Mother Teresa: Saved by Grace
Reformation Sunday Romans 3:19-28
Lent 4 B, Ephesians 2:1-10.
This sermon can also be used in the Ephesians Series and Roman Series)
According to many people, Mother Teresa of Calcutta is perhaps the greatest living Christian in the world today. Mother Teresa has captured the hearts of all of us. Her integrity, her humility, her total giving of herself to the poor of India. Mother Teresa has captured the hearts of the world like nobody else on earth.
She will be to our century what St. Francis was to his century. Her name will be etched into our century like St. Francis’ name was etched into his century. The world remembers the prayer of St. Francis and the world will remember the wonderful life of Mother Teresa. Many people will proudly say, “I lived in the time of Mother Teresa.” I already say that. “I lived when Mother Theresa lived.”
When she was given the Nobel Peace Prize, it was well deserved. She received it with such humility, saying, “I am unworthy. I am unworthy to receive this. This award is a recognition of the poor of India.”
Mother Teresa is the greatest saint of our century.
The year was 1950. Mother Teresa had founded the Missionaries of Charity. She then trained young women and then sent her sisters to the poorest of the poor in all parts of the world. Those sisters listened to her words when she said, “Let there be no pride. There should be no vanity in this work. For this is not your work but God’s work. These are not your poor but God’s poor.”
She and her fellow sisters went off to carry the bodies of the poor off the streets of Calcutta. Even though she was a Nobel Laurette, one of the most famous people in the world, she would still pull the poor people out of the gutters and help them to die with dignity. Though famous, she would do what others would call the dirty work. She still cared for the lepers, the homeless, and the dying bags of bones, even after becoming famous.
In America, Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity were busy. They began their work in St. Louis, Missouri, and her work then spread out all across the nation. Recently she said, and I love this quotation: “I am interested in persons, not programs. Programs are for a purpose; but Christian love is for a person, and I am committed to helping persons.”
The center of her life was not to organize programs; the center of her life was to care for individual people.
Mother Teresa said that the biggest disease today is not leprosy, nor tuberculosis, not Aids, nor cancer. Rather, the biggest disease in the world today is the “feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everyone.”
Her words are profound and still stir us inside.
Mother Teresa? Hers is a life of total poverty. Mother Teresa? Hers is a life of total submission to the will of God. If anyone deserves eternal life, Mother Teresa does. If anybody deserves to get by the pearly gates, Mother Teresa does. If anyone deserves to live in the eternal heavenly Jerusalem with streets paved with gold, Mother Teresa does. Mother Teresa is one of the very best people living on this earth, if not the best.
It is with this story of the illustrious life of Mother Teresa that we approach the Epistle lesson for today, for Reformation Sunday. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3: “All people, including Mother Teresa; all people have sinned and all people fall short of the glory of God. No one will be justified before God by their good works. Instead, all people are saved by grace, by mercy, by forgiveness, that we would have faith in Christ whose blood cleanses us from all sin. Therefore no one can boast. No one can brag about one’s good works. No one can brag about one’s faith. The only thing that we can boast about is the goodness and mercy and grace of God. If you want to boast, boast of Jesus Christ and his blood which cleanses us from sin.” What a classic passage.
(On Lent 4B, the text would be Ephesians 2:8-10, "
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”)
Let it be clearly said that even Mother Teresa is a person who is saved by grace and not by her good works. She, too, is saved by grace. She, too, did not earn her salvation. She, too, does not deserve eternal life as a reward for her great performance for her lifelong work in the ghettos.
Of all the Christians in the world, Mother Teresa must rank near the top. She must have the longest list of good works behind her name. She must have the largest number of good deeds. Within the grade book of heaven, she has more gold stars behind her name than any other name. Within the grade book of heaven, she has more 100% and more perfect papers than any other saint who has ever lived. Yet, she too was given eternal life and salvation. She didn’t earn it. She doesn’t deserve it. I repeat: Mother Teresa does not deserve eternal life…although you and I waffle a bit and think she does. We think to ourselves: “Mother Teresa has loved the dying people in Calcutta so much; surely, Mother Teresa deserves eternal life.”
But the Bible is clear: All people have sinned. All people have fallen short of the glory of God. No one is saved by their good works before Almighty God. We are saved by grace, through faith, in Jesus Christ, for works of love. Salvation is a gift for people who do not earn it; who do not deserve it; and are surprised when the gift of salvation is given.
Mother Teresa, when she was asked about her life, said in her Yugoslavian, gutteral brogue, that sounds almost like a growl: “I am unworthy. I am unworthy. I am unworthy that God chose me to live with the poor. How unworthy am I that God chose to give me eternal life. I am not worthy.” You see, Mother Teresa knows that she has been saved by grace. It is a gift of God to her. She receives it humbly.
Knowing that Mother Teresa is saved by grace and not by her good works, frees us from having to be saved by our good works as well. If Mother Teresa can’t make it into heaven by her good works, than neither can you or I. Think, if you will, of the person who is the best person you know. I want for you to think of somebody that you know personally; not somebody from the newspaper or television. I want you to think of somebody you know is the most generous, kind and helping person you have ever met. Get that person into your mind. They are the best and kindest person you have ever known. If Mother Teresa cannot be saved by her good works; and if that person you just named in your mind cannot be saved by their good works, then how can you be saved by your good works? If Mother Teresa can’t be, and if this wonderful person you named in your heart can’t be, neither can you and neither can I.
But deep down inside, I cannot resist the temptation. I try to improve my odds with God and think to myself: “If only I could be a little bit more like Mother Teresa. If I could spend a little more time with the poor people; if I could spend a little more time with the unwanted and uncared for, the lonely here in Des Moines, then perhaps God would look upon me a little more favorably. It would increase my odds, just a little bit. It may be the feather that tips the scales in my favor. Just a little bit more on my part. I could help my salvation just a tiny bit. Just a little more love from me and that feather will tip the teeter totter in my direction and I will slide into heaven. But the Bible is clear: all people fall short of the glory of God. All people are saved by grace, by mercy, by forgiveness.
Do you remember the story of the story about Jesus and the labors in the vineyard who were complaining that they had worked all day long? Then in came a worker who had worked only the last hour and everybody got paid the same amount. Do you remember that story? There were these workers who had worked ten hours; they had worked all day long. Then there was a person who came in and worked just one hour, and they all received the same wage. Do you remember that story? The message of that story is that God is essentially a giver of gifts and not a payer of wages. God gives gifts to those who don’t deserve them, who don’t earn them, like Mother Teresa, like St. Francis of Assisi, like Father Damien, the leper priest of Hawaii. God gives salvation and eternal life to people who don’t earn it and don’t deserve it, for people like you and me.
That is what the Reformation is all about. The cardinal doctrine is that our God is a gracious God, freely giving salvation and eternal life to people who don’t deserve it, to people who simply say, “Thank you Lord. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for forgiving me. Thank you for letting me live with you eternally. God, I know that I am not worthy. I wouldn’t dare say anything positively about my life at all. I thank you for your gift.”
Such knowledge gives us freedom, a freedom to know we are sinners and that God still loves us. All of us struggle from our birth until our death with the power of sin within us. One thing I know about me and therefore one thing I know about you; is that not one of us has been able to overcome the power of sin in our lives. Not one of you. Don’t fake it. I know me and therefore I know you. There is not one person in this room who has been able to overcome the power of sin in our lives. Not one person on the whole wide earth. There is not one person on earth who can come before God and say, “O God, look at my life and what a good life that I lived.” Instead, all of us are silenced, stuck dumb before God. Our tongues cannot waggle with false praise. We realize that our sins are forgiven and that God is merciful and kind and that is what the Reformation is all about. It is that God is merciful, kind and forgiving. Thank God. It is Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone.
If it is true that the heart of the Reformation and the heart of the gospel is grace, it is also true about the Bible’s emphasis on faith. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is a deep trust of the heart. God created faith in Noah; and God created faith in Father Abraham; and God created faith in Mother Teresa; and God creates faith in you and me. Faith is a deep trust of the heart. We know for sure, we know deep inside, at the bottom of our hearts, in the pit of our stomachs, that God loves us. We know deeply within that God will give us strength and help in every situation.
For example, Mother Teresa. I can see her as a young Yugoslavian girl, chatting playfully in her classes, learning under the teaching of the nuns. She studied to be a nun, and I can see her there in Calcutta. I can see her as a young woman in her young twenties, closing the door of the cloister behind her, and walking out for the first time into the streets of Calcutta. She had felt the call inside of her; the call of God that said, “Theresa, I want you to go take care of dying people in the streets and gutters of Calcutta.” I can see this young girl, closing the door of the cloister behind her, wearing her white habit, going out for the first time into the streets and picking up the body of a dying man. Can you see that? In that situation, Theresa trusted. She believed deep in her heart that God would give her the strength to do it. She knew that God would be with her and in her. She knew that God would not desert her. Faith is that deep trust in the heart. We are saved by grace through faith that God gives to us.
There are not too many things that irritate me, but this one does. What irritates me is when people use the following illustration, and they use it often to illustrate faith. A person will come up to me and reach into their wallet and pull out a five-dollar bill and then say, “This is what it means to believe. I am going to give you a gift of five dollars. Now, you have to make a decision to take it. When you make a decision to take it, this five-dollar bill is then yours. And likewise, when you make the decision to reject the gift, the five dollars is not yours. It is up to you. Today, I am not offering a mere five-dollar bill, but I am now offering you someone who is worth more than a five billion dollar gift, and you have to make a decision whether or not to take this gift. Being offered to you is Jesus Christ. Your salvation rests on your decision. It is up to you. Everything hinges on your decision. If you make a decision to take Christ, you are then saved.”
Faith is so much more than that. Faith is that deep trust in God. It is down in the bottom of your belly; it is down at the bottom of your heart; where down deep, over time, God shapes you in such a way that you have finally let go and you believe and trust in God. You may trust your mother and you didn’t make some huge decision in infancy for her. You just trusted her and her goodness. Your mother had proven to be trustworthy throughout all the years and so your trusted her, not because of any one moment or any one decision. It isn’t your decision that makes your mother trustworthy and it isn’t a decision that you finally trust the goodness of your mother. Trust is much more than a decision on my part. That’s what faith it. Faith is deep trust in your heart that God is good to you. How do you know that God is good to you? God has been good to you over time; you just know it, like in the same way I trust the goodness of my mother’s love for me.
Therefore, I can’t even boast about my faith. I can’t boast and proudly say, “Did I ever make a good decision. Let me tell you about the time that I made my decision for Christ, and I am the model of faith.” You see there is no room for boasting when it comes to trust. One can’t boast about one’s faith. One can’t boast about one’s salvation because this is all a gift from God. God created this wonderful thing called faith deep inside of us.
We are put right with God by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, for good works. When God gets hold of us and we know God’s presence in lives, then God goes to work on us. God comes and lives inside of us and we start to become more loving and kind and giving people. Again, it is God who creates this inside of us. God is the artist and we are the canvas. God is the potter and we are the clay. God is the sculptor and we are the marble. God is the creator and we are God’s creation. God is inside of us, molding us, changing us, helping us to be the kind of loving people that God wants us to be.
Mother Theresa would never boast: “Look at all the good works I do. I work sixteen to eighteen hours every day for the poorest of the poor. I have given myself totally to them for the past thirty years. Look at all the wonderful works I do.” Instead, Mother Theresa says, “It is not me. It is not me. It is Christ living inside of me. This love that pours out through me for other people; it is not Theresa’s love but Christ’s love living inside of me. That’s what is going on.”
Just as God created the beauty of Mount Rainier; and just as God created the beauty of Puget Sound; so God created the beauty of Mother Theresa. Mother Theresa is one of God’s most beautiful creations. As I look at Mount Rainier, my heart explodes with praise inside, “O my God, what a beautiful mountain.” I look at Puget Sound in the morning, and my heart explodes with joy inside, exclaiming, “O my God, what a beautiful body of water, with the different shades of the color of blue, the moving textures of smooth glass and soft ripples. O God, you are grand and you fashioned a grand body of water before my eyes.” And then I look at Mother Theresa and her life, and my heart again explodes in praise, “O God, what a beautiful person that you have created. So grand. So loving. So majestic standing above the rest of us in all her loving beauty. What a life you have created!!!”
How would Mount Rainier boast and say, “I am the most beautiful mountain in Washington, and I made myself beautiful.” No, it was God that made the mountain beautiful. How silly it would be for Puget Sound to say, “I am the prettiest body of water that ever existed, and I created me to be lovely.” No, it was God who made the Sound and God in all its beauty. And how inappropriate for Mother Theresa to think, “I am the nicest person that ever lived, and did I make a mark with my life!” No, it was God who created her life in the first place and then God fashioned her life to be beautiful in her love for the poorest of poor. It was God who made the beautiful mountain and God who created the beautiful Sound and God who made the beautiful life of Mother Theresa. It was God who made them all, fashioned them all over time, and the beauty inside of all three of them takes your breath away. It was God who created the mountain; God who created the Sound; and God who created those wonderful works of love in Mother Theresa.
And importantly, it is this same God who lives inside of you, in such a way, that you start to love people in ways that you didn’t know were possible. And you will say with Mother Theresa, “It’s not me. It is Christ living inside of me. It is the love of Christ living inside of me that makes all the difference.”
It is Reformation Sunday, and Reformation is the gospel. Reformation Sunday is the story that all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that no one can boast about their good works, that none of us can brag that we earned some spiritual star a long time ago. If anyone will boast, we will not boast of our faith; we will not boast about our good works. If anyone will boast, we will boast about God, the God who forgives us and loves us. We will boast about Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for you and me. We will boast about the blood of Christ that cleanses us from all sin. We will boast about our God who created beauties such as Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, and the loving life of Mother Theresa. We will boast about God. That is the gospel. Amen.
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