February 15, 2009

“The Church: Saved by Grace”
Ephesians 2:1-10

How do I get from here to there? I wonder how many times I’ve asked that question. I’ve asked it when planning trips. What route should I take? Should I drive or fly? Is it better to stop over somewhere or pay the difference and fly straight through? How do I get from here to there? I’ve asked the same question when I thinking about my life’s calling. What should I major in at college? Should I go to seminary immediately after graduation or work for a year or two? What about graduate school? What degrees and other experiences will I need? How do I get from here to there? The times and situations when that question crosses my mind are virtually endless—How do I get from here to there?

You’ve asked it, too. We all have. We ask that question when we plan ahead for our retirement. How much money will I need to live on? Where should I invest it? How do I get from here to there? We ask the question when we think ahead toward marriage, consider remodeling or enlarging our home, anticipate having children, deal with the needs of aging parents, envision revitalizing our business or strive to overcome some character flaw or addiction. Here is where I am and there is where I want to be. How do I get from here to there? We even ask that question when we want to transform our bodies! Should I go on this diet or that? How much must I exercise? This is what I currently look like and that is who I want to be. Now, how do I get from this to that? From here to there?

How do I get from here to there? How do we get from here to there? That’s the question that Paul now turns his attention to in Ephesians 2:1-10. In 1:3-14, you will recall, he sought to correct our often deficient and unbiblical views of God. God, Paul made clear, is not some philosophical concept or a nasty, disinterested and uncaring tyrant, but an active, relational and intensely loving being. In 1:15-23, Paul continued by announcing that he prayed regularly that this same God might open the eyes of his readers so that we could see the hope, inheritance and power that we have in Christ (1:15-23). With these two fundamental issues clarified—God is good and offers to us hope, an inheritance and power—Paul now asks this question: “How do we get from here to there?”

Before considering Paul’s answer, however, let’s be certain that there are no misunderstandings as to the “here” from which we are called to move and the “there” to which we are invited to go. The “here,” quite simply, is death and separation from God. “You, along with everyone else on the face of the earth, either were or continue to be dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” In 2:12, Paul similarly argues that, as a result of our sin, we are “without hope and without God in the world.” That is the “here.” And it is not pretty.

The “there,” by way of contrast, is life together with Christ. The “there” is not simply a familiarity with biblical stories or an awareness of church history. The “there” is not merely the conviction that a god really does exist somewhere out there in space. The “there” to which Paul calls his readers is a personal knowledge of and relationship with the living God.

So again, how do people like us get from here to there? First, here is how we don’t get there! We don’t go from here to there by “following the course of the world (v. 2).” The spirit of the age. The mood of the times. The momentum of the crowd. The “course of the world,” Paul argues, leads only deeper and deeper into darkness. Following the crowd is like jumping into the Niagara River with everyone else, only to be swept over the falls. We don’t get from here to there, in other words, by doing what everybody else is doing.

We don’t get from here to there by “following the desires of flesh and senses” (v. 3). By doing what feels good. By caving in to our own cravings. How can it be wrong, people sometimes ask, if it feels so good?!? How can it be harmful, we wonder, if everything within us urges us on? The chemistry is so strong—it must be right. It’s true, of course, that God can and does at times lead us in part through the inner longings of our hearts. Part of the discernment process involves paying attention to our deep feelings and understanding where they come from and what they mean. But a heart devoted to God and open to his direction is far different from the cravings of our flesh and our animal-like instincts. We don’t get from here to there by allowing our fleshly urges to control us.

But here is the odd thing. If we don’t get from here to there by following the crowd or following the desires of our flesh—if we don’t get from here to there by being bad—we also don’t get from here to there by being good! We don’t get from here to there, Paul continues, by works. We don’t get from here to there by following the law or by being “religious.” We just don’t! But we sure keep trying. The urge to move from here to there by our own good works is among the most persistent of our drives—it seems at times almost impossible to weed out.

Look back for a moment at that memorable text in Micah 6. The prophet has just implicated the people for their hard-heartedness and sinful ways. So frustrated is God with his people that he takes them to court and challenges them to announce before the world in what ways God has mistreated them. Finally, after both sides rest their cases, the people realize just how bad they are and ask, “What can we do?” “Is there hope for us anymore?” Then, without waiting for an answer, they chime in with what people throughout history always seem to say. We need to bring more offerings to God. We need to go to church more. We need to do more good works. We need to be more religious!

“Forget it,” the prophet Micah responds. “God doesn’t care the slightest bit about your sacrifices, your church attendance, your offerings, your good works. God, in fact doesn’t care about religion at all!” This is what he wants. He wants you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. What?!? That’s right. God isn’t looking for good works, but a humble and receptive heart.

Paul says precisely the same thing here, and it is a lynchpin of his theology. Religion doesn’t matter anymore. If anything, the vast majority of the Bible serves to show that religion doesn’t even work. The law serves only to show us how we should live. It doesn’t help us to actually do that. We simply cannot be good enough. We cannot perform enough works. We cannot keep the law perfectly.

It’s bizarre, isn’t it? We don’t get from here to there by being bad, but we can’t get from here to there by being good, either. So how do we get there? We don’t, on our own. That is the bottom line. We cannot get from here to there, we cannot move from darkness to light, we cannot move from death to life, on our own. Period. So why in the world do we keep trying so hard? Are we just stubborn? Proud? Wounded?

We get from here to there solely through the undeserved and unearned grace of God. That’s it. And as if to suggest that we just can’t get it through our thick skulls, Paul says again what he has said so carefully in chapter 1. God is rich in mercy and loves us deeply (vv. 4-7). God is not the enemy. God is not the bad guy. Out of his great love and grace he makes us alive in Christ and seats us with Christ in the heavenly places. And why? So that in the ages to come he can shower us with immeasurable riches. How do we get from here to there? Grace. It is a gift. You simply cannot earn it.

It is, I confess, a mysterious gift. It is a gift that theologians and serious readers of the Bible have been discussing for centuries. But here is the truth in the simplest way that I can state it. When we receive Jesus Christ into our own hearts and lives, and when we believe that his life, death and resurrection are the means through which we, too, can live, God welcomes us into his eternal family. God moves us from here to there.

So what are some of the possible implications of all of this? For us as individuals, Paul’s words concerning God’s grace stand as a stark challenge to once and for all set aside this incessant need to strive and work and earn and achieve. We can never be good enough to earn God’s favor, so we must somehow stop trying.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry is an unusually kind, gifted and spirited young man who aspires to be an actor. Unfortunately, his father is an overbearing and manipulative man who will settle for nothing less than Neil becoming a doctor. Again and again, Neil tries to please his father—to gain his love and acceptance—but without success. Over time, this inability to please his father turns Neil into a total neurotic, and he eventually takes his own life.

God’s love is already ours—period. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to be spiritually neurotic. If you and I come to church, throw a few pennies in the plate, pray over our food or take the neighbor’s trash cans to the street once in awhile either to please an overbearing God or do our religious duty, as though we are somehow doing God a favor, forget it. Good works, Paul explains in v. 10, are not the means to God, but an outgrowth of an intimate experience with God. We don’t perform good works in order to be loved, but to express our love.

But remember, once again, that Paul is writing here to a cluster of churches—he is addressing communities not so different from our own. How might his words apply to us as a congregation? The implications seem to be enormous. Paul’s understanding of sin and grace is, at the core, a great equalizer. Everyone of us is in the same boat, so to speak. So is everyone else out on the streets. We all stand in need, so none of us is better or worse than another. We are all loved, so none of us is more privileged than another. We are all taking this journey together.

And if we take this great equalizer of sin and grace seriously, and if we recognize that grace, not law, is God’s way of moving us from here to there, then we will ourselves become more grace-filled people. We will become a community of grace. And what is a grace-filled community like? Here are just a few characteristics:
A grace-filled community is a more accepting community. People listen to the struggles of others with compassion and understanding because they realize that they, too, struggle and stand in need of grace. When we receive the struggles of others in such a way, we in essence say to them, “You don’t have to be perfect to be loved here.” Even on those occasions when we must say to each other, “Sin no more,” we do so, not with a haughty spirit of self-righteousness, but with a longing for the other person to be well.
A grace-filled community is a more honest community. People share their own struggles more readily with others because they now realize that they do not have to be perfect—they don’t have to hide. When we keep our burdens a secret, even in our small groups, we are projecting a sense of “ungrace.” We’re saying, in essence, “We can’t be honest and still be loved.”
A grace-filled community is a more joyful community. People tend to smile and laugh a lot, primarily because the weight of earning God’s favor has been forever lifted from their shoulders.
A grace-filled community is a more purposeful community. People are excited to work together to share the life-changing love and grace of God with a world still living in darkness. They are passionate about doing good works, not to earn God’s love, but to demonstrate their love for him.

Are you a grace-filled person? Are we a grace-filled community? Let me share these words of Paul with you one last time. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…. 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….”