First United Methodist Church
March 26, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Grace for the Wretched
St. Paul was well aware of his own wretched state in his life and his struggle with his own weaknesses. But through it all, he trusted the power of the gospel as God’s grace to give him peace.
Paul’s journey to that grace started when he was a Pharisee who persecuted the church of Christ. In his religious zeal for the Law and its traditions, he thought that the church was upending all that he believed was sacred. And so he was most proud of his role and his commitment to the Law.
So he engaged in practices to scourge, ban, and excommunicate the Christians from the places of worship throughout the many regions outside of Jerusalem. But as he did so, he began to notice that the Christians themselves displayed a peace in their spirits that remained unbroken. Despite his best efforts to torment them, they had something that Paul lacked—and that was peace.
Paul was deeply moved by this experience. Even Christ called out to him with gentle patience, calling him with grace and love: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” All that he had done in his zealous persecutions only made it clear that it was not the Christians who had a problem, but he did—a wretched state of conflict within himself that he inflicted upon others. He was overcome by the grace of God in Christ, and converted from being a persecutor of the gospel to being one of his most adamant, and yet humble, proclaimers.
In spite of Paul’s many acts of animosity and violence, God had other things in mind for him. Christ’s grace to call Paul as an apostle of the faith demonstrates how far and how deep Christ was willing to go for the most wretched. Paul gave up his former life, and embraced the ministry to which he was called, gladly giving up what he had and sharing instead the message of God’s amazing grace in Christ.
The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ became Paul’s new proclamation. Instead of contributing to the sufferings of others as he once did, Paul was willing to take on Christ’s sufferings for him as the power for his own suffering for the lives of others who were themselves lost and in a wretched state, even sharing with them the love, mercy, and peace that he
himself came to grasp in Christ.
According to Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ accomplished salvation for all humanity. He believed that the mind, or our ability to make choices, creates a sinful nature that is death. Death was introduced in God’s creation through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Since that corporate act of disobedience, fallen human nature has been moving uncontrollably toward ultimate death. Paul claims that the sinful mind is hostile to God and there-fore, there is an opposition in the mind-set of our sinful nature to God’s na-ture and ways. Without Christ and the Holy Spirit, humanity does not have the capacity to submit to the righteous requirements of God. Those living under the control of the sinful nature cannot please God.
This description of fallen human nature as disobedient, unpleasing, and hostile toward God (the giver of life) highlights its ultimate goal of death. Around us each day are news stories giving graphic details of extreme examples of the fallenness of humanity. Those realistic accounts and Paul's theological description bring a dark prospect for the future of humanity. This pessimistic view, however, only directs our attention to a necessity to transform and redeem this fallen nature. In other words, there is more to the sto-ry than our sinful nature.
Yet God did not intend to abandon us in this state of sin and judgment. The confession of sin is but the precursor to the blessings we receive in Jesus Christ. Christ trumps all of our sin and gives us his peace and forgiveness. The damning judgment of our sin is not the last word for us. The last Word is that God loves us and sees us beyond all condemnation, making us righteous through our faith in Christ.
Paul connects this amazing grace of Christ with our own faith. Our faith is our acceptance of God’s grace, this precious, undeserved gift that God so dearly and urgently wants us to have and to hold. Indeed, Paul boasted of how our faith is our righteousness, because it opens its hands to trust and grasp that God will fill us with grace and peace.
But faith finds its secret power not in itself, but in the grace that God bestows upon us through our trust. Abraham looked at the stars of the sky and sands on the seashore while hearing God’s promise, “So shall your descendants be.” And by his faith, he was reckoned as righteous. Jesus said to those who were recipients of his amazing grace, “Your faith has saved you!” The
power of faith is not in the paucity of our faith itself. It is the object that faith trusts—the righteousness that we have through Christ’s grace—that makes faith great.
But faith empowers us to be with the suffering of this world. Paul faced many sufferings and hardships in his ministry. He would himself be persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned. And he struggled with his sense of weakness in the flesh to do what is right and good.
In our own weakness, we cannot boast of much of anything about ourselves to make ourselves worthy of God’s love and mercy. Both Luther and Wesley agree that it is Christ’s action that results in salvation, not our own. But we do trust in Christ, and in so doing, we cling to his promise and victory for us and that gives us peace.
When we were baptized, we put on Christ and the garments of his righteousness—righteousness that is as far reaching and as far promising as all the ends of the earth.
The promising newness of God’s grace in Christ trumps all that it old in our lives, including the depth of our sins. That new peace we have that reconciles us with God through Christ becomes our new witness.
We spend so much our lives engaging in foolish acts. We blame people. We dwell on the past and seek to find ways to excuse ourselves. All we are doing is ruminating and stewing in a false sense of righteousness. We are not escaping the deep scandal of our sin. Nor are we finding any peace for our lives. We are only bearing witness to how we, like Paul, are among the wretched.
But God in Christ has set us free from all of this. Christ has blessed us with his peace, his peace that reconciles us to God and to one another.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who suffered in a prison camp in Nazi Germany. He once wallowed in his cell, wondering what his life’s meaning was all about. But he found the peace of Christ beyond any and all of his doubt and shame in weakness. He realized that he was only running “from victory already achieved”—a victory which is ours already through faith.
We get to be bold to confess the truth that we are, indeed, sinners—but also get to be bold to embrace even more the promise that Jesus Christ came to save us all from the depth of our sin and to grace us with his peace!
It was later in his life that Paul had no fear of admitting the truth of his status as the chief of sinners from all that he did to persecute the faith. There was no reason to try to cover it up or conceal it. He could be free to say what was in fact the truth of his life because of the surpassing grace and peace that he and all have received in Christ.
Our sin is conquered, not by any of our own vain efforts, but through the amazing grace that we have in Christ Jesus—who took the path to the cross for our sake. Through Christ we have peace with God. And our wretchedness gives way to the promise of Christ’s grace.
Christ challenges us to be bold and witness the amazing grace of Christ crucified and resurrected so that we could experience God’s grace. There is no one too wretched for whom Christ’s grace does not reach. Are we willing to risk that promise? Through Christ’s peace we become willing participants in sharing in the sufferings of our suffering world, in order to love as we have been loved by him. Christ’s grace frees us to embrace that peace in our lives and our hearts, and to witness to such peace by sharing in the sufferings of others—so that for all that is wretched in this world, the last word may be peace.