Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Romans 5:6-11
To Live By Grace
“While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This sentence is the heart of the gospel. John Newton understood that sentence fully. Two hundred-some years ago, he was pastor for the people of Olney in Buckinghamshire, England. He was also a hymn writer, his best known hymn being “Amazing Grace.” But long before that, John Newton served as a sailor and then captain of a slave ship. He transported African men, women and children to distant ports where they would be sold. He first went to sea at age eleven. And over time, he coarsened, and gained a reputation for vulgarity and depravity. Newton looked back on his sea-faring years as one continuous round of rebellion and excess.
But in 1748, his ship was caught in a storm at sea, and he experienced a dramatic conversion. He renounced slave trading – gave it up – and later, accepted a call to the Christian ministry. He became one of the great evangelical preachers of the eighteenth century. The hymn “Amazing Grace” is John Newton’s summary of God’s transformation of his life. In the Olney churchyard, there is a marker with the epitaph he himself wrote. It says:
ONCE AN INFIDEL AND LIBERTINE
A SERVANT OF SLAVERS IN AFRICA
BY THE RICH MERCY OF OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR
PRESERVED, RESTORED, PARDONED,
AND APPOINTED TO PREACH THE FAITH
HE HAD LONG SOUGHT TO DESTROY
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton experienced what the Apostle Paul learned in his own experience, the astonishing gift of God’s redemptive acceptance, in no way deserved. Paul, who had been a deadly persecutor of the followers of Christ, was startled to discover that despite his ruthlessness, even “while I was still a sinner,” he wrote in Romans, “Christ died for me.”
* * * *
Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables is another story of God’s amazing grace. As Les Miz begins – you’ve probably seen the stage play – its central character, Jean Valjean, has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Bitter, ferocious, seething with the injustice of it all, with no place else to go, he turns to the church, where a bishop befriends him, takes him in, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep. But during the night, Jean Valjean slips into the bishop’s quarters, steals some silverware, and flees.
He is quickly apprehended by the police and hauled back to the rectory. He is caught red-handed – undeniably guilty – but to everyone’s astonishment, the bishop says, mercifully, “Oh, Jean Valjean, when I gave you the silver, I meant for you to have the candlesticks as well. Here. Take them. And don’t forget, you promised to use the silver to become an honest man.”
The police are left with no choice but to release Valjean without charge. He is not innocent. Everybody knows it. But innocence has been bestowed on him. This is a parable about the grace of God.
God’s love initiates, doesn’t wait for our prior worthiness. (It would be a long wait.) God makes the first move, and does so again and again. Continuous new beginnings are what the Old and New Testaments are all about and, above all, it is what the cross of Christ signifies. God doesn’t wait for worthiness. God creates worthiness.
* * * *
Let’s do some theological work, starting with an old-fashioned word that is straight out of our Reformation heritage. The word is “righteousness.” And what is righteousness, but the opposite of what we are by ourselves, given things we have done, and things we have left undone. “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
Martin Luther, commenting on this verse from Romans, called our righteousness an “alien righteousness,” because it is a righteousness, like Jean Valjean’s, that is not of our own making; it is bestowed on us by someone else. We are accepted, not because of our worthiness – what we have done, or not done, or hope or promise to do – but because of God’s redemptive and persistent love for us. “Alien righteousness” is God’s gift of grace to us.
But then, Martin Luther suggested another kind of righteousness, which he called “proper righteousness.” By proper righteousness, he meant the good that we ourselves may do. Proper righteousness is our living into God’s acceptance of us – in gratitude, taking on the tasks of mercy and forgiveness and responsibility for which the gift of loving us in spite of ourselves was given in the first place.
Now, we mainline Protestants characteristically have some difficulty understanding “alien righteousness.” We are generally not people whose personal biographies resonate with
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
We tend to be decent, law-abiding people of moderation, not given to excess, making our own way responsibly in the world. We are not used to thinking of ourselves as the “once was lost, now am found” kind of Christian. But – if we look back, and are honest – there have been times, haven’t there? when we also failed to live up to the standards of our parents, our communities, our own selves. There were periods in our own histories about which – when we remember what we did, what we said, what hardly anybody knew – we can’t help but shudder and thank God that somehow we got past it, got over it. We were forgiven. It is forgotten. Amazing grace.
And if we dare to remember our own painful experiences with the forgiving grace of God, it will surely help us to forgive and embrace others in their life struggles, and to live our lives with gratitude and generosity.
* * * *
In Les Miserables, you may remember what happened to Jean Valjean after the incident with the bishop’s stolen silverware. The story relates the step-by-step transformation of a defiant and cynical outcast into a socially responsible, generous, loving, even noble human being.
Jean Valjean’s metamorphosis isn’t a sudden turn-around. It is full of setbacks and heartbreaks. Which is the way life is, isn’t it?
Victor Hugo called Les Miserables “a drama in which the hero is the Infinite, the second character [humanity].” Jean Valjean’s story is a fictionalized telling of God’s way in the world, and with each one of us: each day with challenges for our renewal and transformation, each day learning from the past, internalizing God’s gift, responding in love, making mistakes, reevaluating, realigning, growing.
In the closing pages of the novel, there is a glimpse of the essence of the story. It would be very easy to miss because Victor Hugo is an artist; he is careful not to shout, not to preach. He speaks his deepest convictions in a whisper, so the reader may fail to recognize them. But, at the very end, when Jean Valjean is very old and ill, he lies alone in his bed. He feels for his own pulse, but can’t find it. Driven to try to tie things together before he dies, Valjean, with great difficulty and effort, gets out of bed, dresses, and goes to his desk to write a letter to those whom he loves. There are some things about the past that he wants to explain. And what you might miss is that, as the old man shuffles across the room toward his writing desk, he reaches for the silver candlesticks – the same candlesticks the bishop gave him years before.
Valjean moves the candlesticks to the desk and lights the candles as he sits to write the epilogue to his long pilgrimage toward a moral and responsible life. Victor Hugo doesn’t say it. But the words of the bishop echo off the page for those who remember how the story began: “Don’t forget, Valjean. Don’t forget: you promised to use the silver to become an honest man.”
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
-- with thanks to Buddy Ennis, Linda Jo McKim and Kenneth Osbeck
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other sacred and profane ponderings.