Sermon: Lent 4B, Sunday March 18, 2012.
As a young 18-25 year old I was a very keen young Christian. I still am, but in a different way.
I was a youth worker in the church and I wanted the church to change. I never wanted to be a pastor. That, to me then, would have been “selling out” and becoming somehow part of the very thing I was wanting to change. I saw the church as an institution when I wanted it to be a community. As most people are when they are under 30, institutions are bad. When one views the church as only an institution it has a lot of rules and procedures and red-tape that seem to squash people really being community and really following Jesus.
All of this thinking is part of my journey and part of many people’s journey. Some of it still holds true, but now it is tempered by experience and seeing things through different people’s eyes. The Church is both an institution and a community and can happily be both – each serving the other, if we keep things in perspective – where people always come first but people also need boundaries and safety and all of those “institutional” things to make a community actually work well.
The one thing that really used to get up my nose was people seeming to just “pretend” to be Christians, as I viewed it. With a very surface level view which was quite judgmental of people, I would look at the outward things of faith and make a judgement that this person was only pretending to follow Jesus. Of course, what went along with this often was a view that no one was following Jesus as well as me!
This judgementalism is lethal to Christian unity and exactly what Jesus was toughest on when he dealt with the self-righteous Pharisees.
On the other hand, I was not always so judgemental and outward in my assessments. Most young people aren’t either. I did know people, some in my own family, who were indeed “pretending’ to be disciples of Jesus. And I wanted an authentic faith, a deeper faith, a stronger show of faith and love for the right reasons – so that those not in the church would know us by our love and catch a glimpse of the Jesus I knew – the man of great strength, courage and compassion for sinners just like me.
Then something happened. I read a book. I heard of a man with a very German name, who was in fact very German.
His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was part of the remnant of “confessing” Lutherans during the dark years of Hitler’s Nazi Reich. Boenhoeffer paid for his courageous faith by being executed 2 weeks before the end of the War in 1945. His famous book, “The Cost of Discipleship” deepened my faith because it started where I was at. He noticed in his home country where the church was totally connected to, and funded by the state that the church has lost its edge – it lost its ability to speak into people’s lives – to speak of the crucified Jesus and his great love and forgiveness.
The way he named this was important for me. He coined the phrase, “Cheap grace”.
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church. We are fighting today for a costly grace” (Cost of Discpleship, p35), Cheap grace is God’s “grace sold on the market like a cheapjack’s wares”. The Sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters are “thrown away at cut prices – Grace without price, Grace without cost!”
In other words, cheap grace is taking God’s grace for granted. In our minds giving approval to an idea or a theory or a system called “God’s grace” as some kind of treasury the church owns and dishes out if we approve of it.
This is Christianity as a noble idea, a useful view that helps people or a system of thought that helps people cope.
This is people who come to worship or not, who sometimes give thanks for God’s grace in Christ and then carrying on their life without reference to Christ. We could liken cheap grace to using your baptism as a ticket to do whatever you want in life – because “God is gracious – he’ll forgive me in the end….”.
I raise this hear because we happen to be hearing the most famous bible verse in the world – the one that is known even today by most people, over 35 at least.
John 3:16. This (and possible Psalm 23) are the words of God that still get a mention on the TV or in the Paper or on mugs and posters and the like. This is a verse where we can find ourselves operating in cheap grace – as if this very cost God nothing and that its effect will cost us the same – nothing.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
It rolls off the tongue. We know it so well. It is part of our life, our memory but is that all it can be? Has this costly word of God, which costs the Son of God his life and his Father such grief and loss, be kept as a nice truth to think about in our mind, never to get to our heart where it will cost us?
If God loved the world enough to lose a child for it, to have his name spat on and his whole long history of loving his wayward people counted as nothing by the world, then why would we think that this “gospel in miniature”, as Lutheran named this verse, cost us the same as we follow Jesus?
This great love of God for us is pure love and yet it is a call on our life. This little sentence cost God everything. It will cost us the same as we honour his call on our life.
This Costly grace is “something that must be sought again and again, a gift which needs be asked for, the door which a person must actually knock on….” (Cost of Discipleship, p37). “It is costly because it costs a man(sic) his life, and it is grace because it gives a man(sic) the only true life.” “It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner (before God)”.
Friends, it is Lent and we are taking stock. Take stock of this most familiar word of Jesus with your listening heart. Don’t settle for cheap grace. These words are so famous because they are so good! Ask the Spirit to give you the faith to believe them anew
Insert your name: God loved _______ so much that he gave his one and only dearly loved boy so that ________ might truly live.
Insert another person’s name: God loved _______ so much that he gave his one and only dearly loved boy so that ________ might truly live.
Let you heart listen and actively listen to this word you already know as you give, pray and fast this week.
Ask the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus to give you the fire in the belly for costly grace – the only grace of God we desperately need to be fully human and fully alive for the sake of kids, our parents, our friends, relatives and this community.