In the evening, when Lori and I sit on the couch and we flip on the TV, I’ll surf up or down the channel lineup. It drives Lori a bit nuts, but as often as not, when channel-surfing, I’ll stop when I run across one of those house-flipping shows. You know the ones, where they take a house that’s old…or run down…or abused, and some real-estate developer will invest a little bit of money, and will try to deal with the unexpected things they discover and will still try and make a profit. Of course, there’s lots of arguing and human drama as well.
Lori asks me “why do you like these shows?” I really have no idea why I find them so fascinating. Maybe it’s because the drama of “will they make money or not” captivates me…I doubt that. Maybe it’s because the only skills I have in home repair and renovation is writing checks, and I’m curious how they do this work. That could be it…but I think it’s mostly because I love seeing the old, compared to the new; the before and the after photos. I think seeing new life breathed into one of these houses, and seeing the finished product is pretty amazing.
I think that’s why I’ve been so interested in Trinity’s recent house-flipping project. As you may have heard, in her estate, Dorothy Turtness chose to leave a legacy gift, her home, to the church as she had no close family. The house needed some basic maintenance and serious updating. So, over a period of about 6 weeks, Trinity invested about $14,000 and volunteer hours from 29 different people, and turned a house that would have been worth about $80,000 on the market into a house that sold for $145,000, which we’ll apply to our building mortgage. (Thank you Dorothy!)
Watching the day-to-day progress of the house flip was fascinating. To see what was, flipped into the beautiful, modern home it became…it had literally been transformed into something new. Well, it’s no wonder the home was on the market less than a day before it sold.
In the church, we use language like this a lot. You hear words like “transformational,” and phrases like “made new,” “being renewed,” and “new life” all the time. We talk about how through the gift of faith, the Holy Spirit calls us and changes us.
It’s common church talk, but what does it mean?
Today, in our summer sermon series, “Love Letters,” we dig a little bit deeper into the Book of Romans, and this idea of what it is to be “made new.”
You see, the Christians in Rome had been steeped in this conversation about God’s grace and unconditional love. They understood the concept of a God who loved them completely. But they wondered about the implications of that…about what that meant for how they lived. “If there is grace, do they still need to follow the law?”
To be honest, it’s the same question that I get from our young people in confirmation all the time:
- “So, Pastor Todd, God’s grace is real, right?”
- I reply “Yep.”
- “And God loves us completely, right?”
- “And God will forgive us no matter what?”
- “For sure.”
And then they ask the million-dollar question:
- “So then, that means we can do whatever we want, because God will forgive us, right? Right?”
Ugh. If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that question.
But as much as that question drives me crazy, it is a great question. And it’s at the heart of the section of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we’re looking at this evening/morning. Because it’s the same question that the Romans had.
Paul tackles the question straight on. He asks and answers his own rhetorical question. He says “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”
Let me rephrase Paul’s words just a bit: Basically he’s saying: “So if we know we’re going to be forgiven, doesn’t that mean that we can just sin? No! How can we who were forgiven by Jesus, choose then to return to sin?”
And then Paul does something really interesting. He goes on to link this idea of grace and forgiveness to our baptism. In verse 4, Paul asserts that: “we have been buried with Jesus by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Buried with Jesus by baptism into death? What does that mean?
Paul is reminding us that baptism is more than just another event, like graduation, where all the relatives come and celebrate. And it’s more than a religious ritual where church members commit to one another in word but not action. Baptism is serious business.
During Paul’s time, baptism was done in a river, or a lake or sea. And people were fully-immersed under water. And the meaning was simple: When the person went under the water, it was death…it was the death of the old-self. It was the death of the sinful self. It was the death of what theologian Friedrich Nietzsche called “The Old Adam.” And when that person was lifted out of the water, it was resurrection…it was new life. It was love, grace and beauty.
Now while we still do immersion baptism, it’s very rare in the Lutheran tradition. I think I’ve done it just once in almost 30 years. And there are good reasons that we do baptism the way we do it, where we pour or sprinkle water. But the meaning is the same. Baptism is the gift of the Holy Spirit…it is death of the old, and the gift of the new…it is the renovating…the flipping of our hearts.
And so here’s my answer to those pesky confirmation students who keep asking good questions: “Yes, it’s true. Technically it’s true. You receive God’s grace, and that’s given to you in baptism, and it cannot be taken away from you. So yes, you could continue to sin. But…”
There’s always a “but.” Return to Paul’s rhetorical question: “Should we continue to sin just because we know we’ll be forgiven?” And he says no. Could we? Yes. Should we? No.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor and theologian living in Germany during the rise of Hitler. He became one of the most influential theologians in all modern Christianity. He coined the phrase “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” he writes, “is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
- To receive grace and forgiveness, with the idea that it gives us permission to just continue to sin…well that’s cheap grace.
- To receive grace and forgiveness without allowing that grace to form us into disciples of Jesus is cheap grace.
- To receive grace and forgiveness without recognizing that that grace can’t help but change us, to renovate…to flip our hearts…is cheap grace.
Here’s the thing: Cheap grace works. We could continue to receive grace and to resist the work of God within our hearts, and it is still grace. But Paul would say “why would you want to do that? Why would you possibly want to resist the meaning and depth and transformational nature of this amazing gift.”
And so we don’t. As people of faith…as people who follow Jesus, we receive the gift, and we open ourselves up for God to be at work within our hearts. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a whole lot of renovation, of “flipping” that needs to be going on within me as God continues to work to shape me into who God calls me to be.
And I’m certain this is true for you as well. While we’ve received this gift, while in the water of baptism, the old self, the “old Adam” has died and we have been lifted out of sin, along with Christ, we remain saint and sinner at the same time…and we live in the same broken world…and so we continue to sin. The phrase we use in the confession is “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
And so, every week we return to the altar. We return to hear the words of God’s forgiveness proclaimed. We return to be reminded of the promises of God. We return to be fed by the bread and wine of forgiveness.
My friends, God is at work. There is renovation going on. God is flipping our hearts, every day. And this is all gift…pure gift.
Let’s focus on the goodness, the love and the abundance of God. Do not forget the cross, and the love and grace of Jesus who died for you. And let’s remember that as people who follow Jesus, we are baptized into his death and resurrection.
And never forget that because of Jesus, you are made new. In dying with Christ, you no longer dwell in the land of sin; you become God’s new creation. This is your new reality! Justification and grace transform. And baptism is a reality changer…it is a renovation that flips your hearts, every single day.
Thanks be to God!
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1937.