Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an adapted sermon series tracing the arc of God’s story, as told through Scripture and the created world around us. You can find other installments here.
As the son of a quiet college professor, I was always a little afraid of my Uncle Damen. He was a Detroit guy, who served in the army, worked for Chrysler, hunted deer and got divorced and remarried. He had a temper, some hard edges and walked away from faith. For a family of pious (in the best sense of the word) Bible-believing Plymouth Brethren, he was an aberration.
At 15 Damen asked Jesus into his heart at a summer camp. Plymouth Brethren are full-immersion baptizers, so Damen returned home and got dunked in the tank at church. However, over time my uncle backslid and fell away. He pushed against and ran away from Christ and His church.
But then there is this: Damen died at 86, and at his funeral they told the story of how at 75 he came to a Palm Sunday rally where the Gospel — which he knew by heart — was being boldly and clearly presented. And who knows what happened this time, but at the service-ending altar call my uncle went forward sobbing and only able to say, “I’m done running. I’m done running.”
For the next 11 years of his life my Uncle Damen was a changed man. Born again. He was more joyful, softer, forgiving, quick to serve, fervent and single-minded about Jesus. And everyone noticed. At his funeral, everyone celebrated. He died in the quiet confidence of one who was going home to Jesus. Thanks be to God.
Now I have no idea if my uncle was saved at 15, or 75 or if he belonged to Jesus before the foundations of the world. But, I know my uncle thought that he went from being damned to being saved at 75. And I guess that’s all that matters.
What I want to consider is the change. What I want to think about are those last 11 years. What I want to think about is what comes after grace.
In most of Paul’s letters there’s a significant turning point. He begins by naming the unvarnished grace of God. He proclaims that you are loved and accepted by God in Christ. It is not a function of behavior, or belief or having it all buttoned down. By the dogged determination of God, guilt doesn’t deter grace. Grace, undeserved and unearned, is the first word.
Early in Romans, Paul puts it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In Ephesians, he puts it like this: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.”
You get the idea. Paul first announces God’s grace in Christ, and then there is the turn. Then there is the “therefore.”
Therefore … in view of God’s mercy offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…
Therefore …. be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Therefore … if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any common sharing of the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love…
Grace is first. Everything after that is a “therefore.” After the pivot in Paul’s letters, the second part is a summons to faithful response.
The Good News proclaimed in scripture is that God created this overwhelmingly good creation, only to see that creation completely fallen, fouled, guilty and dead. In response God came uniquely and decisively in Christ — emptying self even unto death and then being resurrected. And that action of God in Christ completely changes the reality of creation. Wholly by God’s doing, sin and death are defeated. Although we continue to live with their vestiges, their time and power is limited. The resurrection of Christ is the new reality. Grace is the first word and the last word. Light wins. Life wins. Love wins.
Therefore… Therefore live a life of gratitude. Therefore trust, rest and hope in it, wrestle with it, believe it, be baptized in it. Therefore be obedient to the will and way of God, which is embodied by Jesus. Therefore don’t conform to the patterns of this world but be transformed. Let your mind be shaped by God’s mind. Therefore love, forgive, seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
I, too, would rather live a life of gratitude. I would rather trust in the hope of God in Christ and follow the way of Christ than live without it.
There is nothing that we add to God’s grace. Our belief or behavior doesn’t somehow complete God’s activity in Christ. There is no missing piece that is awaiting our effort. We may want our merit badges to count and we may want the demerits of others to get counted, but salvation rests firmly on God’s promises and not on our performance. Ours is simply gratitude. Ours is the therefore.
One of my current favorite singer-song writers is John Moreland. In a song entitled, “Heart’s Too Heavy” this line jumped out at me: “You’ve got faith enough to lift this curse / What if faith is just a god’s false verse?”
What if faith is just a god’s false verse? I know how crazy this whole framework sounds to my secular, spiritual-but-not-religious friends. I know it stretches and finally breaks their sense of reality and rationality. I know that it’s not plausible. I know that it can seem like a god’s false verse. I get that.
But, without offering an apologetic, I would hold up the last 11 years of my uncle’s life. The “therefore” for him was life as a better husband, father and friend. The “therefore” for him was more love, more hope, more kindness, more life.
I, too, would rather live a life of gratitude. I would rather trust in the hope of God in Christ and follow the way of Christ than live without it. I would rather live the “therefore.” I guess it could be a god’s false verse, but it still seems to me a richer way of being. And it is all that I know.
Shortly after my Uncle Damen quit running and opened his heart to Jesus, my Uncle Grant — faithful, wise, gentle of heart — went to see him in Detroit. While these two brothers were out fishing in a rowboat Grant asked Damen, “Tell me, after this change in your life, what is your greatest joy and what is your greatest struggle?”
My Uncle Damen said that knowing Jesus was his greatest joy, but it was also his greatest struggle, because every time he tried to talk about it he cried. Damen said it didn’t matter to whom he was talking — guys from Chrysler, family, friends at church — he couldn’t get the words out because of the tears.
Grant thinks Damen knew the great tension between God’s grace and our fallenness. Could be. Maybe he wept because of 60 lost years. But my guess is that he wept in gratitude. In the words of G. K. Chesterton: “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” My guess is my uncle was overwhelmed by the grace of God in Christ. Ours is the gratitude.
You are created good. And, it may come as no surprise, but we are also all fallen, broken and guilty. But God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ — even when we were dead. It is by grace that we are saved. There is nothing to fear.
Therefore … “Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.”