St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 25th January 2015
Readings – Ephesians 2:1-13; Matthew 19:16-30
You have a friend who is dead keen on cricket. Every time you see him, he’s always going on about the latest test match somewhere in the world, or the achievements of his local team, or even trying to explain the rules of the game. He’d really quite like to take you along to see a match, and he’s been inviting you for ages. In the end, if only out of sheer politeness, you finally agree to go.
So the match begins. The bowlers run in, the batsmen score runs. You think you understand what’s going on. Then a rather slower bowler ambles up to the wicket, the batsman tries to hit the ball, but is caught and walks off the pitch. You ask your friend what is going on. “Well”, he says, “That was a chinaman that pitched in the rough outside off, turned and caught the shoulder of the bat, as the batsman was trying to execute a late cut to third man, and he could only lob it to silly short leg”.
I need hardly ask how you would feel at that point. There’s the story of an American actress who was taken to her first cricket match, and was completely new to the game. Just before play started, she saw the umpires walk out to the middle dressed in their white coats and their smart white hats. Nervously she turned to her companion and whispered, “What are the butchers for?”
It seems that, whenever groups of like-minded people gather, they always develop a kind of code language which no-one outside the group can understand. It’s not that they mean to exclude newcomers; indeed they would rather like others to join them. But it seems they are so wrapped up in their own particular world, they can’t actually hear how their words appear to others. To a cricket fanatic it’s obvious where you’d find silly short leg; to those not in the know the mind simply boggles.
Today we are continuing our series in the book of Ephesians, which as we have seen already, sets out some of the most wonderful and most awesome truths of the Christian faith, and I hope you have been both inspired and challenged by what you’ve heard so far. But there’s also a danger that whenever I preach from this book, I slip into code language. It’s hard not to really, when in almost every sentence Paul uses words like salvation or redemption or revelation, words which may mean a lot to us, but very little to those who are outsiders.
I can’t stop and explain every term that Paul uses, but today I want to look at just one, which is at the very heart of all that Christians believe and which we all need to understand, and that word is “grace”.
Now grace is one of those difficult words which can mean different things in different situations. We might say of a beautiful person that they are full of grace and poise. We might begin a meal by saying grace. We might have been given a period of grace by someone we owe money to. Grace has many different shades of meanings in many different settings.
But how do we understand Paul’s use of the word grace, and why does it matter anyway?
To answer that, I’d like to go through our passage this morning to explain, verses 1-3, why grace is important, verses 4-9, how we receive grace, and verse 10, what practical difference grace should make in our lives day by day.
1. Why is Grace important?
2. How do we receive Grace?
3. What practical difference does Grace make?
So, first of all, why do we have to bother about grace at all?
Well, in verse 1, Paul reminds his hearers what they were like before they received the grace of Jesus Christ. He writes: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. Now if you think about it, that’s a pretty strange thing to say to folk who are still very much alive and walking this earth. And I hope you would take some convincing if I told you this morning that you were dead, even if right at this particular moment you are not feeling on top of your game.
So what is Paul talking about here? Let’s try and unpack the rest of this sentence, and see if we can decode what Paul means by sins and transgressions. First of all, what is sin? The word we have here in our Bibles means quite literally, “a failure to hit the mark”. Think of an archer who misses the target or perhaps an England player in a penalty shoot-out. The word “transgression” has a similar kind of meaning. It’s about failing to stay on the straight and narrow, rather like a bowler in cricket, or a long-jumper in athletics who oversteps the white line in their run up.
Without grace, the stark truth is that all of us fail to live up to God’s standards. We fail to meet the target of perfect obedience; we fail to stay on the straight and narrow. And our failure matters. We end up cut off and distant from the One who made us and loves us. We may be alive in a physical sense, for now. But in spiritual terms we are under the sentence of death. A parent does not give their child boundaries to keep and rules to follow, and then say it doesn’t matter when he breaks them again and again. Nor does God say it doesn’t matter when time after time we turn our backs on His ways and reject His love. It’s not that God is a cruel God who delights to punish us every time we slip up. Rather it is because God loves us so much that He grieves for our wrongdoing, and this wrath we read about in verse 3 is the pain and anger of a loving Heavenly Father who sees His children go astray.
So what’s to be done? Well, it seems to me that if folk think at all about their relationship with God and the problem with sin, they usually come up with one of three responses.
1. If we are spiritually dead, what is to be done?
Say sin doesn’t matter?
Try to live a good life?
2. So “who then can be saved?”
The first is to claim that because God is a God of love, in the end everything will be forgiven and we will all go to heaven. This attitude was probably best summed up by the German poet Heinrich Heine who on his deathbed is reported to have said, “God will forgive me; that’s His job”. However, the message of the whole Bible is that our sins matter and they do have consequences. Turn to the beginning and read the story of Adam and Eve. They weren’t thrown out of the Garden of Eden because they were a little bit naughty; rather, it was because they chose to break the one command God had given them. Or turn to the end of the Bible and read about the new heaven and the new earth. Who will be allowed to take part in this new creation? In the language of Revelation 21:27: only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Or indeed, turn to the gospels and read about the cross of Jesus Christ. What was the point of such a cruel and agonising death, if in the end everyone will be forgiven?
No, what we do matters and it has consequences. “Very well”, comes the reply, “then I will try to lead a good life and hope that in the end it will be enough to get me into heaven”. To use code language for a moment, this is what’s known as salvation by works, and I am constantly amazed by how many people think this is at the heart of the Christian faith.
Because again, even a very brief knowledge of the Bible, tells us that such a response, however well-intentioned, is completely and utterly mistaken.
Let’s take a moment to consider our gospel reading from Matthew. Here is a rich young man who has led an exemplary life. He can go through all of God’s commands and tick all of them off one by one. Murder? Nope, never done that. Adultery? Not a chance. Theft? Not guilty, m’lud. In fact, as far he can see, he has done all that the Lord has asked of him. And yet, and yet, he still isn’t happy. He doesn’t know if he has done enough to please God; he lacks assurance and peace. So when Jesus is in town, he comes up to Him and asks: Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life? And again, after Jesus has recited the commandments, he asks once more, What do I lack?
Something is eating away at this rich young man. But it takes Jesus’ keen insight and perceptive questioning to identify what is really going on. And the problem is this: that for all this individual is aiming to live a good life, his heart has never really been touched by the love of God. His number one priority is to increase his bank balance, his possessions, his wealth, so when Jesus challenges him to leave it all behind, he simply cannot. The command to follow Jesus is one that he dare not obey.
And isn’t there something of the rich young man in all of us? We have this habit of thinking that obeying God is simply a matter of following rules and staying out of trouble. But the problem of sin goes far deeper than that. It affects our deepest desires, our hopes, our ambitions, our passions and our pleasures. And these are things that we cannot change by our own effort. Why? Because we are dead in our transgressions and sins and so we have no power in ourselves to please a God who is completely pure and good and true.
So if sin matters, if we cannot earn our salvation before God, then what is to be done? Or to ask the question the disciples put to Jesus, who then can be saved? (Matthew 19:25).
Now I am a complete non-swimmer, not from lack of trying. I simply cannot swim, and the thought of falling overboard into the water scares me. But here today on dry land I do understand – at least in theory – that if someone was trying to rescue me, the worst thing I could do is thrash around wildly. I would need to recognise my own helplessness, try and remain still, and accept the help that was being offered.
I hope that is a useful picture to helps us understand what grace is and why it’s so important. Grace is about God’s rescue mission to save us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s about Him intervening to deal with the power of sin in our lives. And the way we receive that grace is not by striving wildly to earn God’s favour, but simply to be still, to recognise there is nothing that we can do, and to accept the help that is being offered to us.
So the very simple question I need to ask this morning is this: do you know the grace of God in your life today? I ask this question because one thing I have learnt over the years is how many people – even those who have been going to church for many years – somehow still seem to grapple with the whole idea of grace. I know this because I hear people say things like, “I hope at the end of the day I’ll have done enough” or “I would like to think God will forgive me” or even “Well, it may be good news for some, but I struggle to believe God is really interested in me”.
Let’s return to our passage from Ephesians and listen again to what Paul says in verses 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 – it is by grace you have been saved. Notice there are no conditions attached in these verses. Nor are they verses that only apply to some people and not others. God loves you because He loves you, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done. And His free offer of saving love that we call grace is available to you this morning, right now and right here.
Grace really is a very simple and a very beautiful concept. It is simply about coming to God with empty hands, and a willing heart, and asking for Jesus to show His love and kindness to you. And if you have never understood what grace is, or if you have never dared to ask, then today is a perfect time to lay your request before God. Because I guarantee that He will hear and answer your prayer more wonderfully than you can ever imagine.
You see, when you receive the grace of God, it’s not simply that you find your sins are forgiven and you are able to make a fresh, new start, marvellous though that might be. When God meets you with His grace, you begin a whole new way of life in Christ Jesus. In some mysterious and wonderful way you are actually raised from an old life of spiritual deadness to new life in the Holy Spirit. You are given what the Bible calls elsewhere “eternal life”, that is, a relationship with God that can never be broken, because it is life given to us by the resurrected, ascended and victorious Jesus Christ. That is why Paul can say to the believers in Ephesus in verse 6 that God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. We have in a very real sense already shared in Christ’s victory over sin and death and evil, and we can live in the assurance that one day that victory in our lives will be complete.
And why has God chosen to do such wonderful work in us? Well, let’s read on from verse 6 to verse 7: And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. Because God in His infinite wisdom uses us to, as they say, get the message of His grace out there. How are other people going to discover the wonder of God’s love? To know that there is a God who forgives them freely and abundantly in Jesus Christ? The answer, quite simply, is through us.
God did not intend the church to be a cosy club speaking its own kind of code language which those on the outside could never hope to understand. Even if, sadly, all too often, that is what the church appears to have become. Nor did He intend those who belong to the church to keep His grace among themselves as “a secret never to be told”. No, He intended us to a be living, loving community of grace who meet in God’s love and then go out to make that love known. Not just by sharing the odd word here or there, but patiently, gently reflecting the same kindness that God has shown us in Jesus Christ.
So, finally, I hope you can see that grace should make a real practical difference to the way we live our lives each day. We should each day be more and more thankful for the simple and wonderful fact that out of His wonderful love God has chosen to rescue us. We should offer up our lives in willing service, aware that we owe everything to our risen and ascended Lord Jesus. We should spend time seeking to discover what He wants us to do, and listen to the prompting of His Holy Spirit working in us.
That is what I believe Paul means when he says in verse 10 that: … we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. We have been given new life in Christ Jesus to do good deeds, and when we truly understand just a wonderful blessing and privilege it is to serve Him, then we should do all we can to find out what exactly they might be.
Let’s then sum up all we have learnt this morning:
Grace is fundamental to the Christian life. If it were not for grace, we would be dead in our transgression and sins. We would be like the Ephesians who formerly were without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12). And no amount of good deeds would ever be able to help us earn our salvation.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God’s grace has come to us in Jesus Christ. What is this grace? It is the free offer of God’s saving love to all who believe, or as some choose to remember it, God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Through grace we are raised up to new life with Christ. We share in Christ’s victory. And through the good deeds God has prepared for us to do we are called to share that grace with others.
So let me ask again this morning: do you know this grace?