SJF • Lent 4b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.+
The fourth Sunday in Lent goes by a number of different names. One of them is the Latin name Laetare, which basically means “lighten up.” That’s one of the reasons I change from purple to rose-colored vestments on this day, which is also sometimes called “Rose Sunday.” Coming as it does about halfway through Lent it’s meant to be a bit of a “stop to catch your breath” during the long march through an otherwise penitential season. For that reason, it is also sometimes called Refreshment Sunday. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to have refreshments at coffee hour — at least not like the splendid luncheon we had last week courtesy of the choir. I’m happy to say, that luncheon raised$288 towards the church building fund. Now that’s refreshment!
The real refreshment in this Sunday celebration rests in the good news that we hear this morning — good news not only in the gospel where we expect to hear good news, but also in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. As I hope you recall, the last couple of weeks have had some pretty heavy messages about discipline and responsibility — about the work we are called upon to do and to carry out as Christians, whether it is in the form of duty to others, or in that cross we are called to take up day by day.
This Sunday gives us a moment to rest and reflect before we take up our burdens once again and continue walking that path of discipleship through the rest of Lent, and on through Holy Week. Today, in the gospel, Jesus tells the people to sit themselves down, to rest themselves for a bit, even it they are out in the middle of nowhere in a deserted place. And he prepares food for them, working with what seems at first to be an unpromising amount of ingredients, and yet feeding thousands and satisfying their hunger, giving them the strength to continue. It is a wonderful story and I’ve preached about it before.
However, rather than repeat myself I’d like to focus a bit on Saint Paul’s message this morning. “By grace you have been saved” — such an important message that Paul repeats it twice in that short passage. “By grace you have been saved.” There, now I’ve gone and done the same thing. But it is so well worth repeating — this simple phrase, by grace you have been saved — because as I have said before people often want to turn being saved into something that we think we do, rather than to accept it as something that God in Christ does for us.
And that is odd, because no one would him or herself take credit for being “saved from drowning.” Isn’t the whole point of being saved that it’s something that someone does for you, something you were not able to do yourself? There are times, of course, when you can save yourself — for instance, by heeding the fire alarm or the smoke alarm and rushing out of the building before the fire gets to you. But most of the time we hear of people being saved; it isn’t about them saving themselves but about other people saving them.
And in this case, we’re talking about being saved unto eternal life — Paul is reminding us that we have no power in ourselves to save ourselves. Turning back from our more refreshing language to what Paul said last week: you remember how he said, basically, “I can’t help it! The good I want to do, I cannot do; but the evil I do not want is what I do!”? And you will also recall his plaintive exclamation, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” and his subsequent good news in response: “Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Just as he wrote those words to the Romans so too he repeats the same sentiment to the Ephesians: this is about being rescued, being saved from something from which you can’t save yourself. This isn’t about smoke alarms or fire alarms; it’s about being carried unconscious from a burning building, or hauled by a helicopter from the tree into which you’ve climbed to escape the flood, even as the water rises around you.
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Now, you also know that the worst thing you can do when someone is trying to save you is to struggle with them — perhaps you’ve seen the films or TV shows where someone is trying to rescue a foundering swimmer from drowning and the drowning person struggles so much that the rescuer has to punch them in the jaw to get them to stop so that they can be saved.
And sometimes we too fight and struggle against being saved. Saint Paul knew something about that — remember how, when he still went by the name Saul, he started out as a zealous persecutor of the church, determined to wipe it out. You will also recall how Jesus appeared to him on that road to Damascus and literally knocked him down, and said to him, pityingly, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me; it is hard for you to kick against the goads.”Acts 26:14
The fact is, we sometimes make it harder than it is — and of course it will be hard if we think it is something we have to do for ourselves rather than something we allow God to do for us, to continue to do for us.
I’ve said before — I think I may have said it last week — how what God asks of us is so simple that it’s hard: loving God and our neighbors. And it’s the same with salvation. How does the old saying put it, “Let go and let God!” We often want to make it more complicated and harder than it is, as we kick against the goads in our own way.
Years ago, one of the big food companies — it might’ve been Betty Crocker, I’m not sure — came up with a packaged cake mix that was going to be revolutionary. Everything was complete in the box; all you had to do, literally, was add water. Well, it was a flop — people didn’t buy it because they simply couldn’t believe that everything was somehow
reduced to that powder in the box, and all you had to do was add water. So after a period of dismal sales the company adjusted the formula, took out a few of the ingredients, and then re-marketed the product with new instructions: in order to bake the cake, in addition to the water, you had to add one egg. And everybody was happy.
And so, because I know all of you — and I myself — want to be more active participants in our own salvation, even as we know and understand that we are not saving ourselves, but are saved by Christ — still, we want to do something; and the continued good news is that God gives us some things to do.
The normal thing to do, first of all, when someone rescues you and saves your life, at the very least, is to say, “Thank you.” And surely that is what we do here every Sunday in our worship — when we give thanks to God for all that he has done. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that the word Eucharist, the name for our celebration, means “giving thanks” — so thanks-giving is at the heart of our worship; not just on that Thursday in November, but every Sunday.
But if someone saves your life, you will probably want to do more than just thank them. And that is precisely and appropriately where those works come in, that Paul mentioned. Saint Paul is careful to note that our works do not save us — it is grace alone that saves us; as he says, “a gift of God, not the results of works, so that no one may boast.” But he goes on to say, “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our works have not saved us — God has — but primarily in order to put us to work! God, having saved us, has prepared good works for us to do — and God expects us to do them.
Doing good — loving God and our neighbor — is not the cause of our salvation but it’s result. We are able to do these good things because God has saved us; not merely as a way of giving thanks to God — although it is that — but as a way to spread the word to others that they really don’t need to add that egg to the recipe — that the box meant what it said: all that was needed was water, in which we are all baptized; salvation is freely offered to all, once and for all, through Jesus Christ.
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And that refreshing news is meant to empower us to take up our work once again — work not to earn salvation, but made possible because of salvation. It is as if every person rescued from drowning were to become a life-guard. For that is what we are; for that is what we are called to do, to assist in the work of saving others, by bringing them the good news that salvation has come. Salvation empowers us to get to work to spread the life-saving message that there is no need to go hungry in a world where a few pieces of bread and fish can be multiplied by a gracious God, to feed thousands. Salvation empowers us to spread the message that we need not despair when we feel discouraged or defeated; we need not struggle and fight against the rescuer who is carrying us on his shoulder gently laid, and brought home — where we can truly rejoice. We are empowered, all of us, to tell others that in the midst of trouble there is refreshment — there is a flowing fountain that rises in the middle of the desert, the source of a stream on whose banks grow trees whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations.
We have been saved, brothers and sisters, saved and rescued, and refreshed. So come, let us worship; and then let us get to work.+