Homily preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
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, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and 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.
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.
This letter to the Ephesians is perhaps one of the clearest and most beautiful of all the letters in our Bible.
It is a letter, simply, of encouragement. The church at Ephesus is struggling—people are fighting—no one is quite sure who they are supposed to be. They have decided to be Jesus-followers, but what exactly does that mean for them? Who are they now? What are they supposed to do?
Later in the letter we are clued in that two of the groups squabbling in the Ephesus church are the Jews and the Gentiles, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Each brought such a vastly different understanding of God to the church.
Gentiles—those who had previously worshipped the vast array of pagan gods on offer in the Roman empire—understood that to follow a god was to do your darndest to make them happy. Sacrifice the right animals, say the right words, pay off the right priests. Even a patron god might turn on you if you didn’t do the right rituals to stay in their good graces. I wonder if that upbringing didn’t carry over into the Ephesian Gentiles’ Christian practice. I wonder if they weren’t still trying to get God on their good side with all their good works.
One of Judaism’s great gifts to Christianity, on the other hand, is the idea of a God who loves. Not a god who is selfish or needy or capricious, but who loves people deeply, dearly, even when it causes God pain. The Jewish Ephesians may also have brought with them their long-held understanding that they were God’s special people—all others need not apply. God would save them, and that would be the end of it.
It’s no wonder that these two groups fought over questions like these: do you have to work to earn God’s grace, or does God’s grace absolve you from doing any work?
The miracle, of course, is that both groups had a piece of the truth. And once they learned to come together, they began to see it.
The truth is that God’s love, and mercy, and grace comes first. Always. We are saved through grace, through God’s choice, not because we earn it or deserve it but simply because God loves us that much. God cannot abide for sin to slowly suffocate us, to watch us live our lives as if we might as well be dead. God offers us a new kind of life now, and in Christ raises us up to the heavenly places.
But that new life does not come without a purpose. It does not come without a call to this world. Ephesians reminds us that we were created in Christ Jesus for good works—that we are not just saved from sin but that we are saved for the purpose of doing good in our neighborhoods, our communities, our world.
You cannot flip the script. No number of good deeds can earn God’s love, because it has already been given to you as a gift, from before you were born. And yet we can hoard that gift, by refusing to share it with those around us. God gives us that choice.
But we were made for a different way of life. God has shaped us into vessels that can both hold God’s love, and mercy, and strength, and pour it out onto others. Loving others is what God has designed us to do. When we resist that—out of fear, or greed, or exhaustion, or cynicism—we deny who we are as Christ’s people.
We are saved by grace through faith, and created for good works. That is what it means to be made alive in Christ—to love this world not because we think we have to, or think we should, but because we see through Christ’s eyes that the world is good and worthy of love. That we reach out with Christ’s hands to heal and feed and lift up. That we listen with Christ’s ears to the cries and prayers of those in need.
That is what it means to be alive in Christ. To trust that God has taken care of us, and always will, and so we are free to care for others. No guilt. Only grace.
I’m grateful to have Shannon Yelton with us this morning. Shannon is the coordinator of the Family Resource Center at the River Ridge Resource Center. For the past several years, CSPC has partnered with the Family Resource Center to support the kids at River Ridge through our Food for Thought bags, Holiday Baskets, Christmas presents, and other requests. These are only a portion of the good works that we do as a congregation, some of the many ways we live out who God has created us to be together. As a church, we trust that God’s grace is on us, and so we reach out—sometimes even farther than we think is possible—to share that grace with others.
At this point, I’m going to ask Shannon to come forward to tell us a bit about the good work she does, and how we can continue to support her and show love to God’s most vulnerable children in our community. Shannon, welcome.