Easter 4 – Year C
April 21, 2013
St. James’s Episcopal Church
Cheap grace . . . Do you know what that is? I’ve talked about it before. It is the ever-present temptation of modern Christianity to water down the faith. It is the notion that I can have faith in Christ and still live anyway I want. It is the idea that God loves me, therefore the fact that I sin matters little. It is the notion that being a Christian is simple, easy and without personal consequences.
But maybe I should first ask – do you know what grace is? Grace = God’s never ending love for you and me. A love that is free, unasked for and undeserved. In other words, grace is God’s love for us in spite of ourselves. Belief in the gift of grace is one of the central tenants of Christianity. Here’s how it works. We killed Jesus and in spite of ourselves God raised him from the dead and us too – that is grace. We crucified the Son of God and the Son of God conquered death on our behalf – that is grace. Easter morning and the empty tomb are the most powerful and important proclamations of the magnificent free love of God that we call grace.
Now cheap grace twists and distorts the love of God. Cheap grace says that because God’s love is free – I can be a Christian without ever living a Christian life. Cheap grace says, I can be forgiven for whatever I do without the need for repentance, without the need to change my behavior. Cheap grace says, I can be a person of faith but my faith doesn’t need to have any consequences for my life. Cheap grace says, I can live the life of the baptized without ever living a life of service. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without following Jesus Christ.
It is a phrase that was coined by one of my spiritual heroes – Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and scholar whose support of German Jews and his stand against National Socialism led to his imprisonment in 1943 and his hanging by the Nazi’s in 1945. Eight years earlier in 1937 he wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship, where this phrase – “cheap grace” first appears. It was a book that foreshadowed the cost Bonhoeffer himself would one day pay for being a disciple of Christ.
Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Who are these robed in white? Specifically, in the book of Revelation, they were Christians in the 1st century who were killed for their faith. Generally, they are people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others who for 2000 years have struggled to live their lives in the image of Jesus Christ and sometimes suffered as a result. People who have done more than say they are Christians – people who have lived as Christians. The other day I read a sermon by Sarah Stockton Howell about those who have been robed in white. In that sermon she wonders, “what their robes looked like before they washed them in the blood that cleanses and does not stain. What kind of stories would their robes have told? Imagine a child explaining the origin of stains on her favorite pair of jeans: this grass stain is from when I caught a fly ball to win the game; that grease spot is from the pizza we had at my last birthday party; that patch covers up the hole I tore climbing a tree. Now imagine the martyrs examining their dirty robes: this blood stain is from when I turned the other cheek; these two spots where dirt is ground into the fabric—those are from kneeling in prayer; the front of my robe is damp from tears shed for my brothers and sisters who suffered with me.”
The question for you and me is – How does anyone know that we are Christians? What evidence is there? Will there be any stains on our robes? Is there more than cheap grace in our lives? Could someone tell that we are Christians if they never saw us enter a church, wear a cross . . . or a clerical collar? Do we live lives of discipleship?
Shepherds and sheep were a familiar sight in ancient Palestine. It was often common in those days for several shepherds to graze their flocks together. There was safety in numbers and the shepherds enjoyed one another’s company. However before the various flocks could be brought together they had to be trained to respond to one voice and one voice only – they voice of their shepherd. This was so that when the time came to depart they could be separated again. The shepherd would call and only his sheep would respond; only his sheep would follow.
In our Gospel for today Jesus says – My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. Others may hear his voice but they do not respond and as such they are not of his flock. Cheap grace means hearing the call of the Good Shepherd, claiming it as your own but doing nothing to respond. Cheap grace means hearing without following. Discipleship, on the other hand, means making every effort to mold our lives in the image of our savior. It means not only hearing the good news of the empty tomb, the good news of our salvation, but it means living in response to that good news. We are forgiven, we are loved, we have been saved – but for any of these things to matter we must be loving, forgiving and working to save others.
Cheap grace – it is the illusion of Sunday morning Christianity. We come and pay God our respects, say our prayers and receive the Eucharist only to live our lives completely on our own terms the rest of the week. If we are part of Christ’s flock on Sunday then we must struggle to follow him Monday through Saturday or Sunday matters little.
The shepherd is calling listen to some of what he says – Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do good and lend expecting nothing in return. Be merciful just as your father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. For the measure you give will be the measure you receive. I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. The shepherd calls. Will we follow? Amen.