Grace is First
On All Hallows’ Eve, in the Year of Our Lord, 1517, an Augustinian priest named Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther, a scrupulous man, and lover of the Word of God, saw some abuses in the Church that he felt needed to be reformed – among which were the sale of indulgences. That act launched what we know as the Protestant Reformation, and we marked the 500th anniversary of that event this past Halloween.
One of the major differences that many Protestants today will be quick to point out is that while the Church has many rituals, rites, and “holy actions” – all of which are classified by them as simply “works” – none of these are necessary for our salvation, since we are brought together with God – or “justified” – only by faith.
Almost twenty years ago, Catholic and Lutheran theologians met and produced a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” that stated our common agreement on the fact that we are all justified not by any of our works, but by the grace of God. Our response that that grace is what we call faith. Meanwhile, the divisions remain, and many a Protestant minister will tell you Catholics that you are wrong to trust in any of your “empty works.”
Let me tell you a secret: none of this began with the Protestant Reformation! It’s actually been a struggle of people of faith for millennia. Even the Bible tells stories of the misplaced trust that we humans place in our own efforts, and how God overcomes that all the time.
We see just such an episode in our First Reading today. Here, we find King David – about 1,000 years before Christ – taking stock of his new royal situation. He has rest from his enemies; he is settled in his palace; and things look great for Israel. When David considers this set up, he realizes that there he is in a beautiful palace made of cedar, and the Ark of the Covenant – the dwelling place of God – is a meager tent, like God was still wandering with the nomads who fled Egypt.
The king’s response to this is to promise to build a house for God. However, God does not want this. Rather, God turns the tables and promises to build a house for David! He is told that his household shall stand firm forever. What a promise!
When David wanted to do something wonderful for God through his own human greatness, God intervened and showed the king the power of His grace. In fact, this grace is first. Nothing can substitute for it; nothing is better than it. Even after that throne of David was destroyed by the Babylonians, 400 years later, the people continued to believe and hope in God’s promise of an eternal Kingdom of grace.
Therefore, when we get to the Gospel, and the Angel Gabriel’s visit to an insignificant little girl in an insignificant little town in an insignificant part of the world, we are reminded again of the primacy of God’s grace. Gabriel recalls God’s promise to David: “the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Nothing Mary or Joseph could do was able to bring this promise to fulfillment. That is what grace is all about. The only response to grace is faith; the only proper reply is trust. And Mary shows us what that looks like when she responds, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”
The argument over faith, grace, and works continues. However, I think we have our resolution in the Church. God acts first, this is grace. We respond with trusting faith; and that faith is born out in how we live – in our works. Without any of these, there is no salvation; but it always begins with God.