Our second reading for this morning comes from St. Paul’s great manifesto concerning the nature of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Or perhaps better – God’s relationship with us through Jesus Christ. Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of Paul’s manifesto to the Church at Rome. We hear from the Apostle to the heathens that God declares to us in Christ that we are justified – completely perfect in God’s eyes in every way – and this is a gift – lest anyone should brag about his or her own righteousness, his or her own self-justification. No, justification, righteousness is a gift – and it is ours simply for trusting that it is so. This we may call “the Great Promise.” Furthermore, this trust in the Great Promise – that trust is also a gift, not something we can summon up from inside ourselves. Faith – trust in the Great Promise — is a gift that comes to us from outside ourselves through the sacraments and the over and over hearing of the Great Promise. And these gifts from God we call “grace”!
So what does life under grace, living in the Great Promise look like? If there’s nothing we have to do to be holy and righteous in God’s eyes all the days of our lives – what do we do now? Anything we want? Paul says, “Absolutely NOT!” God’s proclamation that we are righteous in God’s eyes brings with it our sanctification. And what is sanctification? It is nothing more nor less that becoming who we already are in God’s eyes – we have been redeemed and therefore we are becoming holy and righteous. At the same time as God accepts us just as we are and declares us righteous and holy in his sight, God does not leave us the same as we are. Once we were lost; now we are found. Once we were blind; now we can see. (And please note – these are passive verbs – we don’t find ourselves – we are found. We don’t make ourselves to see. God does all the work!) So, found and now having sight, how can we continue to do whatever the world tells us to do – the world of advertising, the world where the survival of the fittest is everything – do we continue to hate the neighbor (those who are different from us), do we continue in gluttony and greed? Continue to do anything we have to do to get ahead? Continue to trash the planet – the earth, the air, and the seas and all their creatures – with our consumptive, ever-consuming ways? By No Means! – that’s just not who we are any longer. It’s time to be who we are. Thus Paul in his manifesto to the Church in Rome.
So what good is all this justification, grace, sanctification stuff anyway? Will it help me get ahead? Will I be able to own a drawer-full of Rolex watches? Does God will that I own a Mercedes, a BMW, a Corvette – as the peddlers of that trash known as the “prosperity gospel” preach? (Not to mention any names . . . Joel Osteen . . . ) St. Matthew has something to tell us. We hear in today’s Gospel portion that whoever welcomes a prophet receives a prophet’s reward. (Rolex time?) Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person (Jesus for instance) will receive the reward of the righteous. (Hmm. What did Jesus get? Wonder what the “back-then” equivalent of a Beamer was?) And who ever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones . . . well, none of these will lose their reward. (Oh, goody. Does that mean that if I do good the mansion won’t get repossessed when I don’t pay the mortgage?) OK – that’s a little far-fetched. We’ll go for lesser rewards. But we do want the rewards, Jesus. We do want the rewards. The rewards given to prophets, the rewards given to the righteous, the rewards given to the disciples.
Amazing grace IS breaking in upon you this day with its gift of life eternal – already, but by no means as amazing as it yet shall be when Christ comes to meet you and take you by the hand as you go forth from this world.
Jeremiah from whom our first reading comes has something to say about the rewards given to prophets. Jeremiah realizes from the get-go that what a prophet receives – the reward, if you will – basically – and not to put too fine a point on it – the reward a prophet receives – well, it sucks. True prophets are not well-received – at least not on this planet. But if that’s so . . . . wow – that means Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel this morning – Jesus words about rewards are dripping with irony. How can this be? Maybe we’ve got it wrong. Whoever welcomes a righteous one – any baptized person – whoever welcomes one in the name of the righteous one – Jesus being the most righteous one – gets the reward of the righteous one. Uh-oh. If this is true – we’re in a heap of trouble. Look at where righteousness got Jesus . . . seems we now have an irony now dripping blood. And then we have welcoming in the name of a disciple . . . does this mean we get the rewards the disciples received? If I remember rightly tradition holds that Peter was crucified – upside down. Nor did most of the apostles fare much better – nor did many who were a part of the early church do too well in the earthly survival game.
So what are the rewards of being justified? Of being showered with amazing grace. Well, YOU do know. You who are here. Paul tells us: the free gift of God is eternal life. But eternal life is not just pie-in-the-sky-in-the-by-and-by. But you all know that. You all know how eternal life is something we already experience in the here and now. You all know how the eternal breaks into time. Maybe it happens in a hymn – one that moves you to tears – tears being the sane response to the awe of being overcome by the eternal. Or maybe during a hymn your hand becomes raised to heaven in some sort of ecstasy. Many of you here experience the eternal in the ancient liturgies of the Church; many of you experience eternity-life breaking into the here and now through a prayer, through the preaching, through the sacrament – Word and sacrament, the means the Eternal One uses to graciously break into this life, into the here-and-now, a grace that allows us to go back out into the world to see, to know, to touch, smell, taste the eternity-life continually breaking in upon us in small ways – yes, in offering a cup of cold water to a little one in your own household. But then again – you may not yet have felt the eternal being present in your life. That’s OK. That doesn’t change a thing. All it means is that you haven’t yet experienced what is truly there for you, now, already, this very instant in time – the eternal is still leaking in upon you all over the place whether you know it or feel it or not. My hunch, however? You wouldn’t be here this morning if you didn’t experience in this place, now and again the eternity-life that is already yours this very day.
So, have no fear little flock. Amazing grace IS breaking in upon you this day with its gift of life eternal – already, but by no means as amazing as it yet shall be when Christ comes to meet you and take you by the hand as you go forth from this world. Amazing. Grace. Simply. Amazing.
Oh – and if you see me in tears – or you see my hand or hands raised high during a hymn – I’m not sad and I’m not a holy-roller in the making. I’m just being overwhelmed by the God who loves me just as I am, who loves us all just as we are – by the God who will not leave me or any of us lost or blind – overwhelmed by the God who has already welcomed me and all of you into eternal life. Here. Now. Constantly. Who can believe it? Again, not any of us can believe it on our own. Yet more amazing grace. It’s simply all over the place.