. As a result, it stands as shorthand code for a kind of Christianity that too often is obscure, anti-intellectual and exclusionary.
And self-serving. Display the citation as a way of spreading the Gospel. The logic follows that without the gospel, you’re damned. And that it’s a Christian responsibility to spread it as widely as possible. Maybe that you’re doing something for God?
Apparently it doesn’t matter how minimal or coded this service is, but that implies that salvation is a procedure, like a mechanical process or a financial transaction. A procedure that creates a relationship with God that relieves me of pain or trouble or loss here in the world, or in the world to come, or both. And add feeling to validate the experience. Perhaps some of you grew up with this point of view. And perhaps that leads people to deep relationship with God. But if you’re here, perhaps not. So take to heart these words from the Gospel of John, which is not code, but is our hope.
Preach the gospel first with your lives. But your initiative is not enough. We need the grace of God.
Being called by grace
I think the really scandalous part of the passage from Ephesians is trusting, knowing, sensing that God looks into our hearts and knows what lies therein. Even more scandalous than God having a child and heir. God reaches out to us, in whatever condition we are, because we cannot reach out first: this is what I mean by grace.
Because that means that our well constructed face to the world will not fool or convince the Eternal God. This constructed face, or persona, is how we express our individuality out of our common humanity. Our persona is all anyone else would know about us. And maybe all we know of ourselves, and God speak to us through it.
Likewise, God is known through a face – as Christ, say, or through the Spirit. We can only receive that which is shown to us; the relationship of understanding is entirely one-sided. God can seek us out, but the inner life of God is utterly unknown to human thought. God being so unlike us, eternal, self-existent in perfectly free, we can only know what God chooses to reveal to us. Moses on the mountain knew not to look upon the face of the Eternal God. It is too much for mortal beings to bear.
Living with grace
We are finite and fragile beings. We are limited to our material bodies and our understanding is limited to what we perceive by our senses. We have the power of imagination; but we all know that wishful thinking is not the same as fact.
And perhaps this, too, is a bit of wishful thinking, but grace is a gift from God.
We can cry out for God in our pain or confusion or our workday ugh, but what words do we use and what messenger do we send? God reaches to us so that we might add our particular voice in praise in return to the Eternal. Grace breaks the ice, supplies the context and starts the conversation. It cannot be stereotyped, duplicated or mass-produced. You will not find evidence of grace on your birth certificate or genealogy. It does not seek your passport. You will not find it on your tax returns. And while it pays dividends it cannot be bought or sold. It is free, and will set you free. It is also costly, and can make your heart ache.
Because grace is not a simple or single thing, it will be interpreted as different experiences to different people. Those low in spirit might see it as serendipity or simple good luck. A glimpse of blue in an otherwise gray and clouded sky. The unspoken word of kindness from an unseen friend.
These notions are not wrong.
Just as we cannot buy or sell grace, we cannot forbid it nor deny it in others. It is not the wage for our own spiritual striving. We did not deserve it and did not buy it with our prayers, devotion, or good works. It is free, fathomless and eternal as God.
And yet to pass off grace as just a delusion or a remembered happiness is to diminish its possibility in changing our lives. Even though we did not earn this grace, it will make demands of us, sooner or later.
The slaver’s witness
I bet that when most people hear about grace one thing comes to mind more than any other: the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It certainly one of the most anthologized hymns, and probably one of the most popular.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a Wretch like me.
The wretch, or rather the author, is John Newton and his story gives us guidance about how grace works in us, and what our moral response to its power is.
He’s not exactly what you call the hero of his own story, but rather a man of his time who though some unusual experiences and—yes, the grace of God—managed to step outside the norms that he was born into.
History remembers him as the hymn writer and an evangelical Anglican minister. But started as a sailor, first impressed into a service against his will, later finding a position on a slave ship in the notorious triangle trade between Africa and the Americas.
Then, a twist of fate, at the age of twenty, he was abandoned by his shipmates and was himself enslaved in Africa, where he remained for three years until rescued. Sailing home, Newton had a religious experience leading him into evangelical Christianity and an amendment of life. No drinking, no smoking, no swearing. Slave trading? Not so fast. This you might say was his moment of grace, but only partially. That’s how Newton saw himself, looking back later in life.
This was the middle of the 18th century. His business was perfectly legal, and apart from the Quakers (and the enslaved people themselves) acceptable. He continued slaving for six years when a stroke—he was still quiet young—caused to give up seafaring. So no slave trading no? Not so fast. He still retained a financial interest in human misery.
How can there be any redemption from this? Now land bound, Newton tried to enter the ministry: Anglican, Congregational, Presbyterian, whoever would take him. It took years but he was eventually ordained a priest in the Church of England. As luck would have it, a wealthy benefactor gave him a large allowance for the help of the poor, and his own faith drew a following. It was during this time that Newton wrote his famous hymn, and another much less known but found in our red hymnal. (#393) Later, he served a church in London filled with influential people, including the famed William Wilberforce. But though his opinion about slavery was slowly changing, he hadn’t publicly come to terms with his own part in the slave trade.
He could have very easily finished his life, the slaving life behind him, still legal if not pleasant, and no one could have accused him of doing anything worse than the next person.
But redemption follows repentance. Now an old man, Newton published a pamphlet and preached influential sermons that exposed the horrors that he saw and what he did. He allied himself with politicians like Wilberforce campaigning to abolish the slave trade—it took almost 20 years—but the law passed in 1807. And while it did not abolish slavery, it did abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. It was a vital step.
Newton died later that year: after its passage, but before it became effective the following year. Fitting for a man, who walked a wavy line between two words. Slave, slaver and abolitionist. Sinner and reformer. Lost and found.
Newton’s walk was slow, certainly too slow by today’s standards. We can resist and turn, and all we’ll have is regret when we wait too late. Grace pulls, and we must respond.
The Universalist take
So far, I haven’t said anything that couldn’t be said in any number of Protestant churches—or indeed, perhaps any Christian church. The hard lines about grace and salvation that divided Protestants and Catholics at the Reformation, and the churches of the East and West are now much softer. There’s more agreement now. There’s more understanding, at least formally.
So, I’d like to look at our Universalist tradition to see what we can add. I looked back to the Winchester Profession of 1803, the cornerstone theological statement of Universalist faith. I’d like to thank the Reverend Scott Axford, the pastor of the First Universalist Church in Providence for helping me understand that the Winchester Profession better than I’m otherwise might, though any misunderstandings are entirely my fault. It starts:
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
Here we see the nature of God being described as love, not a simple attribute, but that God’s nature is identified with love. This is based on God’s revelation in scripture and Jesus’ behavior. It informs our understanding of who Jesus is as the revealer of that love—and for the sermon today—the intent of the Spirit, by which we know grace. God’s personas act in love in different ways. God’s spirit breaks through to us. Grace is an act of God’s love.
And so the Winchester Profession finishes:
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
This is answer to the question, “So what now?” Holiness—that way of living which puts us in harmony with God’s ways—and true happiness go together. And why shouldn’t they? Holiness—I know it’s a loaded word— is the positive response to grace itself.
We don’t earn God’s salvation, but it does direct us towards worthy lives. That’s guidance for some, and reassurance for all.
Friends, we need to live a balanced gracious life, even as we wait for God’s grace to draw us in a divine direction.
Rarely this means acts of heroic and sacrificial giving. For most people, it means lives of the under-rated virtues of goodness, consideration, patience and generosity. It means being reflective and committed. It means being expectant and open-hearted. The spiritual gifts that map to social skills when we say, “she is truly a gracious person”; “they are truly gracious hosts.”
And if you find it hard to be gracious in the face of adversity and the face of custom, find a trusted friend—perhaps here in this church—and test out your idea. Sometimes saying what’s right makes the right action obvious and inevitable. But do try. Don’t quench the spirit. Don’t grow any older in regret. Don’t grow any older not trying.
In short, we rely on God to guide us. To guide our thoughts and guide our prayers. Only then can we begin the interplay between human minds and the divine.
For holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected.