Belonging, By Grace Alone
October 31, 2021
Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen
Ephesians 2:8-9; 13-22
It may sound a bit strange coming from the pulpit, but…Happy Halloween! All Hallow’s Eve, the day before All Saint’s Day, was a big deal for people long ago; that’s probably why Martin Luther chose Oct 31 to post his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door, launching the Protestant Reformation – and we’ve been celebrating the Reformation on Oct 31 ever since. So – Happy Reformation Day!
On this day we begin by reminding ourselves that a central tenet of Protestant Christianity is grace alone.
In 16th century Catholic Europe, the Reformers’ theological shift toward God’s grace alone represented a radical break with traditional teaching. No longer would obedience to the hierarchy of Rome or other institutions of centralized control, especially monarchy, go unquestioned; by grace alone all were welcome in the reign of God. The liberating claim that the Church did not have ultimate control over people’s lives added fuel to the growing change in European political and economic spheres.
Protestant insistence on grace alone was part of a larger transforming moment in history. The assertion shook empires and deconstructed existing systems of power. It gave individuals affirmation and agency. It freed people from old tyrannies and opened new possibilities for organizing human community. It planted the seeds for the eventual development of democracy.
Last Tuesday at the Westminster Town Hall Forum about halfway through LaTosha Brown’s presentation on democracy I realized she was talking about grace alone. She was here as part of the Forum’s fall series on America’s political system. And she was speaking just one week prior to elections in which democracy will be exercised, and tested, once again. I encourage us all to vote.
Ms. Brown is a community organizer from Alabama who lives in Atlanta. She’s co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Her work with Stacy Abrams and others has resulted in increased participation in democracy by new voters. What she said on Tuesday not about how to register people to vote or get them to the polls. What she said was more sermon than rally speech, more theology than politics.
Her basic organizing premise is the dignity and worth of every human being. She practices a humanity-centered politics. What matters above all else in democracy, she said, is not our particular stance on this or that issue, but that each of us affirms and shares the humanity of the other.
That’s an argument from the perspective of grace alone. That is, we begin with the claim that everyone has inherent worth, that no individual is more deserving than anyone else, and that no person should have to convince others of their value as a human being. Only then can we begin to create the “one new humanity in place of the two” the writer of Ephesians refers to.
Grace alone is reflected in our nation’s founding documents:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all… (of us)… are endowed by… (our) Creator with certain unalienable Rights.
It comes with our humanity.
The crisis in democracy, Brown says, is not political; it’s moral. “We have reduced democracy,” she said,
“To a matter of electoral outcomes, when we ought to see it as a way to express our values as a nation. We have lost the focus on our shared humanity. We think of ourselves as members of opposing teams, the red team and the blue team. Well, I’m on the human team,” she said. “And the love of humanity is not negotiable.”
We have forgotten that we belong to one another through grace alone.
Those 16th century Protestants risked their lives for grace alone. It was a theological declaration that threatened those in authority, particularly monarchies. It set off violence between those with allegiance to traditional centers of power and those who had the audacity to declare something as unthinkable as the priesthood of all believers, which gave rise to its secular political corollary, the sovereignty of the citizen.
In the mid-16th century, France descended into civil war based on the competing claims of Protestants, like the Presbyterian Calvin, who argued that elections were the best way to discern God’s will, and Catholics, like the French royal houses, who held to the absolute divine right of kings. A fragile peace was shattered on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, when a massacre of Protestants in Paris spread throughout France resulting in the death of an estimated ten to twenty thousand Protestants.
To be fair, French Protestants – Calvinist Presbyterians called Huguenots – engaged in their own violent acts, but they were far outnumbered by the Catholics hunting them down.
We visited the Museum of the Reformation in the south of France a few years ago and saw the makeshift pulpits from which Protestant preachers held forth in forests while hiding from marauding Catholics. In those clandestine worship services, the preachers spoke of grace alone, of the authority of scripture over church teaching, and of the right of individual believers to have direct access to God and to elect their leaders. It was revolutionary – and dangerous – preaching.
This may seem like old theological disputes with no bearing on us, but it was not that long ago that Catholics would not enter a Protestant church building, and Protestants and Catholics did not intermarry. Ask your grandparents, or maybe your parents. We have gone through remarkable change in only the last few generations.
It’s good that Protestants and Catholics now worship and serve the community together. We recognize each other’s baptisms, if not yet communion, but some priests will gladly tell you that the old doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus still holds: no salvation outside the Church – the Roman Catholic Church.
The words of Ephesians would seem to disagree:
“For 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.”
Let us be clear on Reformation Sunday on this point: nothing we do – no “works” we might perform – can earn us God’s love or life eternal or divine acceptance. Nothing – not being baptized, not confessing our sin, not praying for salvation, not reciting the creeds or singing the hymns, not working for justice, not feeding the poor, not going to or belonging to church, not teaching Sunday School, not visiting someone who is sick or in prison. Not even singing in the choir can earn us God’s favor.
Our Third Graders quoted from Isaiah today. The prophet’s spoke often about God’s grace:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…
For I am the LORD your God…your Savior…
You are precious in my sight
and honored, and I love you. (Isaiah 43:1b-4a)
The only thing motivating God is unconditional love – and that is another word for grace alone.
Biblical Christianity is not a transactional, market-driven religion, where those who work the hardest at it, those who pray the most fervently, those who donate the most money, stand to receive the greatest gain. Our faith does not insist on doing right by others because it will earn us positive points in God’s ledger.
Remember: For by grace you have been saved through faith… This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works.
What compels us to do good works in the world if they don’t add up to something grand for us later? Seeking justice and serving others are not the activities of someone trying to win over God; they are, rather, signs of and responses to grace already received.
There are consequences to a works-driven Christianity in today’s world similar to what the reformers rebelled against in the 16th century. If we drop our reliance on God’s grace alone, we become the deciders of our own destiny and the fate of others. In church life that’s called subscriptionism: unless you subscribe to a certain list of beliefs and required or prohibited behaviors, you’re a lost soul.
We can see how damaging this zero-sum Christianity can be when it reaches into our communities. We begin to judge others. This is a problem in the church, but it’s really causing havoc in the broader social realm, as well.
Certain views become articles of faith. If you don’t have a particular stance on guns or abortion, you’re a lost soul. If you don’t prefer one candidate or one issue over another, you’re without hope. If you trust medical science or believe the disinformation about vaccines, you have gone off the deep end and are irredeemable.
We act as if we alone are the arbiters of who is acceptable and who is not, who belongs, and who does not.
In contrast, a biblical approach to faith and life asserts that that belonging happens by grace alone. Unlike 16th-century priests selling indulgences to absolve sin or today’s preachers insisting we make a donation to curry favor with God, faith rooted in grace alone knows that our efforts to flatter God will come to naught. Salvation – inclusion in the reign of God – is a free gift from God, not a reward for good behavior.
On Tuesday, LaTosha Brown started by singing a spiritual, as if she were preparing to speak about sacred things. And she was. Democracy, she said, insists on the humanity of every individual. It’s not an end in itself but a means to respect and affirm the dignity of every person, a way for them to thrive and have access to the fullness of life. That’s why voter participation matters, and why barriers to it should be removed. A functioning democracy, she said, believes in everyone’s humanity – not because we all agree on everything, but because we share a belief in the beauty and value of each human life.
You who were once far off have been brought close, Ephesians says in a first century preamble to the development of democracy.
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God – not because of anything you have done to make you worthy, but simply because of your humanity.
That’s a politics that understands that we all belong, by grace alone.
On Reformation Sunday, we begin by reminding ourselves that a central tenet of Protestant Christianity is grace alone.
Thanks be to God.