The Wall Street Journal’s Annual Christmas Message

The September 17 sermon at Minneapolis Westminster Church, as discussed in a prior post, referred to the church’s sculpture by Paul Granlund that was inspired by the Wall Street Journal’s annual Christmas Day editorial discussing the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus to become the Apostle Paul. That editorial was written in 1949 by Vermont Royster (1916-1996), who was the head of its editorial page, and thereafter has been published annually. Here is that message.[1]

“In Hoc Anno Domini” [In the Year of Our Lord]

“When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.”

“Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.”

“But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression — for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?”

“There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?”

“Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee [Jesus] saying, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.’” [Matthew 22:21 (KJV.]

“And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.”

“So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.”

“But it came to pass for a while in divers places that the truth did set man free, although the men of darkness were offended and they tried to put out the light. The voice said, ‘Haste ye. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you, for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.’”

“Along the road to Damascus the light shone brightly. But afterward Paul of Tarsus, too, was sore afraid. He feared that other Caesars, other prophets, might one day persuade men that man was nothing save a servant unto them, that men might yield up their birthright from God for pottage and walk no more in freedom.”

“Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.”

“And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord: ‘Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.’” [Galatians 5.1 (KJV)  (emphasis added).]

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[1] Annual Christmas Editorial, W.S.J. (Dec. 24, 2008); Kassel, In Hoc Anno Domini, Bill Kassel’s Blog (Dec. 22, 2013).

Whatever Became of “Grace Alone”?

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church celebrated “Coming Together Sunday” and the start of a new church year on September 10, 2017. In recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, our Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, commenced a series of at four sermons on the great themes of the Reformation.  The first, this day, was grace alone (sola gratia). The others will be on sola fide (faith alone); sola scriptura (scripture alone) and where do we go from here?.[1] Below are photographs of  the church’s refurbished Nicollet Mall main entrance and of Rev. Hart-Andersen.

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, whose face is hidden from us by our sin, and whose mercy we forget in the blindness of our hearts: Cleanse us from all our offenses, and deliver us from proud thoughts and vain desires, that with reverent and humble hearts we may draw near to you, confessing our faults, confiding in your grace, and finding in you our refuge and strength; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture:

Isaiah 43:1-7, 14-21  (NRSV):

“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

“Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.”

1 Corinthians 15:1-10 (NRSV):

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

 Sermon (Extracts):

“Author Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years the Christian Church holds a giant rummage sale. It throws out what it no longer needs or wants – doctrines, creeds, assumptions, structures – and replaces them with new things.”[2]

“To make her 500-year cycle argument, Tickle points out that roughly 500 years after Jesus, the Church entered a time of chaos when the Roman Empire collapsed and the western world entered an era we used to call the ‘Dark Ages.’ The Church survived those centuries of crisis through the rise of monasticism, even as more formal ecclesiastical structures were in ruins.”

“Another 500 years passed and the Great Schism between East and West took place. Then the Protestant breakaway from Rome half a millennium later. And here we are today, with the Church experiencing another time of upheaval and renewal of our time.”

“The ancient prophet Isaiah suggested that God is involved in such transitions, in times of transformation: ‘Do not remember the former things,’ God says through the prophet, ‘Or consider the things of old.’ It’s as if God were saying, ‘Don’t be afraid. This is a great, divine rummage sale. Let go of the old and prepare for the new. I am about to do a new thing,’ God says. ‘Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:18-19)”

“God assumes – correctly – that we’ll have trouble finding our way through the transition and turmoil. Where’s the church headed? How does it stay vigorous and vital? How do we navigate the shifting cultural sands all around us?”

“Author Diana Butler Bass has written about ‘the end of church’ and ‘Christianity after religion.”’[3] Those of us who toil in the ecclesiastical vineyard know that virtually everything is in flux, changing around us, as the new thing emerges among us. It is challenging, but the prophet reminds us that God will not abandon us: ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ (Isaiah 43- 19)”

“That was true for the church in the 16th century. God was doing a new thing then, at work when that cantankerous, strong-willed, beer-loving, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther decided to take a stand against the practices of Rome. He was not the only one to protest, nor was he the first. Inklings of reform had stirred centuries earlier in Italy, England, and Bohemia. But Luther’s rebellion was the tipping point of this pent-up frustration for reform in the Christian Church.”

“[Contemporary views on the Reformation were covered in a recent survey by The Pew Research Center.] The good news is that the memory of the religious wars fought in the centuries following the rebellion against Rome has faded. The Pew survey shows an emerging consensus among Catholics and Protestants that they have more similarities than differences. That will not come as a surprise to this congregation in this city.”

“The bad news – at least from a Presbyterian preacher’s perspective – is that most Protestants have little grasp of the theological premises that drove the Reformation in the first place. The Pew survey shows that more than half of us no longer know or care about the distinct themes for which our forebears fought and died.”

“Frankly, many Protestants today have no clue about the foundations upon which their stream of Christian faith is based. Some may see no problem with that, but there are consequences of embracing a version of Christianity that has let go of the core convictions of those who protested in the 16th century.”

“What did that 16th century church rummage sale look like?”

“Luther’s ire was directed at the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. All 95 of those theses he wrote [in 1517], in one way or another, were protesting the selling of indulgences, that is, the Church’s means of controlling access to the grace of God by requiring believers to buy it. To gain God’s approval or forgiveness one had to go through the Church and, through the priests and the bishops and the prince of Rome, literally, purchase it. God’s mercy was for sale.”

“Luther and other Protestants rejected what they called ‘works righteousness,’ the idea that one must do something – something inevitably determined by the Church – to gain favor with the Almighty. Protestants declared that God’s grace was all one needed, and it was freely given. No one could earn it – not by purchasing indulgences, or saying prayers, or repenting, or doing good deeds, or accepting the Church’s doctrine.”

“’I would remind you, brothers and sisters,’ the Apostle Paul writes, ‘Of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved.’ (I Corinthians 15:1)”

“The good news Paul passed on and that we have received from our Protestant forebears is that God’s love is not subject to the whims of any person or institution, not even the Church, but, rather, is freely offered. This may seem inconsequential today, but Luther represented a major challenge to the dominance of Rome. The ‘Protestors’ had to be stopped; ecclesiastical authority was at risk. If the Church could not control the dispensing of God’s grace it would lose the basis of its power.”

“These are not merely 16th century issues. The same questions continue to roil the Church today. Ten days ago, a group of prominent Protestant leaders released what they call the Nashville Statement. It’s a declaration against the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons on the basis of a particular reading of scripture and tradition.” [4]

“Having read the statement, it seems to me that by the standard of common human decency alone the statement is offensive. But it also distorts the Christian gospel, especially as Protestants have understood it. The document illustrates how the basic Protestant tenet of sola gratia, God’s grace alone, has been cast aside in a rush to condemn.”

“In Article 10 of the Nashville Statement the writers declare that support of LGBT persons “constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness.” They are trying to hold God’s grace hostage by limiting it to those they deem acceptable. That is what provoked Luther and precisely why the Reformation was needed, because that was happening in the Church.”

“Back then we Protestants rejected the idea that the Church could assume God’s prerogative. Instead, we surrendered to the notion that God’s grace alone is sufficient for our souls. We do not need the approbation of anyone, or the acceptance of certain biblical interpretations, to earn God’s favor. We do not need to prove ourselves worthy. Indeed, we could never do that.”

“Whatever became of ‘grace alone?’”

“One way to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be to recover the theological clarity of the reformers. We are Protestants; we protest when the church’s control of God’s grace becomes a tool for exclusion.”

“Our task today, in the midst of the ferment of our time, is to build thriving communities where Christianity is taught and shared and practiced anew. That’s essentially what Luther was after, as well as Zwingli, Calvin, and other early Protestants: creating a personal, authentic, genuine experience of Christian faith, of God’s love, not mediated by the Church.”

“They were done with the old ways, the former things. And so are we. Done with church power games. Done with merely going through ecclesiastical motions and reciting old formulas.”

“They were hungering after a genuine, powerful experience of God’s grace in their lives, and so are we. God’s grace: it alone liberates us. It alone gives us hope. It alone introduces us to the unconditional love of the Creator in whose image we all are made.”

“God is doing a new thing. An old thing, in new ways.”

“The 16th century Protestants were protesting, and those of us who continue to do so today remain in that same line. ‘This is the good news in which we stand,’ Paul says.”

“Our Protestant theological genes bear the imprint of a version of Christianity that instinctively rejects any system that does not grant to all the same access.”

“The racism of white supremacy is another expression of the power of those in control of the narrative of acceptability. From a Protestant Christian viewpoint, American racism tries to restrict the grace of God and limit it only to those of European descent. It’s a grave theological error. “

“This is not arcane church language and theological detail; what we hold to be true determines how we see the world. Our faith shapes how we live, and we are Protestants. Our deep conviction is that God’s grace is not withheld from anyone. It is all sufficient.”

“What impact does that 16th century theological claim have in our time? For starters, we declare that the wide-open affirmation of grace alone rejects the narrow and bigoted assertion of race alone as the sole determinant of who is acceptable and valued in our world.”

“Not only the Church needs a new reformation; our entire nation does. Its embedded racial distinctions have given rise to privilege for some and left others in despair – and that is a theological error, in our judgment as Protestant Christians.”

“Grace alone is the theological equivalent of the political claim that ‘all people are created equal.’”

“These are the animating issues for our life today at Westminster. Our Open Doors Open Futures is not simply about a beautiful building. . . .  It’s also, and fundamentally, about rediscovering the heart of Christian faith: the open, no-holds-barred, unconditional, no-strings-attached, love of God onto which we pin the theological word ‘grace.’”[5]

“Nothing we do can earn it. No indulgences we might pay. No creed we might recite. No baptism we might undergo. No particular circumstances or human condition, neither the color of our skin nor the person we love.”

“’By the grace of God, I am what I am,’ the Apostle Paul says, having persecuted Christians and been blinded by the grace of God one day. ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.’ (I Corinthians 15:10)”

“Those first Protestants 500 years ago didn’t get everything right, but they did launch a new movement that invites people into the Christian faith, based solely on the individual experience of God’s love. We call it grace.”

“Grace alone. It still stirs the soul. It still saves the soul. And it still compels the church.”

Responding to the Word

Affirmation of Faith (from A Brief Statement of Faith—Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)): “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve. With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[6]

Conclusion

This sermon was a good reminder of my belief that God alone through his and her grace extends love to every human being on the planet in the past, today and in the future and that no human institution can interfere with that grace.

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[1] The bulletin for this service and the text of this sermon are on the church’s website. There are many sources on Martin Luther; one is Wikipedia.

[2] Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Baker Books 2012)  Ms. Tickle is the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, the international journal of the book industry and the author of over 30 book in religion and spirituality.

[3] Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (Harper Collins, 2013).   Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

[4] Coalition for Biblical Sexuality, Nashville Statement, CBMW.org; https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/ The Nashville Statement was drafted in late August 2017, during the annual conference of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and has been signed by more than 150 influential conservative evangelical leaders. The Statement says that only heterosexuality is permissible, calls people born with intersex conditions “disordered,” derides transgender identities as “transgenderism” and makes clear that anyone who is an L.G.B.T. person is immoral. (Cruz, The Nashville Statement Is an Attack on L.G.B.T. Christians, N.Y. Times (Sept. 1, 2017); Nashville Statement, Wikipedia.

[5] Open Doors Open Futures is Westminster’s multi-pronged campaign to increase support for local and global needs, to expand its historic building on Nicollet Mall with an inspiring new wing designed by James Dayton Design, and to develop significant new green space surrounding the church.

[6] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Brief Statement of Faith (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (1983) in   Book of Confessions, pp. 307-18.