The lectionary used by millions of Christians today offered hearers the great passage of Romans 8:26-39. I was fortunate enough to hear this proclaimed at Manhattan’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, in the context of a beautiful service that can be listened to here. What’s great about that passage from Paul’s letter is that it can serve as Christianity 101, an introduction to what’s essential about that religion: “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
The sermon by Fr. Joel Daniels — which starts at about 37:20 on the on-demand audio of the service — is a wonderful (and wonderfully brief; only about ten minutes) exposition of the sheer gratuitousness of God’s grace to the undeserving. One of the most striking developments of our ecumenical age is that Catholics and Protestants alike are realizing that they are not divided on the issue of “Amazing Grace”: The hoary debate on faith vs. works has been eclipsed by a common understanding that God’s grace, unmerited by the receiver, is the essential factor in mankind’s hope. (I have for years been delighted that one can now hear Palestrina in Presbyterian churches, and “Amazing Grace” in Catholic ones, and I am equally delighted that mine appears to be the majority view. When a vulgarly sectarian Catholic named Michael Voris recently attempted to stoke the old fires of anti-Protestantism with a video attacking the Catholic use of “Amazing Grace,” he received an intelligent and passionate rebuke from Catholic über-blogger Mark Shea. Now, there are many things to be said about Mark Shea, and I have said some of them myself over the years, but one of them is definitely not, “He is insufficiently attached to the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is the best one.” In other words, Mr. Voris: When Shea says you’re too sectarian, dude, it’s time to throw in the towel.)
The sermon by Father Daniels stresses the gratuitousness of grace as the essential difference of Christianity. As opposed to pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps attempts to win God’s favor by creating our own righteousness, Christianity stresses the sheer grace of God — in redeeming His creatures, as in creating them in the first place. Christianity, then, is not a white-knuckle attempt to “win the future” but an act of gratitude for what God has already done, in the past and present and always. It is a religion not of good people basking in their self-achieved goodness, but of bad people who accept with joy the forgiveness of God. Why, then, it might be asked, does Paul also speak of “fear and trembling”? In short: Because those here on earth are not immune to fear and doubt. But even in that very same passage in Philippians, Paul goes on to remind his readers that when they are “working out [their] salvation with fear and trembling,” it is actually God Himself “which worketh in you.” It is, finally, as St. Thérèse said: “All is grace.”
I recommend the sermon by Father Daniels especially, but if you have time check out the whole service; the music, a Mass setting by William Byrd, is provided by a visiting choir from Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, and is excellent.