"Amazed by Grace"
Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 5:24-30
When Jeff first put this CD in my hand, the first thing my eye caught was the name “Dutch Schulz”…and my mind wondered, “Who’s that?” Then I saw the picture of Jeff leaning against the street sign. That guy I knew. But “Dutch Schulz”? Who’s that? So Jeff kindly brought me up to speed on his stage name—the stage name that, for many, is more common than his given name.
Then on Monday evening I received a call from Pr. Bill Wilson. He said, “Randy, one of your members—Dutch Schulz—is in the hospital.” Again my mind did a double take. This time, though, there was a little recollection. As Pr. Wilson was explaining more, my mind was having a separate conversation with itself. “Dutch Schulz. Dutch Schulz. Why do I know that name? But member of Hope?” “Not sure about that one,” I told Pr. Wilson, as I searched the church directory in my contacts. Then up came “Schulte” and it clicked: “Yes, ‘Schulz’ equals Schulte, and ‘Dutch’ equals Jeff.”
Leave it to Jeff—I mean “Dutch”—to have the unique name. But it’s fitting for his unique personality. And— wouldn’t you know it?—leave to “Dutch”—or is it Jeff?—to exit this fallen world in such a unique way—not that he chose that way, of course.
The way that Jeff has exited this fallen world, though, reminds me of many a conversation he and I had through the years. I remember the many years that Cheryl, Kristen, Lauren, and Brandon would come to church faithfully, but Jeff would come only occasionally. They were members at Hope, but Jeff resisted the whole religion thing. He had too many questions. But over time, and through the faithful, patient witness of family and many friends, Jeff dared to learn more.
“Ask questions about God and religion? Of course, Jeff!” That’s what we all do, in one way or another, at one time or another. And, boy, were his questions deep and penetrating. No mere idle curiosity for Jeff. He grappled with weighty questions. Questions such as, “If God is so good, then why is there evil in the world?” Questions such as, “I know the things I have done in my life. How can God love someone like me?” “How do I know God can love and forgive someone like me?”
One of the songs on his CD expresses this internal wrestling match quite well. Even at age 16 he was grappling and wrestling with the deep things of God and this fallen world. As he said in his side note: “I wrote ‘Child of Innocence Again’ at U. City H.S. in History class, Sophomore year. Flip the numbers and it’s ironic that I’ve recorded it at the age of 61 how I felt at 16.” The refrain poetically captures the struggles we all have in and with this fallen world so full of sin and evil: “I want to be a child of innocence again. I want to be a child in a world without sin.” Somehow we know there’s gotta be something better, something without the evil in all of its manifestations.
Why do people turn against each other, or try to control one another with the tactics of a tyrant? Why do people cheat on their taxes or get nasty when the repo man comes to collect the car that they bought from Jeff but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay for it?
As Jeff grappled with such questions—as he knew he wanted to “be a child in a world without sin”—he also discovered that it was not God who brought sin and evil into the world. It was our first parents—Adam and Eve. God created the world perfect, without sin, without evil, and we human beings are the ones who messed it up and who keep reveling in our messes. You know, kind of like a baby sitting in a dirty diaper and not wanting it to be changed.
It’s the death in trespasses and sins that St. Paul mentioned in our second reading. We’re all there—Jeff, you, me. We all live in “the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Apart from our Lord Jesus Christ, we are all “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This was the message that resonated with Jeff like a blues song in his soul.
But it was the flip side of God’s message to him that amazed Jeff. Yes, God could and did love a sinner like him. Yes, God could and would forgive him—and all of us—inside and out. The more Jeff heard that message of God’s amazing grace, the more Jeff was amazed by that grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
“Yes, Jeff,” I would tell him, “that includes you. No matter how bad, no matter how evil, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve experience from other people, that includes you.” And that is God’s message for you and me here today as well.
This message of God’s forgiveness, love, and eternal life in Christ Jesus so amazed Jeff that he loved to sing it. Yes, you know it—“Amazing Grace.” I will never forget the time he said, “Pastor, next week I want to bring my guitar to Catechism class, and after class can I sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and some other songs?” I said, “Sure.” The next week came. And Jeff brought his guitar. And—fitting for Jeff—it was his unique way of singing “Amazing Grace.”
You see, God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ started to restore Jeff to being “a child of innocence again.” It’s that amazing news that we heard about from Jesus: “Whoever hears My words and believes in Him who sent Me has eternal life.” God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, into this world to conquer our worst enemy: death itself. It’s true for Jeff. It’s just as true for you. Jesus Himself suffered the kinds of evil, the kinds of betrayal, the kinds of liars, cheats, and scoundrels, that Jeff and we endure too. The difference with Jesus is that He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And because of Jesus and His death on a brutal cross, Jeff, and you, and I, and all people get to receive God’s amazing grace. Because of Jesus and His resurrection on the third day, you, and Jeff, and I get to rejoice in the hope of eternal life—in being children of innocence again.
Our first reading captures this so well. God promises to prepare “a feast of rich food” and “aged wine well refined” for the likes of us. And what will God Himself consume? “He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever.” That’s exactly what Jesus did on the cross—for you, for Jeff, for me, and for all people who hear His voice.
Yes, we have just witnessed a shocking turn of events. A nasty little bacteria—a result of this fallen world—has suddenly snatched a dear husband, father, and grandfather, a loved son and brother, a treasured friend and colleague, a unique personality. But in Jesus, God has swallowed up the effects of that nasty little bacteria. So, when it seems like this thing called death is swallowing us whole—and in a sudden, suffocating way—look to Jesus for your comfort and hope. He has swallowed death forever. Jeff rejoiced in that message, I know. And I’m sure he would want you to rejoice in it too.
Let God’s words through Isaiah give you peace and comfort in the days, weeks, and months ahead: “The Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.” He has already done that for Jeff; He promises to do that for you too.
Here’s the amazing thing about God’s grace, the grace that amazed Jeff. God Himself has made Jeff “a child of innocence again.” It happened when Jeff was baptized, and our Lord Jesus brought Jeff to realize it and love it throughout his life. And now God has completed that task. We can actually rejoice that, yes, Jeff is “a child of innocence again.”
I, for one, gladly echo Jeff’s poetry written while he sat in history class at the tender age of 16: “I want to be a child in a world without sin.” I’m sure those words resonate in you as well. Well, Jeff is there now! And, by God’s amazing grace in Jesus, you may look forward to that too. Amen.