I doubt that there is anyone in this room who has never had pressed into their hand, or encountered on the back of a public convenience door, or otherwise been accosted by a photocopied pamphlet containing, among other words, this verse from Romans:
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In fact, there may be those among us who have distributed such literature, in the name of spreading the Gospel, winning souls for Jesus, saving the world.
But, newsflash: we don’t save the world. God has created the world, God sustains the world, God continually redeems the world from its own sinfulness and mess, consistently, throughout all generations, reaching out to souls in love and calling them back to relationship with the living and loving God. For Christians, the ultimate revelation of that love is the life of Jesus Christ; a life that goes even beyond death. This is the free gift of God: eternal life; life lived in the knowledge and love of God, the eternal One in whom we live and move and have our being.
We talked a couple of weeks ago about that verse in John in which Jesus himself defines, or at least explains, eternal life as the knowledge of God, the only true God, who sent Jesus to bring us to God’s own self.
This is the good news, that we have already been offered, been given: eternal life. It is a gift of God.
The problem I have with the photocopied tracts and such is that they take this verse out of the context of grace, and they make of this free gift a limited offer, free except for the postage and the packaging. We know that gifts with strings attached, gifts that require a deposit, gifts that ask for a credit card up front are not truly free. So the promise of this verse rings untrue when it is coupled with a demand, or a command, or a threat.
Presented by itself, out of context, the verse becomes a cudgel: this free gift of eternal life can be yours, but if you won’t accept it (on the terms laid out in this handy pamphlet), you can have eternal death instead.
It’s as though someone walks in with a loaded gun and says, “Good news! If you do what I say, I will not kill you!” The goodness of the news is somewhat limited and frustrated by the threat that brings it.
The promise of this verse rings untrue when it is coupled with threats of hell or damnation; a gift that threatens is not free.
It makes me sad to see the Gospel of grace transformed into a tool of repression, oppression, fear. That is not what eternal life is supposed to look like, is it?
So if the problem is taking the verse out of context, how about we re-contextualize it a bit?
Paul is writing a letter to believers, to Christians. He is not out to convert them – that work has already been done, by the grace of God – but to talk to them about what the implications are for their lives as Christians of that grace, that forgiveness. He wants to tell them what eternal life looks like.
Previously, he says, you were bound by sin; you were bound to sin. Now that you know grace, you are bound to graciousness; you who are forgiven are bound to forgiveness; you who are redeemed into righteousness are bound to live righteously.
It is an appeal based not on fear but on love, and on the Gospel good news that life is good, and a good life is worth living; that life is of God, and that God lives it with us.
I am feeling the breath of Jeremiah on my neck at this point. He insists that the way forward is not peaceful, that salvation does not come easily to God’s people. Hananiah is a prophet of false peace; Jeremiah will believe his peace when he sees it. Of course, as events unfold, Jeremiah is proved right, and the people of God are not soon delivered from their Babylonian overlords.
But God has not abandoned the people. God’s prophets continue to speak to them the words of God. God will, in time, bring them home.
There are many ways to live a living death instead of an eternal life. Such a life is the result of sin, of deliberate ignorance of God’s love for us, of deliberate unlove for one another, a blithe brushing away of God’s prophetic call on our lives. Such are the wages of sin: a living death, a life unlived.
The work of the prophet, then, is not to say, “Pray these words, and all will be well.” Rather, it is to listen to the God in whom we live and move and have our being. We who know God in Jesus Christ are called to walk in the light, to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, health to the hungry; to recognize the call of eternal life within the everyday lives of ourselves and those around us. It is not easy, because eternal life is not an alternative to mortal life, but one is lived within the other.
But Jesus has already made quite plain the righteousness to which we are called, and it is simply this: to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
It might start quietly. It might start even in silence, with a smile to someone who needs it, a fellow child of God recognized out of context. It might grow into a vocal acknowledgement of the needs of another, or the offering of a free gift of love. It might crescendo into a movement, a momentum that moves towards the recognition, finally, of Christ in all people, of the dignity of every human being.
It may begin with a gentle reminder that the free gift of God’s grace is freely given by God, has already been poured out over the whole world; that it is no one’s to hoard or to hold back or to ration. I was heartened to see how many local churches took part in yesterday’s Cleveland Pride parade and festival. I hope that we can continue to share grace more widely than condemnation as a Christian community, in all contexts, to all comers.
There are many places to begin, and you know best where God is calling you to make a start, to make a stand for the Gospel. Make no mistake: the road of the prophet is not smooth, nor is it paved with gold. But it is a life lived in congruence with eternity; and that is its own reward, and we are promised many more.
This I do believe and hold to be true: that the Gospel is not a threat, but a promise.