Summary: Contributed in cooperation with Amazing Grace Sunday, a sermon based on 2 Corinthians 5.19
Being Amazed by Grace
Amazing Grace Sunday
February 18, 2007
Christ Church Cathedral, Sherman, TX
i.“Amazing Grace” Movie opening this week: the story of two men and the spiritual and cultural transformation that happened when their lives met: John Newton, converted slave trader who was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church, and William Wilberforce, a young political leader who led the battle for the abolition of slavery in England and its territories.
ii.John Newton, the priest, is remembered in our own time not so much for his slave-trading, nor for his conversion and subsequent anti-slavery work, and not even for his ministry as a priest. He is remembered in our own time for having written down these few words on a piece of paper: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...”
There is a story told about the great magician Harry Houdini, who set forth a challenge that no jail cell in the country could keep him prisoner. One local police chief took him up on the challenge, placed him in the cell and closed the door behind him. The great Houdini’s labor to pick the lock moved from minutes to hours until finally, exhausted, he admitted defeat, and leaned against the door in exasperation. Whereupon the door gently moved open. It had been unlocked the entire time. Harry Houdini was captive, not to a locked cell, but to a prison of his own making, in his mind.
Religion, by and large, is the attempt of people to unlock the door of spiritual captivity. Christianity, and the Gospel properly understood, is the announcement that the door is already unlocked. That in Christ, we are free. We are no longer slaves to sin, we are no longer under the bondage of Satan, we are no longer held captive by the world.
THE GRACE WE HAVE RECEIVED
Saint Paul gives us the summary of the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 5.19: “For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” The message of the Gospel is this: that in the person and work of Jesus Christ God came among us, God took on flesh, God became one of us.
In the person of Jesus he joined humanity and divinity. He united the creature with the Creator – not simply in the sense of patching up differences, but in the sense of fusing the two together. Forevermore a man – Christ Jesus – would sit in the place of God. From the moment that the Spirit took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and forever after, the flesh of man was joined inseparably to the Spirit of God.
But there is more! In the work of Christ (his death, resurrection and ascension) God has de facto reconciled the individuals who make up humanity to himself. Because the God-man Jesus Christ lived as one of us and died as one of us, and died for all of us, the whole of humanity stands, already, reconciled to the Father. The message of the Gospel is not, “You can be reconciled to God”. The message of the Gospel is “You are reconciled to God”, not through any good thing you have done, but through the finished work of Christ Jesus. Paul’s task, then, and ours, is to share this good news with the whole world and encourage people to accept, embrace and enjoy what has already in fact been accomplished for them: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Say “YES!” to this amazing grace.
Another great hymnwriter (Charles Wesley) put it in these words: “He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the vilest clean, his blood availed for me.” The oldest known liturgy of the Church (Hippolytus in The Apostolic Tradition, mid 2nd Century, ) says it like this: “[Jesus], when he was delivered to voluntary suffering, in order to dissolve death, and break the chains of the devil, and tread down hell, and bring the just to the light, and set the limit, and manifest the resurrection, taking the bread, and giving thanks to you, said, ’Take, eat, for this is my body which is broken for you.’”
In a letter (#34) written to an acquaintance plagued with the doubt of her own salvation, John Newton wrote these words of comfort: “But when the enemy would tempt us to doubt and distrust, because we are not perfect, then he fights, not only against our peace, but against the honor and faithfulness of our dear Lord. Our righteousness is in him, and our hope depends, not upon the exercise of grace in us, but upon the fullness of grace and love in him, and upon his obedience unto death.”