God Promises: grace and courage
2 Corinthians 1:19b-22 (Testify, week 8)
We’re almost at the end of our examination of the statement of faith of the United Church of Christ. We have one more section, and then a little benediction. And we’re going to spread those out over the next two weeks, because this last section is like the grand finale. Really, these two final sections, the one we studied last week about God calling us into the church, and this one about God’s promises, they are like the end of the fireworks display when everything just goes nuts: roman candles and big colorful fireworks, and the ones that are just loud booms, and the ones that look like popcorn, and the ones that look like glitter streamers, all going off at the same time. Everything has been building to this. So finally for the first time, let’s hear the whole thing.
We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify:
God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death.
God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
God judges all humanity and all nations by that will of righteousness declared through prophets and apostles.
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord,God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator.
God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.
God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.
God promises to all who trust in the gospel forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God. Amen!
Woo! Good stuff, right? I know last week I was all about the cost of discipleship and joining Christ in his passion, but the statement ends by reminding us that God is faithful, and that as bad as things are right now, this is not how things will stay. God is drawing all of creation towards redemption, towards wholeness, towards shalom. One day, we don’t know when, God will renew all of creation and God’s Kingdom will be fully revealed. The challenge and the opportunity for us who follow Jesus now is to live like it’s already true, even as we work on it. And that’s where the promises of God come in.
I have to be honest with you, this sermon tripped me up all week. Because it’s sticky to talk about the promises of God. If, for example, you were to ask the internet, “What does God promise us?” which I may or may not have done this week, you would get more responses then you could ever sort through. And if, for example, you were to search the Bible for each instance of the word “promise” (approximately 250 times, depending on the translation) and then cross reference those instances with another website that helps you understand the word in the original language, which I may or may not have done this week, you would wind up with even more information that confuses more than it clarifies.
Here’s what I think, bottom line. I think most Christians want to believe that God promises them the things they already want, or better yet, the things they already have. And if there’s something they want that they don’t have, then they find a way to say that wasn’t technically a promise of God. Because, friends, honestly, when you go searching for what God “promises” us, in many cases it is subjective. Was this thing here a promise to one specific person in one situation or a promise to everyone for all time? Was that other thing there something God promised, or just something God said, and is there even a difference? You see how it gets messy real fast? And that’s frustrating to us because promises matter, don’t they? They mattered in the biblical worlds and they matter in our culture. Promises matter. Many of us have learned to be careful with the word “promise,” especially when talking to children. For kids, “promise” is a magic word that ensures the thing being discussed will definitely happen. And truly, adults feel the same way. We feel a deep sense of betrayal and disappointment when a promise doesn’t come true.
Which is why we should be very careful when we talk about what God promises us. And I think the Statement of Faith does that. I’ve said this before, this statement is not a fence that defines our boundaries; it’s the campfire that lights our center. This statement is designed to make lots of room for lots of different Christian beliefs. So when it comes to talking about God’s promises, this statement is careful to say enough without saying too much. In my opinion, the promises included here are the most certain ones, the ones we can find over and over in lots of ways in lots of stories in scripture. They are the ones that ring true, regardless of time and place and people. There are four of them, and we’re going to consider two this week and two next week.
The first promise is “forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace” which I guess could technically be two, but they are supposed to go together. No matter when or where or who’s asking, God promises forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace. Now remember what we said several weeks ago about sin. Very simply, the word “sin” is our Christian way of saying, “Something is wrong here.” If everything were fine, we wouldn’t need God and we certainly wouldn’t need Jesus. But everything’s not fine. Everything’s not fine with our society. Everything’s not fine with the way our country relates to other countries. Everything’s not fine with the planet. Everything’s not fine with me and with my own relationships. Something is wrong here. It includes me but it’s way bigger than me. It’s systemic, and I’m part of it. I can’t fix it on my own, and if we look around we have to admit that WE can’t seem to fix it on our own either. What I want you to remember about sin is 1. it includes each of us and all of us, but is bigger than any of us 2. we cannot fix it on our own. 3. Jesus fixes it for each of us and all of us. God promises forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace.
In Jesus’ society, the most common metaphor for sin was debt, like monetary debt, which is probably why Jesus tells so many stories about money. And so if we extend the metaphor, which Jesus himself did in his stories, forgiveness of sins is like the forgiveness of debt. Through the fullness of grace given to us in Jesus Christ, all of our debts have been cancelled. They don’t exist anymore. They’re not on the books. They’re gone. As they prayer says, God has forgiven us our debts (so we best be forgiving our debtors).
This is a cosmic promise, a cosmic truth, one that was accomplished once for all and yet we continue to experience it in new and fresh ways. Or not. Because the Statement of Faith is clear about how these promises of God are enacted in our lives. It’s at the beginning of the section. “God promises to all who trust in the gospel …” Trust is the basis for all of this. Trust is the way that the promises of God are made real in our lives. Trust is always the way forward.
Let’s go back to the debt example to help make this more clear. Let’s say that I owed you some money. And one day you said, “You know what Pastor Beth, don’t worry about it. Just forget it. You don’t owe me that anymore.” Great! But how do I make that real in my life? How do I stop worrying about paying it back? Well, simply, I have to trust that you meant it, that the debt really is forgiven. And if I don’t trust that, a couple things could happen. I could spend a lot of time and effort trying to pay you money that you’ve already told me I don’t owe you anymore, which gets weird. Or I could walk around always wondering if you really meant it, and constantly looking for signs that you regret cancelling my debt, or worrying that one day you’re going to go back on your promise. That’s what happens if I don’t trust that you meant what you said. You see how that’s the same with God? In order for us to live in the promise that our sins are forgiven, that our debts are canceled, we have to trust that God means what God says. It’s done. Stop trying to pay back something you no longer owe.
Now I need to pause right here and say that sometimes trusting it’s true is not as simple as it sounds. Most people need something tangible, like a ritual or another experience, to help us make that real. And the forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace doesn’t mean that we live however we want and don’t owe anything to anyone else. But today we are talking about the promises of God. And the first promise for those who trust in the gospel is the forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace. Wherever else we go, we must start with an attempt to trust that.
The second promise for those who trust in the gospel is courage in the struggle for justice and peace. We wouldn’t be the UCC if we didn’t have something about justice and peace in here. The value of working for justice and peace is a core value for the United Church of Christ and doing justice is part of our three-part focus here at Zion. And as we struggle for justice and peace, what God promises us is courage. Because friends, pursuing justice and peace is a struggle. It doesn’t come easy. It never does. Evil does not easily yield, and so we desperately need courage to face it.
Remember the scripture we read last week in Second Corinthians 4. “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God.” Sometimes we have to be the one to stand next to someone who is being bullied. Sometimes we have to be the one to tell a family member that their behavior is not welcome in our home. Sometimes we have to be the one to sit down and be quiet so that someone else can be heard. Friends if we are tired of a certain type of Christianity getting all the attention, then it’s time we speak a little louder. We progressive Christians are pretty sure we are right, but we aren’t very bold. We are more likely to avoid claiming that name of Christ than we are to step forward and change the narrative. Friends, it’s at least half our fault that American culture recognizes only one type of Christianity. We have to be louder. We can be loud without being rude. We can be bold without being hateful. We can be clear without being condemning. And if we want things to change, we have to step forward. We have to take the advice from First Peter chapter 3 verse 15 which says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
It takes courage to do that. It takes courage to be loud and bold and clear and prepared and gentle and respectful. And thankfully, courage is what God promises us. Note please that God doesn’t promise us success. God doesn’t promise that every time we are courageous things are going to turn out the way we want. God doesn’t promise that when we struggle for justice and peace we will even see the fruit of our efforts in our lifetime. It may take longer. Jesus said blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice for they will be filled. Not that they will necessarily be successful in their efforts. The fulfillment comes in the hungering. The courage comes in the struggle. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” That’s First Corinthians chapter 15 verse 58. The second promise for those who trust in the gospel is courage in the struggle for justice and peace.
These are the promises of God. This is our foundation. Forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, which we can experience only through trust. These promises come to us by way of Jesus, the one who came to show us exactly what God is like, who shared in all our suffering, and through his crucifixion and resurrection has reconciled all of creation to its Creator. This is why the apostle Paul says in Second Corinthians 1,
Whatever God has promised gets stamped with the Yes of Jesus. In him, this is what we preach and pray, the great Amen, God’s Yes and our Yes together, gloriously evident. God affirms us, making us a sure thing in Christ, putting his Yes within us. By his Spirit he has stamped us with his eternal pledge—a sure beginning of what he is destined to complete.2 Corinthians 1:19b-22
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Friends, the promises of God to us are forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, and courage in the struggle for justice and peace. That’s just the beginning, but let’s start there. Let’s trust that God will complete what God has started, in us and in the world. Let’s be filled up with God’s grace. Let’s be loud and bold and clear and prepared and gentle and respectful. Let’s trust God’s promises. Together. Amen.