Sept. 17, 2017 Ephesians 2: 1-10
Prayer: Dear Lord, Help us to understand your word, and more importantly, to live it. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Many years ago, as I drove around Greenville, I became quite enamored of church signs. You know the ones – “Give the devil an inch and he’ll become your ruler.”
“Prepare for summer. Get prayer conditioned.”
“Looking for a lifeguard? Ours walks on water.”
One night at dinner I mentioned that I wanted to write a murder mystery set in a small Southern town. And at the beginning of each chapter, the detective would drive by one of these church signs. Something in the message would comment on the case or her state of mind.
I still haven’t written that particular mystery, so don’t steal my idea. But I’ve got the signs:
“Forbidden fruit creates many jams.”
“Jesus is the rock that doesn’t roll.”
“Life stinks. We have a pew for you.”
Well, to my great surprise, my daughter Dustin was actually listening that evening at dinner. The next Christmas, she gave me a book of photographs of church signs. “Someone beat you to it,” she said. I love looking through that book.
“The best vitamin for a Christian is B1.”
“Long before e-mail, God answered knee-mail.”
“Don’t wait for six strong men to take you to church!”
Sometimes when you read these things, you wonder if the pastor just got irritated. Here’s one from a church in Kansas: “I don’t why some people change churches. What difference does it make which one you stay home from?”
Ouch. In addition to corny plays on words and misspellings that drive me crazy, one of the biggest themes in the church sign market is the threat of hell.
“Fire Protection Policy Available Inside.”
“Exposure to the Son (S-O-N) May Prevent Burning.”
“Stop, drop and roll won’t work in hell.”
For the book Dustin gave me, a husband-and-wife team made three cross-country trips, photographing church signs. That might have been overkill. I think they could have driven around Greenville on a single afternoon and called it a day.
But the fact is, from South Carolina to California, from Florida to Oregon, from the Free Will Baptists to the Lutherans, from the Methodists to the Catholics, the promise of salvation and the threat of hell are encapsulated in 10 words or less. Long before the days of tweeting, we had church signing.
From Amarillo, Texas: “Repent now. Avoid the Judgment Day rush!”
And down in Valdosta, Georgia: “Eternity: Smoking or Non-smoking.”
The folks down in Fort Ogden, Florida, got a little snippy: “Now even Darwin believes.”
If you have been coming to Triune for awhile, you know that I don’t preach a lot about heaven and hell, or even about personal salvation. When the resurrected Jesus left his disciples with what we call the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew, he said these words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28: 19-20)
For many of us who grew up in Southern churches, we heard lots about baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and not so much about teaching obedience to that which Jesus commanded. We heard lots about personal salvation and heaven and hell, and not so much about how we were to live here on earth as followers of Jesus.
And so when I err – and I most certainly do – I imagine I err on the side of overemphasizing our Christian lives together. I follow the church sign attributed to Oscar Wilde and painted for us by Russ Reed: “Every saint has a past…. Every sinner has a future.”
That speaks to the struggle we face as we try to follow Jesus by loving each other, knowing that none of us is perfect, all of us fall short.
And in being so enmeshed in that theology, perhaps I don’t stress enough the theology from Gethsemane Baptist in Nashville, Tennessee: “Wal-Mart isn’t the only saving place in town.”
And so today we’re going to look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians about salvation, about God’s grace, about God’s gracious, saving activity as a means to pull us out of human sin.
Paul’s letter that we call Ephesians is not like his other letters. In Corinthians and Galatians and Philippians, he’s talking to people he knows. He’s answering their questions. He’s squelching insurrections. He’s telling them “Do this!” and “Stop doing that!” He’s acting as their long-distance pastor.
But in Ephesians, he’s writing to people he may not even know. He writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you ….” (1: 15-16). He has heard about their faith, but it sounds like he didn’t know them personally.
We think this letter was read in the churches as a circular, as a theological statement. It’s more impersonal, more liturgical than most others. It is more like preaching than a personal conversation.
Please turn with me in your Bibles to Ephesians 2: 1-10, and we’ll read part of this letter together.
2 You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
4 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 — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.
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.
At first Paul talks about the deadness of our human condition. “The ruler of the power of the air” and “the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” are names for Satan, for evil. That’s who we followed in our natural state.
We were “children of wrath”; that is, we were powerless creatures subject to God’s wrath and judgment.
After laying this foundation for our evil, human, rudderless natures, Paul then comes to verse 4, the turning point, the hinge to this passage.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us … made us alive together with Christ….”
“By grace you have been saved….”
In many ways, this is THE central tenet of our Christian faith – that God took the initiative to save helpless, hapless, sinful humans in this world. And he did it through Jesus.
There is a sense in this passage that we are sharing in Christ’s resurrection already. God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
He’s writing to a community of Christians, and he’s writing about how they share in a very real sense the exaltation of Christ.
Then Paul emphasizes that this entire action is taken by God, not by us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not of works, so that no one may boast.”
I’ve mentioned before that when I was the religion writer for The Greenville News, I once covered a conference in which some fundamentalist Protestant churches were teaching how to “witness” to Catholics. And one of the pastors said that Mother Teresa had tried to “work her way into heaven.”
If you have ever heard the expression that someone’s jaw dropped, that would have been me. I stared at him in disbelief.
I agree that we cannot “work” our way into heaven. Where I believe he was wrong – dead wrong -- was in judging someone else’s motivation.
Because Paul writes here about another kind of “good works” – the kind we do because we are saved.
“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.”
We cannot work our way to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It’s a gift, freely given. We don’t earn it any more than we earn a birthday present.
However, the result of accepting that gracious gift should be … good works. That’s what God created us to do.
Unfortunately for those of us would like to keep score, the two may look exactly the same. We have no idea why someone is doing “good works.” We have no idea what’s in someone’s heart.
But I choose to believe that a woman who spent a lifetime serving the poor and leprous in Calcutta, India, was doing so because she was saved, not in order to be saved.
My fundamentalist friend might heed the sign at Cape Christian Fellowship in Florida: “A closed mouth gathers no foot.”
For those of us raised in a meritocracy, albeit one with an uneven playing field, this gift of grace can be hard to grasp. We are more likely to say things such as, You get what you pay for. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
So we have to think long and hard how to accept a gift that is so freely given. And we have to think about how we will use that gift.
After all, a gift is no good if it’s put away on a closet shelf and forgotten. A gift comes to life when it is used.
Grace comes to life when it is used.
“We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
That’s the model on which we were created. During our time on earth, we Christians are to do good works. Paul calls it “our way of life.”
I see this every single day here. We have people in this congregation who regularly stop by to give their time and talent and labor – from cleaning the kitchen stove to hauling furniture to leading an AA group to packing food boxes.
Long before Bill and Linda and Jay Bartlett began worshiping with us, I got an email from Bill. Bill is an engineer, and in this email, he said he was coming from downtown after a meeting and his car died right in front of Triune. There was a long line of traffic piling up behind him as he futilely tried to crank the engine. He knew he was about to create a major traffic jam on Rutherford Street.
“However,” Bill wrote, “in looking over into the doorway at Triune I spotted my saviors – a couple of Triune patrons waiting to be of service! I yelled over to them, and they gladly jumped up to give me a push-off which sent me rolling around the corner where I was able to coast down the hill and safely into the Triune parking lot. The traffic flow never missed a beat, and I did not have to suffer the berating or danger that comes in those situations.”
By the time Bill called Triple A to get a tow, the men had disappeared. He wanted me to thank them if I ever found out who they were.
And here’s how he ended his email: “Yesterday the guys of Triune provided me a mercy center….”
Yesterday the guys of Triune provided me a mercy center.
I don’t know who they were, but those men were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
During the last weekend of my sabbatical this summer, I met up with five girlfriends from college. We met at a house on Lake Oconee in Georgia almost 45 years to the day after we had met at Wake Forest University as 18-year-olds.
And for four days, we did nothing but talk. We sat in our pajamas until 3 o’clock most afternoons drinking coffee and talking, and then stayed up past midnight, talking some more.
One woman had been a physician, one a pharmacist, one a tutor. One woman had spent her life in corporate America. One had been in the Peace Corps, then became a union organizer and was now working in non-profits.
Three out of the six were still working. Two were divorced. Four had children. Three had grandchildren. One had survived breast cancer. Several had faced family addictions and mental illness and physical illnesses. Two had inherited wealth. (I was not one of those, by the way.)
We probably represented a great deal of what can go right and wrong in our lives in 20th and 21st- century America.
I overheard a conversation between Stefanie, the one in corporate America, and Jackie, the former Peace Corps worker. Stefanie, who was on four separate conference calls during the weekend, lamented that she’d never had the time to work for social causes. She’d just sent checks.
Jackie told her that was fine and maybe she’d have time to participate more fully in something after she retired.
Like Jackie, I’m not here to tell anyone what to do or not to do. And quite frankly, I don’t know where “just” writing checks got such a bad rap. Check writers allow Triune to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, do all those things Jesus instructed. Those checks constitute good works in my book. The bigger, the better.
All my college friends sent checks to Triune when they got home.
As Paul writes, we give, we do, not to earn God’s favor. We give, we do because God offers his gift of mercy and grace and forgiveness. He offers it freely, openly, extravagantly.
But it’s got to be accepted. And then it’s got to be used.
I think our friends in Nashville got it right on their church sign that came right out of our passage in Ephesians:
“Be the good God made you to be!”