Friday, September 26, 2008

“All Grace”

Rom. 4:13-25, Mt. 9:9-13[1]

I get a lot of strange looks when I tell Presbyterians about my pilgrimage. Like most folks, I think they tend to assume that their ministers are home-grown Presbyterians who can trace their pedigree back for generations. So when I tell them I was raised in the Methodist Church and then became a Baptist minister, it doesn’t quite compute. To be honest, I had some questions about it myself at first. I had actually never been to a worship service in a PC(USA) Church until I walked in the doors of First Presbyterian in Baytown in March of 2004.

Of course, as is generally the case with most denominations, the one of the main differences between Baptists and Presbyterians concerns the sacraments. Baptists “dedicate” infants because they believe baptism is only for believers. From our perspective, there are important reasons for practicing infant baptism. The most important one is how we view God and the offer of new life in Jesus the Christ. While “believer’s baptism” recognizes the fact that the offer of new life requires a response from us, I think in practice it puts too much emphasis on our part in the process of salvation.

In the Presbyterian world, salvation is the work of God—wholly the work of God. It is what God does in our lives because God is love, and because God is full of grace and mercy, and because God has chosen to restore us all.[2] We demonstrate that by baptizing infants—in so doing, we are proclaiming the good news that God’s grace claims us for new life long before we ever even have the faintest notion of choosing God. While we can sometimes place too little emphasis on our response to God’s grace, this approach to salvation works much better for me. This approach to God works much better for me!

I came face to face with this the first time I attended the Synod Youth Workshop at the University of Tulsa. Every year, about 300 young people from across the Synod of the Sun make their way to the campus of the Presbyterian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a week of summer camp called Synod Youth Workshop. When I first started attending First Presbyterian Church in Baytown, the pastor asked me if I wanted to work as part-time Youth Director. Little did I know that one of the main reasons why he wanted me for that job was so that I (and not he) would go to Tulsa as an adult sponsor! I must confess that at first I really dreaded the whole prospect. The last time I had been to youth camp was at a place where they wear the kids down all week and try to get them to have an emotional “conversion” on the last night. So this was what I had in mind—going to a camp where kids were told how bad they were in order to get them “saved.”

But nothing could have been further from the reality of Synod Youth Workshop. One camp I attended as a young person didn’t allow “mixed bathing,” but we had two dances at Synod Youth Workshop! And we went out into the community to do service projects. And we had “town night” when the small groups could go out and have fun in Tulsa. And the whole week, the message that those kids got—both the kids who were from church backgrounds and those who hardly darkened the doors of a church—was that God loves them.

I realized then that our Reformed “Theology of Grace” makes a huge difference in the way we approach God and salvation. Many times, those who are in the “evangelical” tradition get positively neurotic about whether their kids will be saved—because if they don’t they think they will go to hell! And as a result, the “good news” consists of the fact that although we are filthy, rotten sinners who deserve all the punishment we may get, God (somewhat reluctantly?) forgives us. But because we in the PC(USA) baptize our kids as infants to symbolize that God has claimed them in his love and mercy and grace, we are much more optimistic about their “eternal destiny.” That enables us to present God to others—not just kids—as a God who loves us.

Obviously there’s a balance to be struck here. Paul reminds us that it’s impossible to appreciate the sheer giftedness of grace without recognizing that we have forfeited any claim we might make on God’s love and mercy.[3] We have all “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25) in that we have in one way or another sought to live our lives on our own terms rather than by trusting God’s grace-filled love. We have all been guilty of believing in what Henri Nouwen calls “illusion that I am in control of myself”![4] But when we acknowledge the fact that, left to our own devices we are hopelessly lost, then we can fully appreciate the wonderful good news that we are never lost to God![5] Then we can truly be “amazed by grace” in that “God loves us in Christ with a love that never ends.”[6] Then we can humbly celebrate God’s great gracious “Yes” to all humankind in Jesus the Christ.[7] As the Apostle Paul puts it, “God's promise” of new life “is assured by his great kindness” (Rom. 4:16, CEV)—and that’s good news that we can get excited about!

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/8/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:9-10; cf. also ibid., 14, where he describes this new life: “we are awakened to our own truest being.”

[3] Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:10-11, 38, 40

[4] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 52; cf. similarly, Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 125.

[5] Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:771

[6] The Study Catechism, 1998. See Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:11, 13, 67; cf. especially ibid., 68: “The grace of God triumphs over [human] sin.”

[7] See Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:622, 649-50, 660-61, 711-12, 789, 798-99; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 55-56, 187.

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