My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a wonderful person. I remember her fondly. And she was a character. She worked as a labor and delivery nurse for 50 years and so dedicated herself to her work that she developed no hobbies other than shopping. That meant that, when she retired, she spent a ton of time in a home decor place near her house. I think it was called Tomlinson’s. You know the kind of place. It was wall-to-wall knick knacks and potpourri. As a kid, every time we went to visit, I would end up there, and as a 12-year-old boy a place like that may as well be one of the levels of Hell in Dante’s Inferno.
Around the time Sara and I got married, my grandmother purchased a cat from Tomlinson’s. It wasn’t alive or anything. It was decorative. A little cat curled in on itself that she used to decorate the beds in her house. When Sara and I would visit, the first thing that Sara would do is kick the cat on her bed onto the floor and bury it under the pillows because she was sure the thing was going to come alive at any minute.
Sara is smart, perceptive, so it isn’t surprising that she was pretty much right about the cat. It was front page news in the Summerville paper: Tomlinson’s sells stuffed Chinese alley cats to area residents. As soon as my grandmother heard about it, that these decorative cats of hers had, in fact, at one time been real cats, she rushed over to her favorite store and spoke to the cashier.
“Good morning,” she said. And that’s all it took for the cashier to start apologizing: “Mrs. Bivens, we’re so sorry about those cats! We’re just mortified. I hope you can see past this horrible mistake. We’ve already packed up the ones we had left. and we’re ready to ship them back to where they came from.” “So, you haven’t sent them back yet,” my grandmother said. “In that case, could you go back there and get me a couple more?”
That’s about my favorite story. It’s funny because, if you know better, if you know the decorative cats are real cats, you shouldn’t buy any more. If you know better, you shouldn’t. It’s like chitlins. If you know what they are, you shouldn’t eat them, but I do.
And it’s like sin. If you’ve been saved from it, forgiven of it, then you shouldn’t anymore. But considering what we know about grace, I believe “should” is an inadequate motivator. Many churches don’t preach grace the way we do on “Day1.” In some churches, a warning is preached: “Don’t you sin or Hell awaits.” If Hell awaits, then “should” has a lot of power.
In those churches, you do what you should to avoid eternal punishment, but we stand on what Paul wrote in Romans chapter 5: Christ has saved us. It’s not our work that’s going to get us into Heaven; it’s what Christ has done for us. Based on this book of Romans, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other heroes of the Reformed Tradition promoted the statement: Grace alone.
That’s one of five “solas” or standards of the Reformed faith. Sola is Latin for alone, so we say we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone. If we say that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, what is there to say about faith?
Grace is about what Christ has done to save us. Faith is about how we respond. But what I want to make especially clear about faith is that faith is more than what we should or shouldn’t do. I believe that churches and priests and preachers and Sunday School teachers have a bad habit of overusing the word “should.” You might say that the Church has been “should-ing” all over people for generations.
We say: You should pray. You should tithe. You should be a good little boy or girl. You should. You should. You should. Only “should” isn’t much of a gift. Should is an obligation. We give people whom we love gifts, not obligations. Why would the God who loves us be any different?
God gives faith as a gift, so I say to you today I do not pray because I should, I pray because when I start my day with prayer and meditation, I receive a little bit of heaven. We give 10% of my salary back to the church, not because we’re supposed to, but because being generous makes us happy. And I try to be good. I do, but not because I should. I don’t like being told what I should do.
The last time we sold a house, we had just had a bathroom renovated. After having the bathroom renovated, before we could sell the house, we had to have a final inspection. One inspector came over and he gave me a punch list of five or six things I should do, and when he did that, I started not liking him.
However, I wanted to pass the inspection, so it didn’t matter what he asked for, and it didn’t matter whether I liked him. Out of a fear of failing, I installed something called a Studor valve and a bunch of other stuff on that bathroom. Well, the inspector came back after I finished, but it was a different inspector this time, and she walked into the bathroom, turned on the water in the sink, made sure the toilet flushed, and we passed. She didn’t even look at my Studor valve.
Is God like a home inspector? Is our God some divine authority who enjoys telling us what we should and shouldn’t do? And is God watching who does what, rewarding the saints and punishing the sinners?
People think of God that way, yet when Paul asks in Romans chapter 6, our second Scripture lesson for today, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” what he means is that faith is more than doing what you should. Faith is recognizing that Christ brings us freedom, and sin is too great a burden to bear, so try faith. Some people have. Some people are trying to figure it out.
A young boy named Eli wanted to eat an orange during church. His mom told him he couldn’t. “You can’t eat during church, that’s not how we do it here,” she told him. “Then I’ll just eat during the prayer, when everyone has their eyes closed.”
Now, if no one will know, is it okay to do it? No. If we did whatever we wanted, we would wind up lost and alone, which is not what God wants for any of us.
You might remember that legendary question and answer from the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoyhim forever.
To enjoy him. We are saved by grace alone. We live in faith alone because the God who died to save us also shows us the way to abundant life. He tells us how to enjoy the fruits of a faithful life, how to benefit from healthy relationships, how to live filled up by an abiding peace that guilt nor hardship can touch.
We forget that God tells us to love one another, not because we should, but because there is no more miserable person than the one who thinks only of himself. You see, sin is its own enslavement. Sin is death enough on its own.
And faith? Faith is abundant life and we must live a faithful life because there is no other way to live. We live by faith, not out of a place of fear, wondering where we will go when we die. We do it because God loves us and shows us how to live by sharing his love.
Live a life of faith out of love, not fear. Love is the more profound motivator anyway. Think about it. Think about the Ukrainian army facing the Russians. One side fights for love of country, the other for a paycheck. Who will win? I know who I’d put my money on, for those who fight for love of their homeland will never stop so long as there is breath in their lungs.
Likewise, I love my family, not because I should. I love my wife, not because I’m obligated. I love being a pastor, not just because I’m paid to do it, but because I love the Church. I love God’s people, and I love talking about the Lord who died that we might live.
Does God want our obedience or our love? Our resentment or our gratitude?
I said before that the Church is in the bad habit of “shoulding” all over people. “You should, you should, you should,” the preachers have said, but that’s only what the preachers have said. God says, “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
God’s grace washes all over us. God’s provision is all around us. God leans in so close to hear our prayers, for God treasures us. And so, I say this is faith: Live a righteous, loving life, not just because we should or someone told us to, but because love drives us to it.
Live a life of faith, and abundant life will be your reward.