Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Live a righteous life and I will make a covenant with you, says God to Abraham. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just do what is right and I will give you more than you ever dreamed of.
I can almost see Abraham going through his day to day life. He really tries to keep all the commandments. But last night he didn’t sleep well and so he woke up in a bad mood. And now he had a fight with his wife Sarah. And later, he really tried to pray with all his heart to God, but he got so caught up with hunting for some food that he forgot. And at night, before he could even start to recite the prescribed prayers, he fell asleep. Abraham tries and tries but he always seems to fall short in living a righteous life.
Abraham is not the only one falling short on that: we all do. We all fall short in keeping God’s commandments. We break God’s heart over and over again with what we do and with what we leave undone.
So what is there left for us to do? What can we do to live a righteous life? What can we do so that God will forgive us?
Like Abraham I again and again try to live a better life. I plan it all out. I will pray more often. I will go more often to church. I will pledge more money for my congregation and I will give more money to charities. I will be more patient with my son. And even more forgiving with the antics of my Physics‘ professor husband. I plan so well - and than I fail. The harder I try to live a good life, the more I seem to fail to do so!
I think you all know that feeling. No matter how hard you try, it just does not work out! Lent seems to be a very good time for that. We really make up our minds to cut out all chocolate during Lent. Or TV. Or alcohol. Or… something else. But than something happens, and we find us doing what we had planned we wouldn’t do.
For me this looks like a vicious circle. We try and try but we never seem to be doing good enough.
So what does this mean for us? Do we give up? Or will we keep trying and trying? Always knowing that we surely we fail again?
What can we do to please God so that God might choose us and give us that promise? What?
Nothing. There is nothing we can do to please God.
If I would end with my sermon right here, this would be the worst message you might have ever heard. Nothing we do, can and will please God. So we are lost. Doomed. Without a future. But are we?
It is true that we can do nothing to please God. But it is also true that we don’t have to do anything to please God. God loves us. God loves you and chooses you. God is doing all the work. We are the receivers of Her gifts.
Some of you might know that I went to Med School in Germany and therefore worked in a hospital. One day while doing my rounds Gladys, an elder lady with terminal breast cancer, asked me: Did I do enough? In the beginning I didn’t even understand what she was asking. But she asked again: Please, tell me did I do enough? Will I go to heaven? Or have I done to little and will go to hell? The last words she almost whispered. Frightened with tears in her eyes.
I think we all know her fear. Will it be enough? Did we do enough?
But here is the good news: God did all the work. When Jesus died on the cross and rose again he had done all the work that was necessary. Because our sins died together with Christ on the cross. Our old being, that being that thinks we have to do something in order for God to choose us, died on the cross. And now, in our new life with Christ we can accept God’s gracious gift: His love and forgiveness. This is what Jesus talks about: those who loose their lives will find it. Those who loose their old life, their old being on the cross, will find new, real life in Jesus.
Some of you might think right now: great Ringel, you might know that. You go to seminary and learn all those things. But how do we know that? How do we know that God really chooses us? The answer is: because God tells you so.
Do you remember the beginning of the service? After we confessed our sins? I said, in the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. And that is what it means. Through Jesus God forgives you. “But don’t I have to do…” No, you are forgiven. “Just like this?!” Yes, just like this. God has forgiven you.
And after this sermon we will celebrate Holy Communion. All of you have heard the words spoken at the table over and over again. The body of Christ given for - you! Christ comes to you. In the bread and wine. Christ invites us to a party. A party to celebrate our forgiveness and our belonging to God. For you! That is what chosen by God means. The body of Christ for you. And I have never seen this going wrong. It is not as if the pastor or deacon says: The body of Christ for you (Hand to next person). And I have never heard anyone saying: The body of Christ - no not for you!
This is the promise God gives Abraham - and us. We are all members of God’s family. We are all part of those stars God shows Abraham. Not because we are able to live a righteous life, but because God chose us and made us righteous.
This is wonderful news, isn’t it? We are free from all our works to please God. We are free from trying and trying knowing all the time we will fail. Like Abraham, when God asks him to live a righteous life we can only fall down before God and accept Her gift and promise.
But, says a little voice in my head, and maybe also in yours, but when we don’t have to do anything to please God, does that mean we can do whatever we want to? If we are really chosen by God just by grace, why should we keep the commandments? Or help our neighbor?
When I met my husband it took me a long long while to get his message. (I was stuck in the friendship mode.) But one day he outright told me: Ringel, I love you! I could hardly believe that. Me? Why me? I was just another student running around on campus. Nothing special. I hadn’t done anything wonderful. But he loved me and he wanted to be with me. (I sometimes still don’t know why.) But there it is: we are married and still love each other. What did I do when Ringel-Husband told me he loves me? Did I feel like now I could do whatever I wanted because now I knew of his love? Did I feel like I could now go out, date someone else, and than come back because I knew my love was safe with the Ringel-husband? No, when he told me that he loved me, my heart, my feelings changed and I only wanted to spend time with him and do nice things for him. I didn’t do any work to make him love me but I responded, I answered with my love for him.
This is what happens in our hearts. God falls in love with us and chooses us. Just because we are. Not because we did something. And because of that wonderful love we love back. Not because we feel we have to but because we cannot do anything else. Who can resist being loved?
Paul says: the only real sin we can commit is to stop trusting God’s promise. When we start to think we have to do something to get back to God, we really turn our backs on God because God is already here with us. When we think we can and have to live the righteous life to earn God’s promises we break God’s heart. When we start to try to climb a ladder to heaven, that is when we dig us into a deep hole. God is here with us. Right there on the cross. And right there on Easter.
But all too often we are just like Peter. We want to tell God what to do. The world would be a great place if only God would listen to me! If only God would do something about my enemies. About pollution. About the greedy managers from Wall Street. About that church member I really do not like. Because surely I know what is best for me. I can do it.
And so with Peter we tell God what to do. And what not to do. Because who really wants to have a crucified God? A God who suffered and died? What kind of God is that?
What kind of God indeed? It is the God who loves us. The God who loves us so much that He gave His only son for us. Who chooses and and makes us righteous.
When Gladys asked me if she had done enough I told her: No.
But I also told her that she doesn’t have to do anything. God had chosen her. And that had taken care of all that needed to be done.
So today, when you come up for the party, or as it is also called, communion, listen to the words. The body of Christ for you. Those are not my words. Those are God’s words. For you! Without any work that needed to be done. And your heart now can answer in love to this words from God. Our old self, the self that told us we need to work for God’s promises to come true, has died with Christ on the cross. The new self will live in the love of God. Does that mean we will never sin again? No, but it means we know where to come back to. Even when we fall, we can never fall any deeper than into God’s hands. And I cannot think of a better place to be than there!
May the Love of God which surpasses all our understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen