"We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also
that ye receive not the grace of God in vain" (2 Corinthians
One of the most frustrating developments of the second half of the twentieth
century was the invention of the political "un-war." Politicians
and diplomats in Washington would hatch some geopolitical scheme,
and then move our service men and women around the world like pawns
in a game of chess.
But these werenít chessmen, and they werenít going to games. These were
flesh and blood men and women, who were the sons and daughters, the
fathers and mothers, the husbands and wives, of other flesh and blood
human beings. And they were going to war, without being offered the
dignity of a declaration of war, to take part in what were described to
the press and to the American people as "police actions," "pacifications,"
and "peace keeping."
Usually these "un-wars" ended without any clear-cut resolution. The
politicians and other powers-that-be just grew tired of them and
announced that they were "over." Some of these "un-wars" continue
today, here and there among the pest-holes of the world. They, too,
will "just end" someday, most likely with neither an apology, nor with
any sort of achieved purpose that can reasonably be called a "victory."
But in the only sense that matters, these "un-wars" can never end, should
never end, at least not in our memories. There must remain with us
always the haunting image of tired, dirty men hitting an otherwise
meaningless hill, again and again, because their country told them
to take it. We must never forget their courage or their loyalty, the blood
they shed, the agony they endured for our sake. We must never ignore
their horror when the politicians, in the name of "un-war," made
them give back to the enemy a hill for which they had paid the ultimate
Most of all, we must resist the whole idea of the "un-war." The honor
of those who fought and died cannot be reduced to a trivial matter,
something to be mentioned in passing in the occasional patriotic
speech. Their honor must move us to greater honor in our own lives.
Their honor must strengthen our will to live a better life in a better
country. And if we do not live better lives for their sake, for the
sake of the blood that they shed, then we condemn their sacrifices
to futility, and we announce to the world that they have died in
Those words, "in vain," are among the most appalling and frightening
in the Bible. When the Prophets or the Apostles write of "vanity,"
they do not mean only "the empty pride" of modern English. They mean
"emptiness" itself. They mean to speak of "meaningless words," of
"the destitution of the spirit," and of efforts and struggles that "bear
no fruit." They mean to warn us of the most terrible thing of allčof
blood shed to no purpose, because its shedding did not change the
lives of those for whom it was shed.
If, however, it is evil and sickening to make vain the blood that has
been shed by our soldiers, how can we begin to express the utter,
heartless wickedness of making vain the Precious Blood that the Son
of God has shed for the redemption of the world? That he has shed
for each and every one of us?
This is the question that lies behind St. Paulís words in this morningís
Epistle: "We then, as workers together [with Christ], beseech you
also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain." The "grace" of
God is not some vague, misty power that may or may not inspire us
to "good thoughts." The grace of God, in its most concentrated form, is
the Blood of his Son soaking into the ground of an otherwise meaningless
hill that he has taken on our behalf by dying there on the cross.
Jesus Christ, the eternal Son made man for the sake of our salvation,
has planted his standard on the hill of Calvary. And if we do not
rally to that standard, if we do not respond to his dying for our
sake by living for his sake, we say that he died "in vain." We declare
his conquest of sin and death only an "un-war," to be ignored or forgotten
as soon as we grow bored with it. We give back to the enemyč to sin,
Satan, and deathč the whole earth that Jesus Christ has taken in
obedience to his Fatherís commands.
Moreover, before we go any further, we must ask ourselves, "What will
God the Father think, and what will he do, if we treat the death
of his Son Jesus Christ as nothing but a vanity?" We can begin to
find an answer by remembering our own anger at the lack of respect
that has been shown for our soldiers who fought and died in the "un-wars"
of this earth. We can imagine (or some of us can remember) what it
means to lose a child or a husband or a buddy, and to have someone
say, "So what?" We can contemplate the eternal wrath of an eternal
Father, who had to watch as his only-begotten Son died for the sins of
the world, when even one person says, "Big deal. Whatís it to me?"
Christianity isnít just a belief. The devils in hell believe in God,
they believe in Christ, and they will remain in hell forever (James
2:19). Christianity is a life, and it is a life based entirely around
the admission that it is a "big deal" that the Son of God has died for
our sins. That it is a "big deal" that the real blood of a real man,
who was also God incarnate, ran down the cross in rivers from his
wounds to cleanse the earth that it touched and to claim it for his
Father in heaven, so that he could give it as a gift to the redeemed, likewise
cleansed and claimed by the very same sacrificial blood.
We can talk all day about how much we love God, or about how much he
loves us, and not really mean very much by it, or let our words really
influence our behavior. But love, human or divine, does not get any
more specific and concrete than a crown of thorns on the head, iron
nails driven through the hands and feet, and a soldierís lance driven into
the side of Godís Son Jesus Christ.
Many who call themselves "Christians" today are like the politicians
who gave us the "un- wars." They do not like the hard, real words like
"blood," "honor," and "war." They prefer to talk of "programs" and
"building self-esteem." In some places, they have even removed the
crosses from their churches, considering them "depressing" or "old-fashioned."
But the Cross, the blood and the honor of Jesus Christ, and his war
against the wickedness of this world must always remain at the center
of a real Christianity. Our faith isnít in ourselves, or in the good
opinion that we hold of ourselves. Our faith is in the blood shed
on the Cross, and in the call of our blood-stained Lord to heroism, to
self-sacrifice, and to honor in our own lives, to be lived for his
glory and not for our own.
Every time we do right, even though we are tempted to do otherwise;
every time we put God and our neighbors ahead of ourselves; every
time we repent our sins and confess that our behavior was unworthy
of the Blood of Christ; we say in the only way possible that Jesus
Christ did not die in vain. As honorable Americans, we would consider ourselves
wretched, indeed, if we failed to honor the blood that has been shed for
us in earthly wars. As honorable Christians, or even as those who
only hope to become honorable Christians, we must consider ourselves
equally wretched until our every thought, word, and deed proclaims
the glory of Jesus Christís death and sacrifice.
My hope for us, in this newly begun season of Lent, is that we will
renew our commitment to the honor of Christ; and that we will give
over the days between now and Easter to reckoning the cost of that
glorious day, and the cost of the glorious promise of eternal life
that it represents for us all, never forgetting that our eternal life begins
with the death of the Son of God and the shedding of his blood.