Is Cheap Grace Killing Us?

Is Cheap Grace Killing Us?

It’s 6:30 AM. Before I am even sure I’m awake, I’m sweating through the warm-up of my Insanity workout at the YMCA. “Dig Deeper!” Shaun T’s voice comes over the speaker as the next track kicks in. “Come on! Don’t stop! Let’s go!” my trainer yells at me as I’m halfway through a second set of squat push-ups. They’re the last words I want to hear as I feel like I’m dying and want to collapse on the floor. In fact, if she wasn’t there pushing me, I’m sure I’d quit halfway through – the work is too hard. She’s a good trainer, because she knows that transformation comes through hard work. There are no short-cuts or easy routes, and giving up isn’t an option in her class.

The intensity is precisely why I love this workout. It’s so hard to get myself out of bed to do this in the morning, but I never regret it once I’m there. I like it because it’s hard. It makes me feel like I’m giving 110% and doing something that is making a difference. It makes me feel motivated. It makes me feel alive. In an age of instant gratification, what keeps me coming back for more insanity is that with this, I have to work hard and I love that about it.

Can the Church make us feel that way? I wonder what we can learn from the exploding popularity of these intense workout programs. As so many churches face declining membership and participation, gyms are as crowded as ever. It turns out people want to be committed to something. They want to put effort into something. They want to see results and do something that matters. They want to sacrifice sweat, blood, and tears that lead to transformation. Can the Church be like this?

Now, before you all get up in theological arms over this, let me put the brakes on. I know what you’re thinking. “Pastor, how can you say that! Commitment? Hard work? sacrifice? The very foundation of Lutheran theology is that we are saved by God’s grace alone and there is NOTHING we have to do to earn it!”

Yes. That is absolutely true. God’s grace is an abundant and free gift. We cannot possibly do enough to earn God’s salvation; God gives it freely. Many of us hear the words that we are loved and saved by God earlier in life than we can remember (in Baptism). The story of all of scripture is God saving a helpless people who more often than not are screwing things up. All are welcome to the table to receive the gift of Christ in Holy Communion. And although it’s hard to believe, because life tries its damnedest to convince us that you only matter if you are rich, or attractive, or successful, or important… despite our flaws God sees us and loves us. God sees that we are beautifully made and worth loving and saving. And that is Good News indeed. Amen.

But the buck can’t stop there. This Good News begs the question: what then, should we do? How should we respond?

And unfortunately, we are often afraid to answer that question because we are afraid that we will undo the Good News of the Gospel with the instruction that there is actually a TON of work we should be doing in response to that Good News. Feeding the hungry. Being kind to our neighbors who can be real a-holes. Sacrificing our precious free time and money for the sake of the ministry of the Church. Waking up early on Sunday (gasp!) to be part of the Christian community to worship together. Fighting for justice. Shedding blood, sweat, and tears to get results in doing God’s work (through our hands!) Making a difference.

And the truth is, I think people WANT to be part of something like that. Something to which they can be dedicated, make a difference through, and use their gifts. But when people, who are stretched always more and more thin across various commitments and causes show up to the Church and hear “God loves you, so you don’t really have to do anything… come if you want, but you don’t have to, we understand you’re busy. We won’t really pressure you to give much money to our collection, because we don’t want you to feel like you have to pay your way in. And if it wasn’t clear the first time, let me remind you that you’re saved, so you don’t really need to do anything.”

Who would want to be part of that?? By not tackling the work we are called to with any sense of drive or commitment, it’s almost like we say the Church doesn’t really matter.

But the work of the Church does matter. It does make a difference. It is life-giving and transformative.

The example that comes to mind this morning was the service project that took place in Detroit this past Summer as part of the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering. It was a week of awesome concerts and amazing speakers, good food and hanging out with friends, zip-line courses, endless activities, cool T-Shirts and many adventures. Yet upon our return our teens from St. Mark unanimously agreed that the best part of the trip was the service project.

It was at least 100 degrees that day, and we cleaned tons of trash out streets and alleys in a neighborhood of Detroit. The amount of sweat and how out of breath I was made it feel in some ways more like one of my Insanity workouts than Church. But when we were done, we felt so great about what we accomplished, and what we were able to share. We could see what giving our own time and energy to help other people could accomplish for the sake of the kingdom of God. And we could only do it because we were sent there as the Church. As the body of Christ. Because we had first heard the news that we are loved and claimed and saved by God, and THEN we are sent out into the world to work our butts off and make shit happen.

The bottom line is that the Church is not a spectator sport. Being part of the body of Christ will make you work hard, cry, pray, serve, give money, argue, forgive, and not give up until it hurts. It requires all of you. But it will change your life. And through you, it will change the world. I think we should expect ourselves to work hard. To give more. Heck, even to show up regularly. And I don’t think we need to spoon-feed or go easy on each other either. After all, if my trainer told me that I could quit whenever I got tired, or told me to go easy or not push myself, I probably wouldn’t go back. I certainly wouldn’t see results.

So remember your Baptism. Remember that you are a beloved child of God. Remember the Good News that there is nothing you have to do to earn salvation. Remember that God is doing all kinds of amazing and wonderful things in this world. And then get out there and do the work to which you are called. Be the Church, doing God’s work for others. Dig deeper, and even through the blood, sweat, and tears, love every minute of it.


Note: Image “Holocaust Memorial” is copyright (c) 2015 Mark David Johnson and made available under license Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

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