The Grace Paradox (June 29th, 2014)

Message Scripture:  Romans 6:12-23

In college and then to a lesser degree is seminary one of the things that would really irritate me was Greek.    Now, I never took the language so it really is still all Greek to me.  However, I know lots of people who have studied Greek, and a lot of them tended to get very snobbish about it.  They would go on and on about how wonderful Greek is.   They would flout how obviously superior Greek is to English (and every other language).   The smugness about the whole thing is what kind of got to me.   One of the primary reasons for the Greek superiority, in their minds, was how logical Greek is.   Greek follows a very methodical and exact syntax.   In its most pure, classical form Greek could be compared to a craftsman designed clock where it all works together in perfect synchronization.   I do not know if that makes it superior to our native language, but the point has to be conceded that English is anything but logical.   Despite what our grammar teachers told us in elementary school, English is not very well ordered when compared to something like Greek.   You may have heard these before because they come from a well known Reader’s Digest article, but in English we park in driveways and we drive on parkways.   We recite a play and play a recital.  How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? How can OVERLOOK and OVERSEE be opposites, while QUITE A LOT and QUITE A FEW are alike?  And why is it that a writer writes, but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce, humdingers don't hum and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese - so one moose, two meese?    For non-native speakers, English can be difficult to learn and it is no wonder why.    Our language can be completely illogical.  The way that we speak and define things around, the language we use is full of paradoxes.  A paradox is a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true.   

            Often paradoxes exist as simple logic puzzles, in areas of math that I do not understand mathematical paradoxes are constantly studied and analyzed.   I am fascinated about the paradoxes that emerge as a result of human behavior, because I think they can teach us a great deal about who we are as people.   One of such paradox is that of a “gift debt”.  One of my favorite TV shows is The Big Bang Theory.  I do not know if you have ever watched it, but the character that is often used for the most laughs is the socially awkward Sheldon Cooper.   Let’s watch this clip as he explains his issue with gifts:

            The idea that a gift is an obligation is a paradox, and it is also truer than we may be comfortable to admit.   It seems that many people have a double standard when it comes to gifts.  When we give a gift most of us do not expect anything in return, after all that is the point of giving a gift.  However, when many people receive a gift they feel obligated to somehow return the favor.   There are other paradoxes in our social interaction, but I think that there also paradoxes in our faith.  In fact our faith is full of paradoxes.   The Trinity, the idea that God is three in one is a paradox.  The incarnation, the belief that Jesus is fully human and fully God, is a paradox.   Those are two great mysteries of the faith that we do not have time for today.   However, there is another paradox that is part of our faith.  This paradox is the central theme of this morning’s scripture.   In fact, It is a central part of our faith, and vital to how we understand ourselves in relation to God.   This is the grace paradox.  

            This morning’s scripture begins in verse 12 with “therefore. . “   Therefore always means it is referring back to what was just said.   In this case it is referring back to Romans 6:11, which states “In the same way count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”    It refers back to the scripture that we read last week.   The focus of last week’s scripture was baptism, and how baptism is a testament to grace and God’s love.  We were even fortunate enough to celebrate this grave and love with a baptism.   The baptism liturgy begins “Through the sacrament of baptism we are initiated in to Christ’ Holy Church.  We are incorporated in to God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through the water and the Spirit.  All of this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”   That is the essence of how we understand grace.   Elsewhere in Romans, as we read back on June 1st, “While we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”   That is the gift of grace.   Jesus paid the cost of our sin, so that we do not have to.   Ephesians 2:8 reminds us “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”   Core to our understanding of grace is that it is a gift, it is free.   It is something that we cannot earn, we cannot buy, and that we cannot treat like a commodity.   Grace is the lavish love of God given to us.  Grace is being reunited with God because of an act of pure love.   As the song goes, Jesus paid it all, and because of that all we have to do is accept that free gift of God, then we are reunited with God, we experience God’s love like never before, and we have an assurance that we are saved for all eternity. 

            Jesus paid it all - for those of you familiar with the song, then you know what comes next.  “ Jesus paid it all,  all to him I owe.”  Wait a second. ..  what exactly do I owe?     This is the grace paradox.  Grace is free but we have to give something up.    The scripture for this morning goes into details about what that cost entails.   Verses 17-18 state: “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance.  You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”    Verses 22 and 23 re-state this same idea, only much clearer: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness and the result is eternal life.  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”     Slaves?!?   We, do not like the idea of slaves.   In many ways, slavery of the ancient world was not the same thing as the way slavery was experienced in the Southern United States.  Slavery in the ancient world did not have a racial component and it did not seek to systemically treat the slaves as less than human.    However, slavery in the ancient world was still slavery.  Slaves were at the bottom of the social structure.  They did not have any rights afforded to others, and they were at the complete mercy of their masters.   There is really no way around this, Paul is stating that part of accepting the gift of grace, the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus, is also accepting complete submission and total obedience to God.    The grace paradox is that grace is completely free yet it cost us everything.   Being a paradox means that these contradictory statements are both truth even though they seem at odds with one another. 

            A good illustration that shows how grace is paradoxical in this way comes from Victor Hugo’s epic masterpiece Les Miserables, which many of you are probably most familiar with in its musical form.   At the beginning of the story the main character Jean Valjean is released from prison and he seeks assistance from a bishop.   Despite the bishop’s hospitality, Valjean still steals the Bishop’s silverware and when the bishop confronts him, Valjean strikes him.   The next day, Valjean is caught and brought back to the Bishop.   The bishop claims that Valjean was his guest, he agrees with Valjean’s story that he gave him the silverware,  and he even claims that Valjean forgot the silver candlesticks.    After Valjean is released, he is confused why the bishop is doing this, and in one of the movie versions the bishop says, “Jean Valjean my brother, you no longer belong to evil.  With this silver, I have bought your soul.   I have ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.   Don’t forget.  Don’t ever forget.  You have promised to be a new man.”    The rest of the story is all about how Jean Valjean seeks to do just that.    The Bishop not only gave him sliver, but the grace he showed also gave him life and freedom.   When given that kind of gift, how could their not be a response?   How could Jean Valjean not be changed by that grace?    

            It works the same way with us.   The grace that God has shown us, the way that God has loved us, is so immense so incredible, how could we not let it change us?    Reflect, briefly, on your life?   How has God’s grace changed it?   Can you imagine where and how your life would be without Christ?    Can you imagine the depth of sin you would be in, the hopelessness that you might feel, the darkness that might surround you?   For myself, that is something that I do not want to imagine, and I so, so thankful that because of God’s grace  I have been delivered and set free from that fate.    I am so grateful that God replaced hopelessness with hope,  fear with love, and shame with assurance.   Experiencing the great love of God through Jesus as my savior, why then would I not be willing to submit to him as my Lord and master.        

We as Americans, we are a bit uncomfortable with words like submission and obedience aren’t we?    We really do not like the idea of having a master, of being a slave.   In our American ethos our most sacred values are liberty, self-determination, and a rugged, “do what  I want” individualism.   Grace is not at odds with the idea of liberty.   Being a slave to God, is not at odds with the idea of liberty.   In fact, I would argue submitting to Christ as our master is the very highest expression of liberty.   Verse 19 of this morning’s scripture sates, “so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.”   The key word is “offer”.  Grace frees us from sin, it frees us from guilt and it gives us the liberty to choose to follow God, to submit fully to Him.  

In fact, to fully understand and experience grace we MUST do this.   As American Christians, we have been exposed to the lie that grace is not just free- it is cheap.   Grace is more than a onetime instance of saying a “sinner’s prayer.”   Grace is more than just a onetime decision, and it is more than just some sort of eternal fire insurance.   Grace is the very love of God, which seeks to reunite us with God, and recreate us into who we are truly supposed to be-new creations in Christ, fully redeemed from sin.    Grace is a gift too big for a one time moment.  Grace is a gift that lasts a lifetime, and it is a gift that we can experience every day in new ways.    In order to fully experience grace, we must submit to God’s leading and rule in our lives.   This does not mean the gift of grace has a cost, but it does have things we must do.  It would be like if someone gave me the gift of an all-expense paid trip to Europe.   The gift is generous, but to fully accept the gift there are things I must do. I would to need to ensure I have a passport, I would have to make arrangements to be gone and I would have to board a plane.   To fully receive the gift of that trip, I have to participate in it.   Grace is the same way.  It is not a passive gift, but it is one that we need to participate in.     

            Philippians 2:12 reminds that we should “continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”    We are to actively participate in our saving grace, and we should take that responsibility seriously, to the point of trembling.    Even though it is a paradox, I still give God thanks for the grace that saves me, because I know that when I fall short in participating in that grace, God’s love still covers me.    May you work out your salvation with fear and trembling as well.   May you be willing to fully submit to God, to the point that you consider yourself a slave to God.   May this not be done out of a sense of obligation, but may it be so that you can more fully experience the gift of God, which is eternal life in Christ Jesus.   May grace be what defines your story, and may it continue to be the song that you sing.