Sermon: “The Grace in which You Stand” (May 22, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Grace in which You Stand” (Romans 5:1-5)
May 22, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I was recently emailed this from a friend: “I saw a guy today at Starbucks.  He had no cellphone, tablet, or laptop.  He just sat there, drinking his coffee…like a psychopath.”  Imagine that, just drinking a cup of coffee without multi-tasking.

I am preaching from today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, a letter he most likely wrote in the mid 50’s AD.  In the first four chapters Paul describes how all of us are guilty of sin, breaking God’s law, no exceptions—and are therefore in need of salvation.  He then describes how Jesus Christ died on the cross to atone for all our sins, no exceptions—and the means by which we accept this gift of salvation from God: faith—faith alone, faith without works, as he puts it in the third chapter: “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

In the fourth chapter Paul describes how Abraham was justified by faith alone and that it is the same for us, that the righteousness of God is given to us through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—“It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25).

And this brings us to today’s beautiful passage from the beginning of Romans 5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this 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 (Romans 5:1-5).

Because you are justified (or made righteous in God’s sight) through faith, you have (present tense) “peace with God.”  Some of you may not have peace with members of your family, or peace with your job, or even peace with yourself—but you do have peace with God, which is very good news.

Why do you have peace with God?  Because of grace—as Paul put it, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”

And it is only by the grace of God that we stand.  No matter how good you may be at multitasking, there are still seasons in your life where you find yourself in over your head, where your faith feels as flimsy as tissue paper—as Bono from the band U2 sings: “Sometimes you can’t make it on your own” (from their 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).

Last summer my daughter Emily and I visited Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, home of the brilliant writer, Flannery O’Connor.  In her 20’s she was stricken with Lupus, which had taken the life of her father when she was only fifteen.  Eventually she needed crutches to walk.  In her home you can still see her bedroom where she wrote most of her work, with crutches leaning against the wall.  In a letter dated September 24, 1955 she wrote:

I am learning to walk on crutches and I feel like a large stiff anthropoid ape…my crutches are my complete obsession right now.  I have never used such before and I am to be on them for a year or two.  They change the whole tempo of everything.  I no longer am going to cross the room without making a major decision to do it (Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works 956).

Flannery was a devout Catholic, but like many people, her suffering rattled her faith at times, and reminded her that sometimes she could not make it on her own.  And the steroids she was on were causing her bones to disintegrate, so at one point they tried weaning her off the steroids to see if she could do without them.  “If I can’t,” she wrote in another letter, “as Dr. Merrill says, it is better to be alive with joint trouble than dead without it” (Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works 1141).   And yet listen to her perspective of faith in the midst of all her suffering:

It is much harder to believe than not to believe.  If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind.  Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God (Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works 1110).

It is in the midst of our suffering where the grace of Jesus Christ meets us, where the Holy Spirit reminds us that we are fully loved by God all the time, no matter what—again, as Paul put it in today’s passage, “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” (Romans 5:3-5).

In his moving 2016 posthumously published memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi recounts what it was like to be diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age thirty-six, just as he was on the cusp of reaching the end of his neurosurgeon residency after years and years of multitasking, years of coffee, years of hard work:

My phone rang as I stepped off the plane.  It was my primary care doctor, calling with the chest X-ray result: my lungs, instead of being clear, looked blurry, as if the camera aperture had been left open too long.  The doctor said she wasn’t sure what that meant.

She likely knew what it meant.

I knew.

(My wife) Lucy picked me up at the airport, but I waited until we were home to tell her.  We sat on the couch, and when I told her, she knew.  She leaned her head on my shoulder, and the distance between us vanished.

“I need you,” I whispered.

“I will never leave you,” she said.

We called a close friend, one of the attending neurosurgeons at the hospital, and asked him to admit me.

I received the plastic arm bracelet all patients wear, put on the familiar light blue hospital gown, walked past the nurses I knew by name, and was checked into a room—the same room where I had seen hundreds of patients over the years.  In this room, I had sat with patients and explained terminal diagnoses and complex operations; in this room, I had congratulated patients on being cured of a disease and seen their happiness at being returned to their lives; in this room, I had pronounced patients dead.  I had sat in the chairs, washed my hands in the sink, scrawled instructions on the marker board, changed the calendar.  I had even, in moments of utter exhaustion, longed to lie down in this bed and sleep.  Now I lay there, wide awake.

A young nurse, one I hadn’t met, poked her head in.

“The doctor will be in soon.”

And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated (16).

And yet, one of the things that helped Paul Kalanithi cope with all this was the grace of Jesus Christ, as he put it: “I returned to the central values of Christianity—sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness—because I found them so compelling…The main message of Jesus, I believed, is that mercy trumps justice every time” (171).
He concludes his memoir this way:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy, that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied.  In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing (199).

It is the grace of Jesus Christ in which you stand, so that no matter how the “ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world” actually reads, you have peace with God, and God’s love has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit that has been given to you.  As the late Brennan Manning put it, “If I’ve learned anything about the world of grace, it’s that failure is always a chance for a do-over” (All is Grace 162).  The fact that sometimes you can’t make it on your own is not such a bad thing, because when you whisper to God, “I need you,” God’s response is always, “I will never leave you.”

Like Flannery O’Connor some of you have suffered in such a way that simply crossing the room is a major decision.  Like Paul Kalanithi some of you have been impacted by the suffering caused by cancer.

At the Relay for Life a couple weeks ago I was moved by all the luminaries along the track, each representing someone whose life has been impacted by cancer—those who survived, those who succumbed.  I saw the names of many people from Christ Church on those luminaries, including the names of some of you here this morning.  Late in the evening all of us followed bagpipers all the way around the track as they played Amazing Grace, over and over again.  As you continue on the track of your life, a track often punctuated by suffering, listen to these familiar lyrics switched to the second person:

The Lord has promised good to you
His word your hope secures
He will your shield and portion be
As long as life endures

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
You have already come
‘Twas grace that brought you safe thus far
And grace will lead you home
(Hymn 671 in The Hymnal 1982).

The good news of the gospel is that the grace of God for you expressed historically and definitively in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the grace in which you stand—now and forever.

Amen.