Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Free Means Free” (Romans 5:15-17)
March 1, 2020
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Earlier this month something very special and unexpected occurred at Raley’s Supermarket in Sacramento, California.  As six-year old Daphne Kenny wandered the cereal aisle, in the midst of the shelves of Cheerio’s and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Frosted Flakes, she found something that looked like a shopping list someone had left there.  But it was much more than that.  It was a crisp $100 bill along with a note that read, “To whoever finds this: you are loved.”

Daphne’s mom, Danica, was wondering if there was a catch or if perhaps it was a practical joke with a counterfeit bill—but it was no joke and the $100 bill was indeed real.  Danica decided Daphne could keep that $100 bill or spend it on anything she wanted, and so at Daphne’s request they went to a Build-a-Bear Workshop where kids can custom make their own stuffed animals.  Daphne built two amazing plush cats.  Now every night Daphne tucks in with two stuffed cats that remind her that she is loved by the one who gave her an unexpected free gift.

Some people have a very hard time accepting a free gift.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?  Receiving a free gift requires vulnerability and humility.  Receiving a free gift means lowering the walls that surround us.  Receiving a free gift makes us wary as we try to figure out what the catch is, what strings are attached, what the ulterior motives of the giver must be.  We think receiving a free gift means we still have to somehow pay that person back or eventually return the favor, right?

In the ominous opening scene of the 1972 masterpiece film The Godfather, Don Corleone agrees to provide justice to Amerigo Bonasera who wants revenge against those who assaulted his daughter.  After Amerigo bows and kisses his ring, Don Corleone the Godfather puts his arm around his shoulder and tells him, “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me.  But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”  Don Corleone gives the “free gift” of justice, but it’s not really free at all.

When it comes to how the world works, all this rings true.  You cannot help but be put on your guard when offered a free gift because you are convinced that someday down the road the one who gave you that “free gift” will expect something in return, that you will forever be in their debt.  This is one of the reasons why The Godfather resonated with so many people.  Everyone has someone in their life like Don Corleone, a person in power who gives “free gifts” that are not actually free.

But when it comes to the gospel, the exact opposite is true.  God is nothing like Don Corleone.  When it comes to the good news of the grace of God in Jesus Christ for you, when it comes to the actual grace of God for your actual life as it actually is and not as it should be, it’s all free.  God’s grace is an unexpected free gift with no catch, no strings attached, no ulterior motives.  This cuts against the grain of human nature and sounds too good to be true, but it is very true.

In the fifth chapter of the Letter of Paul to the Romans the Apostle writes about how all of us are sinners, no exceptions, going all the way back to Adam.  Moreover, the penalty for sin is death.  There is no escape, as we read today, “As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).  We need God to help us.  We need God to rescue us.  We need God to save us.  And as we further read in today’s passage, God does just that through his unexpected free gift of grace.  Listen to how many times the phrase “free gift” is used in today’s passage:

The free gift is not like the trespass.  For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin.  For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.  If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15-17).

In other words, while the bad news is all of us sinners are doomed to die going back to Adam, the good news of the gospel is that all of us sinners are offered the free gift of God’s grace, the “free gift of righteousness” in Jesus Christ.

The phrase “free gift” is used five times in that passage—and when it comes to God’s grace, free means free.  In Jesus Christ the free gift of God’s grace “abounded for man”, meaning the free gift of God’s grace was and is more than enough for everyone, including you.  In Jesus Christ the free gift of God’s grace “brings justification” and “the free gift of righteousness”, meaning because Jesus paid the price for your sins in your place you have right standing with God.  If God were to send you a bill for all the sins you have committed it would read: “Balance: $0.00, Minimum Payment Due: $0.00” because Jesus already paid it in full.  Later in this letter Paul sums all this up in one verse: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).  Again, when it comes to the free gift of God’s grace, free means free.

Some people are resistant to this idea of the free gift of God’s grace.  Some people get very uncomfortable, very squirmy in the pews when it comes to the free gift of God’s grace.  Because the Lord helps those who help themselves, right?  Because God wants to be your copilot, right?  Well, wrong—the actual gospel is that the Lord helps those who cannot help themselves; the actual gospel is that God is not the least bit interested in being your copilot but rather being your Pilot, being your Lord.  When Elton John sang, “Take me to the pilot,” he was absolutely right.

In his book Grace in Practice Paul Zahl addresses this resistance to God’s grace:

Nobody welcomes grace.  At the same time everyone pants for it; everybody wants it every second of every hour…People fear that grace will give permission to be bad.  This is the classic fear: that grace will issue a license—“007”—to do whatever you want, without consequences.  Yet that never happens!  In fact, the opposite happens.  When you treat people gracefully, they often end up doing the right thing.  It comes naturally.  Their righteousness grows like fruit, as Jesus predicted (Grace in Practice 71, 73).

In The Book of Common Prayer there is a beautiful and theologically loaded prayer we pray right after someone is baptized: “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace” (308).  The free gift of God’s grace gives you a new life—“the new life of grace”— because you are fully known by God, fully forgiven by God, fully loved by God.

At Grace Café, the home of our college ministry, the slogan is “It’s not cheap; it’s free.”  This is not an attempt to be cute or witty or subversive.  ‘It’s not cheap; it’s free” is a simple expression of the gospel because the free gift of God’s grace is indeed free—free for you and free for me because it cost Jesus everything.

The free gift of God’s grace came in the form of the Giver himself, Jesus Christ.  Scripture tells us that in Jesus Christ “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16).  Jesus himself told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Jesus promised, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Many years ago the prolific Christian singer songwriter Michael W. Smith wrote a powerful song called “Give It Away” about the free gift of God’s grace being in the form of the Giver himself:

We can entertain compassion for a world in need of care
But the road of good intentions doesn’t lead to anywhere
‘Cause love isn’t love till you give it away
You gotta give it away…

There was a man who walked on water
He came to set the people free
He was the ultimate example of what love can truly be
‘Cause his love was his life
And he gave it away (from his 1992 album Change Your World)

And how did the world respond to the free gift of God’s grace?  How did the world respond to the Giver himself?

We rejected the Giver even before he was born, so he was born in a barn.  We told the Giver he should not be healing on the sabbath day, but he healed people anyway.  We grumbled, “Who does he think he is?” when the Giver told people who had not even asked for God’s forgiveness that they were forgiven.  We gossiped about the Giver because he had the audacity to touch lepers (you’re not supposed to touch lepers) and to hang out with notorious sinners who he appeared to actually enjoy being around.  We labeled the Giver as a blasphemous imposter.

We dismissed the Giver like we would dismiss a counterfeit $100 bill because there has to be a catch, right?  The free grace from this Giver has to have some strings attached, some ulterior motives, right?  Finally, we reached a point when we had had enough of the Giver and his freely giving away God’s grace.  So we betrayed the Giver and arrested him.  We bore false witness about him in a sham of a trial and condemned him to death.  We spit on him and mocked him and put a purple robe on him and placed a crown of thorns on him.  We made him carry a cross through the streets, jeering him as he did so.  We threw him on his back and hammered nails through his hands and feet and lifted him up on a cross.  Then we made fun of him some more until he died.  Like Amerigo Bonasera we wanted justice, and we got what we wanted.  And that is how we responded to the free gift of God’s grace because that is how we responded to the Giver himself.

And yet, Jesus still gave that free gift of God’s grace anyway—and still does.  Jesus still prayed, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”   Jesus still gave everything, his very life till his final labored breath “‘cause his love was his life and he gave it away.”  In spite of our best efforts, we could not stop the Giver from giving us the free gift of God’s grace.

On the cross Jesus still gave the entire world an unexpected free gift, his arms wide open and his message crystal clear, “To whoever finds this: you are loved.”

And even now the Risen Jesus offers you the free gift of God’s grace, the gift you think you want to resist but that you actually crave “every second of every hour.”

Scripture tells us that Jesus “came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12).  In other words, when it comes to receiving the free gift of God’s grace, there are some people in this world like little six-year old Daphne Kenny in the cereal aisle at Raley’s Supermarket who find the gift and simply receive it for what it is, an unexpected free gift to remind her she is    loved.  I hope our church overflows with people like six-year old Daphne Kenny.

The good news of the gospel is that when it comes to the free gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, free means free.