By Grace Alone

“By Grace Alone”

 

sola gratia, sola scriptura, sola fide

Ephesians 2:4-10 (2:8) – October 22, 2017

How many people catch their breath or look troubled when they see an ambulance whiz by, sirens blaring, and lights flaring? I think that is a common reaction. I feel that way from time to time, too. Sometimes, I feel helpless, even useless, just watching from the sidelines. Or, in some cases, the sidewalk. Working as a chaplain, I met ambulances in the Emergency Department where they would unload their critically ill patients.

This is so like the situation that the apostle Paul talks about in our scripture reading for this morning. Let’s read Ephesians 2:4-5. “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.”

I know how difficult this discussion is for some people. Some of you or some of your friends or relatives might have traveled to the hospital, following that ambulance. I know, because I met with many families and loved ones in the Emergency Department. I’ve sat next to beds in the intensive care unit or other critical care units and prayed with seriously ill patients. I’ve comforted both patients and their loved ones. Sadly, I have been with a large number of people who died in the hospital. That is what Paul is talking about here. This is the situation. Paul says we—all of us—are dead in transgressions.

This is looking at things from a really dismal point of view. Absolutely! Sure, we might be walking around, physically breathing, hearts pumping. But as Paul tells us, we are dead because of our trespasses. Our transgressions. Our sins. Our thoughts, words and deeds that are not what God wants from us, and not who God wants us to be.

If you think of it in contemporary, even humorous terms, think of the whole human race like zombies—spiritual zombies. Sure, our bodies are walking and breathing, but we are all spiritually dead.

The apostle Paul is really clear about this. We—all of us—are spiritually dead in our trespasses and transgressions. Because of sin. What can we possibly do to heal ourselves from this spiritual death?

Some people might think they are not too bad off, not as bad as other people. I can hear them now: “I haven’t murdered or cheated anybody. I can’t be that sinful.” Or, “Look at that gal. She did all that illegal, nasty stuff. I’m not half as bad as she is.” Well, I have news for you. Really bad news. Everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Same apostle, different New Testament letter.)

For some, it might help if you can picture this. It’s as if each of us is in a spiritual boxing ring, boxing with the Devil. The tricky Devil flattens us with the one-two punch of temptation and sin. On our own, we are permanently knocked out, down for the count, forever.

Sin hits different people in different ways. Sometimes it’s sin like anger or envy or jealousy. Other times it’s the sin of pride or gossip or nasty words. Sometimes it’s the sin of mean, unkind thoughts—like Jesus told us, wishing you had something that belonged to somebody else—that is called coveting. Or, getting so angry at a friend or relative you call them, “You idiotic fool!” And, really mean worse than that. Jesus called all of that sin, too.

Let’s read from Ephesians 2:4-5 again: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Wait a minute. I’ve heard some people with another take on this sin thing. They try to work their way onto God’s good side. “There must be something I can do! Maybe, pray a bunch of times a day—really earnest prayers, too!” Or, “Maybe bringing some extra special offerings will make God happy. Maybe that will take away some of the black marks against me.” Or, “Maybe doing lots of good deeds. Maybe God will look at that and be satisfied.”

Paul says there is a problem with that. We cannot work our way to heaven by ourselves. What does Ephesians 2:8-9 say “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” In other words, the only way we can be accepted by God is only God’s doing. It is all God’s mercy, love, kindness and grace. Especially grace. Grace alone. Sola gratia. Not grace plus good works, no!

“Scripture is clear that we are saved by grace apart from works. If we were saved based on our works we would all be going to hell because our greatest works are filthy rags before God.[1] All we need to do to check that out is to read Isaiah 64:6 – “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”

Stan Mast from Calvin Theological Seminary had this to say: “I love the old story about C.S. Lewis wandering into an august gathering of theologians in Britain in the last century. They were debating how Christianity differed from other religions. Was it the doctrine of the Incarnation? No, some argued, they found stories of gods appearing in human form in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. So, was it the Resurrection? No, argued others, there are stories of people rising from the dead in other religions, though not in the precise form as the Gospel. Eventually, Lewis, the great Oxford scholar, wandered into the room and asked what the rumpus was about. When told that they were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution to the world’s religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.” [2]

God’s grace. Amazing grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord.

As I said to the children at the beginning of the service today, grace is undeserved. We do not deserve it. A newborn baby cannot do anything to make his or her parents or grandparents love him or her. We don’t expect them to! Can the newborn baby say “I love you?” Can the newborn baby give people hugs? Yet, the baby’s family loves that tiny human very much.

Remember the definition of grace (actually, Carolyn Brown’s definition): “grace is loving someone even when they don’t deserve it and God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.” [3]

I used to enjoy taking my children to the park, to the playground with all of the play equipment. I would often bring a book and read while the children played for a good long time. Sooner or later, it would be time to go home. Occasionally, when I would call my children, one or the other of them wouldn’t be ready to leave. Every once in a while, they would take off running in the opposite direction. I would have to go running after them.

Sure, I’d get upset. Sometimes, I’d be afraid and even angry, because they might wander off the playground and run near a busy street. But, I wouldn’t stop loving them. I’m a human, fallible parent. How much more does God love my children? And, how much more does God love me? And, you?

I am okay with God speaking of me—of us—as a small child (which the Bible does, on several occasions). When you or I disobey or run away from God, does God keep loving us? Remember Carolyn Brown’s definition of grace? “God’s grace is the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.”

From the beginning, in the middle, and to the end, we all are saved, justified by God’s grace alone. By God’s grace, “we become the creatures God had intended from the beginning, God’s magnificent workmanship, God’s masterpiece.” [4]

God’s grace. Marvelous grace of our loving Lord. Amazing grace. Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] God’s Grace…… Earned or Freely Given?  http://www.reformedgnome.com/  Posted on February 9, 2016

[2] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

[3] Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015. 2012http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

[4] The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-4b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Cleanse Your Hearts!

“Cleanse Your Hearts!”

Acts 15 Jerusalem council stained glass

Acts 15:8-9 – August 23, 2015

Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

I hate to make sweeping statements, but I definitely think that that is one everyone can agree upon. Conflict resolution is never an easy thing.

We could be talking about the rough and tumble of sibling rivalry: “Mom! He started it!” “Did not!” “Yes, you did, too!” Or, a difficulty between neighbors that might get worse and worse, and escalate out of control until someone puts up a spite fence. Or, what about a problem between two employees in the workplace? You know the sort of thing. A disagreement starts between two people. Words are exchanged. Each side is sure they are right! Next thing you know, the whole office has chosen sides, and is squared off against each other.

We have a situation very much like this, in Acts 15. The whole group of believers—in all of the congregations scattered around the Mediterranean by this point—has escalated to the point that we heard about today, during the New Testament reading.

To recap, back in Acts 2, a number of days after our Lord Jesus ascended in to heaven, the few dozen believers have a Pentecost experience! The Holy Spirit comes upon them all, and Peter preaches his remarkable sermon. Not remarkable in and of itself, but remarkable because of the incredible response he got. Hundreds and hundreds of people came to belief in the risen Lord Jesus, in just one day! These were all Jewish believers. And, they continue spreading the Good News to any Jew they encounter. Many more believe, too.

Then, in Acts 8, Philip preaches in Samaria. The Holy Spirit comes upon these half-Jews, and even more people believe in the Good News! The circle of belief and faith continues to become wider and wider. In Acts 10, Peter preaches the Gospel to a Gentile—Roman centurion named Cornelius, and his whole Gentile household. They all believe, too! And, the Holy Spirit comes upon all of them, as well. Peter and the other apostles have the witness of their own eyes. They see that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:34b-35)

The Holy Spirit continues to move. The believers continue to preach the Good News to anyone and everyone. It doesn’t matter whether they are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, high class or low born, or any other distinction. All are welcome to come to faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

Which brings us to the beginning of Acts chapter 15. A large number of believers has squared off, one side against the other, over keeping the Jewish laws. Should we, or shouldn’t we? What about Jewish people who never really kept kosher, before they started believing in the risen Jesus? Should they keep 600-plus rules in the Jewish law, now? And what about Gentiles who might have never had any idea about the Jewish laws, before? Should they turn themselves inside out and start keeping kosher, and wearing special clothes, and observing special holidays?

I went to one of the textbooks I had for one of my seminary classes, called Church Administration. (One of the best classes I ever had, in all my years of school!) This book is called Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior by Arthur Boers. Such helpful material on church conflict in this book!

Our situation at the beginning of Acts 15 seems black-and-white. We can see that from verse 5: Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”’ We have group A (or, Aleph) on this side, yelling ‘You’ve got to keep Jewish Law!” and group B (or, Bet) on the other side yelling back, “No, we don’t!” As they continue to bicker and snarl at each other, the argument gets worse and worse!

This argument is a classic case of polarizing! “Reducing issues to ‘black-and-white’ solutions and giving little time to discovering other options.” [1] What will they do now?

Yes, the controversy has busted wide open. Sometimes, people get stuck. They either don’t or can’t move. There they are, in that big, black-and-white argument, no way out. Or, so they think.

At the church council in Jerusalem, there was some discussion. I don’t know how long the discussion went on. There may have been some name-calling, or possibly even getting into fist fights. (I don’t know for sure—this was before the days of reality television.) Adversarial comments could have happened! “using ‘we/they’ language and ignoring or dismissing what is held in common.“ As the argument escalated, I can imagine threatening ultimatums being issued, back and forth. [2]

Here’s an illustration Boers uses: “One snowy morning I drove the high school car pool. I backed my fully loaded van onto a downwardly sloped street. On the slippery pavement, the van would not budge uphill in a forward gear. I could have pushed the accelerator, spun the wheels harder and faster, and gotten nowhere. Instead, I backed partway down the hill, tried the forward gear again, discovered my wheels had found a purchase, and was able to move forward.” [3]

Similarly, we find the apostle Peter taking a step back. Just like the van in this illustration, he backs up. And, he “seeks the common good over the interests of particular parties.” [4] He tries to find some common ground that all can agree on. Peter says, “God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as God did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for God cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Did you hear? Peter makes the statement, again, that God wants to enter into a relationship with each and every person. That means, each person in his time, in the first century, just as much as today, in the twenty-first century. God does not discriminate! And, neither should we.

What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! Praise God, we don’t need to meticulously follow the Jewish Law code. We don’t have to wear special clothes, or observe special holidays, or have restricted food choices. God has cleansed each of our hearts, through faith! Peter goes on to say, “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Praise God! Alleluia! We are not saved by following each and every little rule in the Jewish Law code. We are not saved by following each and every little rule in recent rulebooks, like no dancing, and no card-playing, no movies, and no mixed bathing.

It was a little early in the formation of Christianity for the apostle Paul to formulate his theological statement in the letter to the Ephesians, some years down the road. But I can hear the beginnings of it being hammered out, right here. Paul’s triumphant words from Ephesians 2:8-9. “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.”

Praise God! Not just Jews, not just Greeks, not just people with brown hair, not just people who are right-handed. But everyone. God does not discriminate! What’s more, God cleanses everyone’s heart! We can all say Alleluia! Amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!

[1] Boers, Arthur Paul, Never Call Them Jerks, (United States of America: the Alban Institute, 1999.), 72.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Ibid, 72.