Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace

Ephesians 2:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

24 September 2017



    According to Timothy Wengert, one of the leading Luther scholars of our time whom I had the good fortune to meet a couple of years ago when he was in Omaha, "the heart of [Martin] Luther's concern [in posting the 95 Theses that launched the Reformation was]: bad preaching and theology and what it does to the faithful."

    Luther wanted to "instruct, admonish, and comfort laypeople whom he thought misled by the bad theology of the indulgence preachers."


    So, the Pope wanted to build a new, bigger, and better St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican in Rome. And he did a pretty good job. I think St. Peter's is the most beautiful room I've ever entered. But every time, I am reminded that its construction led to centuries of schism in the Christian church.

For the fundraising campaign the pope decided to offer indulgences. By the early 16th century indulgences had become a way for people to buy themselves or their family members out of some time in purgatory. Now, that's not what they had originally been, and Luther would point that out, but that's what they had become.

    Consequently, special indulgence preachers were appointed, including one who worked in the region near Martin Luther. That preacher was named Johann Tetzel. And according to all the bad press Tetzel's received the last 500 years, he was a piece of work, using all sorts of questionable theology and methods to entice people into buying an indulgence. According to Luther, Tetzel proclaimed that "as soon as a coin thrown into the money chest clinks, a soul flies out of purgatory."

    It was primarily Tetzel's bad preaching that angered Martin Luther. He had already begun to question the theology of indulgences and to research their historical meaning. Luther was among that new generation of scholars who employed new research methods—in his case an historical examination of old documents—to arrive at the truth.

    What he discovered was that the current approach to indulgences violated traditional theology. So, bad, deceptive preaching and bad theology.

    He also didn't care much about fundraising for St. Peter's. He advised giving money to your local poor instead. That was not likely to endear him to Rome.

    Luther was angry. But he was also a good academic. And part of academic practice at that time was to call for a public debate and you did that by posting theses. Which is what Luther did on October 31, 1517. He posted on the church door at Wittenberg his 95 theses, disputing the theology of indulgences and the bad preaching of Tetzel.    


And the rest is history. World altering history, which is why we are commemorating its 500th anniversary this autumn.

But Luther's action was not itself the moment of schism when Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. The actual Reformation was a many decades process that of course ended in a century of war and violence. Which is why this world-wide event is being called a commemoration and not a celebration.

Nor did the 95 Theses express all the elements we might now consider essential to Protestant or even Lutheran theology. Luther wasn't even questioning papal authority directly at this point. As Timothy Wengert writes, Luther's concern was primarily pastoral. And his concerns in 1517 were very focused on the saving grace of God.


Thesis number 36 says, "Any truly remorseful Christian has a right to full remission of guilt and penalty, even without indulgence letters." People didn't need to spend money to experience the grace of God. The indulgence preachers were promoting a "mutilated grace"—a grace that you needed to earn, purchase even. But that's not grace.

God's grace is freely given to us. That's what makes it grace. That it is the free love of God offered to us for our salvation.

The winter after he launched the controversy, Luther preached a sermon in which he more fully explained his view of God's grace. That sermon was printed and sold and was the primary vehicle for spreading Luther's message to the masses. It also happens to be the very first best seller in the history of the printed word. Oh, the day when a sermon might be a best seller!

Here's what Luther proclaimed:


It is a tremendous error when people imagine that they can make satisfaction for their sins, which God instead always forgives gratis out of immeasurable grace while desiring nothing for this grace except that one live well from then on.


    There is nothing we can do to earn God's grace. We do not need to buy it. It is freely given by a good and loving God. And once it is received, grace should call us to lead good and faithful lives.

    This last point was Luther's other main objection to the selling of indulgences. Luther was worried that people might come to believe that all they had to do was give a little money. Give a little money so that you could avoid the difficult work of developing Christian character. The difficult work of eliminating sin from your life.

    God has forgiven you but if you want to experience the fullness of life, then you must let God's grace work to transform you into a new and better person.

    In thesis 44 he wrote "love grows through works of love and a person is made better; but through indulgences one is not made better." Luther thought indulgences were for lazy people, but that a true believer will show the works of love that result from true contrition for sins.

    So bad theology and deceptive preaching were leading the people astray and away from both God's grace and the true work of Christian discipleship.

    Luther expected the theologians and the magisterium to embrace his arguments, but they did not. And soon the larger debates erupted over scripture and authority and ministry and communion and all the many disagreements that divided European Christendom for the last half-millennium.



    Five hundred years later, when indulgences and the fundraising for St. Peter's basilica are no longer our issues, we remain concerned with how to live a good and abundant life, with how God's grace saves us.

    In our worship series this fall, we are being guided by the idea that the church is always reformed and always reforming. God is still at work in us and through us, speaking and guiding us to a fuller understanding.

    And so this week I didn't only review the old history, I also turned to contemporary theologians, influenced by this tradition, for their thoughts on grace in the 21st century.

    In her book The Grace of Sophia the theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim develops a theology rooted in the experience of Korean women living as immigrants in North America. She is troubled by systemic evils of sexism and racism and marginalization that have robbed these women of the opportunity to live full and thriving lives. Like Luther she is concerned about bad, harmful theology.

    And so she turns to the grace of God which she says is "an experiential reality" that heals and strengthens our ordinary lives. God's grace is not simply forgiveness of our sins, but it heals us and empowers us. It heals the broken body and soul but also gives strength to confront injustice. She writes that grace is "the unconditional love that is poured into the wounded lives of hurting women" enabling self-worth and transformation.

    In his book From Sin to Amazing Grace theologian Patrick Cheng wants to recover grace for queer people long marginalized and harmed by the Christian church. Grace, he writes, is "a free gift from God that reunites us with God." He adds, "God's superabundant grace can be described as an outpouring of love that is obscenely promiscuous!"

    Cheng agrees with Luther and Bonhoeffer that grace demands something of us—our transformation. "Grace requires us to cooperate with God," Cheng writes. Grace is God's work through Jesus to bring us into the fullness of life. And so grace connects us intimately with other people. It gives us courage to live honestly and with integrity. And the willingness to challenge injustice.

    Grace teaches us to transgress the false boundaries and divisions that society has a tendency to erect. It affirms our intrinsic value and our interdependence on one another. And grace "delights in multiplicities, intersections, and interstitial places."


    And so these contemporary teachers of the Christian faith remind us to be concerned about what is good for people. To avoid what harms and misleads and deceives us. And instead to proclaim what saves us, what makes us better.

God desires us to live abundantly. Therefore God has freely given us the power that can transform our lives by forgiving our sins, growing our love, healing our wounds, and empowering us. We cannot buy it, we cannot earn it, it is simply ours, if we but receive it. This is good news. This is Amazing Grace.


O, how sweet the sound

For it saved a wretch like me,

I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

The Practice of the Wild

The Practice of the Wild: EssaysThe Practice of the Wild: Essays by Gary Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A series of beautiful and profound reflections on nature and wilderness, with particular emphasis on what we can learn from the experiences of pre-industrial cultures. For instance, I learned a lot about traditional Japanese culture.

I read the book for our church's upcoming Advent series "Voices in the Wilderness" but also found it affirming some of my teaching on Wendell Berry in my Philosophical Ethics class.

View all my reviews

Montaigne's advice for educating children

I would therefore have him begin even from his infancie to travell abroad; and first, that at one shoot he may hit two markes, he should see neighbour-countries, namely where languages are most different from ours; for, unlesse a mans tongue be fashioned unto them in his youth, he shall never attaine to the true pronuntiation of them, if he once grow in yeares.  Moreover, we see it received as a common opinion of the wiser sort, that it agreeth not with reason, that a childe be alwaies nuzzled, cockered, dandled, and brought up in his parents lap or sight; forsomuch as their naturall kindnesse, or (as I may call it) tender fondnesse, causeth often, even the wisest to prove so idle, over-nice, and so base-minded.  For parents are not capable, neither can they find in their hearts to see them checkt, corrected, or chastised, nor indure to see them brought up so meanly, and so far from daintinesse, and many times so dangerously, as they must needs be. . . . if he will make him prove a sufficient, compleat, or honest man: he must not be spared in his youth.

A Way in the World

A Way in the WorldA Way in the World by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I admire Naipaul's writing. He may be the best living writer in the English language. But I did not enjoy this particular novel. It is a series of autobiographical reflections on revolutions from colonialism experienced in his native Trinidad and Africa and also a series of sketches of different figures from the histories of those revolutions and further back in history--particularly Sir Walter Raleigh and Francicso de Miranda. The sections set in Trinidad and Venezuela are a haunting picture of centuries of their history. But the novel as a whole is not clear and individual pieces vary widely in worth. I believe Naipaul was trying something new with the book, but it did not succeed, proving that literary genius can fail grandly.

View all my reviews

To God Be the Glory

To God Be the Glory

2 Chronicles 5:1-14

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

17 September 2017



    "I play the notes as they are written but it is God who makes the music." That was the belief of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest composer the world has ever seen.

    I was reading about Bach this week as I prepared for this, my first sermon in our autumn series Reformed, in which we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Guided by the adage "the church is always reformed, always reforming," we will explore how best to interpret key doctrines of the Reformation for our time and place—our global, postmodern, scientific, and pluralistic age.

    An article on described the spirituality of Bach's compositional process:


Whenever he began a new piece, he bowed his head and prayed. "Jesus, help me show your glory through the music I write. May it bring you joy even as it brings joy to your people.". . . When he was finally satisfied, he wrote the letters SDG at the bottom of the page - Soli Deo Gloria - For the Glory of God Alone. He hoped that when the music was played, it would point toward God.


    In the biblical story from 2 Chronicles, as Solomon dedicates the temple, the people's worship, particularly the music, summons the glory of God, which is physically manifest. The connection between music and glory is ancient and powerful.

    As I researched and wrote this week, I listened to a lot of Bach. And indeed, the music is glorious. It does manifest the glory of God.


    One of the core doctrines of the Reformation is expressed by this Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria - For the Glory of God Alone.

    John Calvin wrote


We cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory.


    I thought of Monday, August 21 and that beautiful day in which most of us experienced the eclipse. What joy you shared in your stories and pictures and Facebook posts. Again and again the words appeared—amazing, beautiful, glorious. Katie Miller, who was on vacation and saw the eclipse from a hilltop outside Glendo, Wyoming wrote, "Can totally tell why the ancient folk thought something big was going down when it happened."

    Jennifer Forbes-Baily, with her husband and dogs outside Gandy, Nebraska wrote, "When the moon obliterated the sun and day became night, I wished upon the first star that appeared and tears came unbidden – just so incredibly beautiful."

    And my own two year old son, looked up at the total eclipse and pointed and squealed and exclaimed, "The moon." Even the unschooled mind grasped the sublime.

    "We cannot open our eyes without . . . being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory."


Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher, proclaimed that the things of God possess a beauty that sets them apart from the things of humankind. "There is a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divine reality," he preached.

We were reminded this week of the courage and sacrifice of those first responders who entered the World Trade Center to save their fellow humans. In recent weeks we've witnessed the bravery of ordinary people with their canoes and motorboats pulling stranded flood victims from the tops of roofs. Every single week it is my honor to watch congregants care for one other.

"There is a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divine reality."


    A traditional definition of the doctrine explains:


The Reformation reclaimed the Scriptural teaching of the sovereignty of God over every aspect of the believer's life. All of life is to be lived to the glory of God. . . . In contrast to the monastic division of life into sacred versus secular perpetuated by [the] Roman Church, the reformers saw all of life to be lived under the Lordship of Christ. Every activity of the Christian is to be sanctified unto the glory of God.


    This idea was most clearly expressed in the opening of the Westminster Catechism of 1646:


    What is the chief end of man?

Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.


This week we've been caring for Joan Eddy who was in the hospital after a fall. Joan has been a member of this congregation since she was confirmed here in 1943 at the age of twelve. Rarely has she held a major leadership position. A few years ago when she was talked into being president of the Women's Fellowship, she wasn't too keen on the idea of being in charge, but she took the role out of a sense of duty and responsibility.

Other than her decades singing the choir, Joan has generally been a behind-the-scenes person. She came to church during the week to work in the choir room, preventing chaos and disorder by filing sheet music. Every two weeks she and Verda Werner would spend an entire day preparing the newsletter for mailing and deliver it to the Post Office, always keeping abreast of the changes in bulk mailing. And she showed up for most things, always a faithful, quiet presence.

Reformed doctrine teaches us that Joan's life participates fully in the glory of God.


    Of course, as with many Reformation doctrines, this teaching builds upon an ancient teaching of the Christian faith, including the words of St. Irenaeus in the second century, "The glory of God is a humanity fully alive."

    What does it mean in the twenty-first century to give glory to God alone? The theologian Bruce Epperly, quoted in our contemporary lesson today, answers this question:


A God of grace and glory moves through every cell and every soul, enlivening, enlightening, and energizing. God's glory is in our salvation—our wholeness and healing—and in the transformation of this good earth so that it might reflect God's aim at beauty, truth, goodness, and justice. We give God glory by following the counsel of Mother Teresa, "to do something beautiful for God."


    And so my invitation to you today is to do something beautiful. To enjoy this day that God has made. To eat good food and drink good drink. To laugh with kids and hug your family. To sing and dance. To hike in the woods, kayak the lakes, and let the butterflies frolic around you. To rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.

For we give glory to God by living beautifully and fully and enjoying all that God has created.




James Longenbach  

Because the most difficult part about making something, also the best,
Is existing in the middle,
Sustaining an act of radical imagination,
I simmered a broth: onion, lemon, a big handful of mint.

The phone rang. So with my left
Hand I answered it,
Sautéing the rice, then adding the broth
Slowly, one ladle at a time, with my right. What’s up?

The miracle of risotto, it’s easy to miss, is the moment when the husks dissolve,
Each grain of rice releasing its tiny explosion of starch.

If you take it off the heat just then, let it sit
While you shave the parmesan into paper-thin curls,
It will be perfectly creamy,
But will still have a bite.

There will be dishes to do,
The moon will rise,
And everyone you love will be safe.

Soli Deo Gloria--Kid's version


This fall our worship series is entitled Reformed as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation with a focus on various doctrines of the Reformation and what they might mean to us today.  First up this morning was Soli Deo Gloria--Glory to God Alone.  In my sermon prep I was reading about Johann Sebastian Bach, as he signed all his compositions Soli Deo Gloria.  When Katie, my Associate Minister, asked if I'd do the conversation with the children in worship, I said I would, "And I'm going to talk about Bach."  Here's how that went.

Kids are coming forward and sitting beside me on the chancel steps as I engage in some lively banter with them.  Before I can begin in earnest one of the older kids asks about the picture I'm holding, "Is that George Washington?"

"No. This is not George Washington."

"Thomas Jefferson?"

"No.  It is Johann Sebastian Bach. Have any of you ever heard of Johann Sebastian Bach?"

"My last name is Bock," says one of the kids.

"Yes, but he spells it differently.  He spells it B-a-c-h." This news is greeted by a grimace.  "How do you spell it?"


"See. It's spelled differently."  Then other kids start spelling their names.

"Here's another picture.  It's an action shot."

"He's playing the piano."

"Actually, it's the organ.  Bach composed music. He may be the greatest composer of music ever."

One kid shakes his head.  "No."

"Who do you think is the greatest?"

"Michael Jackson."

"Okay, I like Michael Jackson too.  Let's hear some Bach.  Stephen [the organist], can you play us a few lines of Bach?"

Stephen plays the opening of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.

"Did you like that?"

One girl, loudly, "No!"  A few yeses.

"Is it pretty?"  A few nods.

"It's often played at weddings.  Have you heard it at a wedding?"

Mr. Michael Jackson Fan says, "I went to a wedding last week."

"Did they play this music?"


"Did they play any Michael Jackson?"


"Okay then."

Stephen, the organist, interrupts.  "I have another piece they might like better."  Plays the opening of Toccato and Fugue, very loudly.  Some kids like it.  One says he recognizes it. Some laugh.  Some put their hands over their ears.  And one girl utters a loud, primal scream.

Pastor and congregation begin cackling.

Mr. Michael Jackson Fan, "That sounded like Dracula."

"Yes, that's sometimes played in scary movies.  Did you think it was scary?"

No Girl from earlier, "No."

Then I went on to talk about how Bach believed God inspired and spoke through his music and that people could experience God through music.

"What's experience?"  Then I tried to answer that.

Then I asked them what are ways they can show the beauty and joy of God in their lives, and they gave good answers.