Saturday, October 05, 2013
October 6, Proper 22, Contradictions 6: Free Grace and Obligation
Note: We mark today our 359th Anniversary.
We have three contradictions today. The first is the contradiction of obligation and free grace. Your obligation is the message of our gospel lesson. Your faith is an obligation that you have. You think of your faith as something you freely chose, your choice to add meaning and fulfillment to your life, but the gospel says that it was your duty anyway, your faith is obligatory, you owe it to God, you are accountable for it. What you have freely chosen is only not to be delinquent, not to have defaulted on your obligations, and what credit is that to you? You are only doing what you’re supposed to do.
For most of history, people lived their lives in terms of obligations. You behaved yourself according to the expectations of a whole thick web of obligations. But the evolution of modernity in Western civilization has changed all that. We put a premium on freedom. We believe in self-fulfillment. Your truest obligation is to yourself. The ideal of our education is our self-discovery. So everybody gets rewarded, everybody gets applauded, everybody gets a prize just for showing up. Every Park Slope toddler who manages to get his foot somewhere near that soccer ball gets a great cheer from his parents looking on. We've changed the meaning of “praiseworthy” from the object to the subject. We teach our children to perform expecting praise. I get that. I’m a performer, and I love approval and applause. But the gospel says this to me: “Okay, you preached a good sermon; you were supposed to, what do you want, a medal? You want recognition? Go visit some prisoners in jail.”
My uncle in the Netherlands was recognized as a “Righteous Gentile” by the Government of Israel for the Jews he protected during World War II. He did not care to be recognized. He did not think of himself as a hero. He felt he had no choice but to do what he did. He knew that doing the right thing might mean his own suffering, and of course he always tried to minimize the suffering, but he also believed that the potential for suffering did not negate his obligation.
Your religion is your obligation. You are supposed to worship God. It’s what you’re made for. You’re supposed to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself. You’re supposed to keep the Ten Commandments. So if you do these things, you should not expect any extra consideration back from God. You should not expect any less suffering or any more success than anybody else. What the gospel is saying.
But what about free grace? What about the passionate love of God for us, the God who comes to find us and pays the cost for us with God’s own blood? Doesn’t God keep promising to bless us?
The contradiction is the open secret of the gospel. Your life is not your own, you owe it to God, and you’ve defaulted. Your life is not your own, and you belong to your faithful savior Jesus Christ, who has fully paid for your default. The resolution of this contradiction is not so much logical as personal, in the person of the Lord Jesus, whose death upon the cross is the guarantee of grace and the incentive of your obligation. “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
The resolution of the contradiction of obligation and free grace is the person of the Lord Jesus. We maintain the contradiction in order to witness to the necessity of his Lordship. Maintaining the contradiction and pointing to the solution in his Lordship is a particular characteristic of Reformed Church doctrine. As in the Heidelberg Catechism.
Let me say a word about the Heidelberg Catechism, because it is part of the Constitution of the Reformed Church, and I am required to teach it from time to time. It was written in 1563, so this year is its 450th anniversary. It remains the most widely used catechism ever, in the most translations, around the world. Only 91 years after it was written, we began to use it here in Brooklyn. Do the math. Our church was established in October of 1654 by order of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant.
This morning we are marking our 359th Anniversary. Next year is 360. We should have a celebration. We should give out hard-hats and hold it in the sanctuary. I guess we’ll need a committee. We have a lot of choices about the how and when, because there is much about our early history which is lost to us. Most of our early records have been lost. We have no reliable picture of our first building. But we do have these precious heirlooms from 1684, these Communion Beakers.
Just think of how many hundreds of our mothers and fathers have drunk from these cups, our grandmothers Lois and our mothers Eunice. How small the beakers are, compared to our building, but how much they carry. If people think of Old First Reformed Church, they think of this great big Gothic building, but these little beakers carry much more sacred power.
Over these many years our congregation has been through thick and thin, and it has been thick and thin, and twice we almost closed. Our faith has been no bigger than a mustard seed. But that’s big enough, and small enough, because the size of our faith is immaterial. That’s the second contradiction: the smaller your faith, the better. The power of the mustard seed unleashes only when it’s planted in the ground. The strength of your faith is not in your faith itself but in what you plant your faith and in whom you put your faith. You can have a very weak faith and still live by your faith. Good news for every one of you. Good news for this congregation.
The third contradiction is the standing one which we have spoken of before, that contradiction between the promises of God and our experience. As the prophet Habakkuk wrote, “How long, O Lord, shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” We repeat those lovely affirmations in Psalm 37, and we think, “Yeah, right.” We read about Timothy, that young pastor, whose preaching of the power of the Lord Jesus was contradicted by the suffering of his little congregation and by the imprisonment of Paul, its greatest herald and apostle. So that he was tempted to be ashamed of that gospel and ashamed of Paul. And he kept at it only out of obligation. We today are tempted to be shy and hesitant about our message and ashamed of the Reformed Church which has entrusted it to us.
How long, O Lord, how long must we keep this up? 360 years, 390 years, 490 years? As long as the message is still required. As Habakkuk continues, “Write the vision, make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time: it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Are you ashamed? “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous shall live by their faith.”
Your faith is not the solution to that third contradiction, because that contradiction will keep standing as long as human history endures. Your faith is how you get beyond that contradiction to the vision, the vision of God that our human experience desperately needs but cannot imagine on its own. Your faith is where you live in order to survive your experience, in order even in the midst of suffering to survive and thrive. This is the life-giving vision which God has given to our church, and to keep on presenting this vision is the enduring obligation of this gift to us. The gospel lesson tells us that the long survival of Old First is no great credit to us, it’s only what we’re supposed to do. Not so much keep the congregation going, but keep the vision alive, and gather around it. And whenever we are suffering, whenever we come to the end of our own resources, then God’s power works in us to reveal to the world the same free grace which came to find us to save us.
So don’t be ashamed of yourself or your performance or your experience. Your life is beyond your own capacity to manage its future, but “you know whom you believe in, so be persuaded that he is able to keep that which you’ve committed unto him against that day.” Commit your future to God for God to hold on to till that final day. All your obligations, which are many, and you have defaulted on, all the service that you owe, all the love that you have shorted on, commit that all to God for God to make good on till that final day. Not because your faith is so great, but simply because of who God is. Considering your obligations, your only choice is to surrender to the love of God.
Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.