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June 6, 2004 (Trinity Sunday)—“The Grace in Which We Stand”

Pastor David Barber

Romans 5:1-5

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three in One...one God, now and forever, Amen.
 

Here I Stand is the title of a biography by Roland Bainton concerning the life of Martin Luther. This title, of course, was taken from Luther's legendary response at the Diet of Worms.

An interrogator by the name of John Eck asked Luther: "I ask you, Martin--answer candidly and without horns--do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?"

Luther responded: "Since then Your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."

Bainton tells us that the earliest printed version added the words: "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise." According to this biographer, "the words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write."

We admire Luther for his courage, his persistence, and also, for what some may refer to, as his bullheadedness. At this time in the life of the church, Luther's stand was exactly what the church needed to lubricate the wheels of reformation and change.

The situations and circumstances of life often ask us to take a stand for the values and the faith we believe in and hold dear. Last weekend, for instance, we honored many young men and women who took a stand and lost their lives in the name of freedom.

Of course, the stands that we sometimes take are ill conceived, poorly planned, and downright foolish. Perhaps one of the most famous in American history is Custer's Last Stand at the battle of the Little Big Horn in Eastern Montana.

In this regard I can't help but mention the deceptive and senseless stand by our President and his advisors in Iraq. The stand that he's taken in this horrible and immoral war has led to a tremendous loss of life for all involved in this struggle.

Last Sunday on 60 Minutes I sat and watched the pictures of those who had died in Iraq, and I wept because many of them at this time last year were rejoicing and celebrating--just graduating from high school.

Besides the loss of life, there's the financial drain of our resources; there's the lack of respect and down-right animosity for us as a nation; and the world isn't any safer than it was before, but even more dangerous. I also hope and pray that this is George Bush's last stand as well, and I say this with sadness and concern over the condition of our country at this time.

A reason why our president was able to perpetuate this nightmare is partly due to the place where we've been standing. As a country we've been standing in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. We've been vulnerable, and we trusted someone who would show us the way out of the darkness into more security and certainty.

For us as God's people, says the Apostle Paul, this isn't the place where we stand. We don't stand in fear and uncertainty. We don't stand in hopelessness and despair. We don't stand unsure of our relationship with God and God's steadfast love for our lives.

Through Jesus Christ, says Paul, we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand. We are firmly rooted and solidly entrenched in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus takes his stand with us and for us and with all of creation, and we receive all the benefits of this grace-filled relationship.

Let me repeat these magnificent words of Paul once more because they bear repeating:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Now lest you think that my diatribe regarding the policies of our present administration is inappropriate, I base it precisely on the words of hope and promise that we find in this wonderful proclamation from Romans this morning.

Our future is secure even in the midst of suffering. If this is where we stand, we no longer stand in fear, uncertainty, and darkness. We live with confidence and boldness firmly rooted in God's love for our lives. We don't live anxious and afraid, but we live in the peace and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ opening ourselves to the ways and purposes of God for all of creation. This is where we stand!

The context of this passage also reinforces what Paul wants to say to us this morning. Over 30 years ago, I can remember a seminary professor telling us, "Whenever you see the word 'therefore,'" which is the first word in our lesson for today, "you need to camp a bit and take a look at what proceeds this word."

In chapter 4 we have that wonderful story of Abraham and Sarah from the Old Testament. Paul reminds us of their struggles and their suffering. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

There was only one problem. They didn't have a child, and these two old codgers were well past their prime. Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was in her 90s. They'd already thrown the actuarial tables of the life insurance companies into a tailspin. They did relate their tale of woe to Dr. Phil, but he wasn't able to offer any constructive counsel or therapy. I like the way Paul describes the situation. With some humor, he tells us that Abraham's body was "as good as dead." And, of course, it was!

But in spite of these odds, he didn't weaken in faith. Hoping against hope, he believed and trusted the promise of God. He took God at his word, fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.

How do we arrive at such confidence and trust? Often it doesn't happen without some emptying experience and becoming vulnerable. Maybe a bout with extended illness, or the trauma of divorce, or the death of a loved one's life brings us to our knees and empties us.

When we can't stand on our own strength...when we don't have the inner resources that normally sustain us, we are being readied to receive. In such times, it's not the suffering itself that we focus on, for besides the positive qualities of endurance, character, and hope, suffering can also produce bitterness, anger, hate, and doubt. And sometimes even those of us who are faithful have to walk through this dark process or this dark valley of hell.

But even here we need to remember that Jesus is Emmanuel--God with us--filling up our emptiness with peace, grace, and love. Through Jesus our suffering is transformed into a vehicle of hope, and we thrive and grow in the gifts we receive, such as:

  • a deeper understanding about ourselves
     
  • a stronger relationship with God in Jesus Christ, based on grace and gospel and not law
     
  • a greater love for our neighbor that reaches out and serves those in need
     
  • and a renewed vision of life in Jesus that we only dimly glimpsed before

All of this leads to a hope that shines forth within us and doesn't let us down or disappoint us.

Why? Because God's love is literally poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (Webmaster's note: Here Pastor Barber picked up first an eyedropper, then a set of measuring spoons, and finally a spray bottle to illustrate his points.) It's not dropped into our hearts with an eyedropper. It's not meagerly or begrudgingly measured out by teaspoons or by milliliters. It's not sprinkled upon our lives.

But the Holy Spirit takes a five gallon bucket and pours God's love into our hearts and then pours some more until it floods our entire being and overflows into the lives of others and out into the world around us. (Webmaster's note: Pastor Barber illustrated this by picking up a bucket of water and pouring it into another container.)

From this love we're never separated. No form of suffering, no amount of pain, and no horrendous tragedy will ever separate us from God's love in Jesus Christ.

Death won't do it. AIDS or cancer won't do it. The severing of a relationship won't do it. Alcohol or addiction won't do it. And neither will the threat of terror destroy our trust and confidence in the ways of God. We are partners with God to bring healing and wholeness, and grace, peace, and justice to a weary and a broken world.

So we also "stay the course." We stay the course not in terms of violence, bloodshed, and humiliation of prisoners, but we stay the course working diligently to drain the swamps that breed the disease of terrorism such as hunger and poverty and injustice.

We stay the course working diligently toward understanding, forgiveness, and reconciliation first, in our daily lives, and then wherever we have the opportunity.

We stay the course by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves treating them with dignity and respect and being thankful for the tremendous rainbow of cultures and races that enrich our lives on this earth.

We stay the course by opening ourselves to the creativity and imagination of God and what God desires for all of creation. Our relationship with God is secure. We stand in grace, and this grace-filled relationship permeates to the ends of the earth so that all may know the love of God through Jesus Christ. This love is lavishly, and generously, and abundantly poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit...and this love never leaves us nor forsakes us come what may.

For this we pray on this Trinity Sunday...In the name of God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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