Sunday 13 February 2011

Saved by grace through faith for good works

The 2nd of 5 addresses I am giving on Paul's letter to the Ephesians on the 5 Sundays before Lent. This one given was given in Templederry and Killodiernan on Sunday 13th February 2011, the 4th before Lent.

Today we take a 2nd bite at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
In the 5 Sundays before Lent we are taking 5 bites at Ephesians. Taken as a whole it expresses Paul’s vision for his churches – it is his answer to the question, ‘How should Christians, as God’s adopted children, behave in God’s household, which is Christ’s church’.

If you miss any of the 5 addresses, or want to read them again, printed copies are available. But there’s no substitute for reflecting on Paul’s words for yourself, so you might like to read a chapter or so of Ephesians a week keeping pace with these addresses.

In our 1st bite last Sunday, after looking at the context of the letter – who wrote it, to whom, and why - we saw how Paul in chapter 1 almost bludgeons us to recognise that ‘We must start with Christ!’

This Sunday we look at the first half of chapter 2 (Ephesians 2:1-10), which we have just heard.

But before we turn to Paul’s words, I invite you to travel back in your memory to your early childhood – what did it feel like to be you?
I was blessed with a childhood filled with love and happiness, and I hope you were too. But not everyone is so blessed – if you weren’t, you might imagine some other time when you did feel filled with love and happiness by the presence of another.

As a baby, my mother made me feel completely and utterly loved – my father too, but she spent much more time with me - can you conjure up the warmth and scent of your mother, that sense of complete happiness and safety in her presence? I responded, I suppose, in the only way I could respond, with complete trust and love in return.

As a toddler, I was often bold, as toddlers are. But even when I could see I’d done something to make her unhappy, I was still sure of her love. I could learn to say I was sorry and mean it. And in response she would forgive me, give me a cuddle, and the warmth and closeness would be renewed – can you recall the rush of relief that came with that cuddle?

And as I grew up, imitating her, encouraged by her, I learned how to behave, how to be a good boy – at least some of the time, how to be ‘a useful engine’ like Thomas the Tank Engine, how to be kind to others - including the dog and the cat, and my baby brother, hard as that sometimes seemed! I began to learn the difference between right and wrong, and I began to understand that happiness comes from doing right. And that lesson of course is one we never stop learning as long as we live.

‘You were dead’, says Paul to the Ephesians – and we are all Ephesians!
‘You were dead through (your) trespasses and sins’.
We are all souls with consciences. We are all made in the image of God, and we have all eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to use the imagery of Genesis. Yet like all human beings we so often do wrong or fail to do right – that is a matter of observation, part of the human condition.

You followed ‘the course of the world… the ruler of the power of the air… the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient’.
We don’t see the world the same way people in Paul’s time did – they believed the air teemed with demons under Satan’s influence that put evil thoughts into people’s minds. And yet… We know, don’t we, that the spirit of a place and time is a powerful influence on us, for good or ill? I have seen marriage-breakdown sweep through a social circle in a small community like an epidemic, bringing untold hurt to children and adults alike. And we must all be aware of how so many of us bought into the Celtic Tiger ethos of greed and excess, with the evil results we are now struggling to live with.

You lived ‘in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses’.
We are so primed by our natures to always want more, aren’t we? More and richer food and drink, more sex, more comfort, more excitement, more luxury, more than our neighbour has. And today as never before we are bombarded with messages to tempt us, ‘because we’re worth it’.

Our own failures, social pressures and our greedy desires cut us off from God. And they make us feel dead to all that is good and true and beautiful, dead to God.

‘But God’, says Paul, ‘out of (his) great love, made us alive together with Christ’.
‘(God) raised us up with him and seated us with him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus’. ‘For’
, says Paul, 'by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God… For we are what (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works’. What wonderful poetic words!

In summary, ‘In Jesus Christ, God has saved us by grace through faith for good works’. This is Paul’s great message to the Ephesians – and also to us. It is a dense and coded formula – as hard to understand as Einstein’s famous equation, ‘E=MC2’. Let me try to tease out what it means.
  • Despite our trespasses and sins, God has saved us – he has healed us and made us whole, reunited us with himself – he has made us rise from the dead like Christ.
  • God has done this by his grace alone, by his loving kindness towards us – it is not our own doing – there is nothing we could possibly do to deserve it.
  • God has done this through faith – our faith in Jesus Christ, who leads us to God and shows us all that is good and true and beautiful.
  • And it is because Christ has led us to God that the Spirit moves us to be the kind of people that God has made us to be – people who do good works.

In Ephesians Paul speaks of salvation as something completed, in the past.
But it is better, I think, to see it as something that is continuing, as Paul himself does elsewhere – we are ‘being saved’.

Salvation is surely a dynamic psychological process – much like the process of socialisation we experience as children. That is why I asked you earlier to imagine how you felt as a child as you were learning how to behave.

  • When God shows us his grace - his loving kindness – in Jesus Christ, we respond with faith in Christ, and we feel enveloped in God’s love.
  • Our conscience tells us when we offend against God’s love, and we hear Jesus call us to repent – to change our ways. And when we do repent, God responds by forgiving us. We are saved. No longer crushed by a burden of guilt, we feel loved and close to God again.
  • When we feel touched by God’s love, we can respond to the prompting of his Holy Spirit to do good and reject evil, to live as the sort of people God wants us to be.
  • And this dynamic process of being saved continues as long as we live.

In Jesus Christ, God is saving us by grace through faith for good works.
Let us give thanks for this message from Paul to the Ephesians – it is surely also meant for us. Amen

Next Sunday we shall look at the 2nd half of Chapter 2 (Ephesians2:11-22), and the theme ‘We are all members of God’s household’.

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