September 23, 2007

New Clothes: Experiencing God’s Love and Grace (Part B)
Ephesians 2:1-10

John Reitz, pastor of The Bridge in Hummelstown, has been a friend of mine for many years. When his first wife, Roberta, contracted cancer over ten years ago now, John invited me and a few other friends to journey with him through the ordeal. On one occasion, as Roberta’s condition worsened and her death grew imminent, John commented with considerable anguish, “The worst part of all this is watching her suffer and not being able to do anything about it.”

That is an awful feeling, isn’t it? Standing by helplessly as tragedy strikes. Hearing of dreadful problems that we can’t fix. I’ve felt such feelings any number of times, as have many of you. Walking through the filthy streets of refugee camps in the Middle East. Watching films clips of Katrina victims in the Gulf States. Holding an AIDS baby in my arms in Nairobi. Seeing my four-year-old son dressed in a green hospital gown, lying on a gurney and waiting for surgery. It is an awful feeling—watching someone suffer and not being able to do anything about it. Fortunately, when God looked at his sin-sick and dying world, he was not so resourceless. There was plenty that he could do. And he did!

Ephesians 2:1-10 provides us with an extremely moving depiction of God. Though Paul opts not to probe too deeply here into the pain and anguish of God over the declining condition of his creation, vv. 1-3 certainly provide adequate clues. That God’s sinful people, disobedient and spiritually dead, are described here as “children of wrath” leads to only one reasonable conclusion. God is distraught. He experiences, for one thing, intense disappointment over his children’s foolish and destructive behavior. They’ve turned their backs on him, rejected his love, and gone their own sinful ways. God is, at the same time, angry, for his holy character finds sin intolerable—the sheer thought of sin is to God repulsive and repugnant. What will he do? How will God respond? With words of scorn and ridicule? With an iron fist?

I had lunch a short time ago with a father who was struggling with his teenage son. In the middle of our time together, this man looked up from his plate, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “It is no wonder that various species eat their young.” Is that what God will do? Will he join the ever-growing ranks of violent parents who abuse and even kill their rebellious sons and daughters? From all the evidence, he has good reason to do so. But he doesn’t. Something deep within God overrides his disappointment and anger and leads him to a different course of action. Paul invites us into the deeper heart of God here in vv. 4-10.

In vv. 4-5, Paul describes who God is. He is rich in mercy, full of grace, and hopelessly in love with all of humanity. Mercy leads God to withhold the punishment that we rightly deserve. The wages of sin is death, you will recall, and all of us have sinned. This is not mere theological chit chat, but a true diagnosis of our situation. The soul that sins, including yours and mine, will die. God in his mercy withholds the punishment that we rightly deserve.

Grace, by way of contrast, goes one step beyond mercy. Grace leads God to provide us with blessings that we do not deserve. God, in other words, does not merely commute our death sentence, but he wipes the slate clean and offers us a fresh start with a new home, new job, and a new heart. In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Brooks Hatlen had been in prison so long that he knew no other way of life. When Brooks was finally paroled after being incarcerated for years and years, he was clueless as to how to start again. The parole board freed him, but they made no provisions for his new life. Within a short time, Brooks Hatlen buckled under the despair and hung himself. In God’s mercy we experience his forgiveness. He saves us and frees us from a life of sin and death. But in God’s grace we become the recipients of his provisions. He cares for us in the new life outside of prison.

And what lies behind God’s mercy and grace? The great, great love that he has for every person who ever walked on the face of the earth. Including you. Including me. We’ve heard it so often—how do we regain a sense of awe at the very thought that God loves us? Imagine with me for just a moment the unpredictability of the gods in ancient Mesopotamia. The people there feared from one day to the next, worrying that their gods might get up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning and either taunt them or even destroy them. They knew nothing about a god of love.

Or think instead about some of the tyrants who have dotted the pages of history in just the last 100 years. Joseph Stalin might have led the former Soviet Union to super-power status on the world scene, but he confiscated property, brutally persecuted the church, purged the government of anyone who opposed him, withheld food from various groups during times of famine, and literally butchered millions of people. How might life in the Soviet Union have been different had Joseph Stalin been a leader who loved his people? What might Adolph Hitler have done in Europe, Mao Tse Tung in China, or Pol Pot in Cambodia had they loved their people. What might life be like even today in North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, just to name a few places, if their respective leaders ruled out of hearts of love? What might life be like, even here in the United States, if our leaders, whatever good intentions they may or may not have, ruled first and foremost out of love? It is hard to imagine, isn’t it? We can picture the pain brought about by evil rulers, but where is a model for a loving one?

Look to God. Look to Jesus. Look to the Holy Spirit. The very same God who created the world and exercises ultimate authority over time and space—don’t lose sight of the fact that the principalities and powers of this world are living on borrowed time!—is a God who is madly, hopelessly in love with what he has made. And out of that great love, he extends to all who believe his mercy and grace. He spares us the punishment that we rightly deserve, and he offers us blessings that we do not deserve. This, Paul assures us, is who God is. God loves the world and everyone in it.

Next, Paul informs us in vv. 5b-6 of what God has done. Out of his great mercy, grace and love, God has made us alive with Christ, raised us up with Christ, and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places. What a remarkable sequence or progression. In the same way that Paul, in Romans 5, held up Adam as a paradigm of sin, now he holds up Christ as a paradigm of salvation. Sin came into the world through Adam and with it, death. Now, the sequence is reversed. When Christ came back to life, so did we. When God raised up Christ, he raised us up as well. And beyond that, when Christ was seated at the right hand of God the father—given the favored position—we were given seats right beside his!

Some of the disciples, you might recall, argued about this very thing when they were wandering around with Jesus. In Mark 10, James and John asked Jesus flat out if one of them could sit at his right hand and the other at his left in glory. And while their motives were clearly out of whack, you can at least understand in part their longing for a reserved seat. It may look to you at times like I am an outgoing person, but I have an introverted streak that shows up with some regularity, particularly in group activities. I drove to Indiana recently to participate in the funeral of the man under whose ministry I first became a Christian. When I went into the fellowship hall afterward for the luncheon, I felt thoroughly awkward. I knew virtually no one there apart from a few family members, and they were busy moving from table to table. I didn’t know where to sit—there were no assigned seats—and I felt awkward standing on the sidelines. I felt sufficiently awkward, truth be told, that I left earlier than I might have otherwise.

A week and a half later, I attended, along with most of you, Pauline and Elvin’s reception. Deb and I found a few empty seats in the corner of fellowship hall—after embarrassing ourselves on the tandem bike!—and sat down for the festivities. Soon, however, someone came to tell us that we had reserved seats at the front table with the bride and groom, so we made our way there. We weren’t standing on the sideline like I was the week before. I wasn’t looking around for a place to sit—I had a reserved seat at the front where I could see Elvin and Pauline beaming from ear to ear. For those of us who have been saved through the blood of Christ and transformed by the Holy Spirit, God has already placed a tag on the head table in heaven with each of our names on it.

And finally, Paul offers us just a glimpse in v. 7 of what God will yet do. He has saved us, raised us and seated us “so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” In the Brensinger paraphrase, God has raised us up so that he can dote on us for all of eternity. His great love has led him, not only to save us and give us new life, but to shower us with his goodness and blessings forever and ever. Just picture Bill Gates, worth roughly $60 billion, rescuing a homeless child from the gutter and welcoming him into his family. What can money buy that this child will not enjoy? And so it is with you and me in the life to come. As the bride of Christ, we will be opening wedding presents forever.

And what are we asked to do? Well I know what we are typically tempted to do. Work to earn God’s favor. Court God to somehow gain his interest. Build up religious brownie points. We can’t. Earning God’s favor is a hopeless proposition. We have to stop listening to that voice once and for all. It doesn’t come from God.

So what should we do? Believe. Open our hands and receive. For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works…. Works are a wonderful and thoroughly appropriate response to express our love and gratitude to God for all that he has done for us. Works play a vital role in sharing the Gospel and advancing the Kingdom of God on earth. Works are important. Paul says as much here in v. 10. We who are saved work along with Christ to do the will of the Father for as long as he gives us breath. But works are a hopelessly deficient strategy for earning God’s love and grace. So stop trying. When someone invites you over for dinner, you don’t walk in and start cleaning the house to earn your meal. But helping to wash the dishes after dinner is another matter, isn’t it?!? Take off those old work clothes. Whether you are young or old, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, leader or follower. Whether you have ten degrees or no degrees. Be assured of this. In this church, in this body of believers, we value the free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. With God’s help, we want to put on garments of love and grace.