Justification and the Crowded House of Grace

Sermon for 9/25/2010
Text: Romans 3:21-31

My friend Rosa has seven children. Their family lives together in a small one-story house several blocks from the church where I used to serve in Durham, NC. When Rosa’s sister moved back to Durham from Colorado two years ago, she and her family spent several months in Rosa’s house. In all, there were 15 people living in about 1500 square feet of space. Most of the kids slept on the floor; others shared a bed with their parents. Since I always had my own room as a kid, it blew my mind that people could live in such tight quarters. I asked some of the kids how they managed. And they said to me, “Well, we’re family. It’s not that big a deal.”

This image of a crowded house is what came to mind when I thought about our sermon topic this week. We’ve been talking about the three kinds of grace. In my Lifesign sermon last week, I talked about how God’s prevenient grace creates an island of people who have gathered to be in communion with God. At the Sunday service, Pastor Larry used the metaphor of a house of grace that God has invited us to enter. Either way, the community of people that gather around God to share in His love quickly becomes a crowded house. A healthy church is supposed to be crowded; it’s supposed to be the one place where there are always too many cooks in the kitchen, where the passion for mission and ministry inevitably creates scheduling conflicts and even personality conflicts when people with very different visions are bold and fired up about serving God.

A crowded house like the body of Christ can be a very explosive environment, especially because we aren’t forced to stay together. We can always leave one church and go to another if we hear something we don’t like or get into a conflict with another church member that doesn’t seem like it can be mended. But this is why God has provided a means for us to live together in harmony with justification, the second category of grace that Methodists talk about. Justification is simply the way that Jesus’ death on the cross pays the debt for our sins and makes us right with God. As Paul writes in today’s scripture, even though we’ve all sinned and done things that are unjustifiable, Jesus’ sacrifice “justifies” us before God, making it so that God treats us as though we are innocent of our sins.

Now many of us are not used to thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross in relation to how we get along with other Christians. We think about justification as the answer to one question: am I getting into heaven or not? What does this have to do with other people? What I want to suggest is how we get along with other people is a good indicator of whether we have really accepted Christ’s justification or not. If I view Jesus’ erasure of my sins as the license for me to be self-righteous and judgmental towards other people, then maybe I haven’t gotten it yet.

Our reading says that God “justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” Well, what does it mean to have faith in Jesus? It’s one of those questions we don’t really stop to ask. Does believing in Jesus mean just agreeing that the things the Bible says about Jesus are true and being willing to stand up in front of a congregation and say “I do” in response to a series of questions? Does it just mean believing that Jesus loves me and is always there to talk to me like a personal coach or therapist?

Many people think believing in Jesus means generally agreeing with what He had to say or generally agreeing that church activities are good for raising healthy families. But to have faith in Jesus doesn’t just mean agreeing with Him; it doesn’t mean just admiring Him or thinking He’s a good guy; it means putting our trust in Him and not in ourselves. It means accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior and not trying to be my own lord and savior. Putting my trust in Christ and His atoning sacrifice on my behalf opens my heart to the realization that I’m wrong about some things which makes me capable of receiving correction through God’s word and the people God uses to speak to me. Trusting Jesus and mistrusting myself means that I can thrive in the crowded house of grace that is the body of Christ because I can work in humility and open-mindedness with other Christians.

If I really believe that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice justifies me despite all my sins, then I am set free from the prison of needing to be right all the time. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but it really is a prison to feel like you can’t admit it when you’re wrong, like you have to cover up the gaps in your resume when you’re applying for jobs or come up with excuses whenever people catch you contradicting yourself or justify all your mistakes so that people won’t use them as ammunition against you. There’s little forgiveness or redemption in the competitive world that we live in; we learn that it’s not okay to be wrong.

And it’s very hard to build trust in an environment where nobody admits their mistakes. In workplaces, for example, where we don’t feel comfortable being human with each other, it’s hard to give ourselves over to a shared vision with our colleagues rather than simply doing what it takes to earn a paycheck and biding our time until we can jump ship for a better position. The world teaches us not to let our guard down around other people, so it’s easy to bring this attitude into the church and go through the motions of our life together with other Christians without ever taking the risk of admitting our sinfulness, accepting Christ’s justification, and living in joyful truth and freedom with our fellow believers.

I’d like to make an analogy with the military world that many of you have been a part of. It’s not a world that I’ve experienced first-hand, so I am grateful to those of you who have been teaching me about it. It seems that the effectiveness of a military unit depends upon members of that unit being able to put aside their personal baggage and trust each other enough to devote all their energy to the common mission. I’ve learned that this unity and trust is achieved through effective leadership and a shared commitment to core values such as “De Oppresso Liber,” the US Army Special Forces’ motto to liberate the oppressed. In the church, it is our status as justified and grateful sinners under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that serves as the common core value which makes us into an effective unit.

Having faith in Jesus means accepting Him not just as a friend or teacher, but as our commanding officer. We are all privates and He is our general; all of us are called to different roles within the body but all of us are equally subordinate to the authority of Jesus. Romans 3 says that “there is no distinction” between us since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [and] are now justified by his grace as a gift.” Justification makes us equal; it brings us into a common family with others who have accepted Christ as their savior; it makes it possible for us to hear the voice of God in fellow believers with whom we disagree. The reason that God has given us this gift that makes it possible to live together in the crowded house of God’s family is because we need the insights of the other people in that crowded house in order to seek and follow God’s will for our lives.

See, the challenge of having Jesus as a commanding officer is that he doesn’t stand in front of a briefing room and give assignments. Jesus’ commands come quietly and indirectly, through scripture, worship, fellowship with other believers, and life experiences. The best we can do is study God’s Word, pray and ask Jesus for direction, and listen for Jesus’ voice in our conversation with other believers. When we have a strong disagreement with another believer, we shouldn’t pray for Jesus to change the other person’s mind but to show us what He’s trying to teach us. This type of humility and open-mindedness is only possible if we have accepted Christ’s justification and received the freedom to admit our mistakes.

When I can acknowledge my own helplessness without Christ as my savior and Lord, when I have put my trust in Jesus and not in myself, then being in close proximity with fellow believers who have vastly different opinions is no longer an onerous cross to bear but a delightful opportunity to be taught and humbled by God. A crowded house is a great place to live when our common faith in Jesus has made us into one family. Just as blood is what connects the parts of the human body together, we become one body by the power of Jesus’ blood, which justifies all who have put their trust in Him. Justification doesn’t make us perfect; it simply makes us people that God can move through; and the body of people who God can move through form a kingdom that is capable of transforming the world.

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