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Grace vs. the Good Place

Romans 5:1-11

In the Netflix series, “The Good Place,” Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself face to face with an angel named Michael. Michael explains to Eleanor that she has died and gone to heaven – or more accurately, the Good Place. You see, the Good Place is the place reserved in the afterlife for only the most virtuous humans – those who have lived lives of generosity, charity, and altruism. And there is a system for measuring this – a points system, where every action has a positive or negative value. And at the end of someone’s life, all the points are added up, and those with the highest scores are rewarded by going to the Good Place.

In the Good Place, Eleanor meets other wonderful, virtuous people, like Tahani, a wealthy philanthropist, and Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who took a vow of silence, and Chidi, a professor of ethics and Eleanor’s soul mate. There’s only one problem: Eleanor does not belong in the good place. She’s self-centered, judgmental, dishonest, and vindictive, but she’s been mistaken for another Eleanor Shellstrop, who is a virtuous person.

Eleanor is afraid that she’ll be discovered for who she really is, and kicked out of the Good Place. But it isn’t long before we find out that the others aren’t all that virtuous either. In fact, they are flawed, self-centered, broken people too. In a way, perhaps none of them really deserve to be in the Good Place.

This is the problem with the points system, isn’t it? As human beings, we all have flaws and failures. We make mistakes, we hurt one another, we are dishonest with others, and with ourselves. Paul is blunt about it in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

But we want to believe that we can earn God’s favour, don’t we? We want to believe that somehow we are worthy of God’s favour, because of the good we’ve done in the world, or because of our talents or skills, or maybe just because we’ve been a good person.

But the problem is that if we live our lives trying to earn points before God, we will never be at peace. If we live our lives trying to earn points before God, we’ll always be asking, “Have I done enough?” “Am I good enough?” Or perhaps, in those times when we are truly honest with ourselves, “Will I ever be able to atone for the mistakes I have made, and the hurt I have caused, and the wrongs that I have committed?”

If we live our lives trying to earn points before God, we will never be at peace. For “all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God,” as Paul reminds us.

It seems like a harsh statement, doesn’t it? But it’s a statement that we need to hear. It’s a statement that we need to hear, so that we can truly hear and accept what comes next:

“Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Paul wants us to know that what we could never have done for ourselves, God has done for us. Not because of anything we have done, but as a free gift of grace. Why? Because God loves us.

And this is the measure of God’s love for us:

That while we were still weak, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still enemies of God, Christ died to reconcile us to God; and what’s more, Christ rose so that we would be saved in him.

This is the measure of God’s love for us.

As Lutherans, we talk a lot about being saved by grace, through faith. But this idea wasn’t invented in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. It’s as ancient as the Bible itself, and this is where we hear it perhaps most clearly: in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

And this is what it means to be saved by grace through faith: that we don’t have to trust in our own goodness, or wonder if we’ve done enough to earn God’s favour. We don’t need to worry about whether or not we’ve earned enough points. Rather, we can be honest about our lives before God. We can be honest about our brokenness, and our failings, and our sinfulness. We can even confess it before God. And we can place our trust wholly in God’s immeasurable and unconditional love for us, which has been revealed to us in the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

If we had to trust in our own works, we could never have peace. But since we are justified through faith, Paul writes, we have peace with God. We have peace with God, because we can trust that God has taken the initiative, and God has reconciled us to Godself, not because of anything we’ve done, but simply because God loves us.

So now that we are saved by grace through faith, now that we have peace with God, the question that remains is this: how are we to live? And that is the question we will explore next week, as we pick up Romans chapter 6.

Until then, may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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