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Episcopal Church of the Resurrection
“God Helps Those Who Cannot Help Themselves” (Romans 5:6-8)
March 12, 2023
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When I was a kid there was a saying I often heard—“God helps those who help themselves.” I remember thinking that made a lot of sense and had to be true. But many years later I learned that when it comes to the gospel, it is completely wrong—because the good news of the gospel is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.” This may rub you the wrong way, but it’s true. That’s why we prayed in the powerful collect for today, “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” (The Book of Common Prayer 218). When we prayed that earlier in the service did you mean it?
Many years ago, Steph and I took a weekend trip to Savannah, Georgia. I had insomnia one night and went on a walk in the wee hours through the beautiful downtown streets, and came upon the famous statue of John Wesley (1703-1791), the Anglican priest who served at Christ Church in Savannah from February 1736-December 1737. I stood there awhile, thinking about John Wesley’s life, thinking about my own life (I was in my late 20’s and was a youth minister and had just started seminary). For John Wesley those 22 months in Savannah were not a good time in his life. He struggled during his ministry at Christ Church and struggled personally as he fell in love with a gorgeous young lady named Sophy Hopkey, who as he vacillated in his love for her, married a gentleman named William Williamson. John Wesley was so hurt he refused to serve Sophy communion, which triggered both lots of “church drama” (some people love “church drama”, especially gossips) but also legal proceedings against him. So, what did John Wesley do? He left, departing Savannah forever on December 22, 1737. He was a 34-year-old priest who felt like a failure and fell into a dark depression, second guessing everything about himself and his life. Perhaps some of you can relate.
Back in England John Wesley continued to wrestle with his calling, his career, his life. But then at 8:45PM on Wednesday, May 24, 1738, something very special happened when he attended a Bible Study he didn’t even want to attend, as he himself recorded in his journal:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation: and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me.
That the was beginning of a new chapter in John Wesley’s life and ministry, a chapter which lasted for another 53 years, a chapter during which John Wesley made an incalculable contribution to the Christian Church. Although he was already an ordained priest when it happened, John Wesley considered that moment at that Wednesday night Bible Study as the love of God literally warmed his heart as his actual conversion—for that was when John Wesley finally learned that God helps those who cannot help themselves. I love the honesty in his admitting that he had gone “very unwillingly” to that Bible Study. He hadn’t wanted to be there, but God wanted him there—and that made all the difference. Maybe on this Daylight Savings Day some of you came to church “very unwillingly” today—but either way I am glad you’re here and believe God wanted you here today.
And did you notice what book in the Bible was being studied at the Bible Study that night? It was Paul’s Letter to the Romans, from which we have today’s New Testament reading where Paul points to Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as the ultimate demonstration that indeed God helps those who cannot help themselves:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
These three verses brilliantly describe who we actually are—weak and ungodly sinners who cannot help ourselves and need God to help us—and how much God actually loves us and helps us—“God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” It was this unconditional, all knowing, all forgiving love of God that changed John Wesley’s life—and can change yours too.
Christ died for us “while we were still weak”…“Weak” here means “utterly helpless.” While we tend to hide from others the areas where we are weak, where we are utterly helpless—we need not hide these areas from God (not that we could anyway)—for it is exactly in these areas God ministers his grace—as Jesus assured Paul elsewhere, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Where you are the weakest and most utterly helpless, Jesus loves you the most—and died on the cross to prove it. Where you are the most unable to help yourself, God helps you.
“At the right time Christ died for the ungodly”…the Greek word for “time” here is kairos, which refers not to chronological time, but God’s proper time, appointed time, due time, harvest time. Jesus gave his life on the cross at the right time for the world, and for you. I can’t speak for you, but I know in my own life there has often been “kairos” moments when I really needed to be reminded of the reality of God’s love, and God did just that. Wednesday night May 24, 1738 was a “kairos” moment in John Wesley’s life as he was reminded of the reality of God’s love and his heart was “strangely warmed.” Some of you could share of similar “Kairos” moments, or else you would not be here today.
And Christ did not die for those who had their act together, or are under the delusion that they have their act together; rather “Christ died for the ungodly.” Christ died for the wicked. Christ died for the godless. Christ died for those who don’t even believe in God and mock those who do. Christ died for those who dismiss Christianity as a myth to take the edge of the anxiety of living a hopeless life in a meaningless universe. Christ died for those who have been so wounded and hurt in their lives that they are convinced a loving God could not exist.
Along these lines there is an episode in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic late nineteenth century novel The Brothers Karamazov called “The Grand Inquisitor.” In this story within a story Jesus has returned physically during the Spanish Inquisition but is unrecognized by church leaders. He is arrested, imprisoned, and visited by “The Grand Inquisitor”, a bitter old man who rails to Jesus about the hypocrisy in the church, the wretchedness of the human condition, the danger of free will, and the meaninglessness of suffering. On and on “The Grand Inquisitor” unleashes his angry tirade at Jesus. Dostoevsky tells us what happened next:
The Grand Inquisitor falls silent and waits for some time for the prisoner to answer. The prisoner’s silence has weighed on him. He has watched Him; He listened to him intently, looking gently into his eyes, and apparently unwilling to speak. The old man longs for Him to say something, however painful and terrifying. But instead (Jesus) suddenly goes over to the old man and kisses him gently on his old, bloodless lips. And that is His only answer (Bantam Classics edition 350).
On Good Friday Jesus died on the cross for the ungodly, and as he did so he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). On Good Friday the same Jesus who kissed the Grand Inquisitor “kissed a guilty world in love” (from the Hymn “Here Is Love”).
“God proves his love for us”, Paul writes, “in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us”…During his earthly ministry Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out with notorious sinners, people used to being reminded of how badly they had messed up their lives and the lives of others, people used to being overlooked and marginalized—the least, the lost, the left out. Jesus was often derided and dismissed as a “friend of sinners” by Pharisees and religious leaders who like the Grand Inquisitor were self-righteous and angry. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they whined (Luke 15:2), but Jesus would simply say, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). Jesus simply would not stop being a friend of sinners. Jesus simply would not stop helping those who could help themselves—and it cost him his life, when on the cross “while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.” Good Friday was the “kairos” moment of the reality of God’s love for the whole world for all time, the ultimate proof and definitive demonstration of God’s love for the world and for you.
Even if you won’t admit it, God knows you have no power in yourself to help yourself. That is where the good news of the gospel that God helps those who cannot help themselves connects with your life. That is where the grace of God is made perfect in your weakness. That is where the unconditional love of God for you, unconditional love proven for all time on Good Friday, may enable your cold heart to begin to feel “strangely warmed.”
I love hearing how you may have interpreted my sermon and how it may have impacted your life.