The title of the sermon today is, “Life is Earned, Not Given.” It’s part of a series we’ve been doing the last seven weeks called, “True or False.” Each week we touch on one of the central claims of Lutheran theology, and today we ask, “True or False?…Life is Earned, Not Given.”
There was a remarkable story in the news this past week. A 92-year-old man from New Jersey received an envelope in the mail not long ago from a woman in Germany. The man was a Holocaust survivor named Peter, and the woman was a 46-year-old German citizen named Doris who had recently done some research into her family history. It turns out that the two families shared a connection to a house on the outskirts of Nuremberg. The envelope contained some current photos of the home, along with a letter.
The 3-bedroom, 2-story house had been Peter’s childhood home, until he and his family fled Nazi Germany in 1939. Decades later, Doris knew the house as her aunt’s home, which had also been her mother’s childhood home. In the 1970’s, when Doris was five, her aunt sold the home, and it was no longer in their family. Doris had never met her grandparents because they died before she was born, but the story that had been passed along to her was that her grandparents had acquired the house when they helped a Jewish family escape to the United States.
In recent years, Doris had begun to do some research into her family’s history. She discovered through property records that the Nazis had methodically and bureaucratically seized her grandparents’ home from a Jewish family and that her grandfather’s name had become associated with the house shortly thereafter. Suddenly the narrative that she had believed her whole life – the story that her family had helped the Jewish family escape – became littered with unanswered questions. How did her family really acquire it? How did they come to own such a stately home as this? Had her grandparents actually had a connection with the Jewish family that had previously lived there?
When she had been a student several decades after the war, Doris had been confronted with the atrocities of the war through numbers and data and facts about the deeds of “them” – someone else who had inflicted such cruelty. It all seemed to be from a long ago and far away past. It didn’t fit with the pleasant childhood that she herself knew.
But as she faced the possibility that the horrors were closer to home than she realized, she set out on a mission to connect with the family who had occupied the house before her own. She found Peter and sent a letter of apology, along with the current photos of the house.
“I am deeply ashamed for what us Germans did to yourself, your family and to your friends and relatives and to the members of the Nuremberg Jewish community,” she said. “It is hardly bearable to start thinking about the details – what a horror and nightmare it must have been to live through this.”
Her letter brought tears to his eyes: tears for the undeserved suffering of his family and many other families like his, tears for the loss of his childhood home, and tears for the suffering that she, too, was experiencing because of this web of through which she was now connected to him.
He responded by email and without hesitation said, “I want you to know that you are completely absolved of any responsibility and that you should not let the past haunt you. While I would never disregard the lessons of the past, I have lived my life by looking forward, not backward. I hope you will do likewise.”1
It was a word of unconditional grace spoken from one person’s mouth to another person’s ears (or to be more exact, from one person’s keyboard to another person’s eyes). It was a Word with the power to do what it says: to forgive sin and console another in need of consolation. It was an extension of God’s grace.
It took a great deal of courage, I might imagine, as well as tenacity for this German woman to seek out the 92-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. She could have kept quiet or found an explanation for the way things had gone or dismissed it as not involving her. But instead, she felt the need to name a thing for what it is and to ask forgiveness.
One of the gifts to us from the Reformation is the understanding that truth-telling brings freedom and life. Today we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses or points of discussion. He was inviting others to join him in an academic conversation about ways in which the church had become corrupt and strayed from the Bible and how it might be guided back on course.
His first several theses were about repentance. He wasn’t talking about going to a confession booth and spelling out one’s sins. Nor was he talking about simply feeling bad in an inward, cathartic kind of way. He is instead talking about repentance as telling the truth in a way that allows one to be honest about how we might be deceiving ourselves or letting ourselves be deceived by the world. It’s truth-telling that opens the way to change the way we think and act and speak.
Law and Gospel is what Martin Luther called it. The law tells the truth about us (that we sin and are curved in on ourselves,) and the gospel tells the truth about God (that God is gracious and merciful and wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us).
Luther didn’t always understand it that way. In his early years as a monk, he was tormented by his belief that he could never do enough, that he could never be good enough for God. To be right with God, he believed, required a perfection that he could never achieve. How could God be good and loving, and also demanding of human perfection, he wondered.
He immersed himself in the Bible and found solace in the Book of Romans. In fact, he considered today’s reading to be the core of this letter to the Romans, and in fact, central to the Bible. It’s a dense and difficult reading: The righteousness of God is disclosed through the faith of Christ Jesus for all who believe.
Luther came to understand that the righteousness of God is not actually dependent on us, but it is instead dependent on God being who God is – gracious and in relationship with us, always drawing us back to God’s self, again and again. God is gracious to all people and draws all people to God’s self. A little while ago, we read the story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent into the wilderness, presumably to die. God met them there with the promise of life, and through their line, another nation was formed.
Being right with God is closely connected to being right with my neighbor, it turns out. Righteousness and justice are intertwined.
And what of faith? In an increasingly secular culture, we might get hung up on faith. What if we don’t assent to the right theory or theological doctrine? What if our faith isn’t strong enough?
More than ascribing to a theological doctrine, faith is trusting God with our lives. Faith is receiving the gift of grace that comes through the Holy Spirit and then patterning our lives after Jesus, living a life that speaks forgiveness and welcome.
The church is reformed and always being reformed. Just as Luther did, we continue to read the Bible and to look for understanding for our life in this world. Sometimes we find interpretations that didn’t occur to those who came before us. And sometimes theological understandings of previous generations are called into question.
For the past millennium, Christendom wrestled with the notion of the atonement of Christ, and over the centuries, several theories were posited. They made sense at different points in history. Did Jesus have to die, and if so why? Was it to satisfy an angry God, or a God whose integrity needed to be honored?
Biblical scholar Jane Patterson offers another perspective on the metaphor. Paul’s first audience would not have understood Jesus’ death as a sacrifice of atonement. In fact, they would have been jarred by the image. They understood sacrifice. It took place in the Temple, was administered by a priest, and involved specific animals authorized for the purpose.
What happened to Jesus was different. His death was the wrongful crucifixion of a man who didn’t deserve to die. Paul presents a stunning image: that God put forth Jesus as a sacrifice in order to redeem us, to give us freedom, and this is a demonstration of his justice. No less, Paul claims that Golgatha, the place of the cross, is the Holy of Holies, the very center of God’s reconciling grace. The incredibly life-giving message Paul claims is that, “God can turn what is unholy into a wellspring of blessing.”2
I don’t know the full story behind Doris’s confession to Peter. I don’t know fully what motivated her. But what I do know is that her action was a manifestation of faith. And a piece of the Holocaust, a Golgotha of the 20th Century, we might say, was redeemed. Before it was too late, a 92-year-old man heard the confession of a woman in the middle of her life. What was unholy, God turned into a wellspring of blessing. Forgiveness was given, forgiveness was received. Life could flourish.
This is the righteousness of God made known in Christ for all who believe. Through Jesus, God restores relationship and saves us from captivity to sin. This is God’s way in the world. This is God’s intention for us.
So let’s pose the question again, True or False: Live is earned, not given? That’s false. Life in all its fullness is a gift, and it’s yours. Amen.
2Jane Patterson, Commentary on Romans 3:19-28, Working Preaching.org, October 29, 2017.