The Immeasurable Gift of God

Ephesians 2:-1-10
4th Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert

O Lord our God, you are always more ready to bestow your good gifts upon us than we are to seek them. You are more willing to give than we desire or deserve. Help us so to seek that we may truly find, so to ask that we may joyfully receive, so to knock that the door of your mercy may be opened for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Ephesians 2:1-10 (The Message)
1 It wasn't so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. 2 You let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. 3 We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. 4 Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, 5 (God) embraced us. (God) took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ, (doing) all this with no help from us! 6 Then (God) picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah. 7 Now God has us where (we need to be), with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus.
8 Saving is all (God’s) idea, and all (God’s) work. All we do is trust (God) enough to let it happen. It's God's gift from start to finish! 9 We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! 10 No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. (God) creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join in the work, the good work (God) has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

That’s an adapted version of the Message translation of Ephesians 2:1-10. I am hoping that the modern colloquial language might hook us in a new way. Because what I’ve been thinking all week is this: How can I get the people of Peace excited about the grace of God – this immeasurable, incredible, amazing gift?

It is no small matter that both the children’s catechism, which we just read together and the Study Catechism, which we will use later both open with a message that sounds a lot like Ephesians 2:8 -10. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 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.

God’s grace overcomes our sin by Christ’s gift of love, which calls us to a life of responding in trust and obedience. It is the central message of the Christian Gospel – that God so loved not just us, but the whole world, that God came in human form as Jesus Christ, to live and die and be raised for us. “The emphasis on “grace” and “faith” in this passage has made it a favorite with the Reformers. Here we have all the great themes of Reformed theology: a dramatic “before” and “after,” the total transformation of the believer, and the emphasis that it is all the “gift of God.” Embedded in this passage are a distinctive cosmology, a sense that the resurrected reality promised to the Christian is already being realized, and a conception of salvation, which is complete and total.” (Ian Markham, Feasting on the Word) Listen for the Spirit speaking to you today:

Ephesians 2:1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 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. 3 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 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 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. (NRSV)

This message shapes the pattern of historic Christian worship. As we come into the presence of a Holy God, we acknowledge our sin and are reminded of the gift of grace. We share that grace and peace with others. We are fed by Word and Sacrament, and given strength for living more faithfully. We pray for the world and give of ourselves in response to God’s grace, re-committing ourselves to a life of discipleship. Ephesians 2 begins with our deadness, our desperate situation, our weakness, our failure. Then it moves to the gift of grace, not the result of works, which is ours. It was there for us, even before we became aware of it, so sometimes we just take it for granted. This seems to be increasingly true. I have noticed in the twenty-two years of my ordination, that attitudes about grace are changing.

People used to get excited when they would hear sermons about the unconditional love of God. They were so relieved to hear that God could forgive any and all sin. They were excited to learn that there is nothing that can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Their faces brightened when they heard that grace is a gift – cannot be earned. They knew they did not deserve it, so news of it was great! Now I am concerned that people seem to accept grace as a given. “Oh yeah, of course God loves me.” Have we really not considered how dead we were in our sins? Do we not see that God’s expectations are high, and that we have not met them? This is not horseshoes. Close doesn’t really count. It’s not about being a reasonably good person. You were dead in your sins.

I’ll tell you about the deadness of a reasonably good person. A twenty-three year old man in law school, good friend of my nephew, comes from a great family, all of whom are faithful members of the Methodist Church, where my brother and sister-in-law have been active for twenty years. A couple of weeks ago, this guy was at a bar with his girlfriend when another man made a pass at his date. This led to an argument and a shift to the sidewalk, where apparently, my nephew’s friend shoved this guy into the street, just as a BMW drove by. The man was hit and killed. My nephew’s good friend is now charged with first degree murder. Can you imagine the horror of this situation for both families?

Both guys probably had enough alcohol in them to impair their judgment. An indiscretion. A flared temper. A stupid fight and now one is dead and the other will likely land in prison for many years. Dead! Children of wrath. Caught up in the passions of the flesh. Sad. And what makes it so sad is that all of us have the capacity to make such a dumb mistake in the heat of passion, especially when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. How quickly the sinful action of a reasonably good person led to death. The Greeks understood evil to lie in the zone between heaven and earth, thus the reference to the “ruler of the power of the air” as evil. Sometimes consequences are severe, sometimes not so much, but we are all children of wrath, dead in our sins. Even those of us who are less likely to physically harm someone have had moments when we verbally threw someone under the bus. Temper.

I lost my temper Thursday and screamed at Richard. We were having a great family outing on a rented boat, but the choppy water had jarred my neck and back repeatedly, and from some angry place inside me came an unexpected rage, shocking, even to me. Richard apologized for the excessive speed of our boat. I apologized for losing my temper.

And those who are quiet, less impulsive, can be just as self-absorbed and sinful as those who have anger management issues. We are part of the human condition of sin, whereby our systems of relating to one another are full of attitudes and actions that wound others. We are all sick and in need of God’s good medicine of grace. Watch teen girls ruthlessly exclude. Watch teen boys ruthlessly cut one another down. Not too different from adults. Our communities and our government are corrupted by our bad attitudes and insecurities. We can blame all our problems on the Democrats or on the Republicans or on all the officials in Washington who never accomplish anything because they are so polarized, so politically motivated. We can blame Wall Street or Main Street, but the bottom line is, we are all part of the system. Some people are lazy, and many are stuck. And we don’t really care – not enough to make a difference, not enough to make a sacrifice. We live in a great country, but it is captive to sin. We live in a great world, full of creative and kind people, but our communal and individual selfishness leads to deadness all the world around. You know deadness when you see or experience conflict in families and the strain on relationships because of all kinds of selfishness, which is usually denied. You know deadness when you read about Syria or other countries in the Middle East or Northern Africa, where warfare has ravaged so many lives. You know deadness when you see us here in a land of plenty, killing our own people in neighborhoods and schools and not being able to find an acceptable solution to the huge problems of healthcare and growing prison populations.

I am often amazed at the number of people who think they haven’t done anything wrong. Educators observe that children and their parents are less likely to take responsibility for their own wrongs. “What did my kid do?” Surely it was someone else’s fault. Pastors see people coming in with all kind of brokenness and irreconcilable conflicts in their lives, but they did nothing wrong. Our sin is not always wrong action but lack of action. Children are dying of hunger around the world, while we kill ourselves by eating too much processed food, but we’re not doing anything wrong. As our Lenten prayer of confession has reminded us, we have sinned by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Friends, it is healthier to admit that you’ve done wrong or at least failed to do right. Part of our deadness is our inability to see how dead we are, how caught up in sin we are. Another part of our deadness is that we ignore the suffering love of Christ and just go on living in sin, as if the gift meant nothing.

But the good news is that God does NOT accept us as we are. No, God intends us to be MORE than we are. We can keep choosing sin and death if we want because God does not control us like puppets, but short of taking away our autonomy, God will do everything to lead us to choose goodness and life, because the free gift of God in Christ is life abundant, life lived for God and others. God took our sin-dead lives and made us brand new in Jesus Christ. God did this. We cannot take the credit. With amazing love and forgiveness, God embraced us and gave us a new start by the grace of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

If only we could see Jesus Christ in the fullness of who he really is and the gift of God’s grace for the immeasurable greatness that it is, then we would give our whole-hearted allegiance, our love and trust to our Savior. (John Stott) We would love all people, even those who are different from us, as beloved children of God. We would be generous toward them, even when they don’t deserve it, as God has been toward us.

Ephesians says we are seated in the heavenly places with Christ. I bet you don’t often imagine yourself already ascended with Christ. But this free gift is not just a ticket to a place called heaven when you breathe your last breath. This free gift of grace is for life going forward here and now. We cannot save ourselves, but we are called and invited to live into the good news of our salvation. We are created for good works, though we do not earn God’s grace by good works. No, good works flow from a depth of gratitude for the grace which is ours in Jesus Christ. This distinction is very important. Otherwise, you’ll end up a Pelagian, thinking that you can achieve God’s grace by your good works. Grace is a gift, and faith is what we exercise in embracing that grace and growing in gracefulness. We are created for good works, but not reconciled with God through good works. We could never work hard enough or have enough faith to achieve grace.

Because you see this grace is so amazing, so deliciously sweet. It has such a sweet sound, especially when you know the extent of your wretchedness, or at least your participation in the wretchedness of this world. When you know you’ve been lost, it is wonderful to be found. When you know you cannot see, it is a gift to have your eyes opened by the one who knows all your blind spots. Yes, this is the best news on earth and we’re here to celebrate it, to sing about, and to be transformed by it week in and week out.