The Gospel of Grace

Sermon on Justification, Peace, and Grace

The more I read the Bible, I am continually reminded how relevant God’s Word is to our current circumstances and current events.

This Sunday’s Gospel passage says:

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:35-36

The word “harassed” struck me as particularly relevant right now. The definition of harassed is “subjected to aggressive pressure or intimidation.” It has to do with being attacked or bullied, under stress and pressure. In addition, “helpless” means “unable to defend oneself.”

As we look at the state of affairs in our country, many of us say that we have never seen it so bad. So many people are legitimately “harassed and helpless.” So much is being stirred up; so many are crying out for something they do not have; mutual recriminations are being lobbed across partisan lines; we are fearful and isolated because of disease.

In the middle of this time, our Gospel passage assures us: No matter who you are, Jesus sees you, and he has compassion for you.

Then this Sunday’s Epistle passage says:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2

The words that stand out to me from this passage are “justified,” “peace,” and “access.” They are relevant to the discussions around race relations that we are having right now. As I learned in my conversations with black pastors after Trayvon Martin was shot in our community in Florida, both sides were often so busy trying to prove their own points that we didn’t actually listen to or understand what the other side was saying. We were trying to justify ourselves, but self-justification is how we get off the rails with one another. When we try to justify ourselves, we do that by judging others.

We point fingers at someone else or some circumstance outside ourselves, saying “There’s the problem.” Religious people have a strong tendency to do this, claiming that we are the solution rather than part of the problem. The Apostle Paul shuts down this way of thinking by saying, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We are all alike under sin. You know the old saying that says that whenever you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. We are all to blame. We are all the problem. None of us will find justification in ourselves.

But Paul goes on to say that although we can’t justify ourselves, thanks be to God that he provides justification freely as a gift through Jesus Christ. So there is no room for boasting or self-righteousness (3:27).

Justification isn’t the full answer, though. The Epistle passage also talks about peace. We can’t talk about healing relationships until we talk about justice.

In 1956, Autherine Lucy became the first black student at the University of Alabama. However, after only one day of classes, such violent protests broke out on campus that they revoked her admission. In response to this situation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this:

I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace… But it would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant [complacency], deadening passivity and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” March 8, 1956

In the same sermon, Dr. King referenced the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Dr. King was quick to say that neither he nor Jesus were advocating violence as a way to promote justice. Rather, they were advocating creating tension in order to aspire to the full vision of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking in the context of the Pax Romana, which was an enforced peace that harassed and bullied people into submitting to Roman rule. Disruption and tension were not tolerated. Sure, it created peace on the streets, but it also created extreme injustice.

In today’s world, we are in those moments again. We need to have difficult conversations about justice and equality, but we have a fear that if we allow these conversations to go to far, they will spiral out of control into violence. When we get too much tension, we end up with anarchy and chaos. And yet we have to allow some level of tension in order to bring about change that promotes the Kingdom of God here on earth.

The tension between peace with justice and peace without justice creates a real challenge that we must face.

One of the problems with many of the solutions this world has to offer is that the number of solutions are quite limited. Often our solutions are legal – policy changes, government changes. You can’t change a heart by changing a law, and this is a gospel message that the world desperately needs to hear. This world will not be changed by law, but by grace.

When Jesus looked out upon the “harassed and helpless” crowds and compared them to “sheep without a shepherd,” he knew he was there to be their Good Shepherd. He knew he was going to lay down his life for his sheep, die for all of their sins. And he knew he was going to die not only for the harassed and helpless, but also for the harassers and oppressors. He died for them all.

He laid down his life in order to offer us a type of access that this world can never offer us, a type of justification this world can never offer us, and a type of peace this world can never offer us. We have justification before God as a gift of God through the righteousness of Jesus. We have peace with God through Jesus and access directly into the presence of the living God through Jesus.

Paul goes on to say:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Oh, how this world desperately needs to hear that message of grace. I know I need to hear it. It is the answer to the root problem of humanity.

After Jesus looked with compassion upon the harassed and helpless crowds, he issued this challenge to his disciples:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:37-38

He challenged his disciples to pray earnestly for workers who would go out and take God’s miraculous message of grace, justice, peace, and access out to the world. When we begin to pray this prayer, we gain the heart of Jesus and we take on the mission of Jesus.

When we find ourselves making it a battle against flesh and blood, arguing with and judging others, we need to back up. We need to remember that we are united as a human family in our need for salvation and grace, and God has given us a Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us.