ENGIFTED BY GOD’S GRACE
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. Ephesians 2:1-10.. March 30, 2003.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.
– Ephesians 2:8
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” You know, this is one of those verses in the Bible that seems to me somehow to express the kernel of the whole gospel message. I find that there are some scriptures that do that for me, and this verse in the book of Ephesians is one of them. Only 22 words, and yet so much of the gospel is encapsulated there.
What this is about is our relationship with God – or to say it the other way around, it is about God’s covenant with us. Some may be put off by the seventh word in the sentence – the word “saved;” but if we persevere right on through the twenty-second word, we receive quite a blessing. For here Paul clearly states what many people discover in their own Christian experience, namely that God’s grace is first of all just that – gracious, and secondly that it comes to us free of charge. God’s grace is God’s gift to you and you and you and you, and me.
You know, from time to time I find myself in a conversation with someone, and they are telling me how well things have been going for them – things like getting a good report from the doctor, or receiving a nice refund on your income tax, or hearing good feedback from your children's teachers at school. And when they find it hard to believe how well things are going, and I may reply, "Well, you must be living right."
For a long time people believed just that: they believed that if they lived right and were good and kind to other people, then they would receive good in return. And that if they were not living right, then they would experience bad things in return. This kind of ethic is called "direct retribution," and it held sway for a long time in human history.
Most of us have learned that we cannot depend on this approach to good and evil in the real world. In fact, life may seem to be just the opposite. All too often it appears that the people who do evil are precisely the ones who get ahead. And how many times has it seemed to you that you experience a lot of evil, regardless of how good you are? Indeed, for Christians the cross of Christ is the ultimate example of how goodness is rewarded with evil.
So, then, why do I say to my friends that they must be living right when things are going well for them? Well, probably because it is something I used to hear older people say when I was growing up. And perhaps also because I wish that life were that simple. I wish I could count on experiencing bad times only when I am doing bad things, and that I could count on receiving good so long as I do good. But much of the time it doesn’t work that way, does it?
But even when we know that, there are still times when Christian people think that doing good is a way of earning God's favour. Sometimes we think that we can get on the good side of God by things like being active in the church, by giving generously to charity, and by volunteering our time in community activities. Even when we know better – when we know that we do not earn God’s favor, there are still times when we try, and we want to think that we have "God on our side" as Bob Dylan sang? Do we sometimes think of our Christian life as a list of things to do and not do as a way of pleasing God so that God will go easy on us, and so that our eternal destiny will be secure? Even when I know this is not correct, I find it hard to completely avoid thinking this way.
In our reading from the book of Ephesians, St. Paul says some interesting things that challenge this way of thinking. Paul says it is not possible for us to earn God's favour. On the contrary, he says that our only hope is based in God's taking the initiative on our behalf. Listen again to Ephesians, chapter 2:
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....and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus. (2:4-6)
So then it is not we who approach God and earn God's favour – as if that were possible; but it is really God who comes to us and gives us life. It is God who takes the initiative and unconditionally accepts humankind, regardless of how "dead through our trespasses" we may be, regardless of how unworthy we may feel, regardless of how unloving and unaccepting we may have become.
In other words, we don't earn God's love and favour; in fact there is no way that anyone ever could. But the overwhelming fact of salvation is precisely that what we could never earn is just what God has mercifully and graciously given to humanity through Jesus Christ. It is stated so eloquently in verse 8:
For by grace have you been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.
The late theologian Paul Tillich once said it this way: he said that all we have to do is “simply accept the fact that we are accepted.” This recognition that God reaches out to us before we can come to God is referred to as prevenient grace, and it was the hallmark of the theology of John Wesley who founded the Methodist movement in 18th century Britain. It means that God does not wait for us to love him, but reaches out to us in love and acceptance – just as we are.
Whenever I meet with couples prior to the baptism of their baby, we have a conversation about this. We talk about how when we are baptizing their baby, what we are saying is that God loves this child. And not only that, but when we baptize a baby, what it means is that God is saying, “I know in advance that you will rebel, and turn your back on me, and go your own way, and ignore my teachings. And I love you anyhow. I love you anyhow.”
Yes, we are engifted by God’s grace – or with God’s grace. God created humankind in order to love us, and we in turn are to love God and to love one another. I find that it is said so well in the First Letter of John:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)
“Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” That’s where the rubber hits the road, you know. That is the ethical question for us. Not how we can earn God’s love, but once we are secure in that love – once we know it from the top of our heads to the bottom of our hearts, then how will we respond to it? How will that love be incarnate in us, so that our words and actions are channels of that love? Or to ask the question in a slightly different way, how will others experience God’s love through you and me, and how will they know that the love they experience through us is because of God’s love flowing through us?
As we ponder these questions for ourselves, let us keep in mind our reading from Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” Amen.