Christ Centered Resources

You were dead ... you have been saved

Rev. Ed Searcy

Ephesians 2:1-10
University Hill United Church : Sun, April 2, 2000
There should really be a sign at the door of the Chapel this morning. It should read: Warning - attendance at worship next Sunday morning could be hazardous to your health. But, since there is no such warning of impending danger posted, this sermon will have to provide the ample precaution that you deserve. No, it is not that we have felt slight rumblings under foot and have reason to suspect the earth to quake in a week from today ... though next Sunday morning does hold the potential to upset our carefully constructed lives. How? As our Methodist forebears did so we will participate in an annual renewal of baptismal vows. First individuals will be invited to come to be marked with the sign of the cross with water from the font as they hear the words "Remember your baptism and be thankful". Then all who wish to will be invited to join in reciting the words of Covenant Renewal that are our inheritance from John and Charles Wesley ... and before them from the Israelites of the Old Testament. It doesn't sound that dangerous you say? Perhaps you haven't had an opportunity to read through the promises that we will make ... they are available this morning, printed on the goldenrod coloured insert in the Order of Service. Do you see them? "I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering". Do you see what I mean about danger?! It only seems fair to give you fair warning about next Sunday morning. Though, in truth, this morning is also full of its share of danger. Anyone who knows even the slightest about Christian history knows that opening the New Testament to the second chapter of Ephesians is akin to opening the lid on Pandora's Box. Take the eighth verse for example:"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." Ever since the Protestant Reformation of half a millennia ago it has been impossible to read these verses without entering into heated debate about the essence of Christian faith. Little could Paul have realized that fifteen hundred years after he wrote these words to a small congregation of Christians that they would spark such passion within the Christian church. It is hard for us, at this remove, to imagine how people could possibly become so impassioned about theology. Why, last year marked the historic signing of a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. The declaration officially ends the theological controversy that lay at the heart of the Protestant Reformation - namely what it means to say that the good news of Jesus Christ does not rely upon anything that we do but is the free and unmerited gift of God. It was a historic event ... though one that hardly registered on the evening newscasts or in the editorial pages. Well, not here in North America at any rate. In Europe it is another matter. There a lively debate continues among Lutherans and Roman Catholics, one that includes the vigorous participation of prominent newspapers in Germany. Sitting at this distance, faced with so many other pressing problems facing the church and the world, we are tempted to wonder at such continued argument. "Imagine", we think to ourselves, "still arguing over doctrine as if it was a matter of life and death". Some of you are aware that one of my duties this year on your behalf is to be one of two representatives from Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery who sit on the Joint Search Committee of the Korean United Church in Vancouver. Together we are seeking to call a new pastor to serve a bilingual congregation of first, second and third generation Koreans. We met this past Thursday evening for three hours. It was a fascinating meeting ... in no small part because it was almost entirely conducted in Korean. But, for me, the really interesting aspect was the passion of everyone present - men and women, young and old. I began to think that if any one of our Board Meetings had half as much passion for even half an hour that we would begin to be concerned that things were getting a little out of hand! I have never experienced such a mixture of anger and laughter, conviction and struggle, raised voices and gestures of support anywhere ... least of all in a church committee. At the conclusion of the meeting I expressed my gratitude for the opportunity of witnessing the obvious passion that they have for their church. A young woman spoke. She said "I hope that you realize that we all know each other very well ... and that tonight's meeting reflects how much we care about such an important decision as calling a new pastor." I realized as I drove home that I have been schooled in cooling that kind of passionate debate whenever it threatens to raise its head, for fear of dividing the church. As I crawled into to bed I found myself wondering how to foster more of that kind of passionate debate in hopes of fostering a congregation that is passionate about something as important as the church. It was sometime in the early morning hours that I remembered perhaps the most passionate sermon that I have ever experienced. Reformation Sunday, 1998 at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. There, in that uniquely biracial church., the guest preacher for the occasion was Ed Loring. At the time it seemed somehow providential. You see, a colleague in Winnipeg - Gordon Harland - had mentioned that I should meet up with a former student of his when I was in Atlanta. You can imagine my amazement when I discovered that I had, by chance, chosen to worship in a church where this very man happened to be the guest preacher. But you cannot begin to imagine my amazement at the sermon that proceeded from his lips ... and hands ... and heart ... and soul. Imagine the prophetic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the preaching style of Jimmy Swaggart. I have never in my life experienced anything like it. And the best of it was the powerful exposition that Ed Loring made of Ephesians chapter two: "by grace you have been saved" ... not by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps ... not because your parents were immigrants who came and worked hard and built a country. No. You are saved by grace. Ed is one of the founders of 'The Open Door' - a communal Christian house in inner city Atlanta with an ongoing ministry to the homeless and those in prison. It is the essence of a place of grace. But here's the thing. This past January Ed wrote a powerful article in 'Hospitality' - the newsletter of The Open Door decrying the great damage done to the church by the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He writes: "The social significance of justification by faith alone is this: it does not matter what you do. The Presbyterian practice and liturgical expression of this evangelical doctrine filtered through our modern lives occurs every Sunday. Many church bulletins include a confession of sin to be prayed in unison ... After the confession the liturgist says: "hear the good news of the Gospel. In Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven." There is no structure or place for accountability. There is no discipline or action. No sense that the future is different from the past. No means to undo the consequences of the sins and errors of the past are afforded. It does not matter what I did; I am forgiven and so are you." The debate rages on in the letters that are published in 'Hospitality' each month. I wondered what it would be like to have that kind of a debate here ... to be caught up in passionate belief that theology mattered deeply ... that it is, in fact, a matter of life and death. Then I remembered how we tasted this kind of passion for just a few days in February when Stephen Lewis came to speak on campus at VST's invitation. Suddenly a number of us found ourselves caught up in the Reformation all ov er again, wrestling with questions of human responsibility for mending the earth ... for doing good ... in light of the good news revealed in Jesus Christ, namely that God has already taken responsibility for saving and redeeming the world. The Reformation, it turns out, is still with us ... all one has to do is to scratch beneath the surface ... to find a lively provocateur like Stephen Lewis ... and the passionate struggle is on. Now I know what some of you must be thinking about now. It probably goes something like this: "Ed ... this is hurting my head. It is all so intellectual. Can't you speak to my heart? And what about Ephesians ... the sermon must nearly be over ... and you haven't said much at all about it ... isn't that what a sermon is for?" Well, maybe you weren't thinking something like that ... but I am! And here's the thing ... I am coming to believe that the passionate debates in the church ... about which minister to call and about which gospel to believe ... are not simply intellectual 'head trips'. They are, in fact, matters that demand our full attention. The passions reflect that ... they suggest that we know how important these things are ... that they are about life and death. One can sense this passion in the letter to the Ephesians. Just look at this morning's text. If you were to go home and read it in the original Greek you might be surprised to find that the first nine verses are one very long, extended sentence. Imagine the translators' struggles to turn that one sentence into the four which we find in our English Bibles. And this one extended sentence does not sound so much like a theological treatise as it does a love letter. Paul piles image upon image in heaping praise and gratitude upon God ... the way a lover might speak of her Beloved: 'Before we were dead, now we are alive. Before we were slaves, now we are free. Before we were condemned, now we are exonerated' (Eph. 2:1-3). Remember, Paul is not speaking here of some disembodied spiritual event. He is painting a picture of the communities of Christians in Ephesus. Households, like large tightknit clans, that stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding neighbourhood. To read the whole letter to the Ephesians is to glimpse a community of radical hospitality, in which all sorts of ethnic and class and gender divisions are being bridged at the table of the Lord. Paul speaks in the past tense when he reminds the recipients of his letter that they are already "seated with <God> in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6). Looking around the meal table this peculiar gathering of jews and pagans, slaves and free, women and men is meant to realize that they have indeed been saved from a life of despair and hopelessness into this community of faith, hope and love. "By grace you have been saved" writes Paul. He means, by grace you have been brought into the household of God ... by grace you have been adopted into the church. It is a gift of God's amazing love. And it demands all that you have and are ... head and heart, body and soul. And this is the crux of the matter. The grace of God is freely given ... and calls forth lives freely given in return. See how Paul places the two side by side in two contrasting sentences: "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. 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" (Eph. 2:8-10) Here, in short, is the great and wonderful struggle of faithful Christian life. Our goodness earns us nothing with God ... yet our good lives mean everything to God. We are meant to live good lives ... it has been prepared by God to be our way of life. Yet any goodness that we manage counts as nothing in the ledger books of heaven. Do you recognize the relationship that Paul depicts here? He is not speaking of the Christian life as life of merits or of grade point averages or of impressive curriculum vitae. He is portraying a relationship of love ... like that of a parent and child ... or of a wife and husband. One showers the other with such abundant and freely given love. In response the beloved one replies with the same love ... giving everything in return. From time to time I am privileged to officiate at the renewal of marriage vows here in the Chapel. Married couples return to mark a significant anniversary by restating the vows that they made at the beginning. The renewal of vows somehow seems even more significant to me than the wedding itself. I hear them saying to one another: "After all we've been through ... and knowing what we know about each other now ... I say again 'for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer". This is also the reason that I look forward to next Sunday with trepidation and anticipation. For many of us baptism occurred long before we even knew what was happening. But now, standing here, we know that giving our lives to God is risky business. We do not know what good works God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life. But we can imagine the kind of things that are in store for us. Perhaps to put at risk our good name ... or old friendships ... in obedience to the God who commands his Beloved Community to welcome the outcast. Or maybe we are meant to become a church of the Open Door where all manner of the disenfranchised and marginalised ... economically, socially, theologically ... discover that they have been saved by grace into the Beloved Community that is the church. Yes, even to become accountable to one another and to God for the good works that are to be our way of life ... learning the practices of confession and forgiveness from and with each other. Make no mistake about it - pledging faithfulness to the God we meet in Jesus Christ is hazardous to our way of life as we know it. Of course, that is because the life that lies on the other side of those vows is the very way of life we are so desperate to know.