(a sermon for March 19, 2023, the 4th Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 1:14, 16-18)
Once, years ago at the very first church that I ever served as a young greenhorn student pastor, it was decided that we were going to give out “cross and crown pins” to the children in our little Sunday School. Now, this is something you don’t hear much about anymore, but church folk “of a certain age” will know what I’m talking about; basically, cross and crown pins served as perfect attendance awards for Sunday School, and with each successive year that the children were part of the program, the more pins they received.
So it seemed like a good idea, as we were trying to maintain some consistency in the size of our classes from week to week, along with seeking to encourage some sense of faith commitment amongst the kids themselves; and by and large, it worked. Most of the children embraced the whole idea with great enthusiasm, and worked hard at it. The only problem was that come the end of the Sunday School year, we came to the rather sobering conclusion that out of about twenty children, only a couple of them were actually going to qualify for a pin! So here we were with a little egg on our faces, having laid out this program and making such a big deal all year about earning these pins, and realizing now that we were going to have to deal with a whole bunch of really disappointed kids!
But then we started looking at the records of the kids who’d almost made the cut. One little girl had been in the hospital with pneumonia one Sunday; well, we really couldn’t hold that against her, could we? Then there were the three children whose mother and father were going through a rather messy divorce that winter; we certainly didn’t want to add to the trauma of that! And what about those Sunday mornings in January when the weather was bad and roads were icy; nobody should be expected to drive to church in a snowstorm! And then, because this was Aroostook County, Maine, there was potato harvest to consider… and honestly, in those days everything stopped during “potato pickin’!”
Well, you guessed it; using Jesus’ parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard” as our biblical model (you know, the one where the vineyard owner pays those who only worked in the vineyard one hour the same amount (!) as those who’d worked the full day?), we finally decided that we would give each one of the kids a cross and crown pin, regardless of their actual attendance. As you can imagine, a lot of the children were very happy about this turn of events; but what I’ll always remember is just how many of them weren’t! In fact, some of those kids were quite put out with us adults that we’d changed the rules; and this is to say nothing of a couple of parents who, only half-jokingly, informed me after church that if they’d known that this was how it was all going to play out, they’d have rolled over and gone back to sleep rather than to drive to church on those snowy Sunday mornings! The pièce de resistance, however, was one sweet and angelic little girl, who up until that time had never, ever missed a chance to give me a great big hug, but instead greeted me that morning with an icy stare; informing me before stomping off that this wasn’t fair (!) because Joey Johnson got a pin and hardly ever came to Sunday School!”
Well, suffice to say that not only did I learn something there about the nature of good intentions, I think it was at that very moment that I, as a young pastor and budding theologian, began to grasp the radical nature of grace.
Grace is actually one of those words that we in the church tend to use frequently to the point of being rather casual about it. We speak regularly of how all that we are, all that we have, all that we can ever hope to be is “by the grace of God.” And truly, it is all by grace: the gift all creation, the land, sea and sky and all that dwells within them is by grace; the fact we live and breathe and grow is by grace; forgiveness, redemption, salvation, even that Spirit that stirs us to reach out and capture that which God offers us; that comes to each one of us by grace! Moreover, grace is a word that we use apart from any kind of biblical or religious context: outside of these church doors, for instance, grace becomes a way of describing the dancer’s leap or the poet’s word; it’s that intangible something that just seems to fill a particular moment, whatever it is, with goodness and perfection. And when, for whatever reason, we recognize that it’s not there for someone else, so often our response is to say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
So grace, by its simplest definition, seems to describe the blessings of what we’ve received; but ultimately, you see, that only tells half the story! When we as people of faith talk about something being “by the grace of God,” we’re referring to that “incalculable calculation” by which God knows what we need and gives it to us even though we have done nothing to achieve or earn it. In fact, two words in ancient Hebrew that can be roughly translated as “grace” are, first, hen, which describes the compassionate response of a superior to an inferior, especially when that kindness is undeserved; and second, hesed, which, by the way, is the word in scripture used to describe God’s loving-kindness and loyalty toward Israel, even when Israel regularly turned away from God! So then, “by the grace of God” ends up meaning that whatever it happens to be – from being granted cross and crown pins to, well, the myriad blessings of life itself (!) – the fact is, you may well not deserve it and probably don’t! Nonetheless, the divine and almighty God – Creator of heaven and earth – this God loves you, and so here it is. It’s all yours, by GRACE.
Our text for this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, a portion of the second chapter that culminates in one of the great confessions of the epistles: that we have been made “alive together with Christ,” and that through him, God has saved us “and [has] 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 toward us in Christ Jesus.” Friends, these verses are like great and triumphant music, bringing forth an affirmation that is beyond powerful; these are words that immediately offer up a fitting benediction to everything that we know to be true about our Christian faith. I mean, once Paul offers up that promise of “the immeasurable riches of his grace,” (there’s that word again!), what is there left to say?
But did you happen to notice how this second chapter begins; what Paul says to these Christians at Ephesus before proclaiming the awesome wonder of God’s love in Jesus?
You were dead! That’s right… I said it: You. Were. Dead. Dead, dead, dead.
The Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, recently retired president of Princeton Seminary, writes that this passage of Paul’s epistle serves as a “testimony to the church,” that is, regarding the Body of Christ in Ephesus and yes, by extension the Body of Christ in this time and place. However, Barnes says that Paul is “not [being] very tender with us.” There are no kind and gentle remarks here; it’s “You were dead.” “Not you were lost,” Barnes says, “[not that] you were unfulfilled, or even you were victimized. You were dead through your sins and trespasses.” And if that weren’t enough, Barnes goes on to say that “he doesn’t just kill us, though, he digs the grave as well,” talking all about how we were “following… the spirit that is now work among those who are disobedient… [living] in the passions of our flesh… by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” Or, if you’d like to hear the Message translation here, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience.” What we’re hearing here from Paul is judgment, pure and simple; walking through life with no hope of redemption or salvation at all! All you were, says Paul, all you could ever hope to be, ever, was… dead!
So the question becomes, how do we go from being “children of wrath,” to being “made alive together with Christ,” seated “in the heavenly places?” Well, the answer is… grace. And what is so very special about grace comes in the very next thing that Paul says, after leveling all this judgment at us: “But God…” as in, “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.” As in, if I can quote Craig Barnes again, “you were dead, but God… you kept trying to wander back into the tomb, but God… you were killing yourself trying to save yourself, but God… you had been beaten up and left to walk around wounded, but God… but God would not let you stay dead… but God who is rich in mercy and out of great love,” made you alive in Christ!
That’s what’s so special about grace! Because at the end of the day there’s nothing we can do to resolve all of the “trespasses and sins” in which we have walked in this life: we can’t change what’s already been done in our lives; we can’t fix what is broken between yourself and God; we can’t raise the dead (!)… but God can. By grace, God does do that, and by grace he does do this for you and me by the redeeming power at work in Jesus Christ.
The story goes that during a conference on comparative religion some years ago, the renowned theologian and author C.S. Lewis was asked in the midst of a very intense discussion what he considered to be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s religions. Lewis quickly responded, “Oh, that’s easy… it’s grace.” And despite the brevity and simplicity of his answer, not to mention all the other sharp divisions that people of differing faiths often espouse, on that one point, at least, everyone had to agree. I love what Philip Yancey says about this; he writes, “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law – each offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”
Turns out that glory of our Christian faith is ultimately not to be found in what we do, but in what we receive; and in that regard, I suppose that it’s not wholly unconditional, for it does require each of us to take hold of what we’ve been given. But when we do take hold of what we’re given by God, we become the recipients of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” We are made part of what Paul refers to earlier in Ephesians as God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:9) We are given life heretofore unimagined; life full and abundant and life eternal; and it comes to us all because of this incredible, radical, unmerited amazing grace that’s borne of divine love.
In the end, you see, grace is all about love. As the late Frederick Buechner said so beautifully, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. [But] don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
Dear friends, the good news of this and every day is that we are loved beyond measure and by grace we are saved; and in a sacrificial act that will change the world forever, God’s own son will show us yet again just how true of a thing that is. So let us watch and wait, even unto the cross, for this gift of grace to unfold our own hearts; so that we might embrace it as our very own. So that there, by the grace of God, will go you and I.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2023 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.