Nothing in life is free!  How many times have you heard that?  There’s no free lunch, you have to work for what you want, no one’s going to hand it to you.  And if something does seem to be free – well, it’s probably a scam.

No wonder we are stressed beyond limits!  If nothing in life is free, then we’ve got to scramble and fight and prove ourselves worthy just to get what we need.

The pressure on kids these days to be “worthy,” whether worthy of their parent’s attention or love, or worthy of their friends, or worthy of even living, in some cases, has contributed to one of the highest levels of suicide we’ve ever seen for young people, rising by 35% since 1999.  The burnout rate among working adults is rising exponentially, and we are simply exhausted trying to prove ourselves worthy of our job, our paycheck, our spouse, our friends, and the list could go on.

And of course we get stressed out, because we know that nothing in life is free.  Not even God’s love and grace and forgiveness.

I remember my brother’s friend asking me “Are you saved?”  Well, as a good Presbyterian – I had an answer – Yes, I was saved!  And then he wanted to know the date and time it happened.  He came from a church where unless you prayed the sinner’s prayer and gave your life to Jesus, you were going to spend eternity in hell.   I have no doubt that if pressed he would have said God still loved me, so I guess God’s love was free, but salvation definitely was not.

HAVE WE GONE SO FAR down the road of living in a world obsessed with conditions, strings attached, and keeping score, that we cannot comprehend or imagine the radical idea that not only love, but salvation might be free?

Luke got it.  Luke is unique among the synoptic gospels – those are the gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke-Acts (remember Acts is like Luke volume 2 – written by the same author).  Luke is unique because Luke doesn’t EVER preach the idea that Jesus had to die in order for us to live!  Jesus’ death wasn’t even that important to him – only in so far as death was required in order for someone to rise from the dead.  In fact when Jesus tells the disciples it was necessary for the messiah to suffer and rise from the dead, actually dying doesn’t seem to be important enough to mention.

Then Jesus says that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name.  What caught my attention was that everything was on his side! There is not one thing asked of us.  Jesus lived, Jesus rose, repentance and forgiveness is proclaimed in his name.  Not offered – but proclaimed as a done deal.  We don’t have to do anything there is not one thing required of us for any of that to happen.

It reminds me of Jesus’ words on the cross in Luke’s gospel about those killing him – forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.  Forgiveness comes first – repentance – that returning to God, comes second, not as a condition of being worthy of forgiveness, but as a response to the unconditional love of God.

We see the same thing in the Acts passage – Peter gives a powerful speech that probably had people cringing – or it should have – YOU handed Jesus over to be crucified, YOU rejected Jesus, YOU asked for a murderer to be released instead, YOU killed the author of life …. And then he adds, “but I know you acted in ignorance.”  I love that!  Ignorance is not an excuse – but there is no condemnation!  There is compassion.  There is love.  There is forgiveness.

Forgiveness comes first.  Forgiveness is free…. for everyone!  Repentance is our response when we really get forgiveness.  Not the other way around.

A friend of mine, Kathy Sdao, she’s an applied animal behaviorist – she wrote a book called “Plenty in Life is Free.”  Now she comes from a training and behavior background where you aren’t supposed to give away anything for free – your dog has to sit before getting fed.  Lay down before being pet.  We want to give good things to our dogs, but they have to earn it – because nothing should be free.

Really?  How about loving your spouse?  I was flying home to MN on Christmas morning to visit Linda when I was doing my last interim work in Kansas, and my first flight was a little 9-seater.  It was me and a family of 6 – One of the kids was having a really rough time at school and was acting out in no so great ways, so you know what the parent’s response was?  They decided that their Christmas gift to their kids was going to be a surprise trip to Disneyworld.  Those kids got up in the morning not having a clue that in an hour they’d be flying to Florida!  The kid that was acting out, certainly hadn’t earned that trip – but you don’t have to earn love.

I love the title, of Kathy’s book, “Plenty in Life is Free,” because that describes how God is – we have done nothing to earn breath in our lungs, a beautiful earth to live on, a physical world that can produce such amazing things as a solar eclipse,   We have people who love us, even if we don’t know it, and opportunities to live a meaningful life.  God is not keeping score, to see if we’ve done enough to warrant these most basic of gifts, or forgiveness or eternal life.  Just like our family and friends don’t keep score, any more than we do on them.  Plenty in life is free – and it always will be, where there is love.

Kathy says “worthiness has nothing to do with “deserving” love.  She says “my good behavior doesn’t turn on God’s love; my bad behavior doesn’t turn it off.  God loves me because it is God’s very nature to do so.”

I think sometimes we believe our behavior does turn off and on the spigot of God’s love.  And it just doesn’t!  Because God is love and love is God’s nature.

She goes on to quote Richard Rohr:  “Whatever God gives is always experienced as totally unearned grace and never as a salary, a reward, or a merit badge of any sort.”  And this is the part I love, Rohr says, “… if you do experience it that way, it is not from God and will not expand your heart, mind or soul.”

If you do experience God’s gifts as something you’ve earned or been proved worthy of, it’s not from God and will not expand your heart, mind or soul.

In a world that often demands perfection and imposes conditions, it is difficult to grasp the concept of unconditional love and forgiveness. From an early age, we ARE taught to earn love and seek acceptance by meeting certain criteria or adhering to societal standards.

But God’s love transcends all human limitations and expectations.

And God’s forgiveness is not conditional upon our performance,

our achievements, or even our ability to repent perfectly.

Instead, it is freely given as a gift of grace and mercy.

It knows no bounds; it embraces us in our brokenness, it forgives our transgressions, and it invites us into a new and transformed existence where our heart, and our mind, and our soul, expands.

That’s what love does.

Forgiveness comes first, and then our hearts, and our minds and our souls expand.  Its like a weight being lifted off, and then we are free to grow, we’re free to live, and we’re free to love as freely and unconditionally as God loves us.  What would your life be like, if you stopped keeping score and instead just accepted the gift of forgiveness?

In the Book of Acts many times we read about the apostles sharing God’s love with others – and in response people shared, people’s world expanded, and they helped each other, and they went out and told other people about God’s love through Jesus Christ.  You see, that’s repentance – repentance isn’t what we do to earn or be worthy of God’s love and forgiveness, it’s our response.  Understanding and accepting God’s unconditional love compels us to love unconditionally in response.

We are called to love one another with the same unmerited grace and forgiveness that we receive from God.

This means letting go of judgment,

releasing the need to keep score,

and embracing a radical compassion that seeks to understand rather than condemn.

That’s what those parents did – their son was actually getting in trouble in school – but instead of taking something away as punishment, they recognized that there was something more going on deep inside him, and what he needed was simply to be loved.

When we love unconditionally,

we break the chains of resentment, bitterness, and grudges.

We recognize that others, like ourselves, are imperfect beings in need of grace.

And then our relationships become spaces of healing and reconciliation, reflecting the character of our loving God.

But perhaps most importantly, embracing God’s gift of unconditional love liberates us from seeking validation and acceptance from others. We no longer need to earn our worth or find our identity in external measures of success or approval. Instead, we find our true worth and identity in God’s love for us, which will always remain steadfast and unwavering.

May you know God’s boundless love in your own core, and may that same love transform you, empower you, and guide you to be vessels of grace and reconciliation in our world today.