March 15, 2015
William G. Carter
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 towards 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.
One Sunday morning in her house in South Dakota, Kathleen Norris cooked breakfast for a house guest. Her husband David had brought him home from the bar he tended. He was in no condition to drive, and spent the night on their living room couch. Now the bacon and eggs were sizzling, and their guest Willie was in a talkative mood.
He was between jobs, he said, having done a number of jobs on the oil fields. He made a lot of money, blown most of it, and schemed about making some more. Somewhere in Wyoming, he met up with some drug dealers. The possibility of making some really big money emerged, and Willie found himself hanging around some colorful new acquaintances. One of his colleagues had disappeared, he said, only to be found tied up and full of bullet holes on the Gulf of Mexico. Kathleen poked the bacon and turned down the burner.
He and his main partner were doing pretty well, he said. They had a lot of contacts, the network was building, and Willie felt good to connect with somebody who had a lot of experience. Then one day, as they were riding down the road in a small city, his partner pulled off onto the shoulder and came to a stop. He had just passed somebody driving in the opposite direction and thought about turning around to follow him.
Reaching under the seat to pull out a gun Willie did not know was there, the man said matter-of-factly, “I need to kill him, but he’s with someone, and I don’t know who. So it will have to wait.” Kathleen listened to this, and flipped the eggs with a spatula.
Willie said, “It was right then I decided to get out. It was over my head.” Kathleen said she looked out the window, saw the neighbors walking to church, and said, “Well, Willie, I think you did the right thing.”
It’s a wild story, but maybe not so wild for people in church, because it’s a story of salvation. Christian people, like the Jewish people before them, have plenty of stories about being saved, about getting rescued from danger or delivered from a terrifying threat. That’s what the word “salvation” is all about. Life is full of situations that are over our heads. We might have been wiped out or lost, but God came to help at the appropriate time.
In the Jewish scriptures, the verb “to save” (yasha) occurs in military battles, as God or someone God appoints intervenes to rescue the people. Moses raises his arms or God sends a great wind, and the people are saved.
The New Testament word is “sozo,” which has connotations for health. Remember what Jesus says to countless people? “Your faith has made you well” – which can also be translated, “Your faith has saved you.” Saving is a kind of healing. It is a restoration of the whole person, a setting-right of what has been damaged and broken.
God comes to save. That’s the theme announced in our scripture texts. From Psalm 107, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble” (107:2). And the Psalm remembers all kinds of trouble: wandering in the desert, stumbling in the dark, at risk at sea, and sick to the stomach from the effects of sin. God saves one person after another, so “let the redeemed say so.”
From the third chapter of John: God sent the Son into the world to turn on the lights, and the world shouted back, “Turn out the lights!” We can understand that. I remember checking into a hotel room, unlocking the door, and turning on the lights. There was a lot of motion along the floor. If I had not turned on the lights, I would not have seen the cockroaches. That’s what happens when Jesus comes as the light of the world: you see all the disgusting stuff that has been flourishing in the dark. Jesus comes, not to condemn, but to save us from it.
And then, the second chapter of Ephesians, one of those passages that ignited the Protestant Reformation: “You have been saved by grace through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” It is one of the clearest statements of truth in the entire Bible. God is the One who does the saving. God is the One who is gracious to those who really don’t deserve it. Out of the richness of God’s mercy, out of the great love with which God loves us, even in the midst of the great disasters we create for ourselves and others, God shows us “grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.”
Somebody paraphrased those words at the church door last Sunday. Those of us who were here heard Paul’s description of the cross in First Corinthians, as “God’s weakness, stronger than human strength,” and “God’s foolishness, greater than human wisdom.” And one of you said to me, “I suppose if we could have saved the world through human strength and human wisdom, it would have already gotten done. So God had to save the world through Jesus.” Bingo, that’s right.
Here in the second chapter of Ephesians, it’s pretty clear the world is a mess. You think that’s a new diagnosis? No, it’s the same old mess it always was, except now we have cable TV, video games, and other complications from technology. It’s pretty much the same old mess. In our text, the early church preacher describes it a number of ways:
Following the course of the world,
Following the ruler of the power of the air,
Living in the passions of our flesh,
Following the desires of flesh and senses,
We are by nature children of wrath, like everyone else
I wanted to say, “Wait, that’s pretty cruel,” but then I drove downtown after yesterday’s parade. There were still a few glimpses of human wreckage on Lackawanna Avenue. Some bare-chested kid was covered in green paint. A blond co-ed was weaving on her feet, propped up by a couple of friends. A bar bouncer was escorting a guy with a black eye. I suppose they all went there to have a good time. I saw it as evidence of what the New Testament calls “the desires of the flesh.” That’s code language of doing whatever you want, whether it’s tossing down a gallon of Guinness or riding in the front seat with a murderous drug dealer.
Once again, I return to the insight of last week’s back door theologian. If the world could get saved by our strength or wisdom, it would have been done. If only we could save the world by educating everybody, or organizing everybody, or spreading the wealth around, or spreading democracy around, or getting the money out of politics, or reducing carbon emissions, or whatever else is going to be proposed . . . if only, if only…
The letter to the Ephesians knows we are pretty much helpless to improve our lot. Oh, there are things we can do: “give up malice,” “tell the truth,” “work a honest day’s work,” “share what you have with the needy,” “use words to build up and not tear down,” “honor your parents,” “love your loved ones,” and “be kind to one another.” All of this is good advice from Ephesians.
But the world’s struggle is a cosmic struggle. We are not merely contending with human frailty but with evil that has turned loose in the cosmos, with the powers and principalities (6:12). So the God of heaven has had to deal with this through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In a supreme act of rebellion, the world put the Son of God on a cross, but God used that event to kill off the final power of all that is evil. Evil still sputters, but in heaven it has been defeated.
And in the raising of Jesus from the dead, God has shown us where everything is headed. Here is how Ephesians puts it: “We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (1:7-8). Faith is trusting this is true.
I have never made breakfast for a former drug dealer in my kitchen. At least, I don’t think so. But I had a moment in high school where a friend asked me to do him a favor. He was a basketball player, a really great guy. I admired him. He was good looking, friendly, as athletic as I wanted to be.
One day, I was visiting at his house and he said, “Can you take this shoebox and keep it for me?” It was a size 13 Converse box, wrapped tightly in masking tape. I said, “What is it?” He replied, “I’m not going to tell you, because it’s better if you don’t know.” He was secretive about it, and lowered his voice: “My parents have gotten nosy and I don’t want them to find out about this. Keep it for a while.”
So I did. I put it on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, way in the back, right next to my box of Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets. That night, I didn’t sleep a wink. Every creak in the hallway, I was sure my parents were going to bust in and bust me – and whatever was in that shoebox wasn’t even mine. Next night, I slept a little better, and then the week went on and I didn’t think about it.
A couple days later, I got home from school, went up to my bedroom, and my mom is poking around in the closet. I just about died. It was all I could do to keep from looking suspicious, which meant, of course, that I looked guilty as hell. Mom looked up at me and said, “What did you do?” I stammered out, “Nothing…” She replied, “I’m getting rid of your some old shoes.” She stood with an armful, and I helped her out the door.
When I recovered from my near-heart attack, and when the coast was clear, I took the shoebox back to my friend and said, “I can’t have this in my house.” He looked at me, somewhat sorrowful, and said, “I don’t want it either. It was a really big mistake.” So we walked down his street, saw a garbage can outside somebody’s garage, and dropped the box inside. I never learned what was inside it, although I have a few ideas.
I tell you the story because of three particular emotions that touched my soul that afternoon. The first was relief, profound relief. I could have been caught, I could have been found out, I could have been grounded until I was thirty-five – but I got off without so much as an accusation. The second emotion was guilt, dark, heavy guilt. I was sure I was doing something wrong, that my friend had been wrong, that we were part of some nasty business that had to be covered up.
But here is the third emotion, the one that counts the most: I was feeling freedom. By some heavenly protection, I was steered away from a situation that could have turned out badly. I could have been punished – perhaps my guilt was my punishment – but the guilt was now lifted, the bad business was cancelled, the evil shoebox was gone, and I was free. Completely free. That’s the first time I can remember what the grace of God is all about. And I knew that grace so strongly that I decided, then and there, to never get tangled up in a mess like that ever again. Instead I have gotten tangled up in hundreds, thousands, of other messes, many of my own making.
Here’s the thing: God saves us an act of grace. Not because we are good, but because God is good. “Rich in mercy” is how our scripture text says it. Spend a little Sabbath time this afternoon remembering all the moments in your life that could have gone a lot worse than they did. Breathe a sigh of relief, let go of the guilt, and take the freedom to start anew.
This is what it’s like to let go of our sins and become alive in Christ. We drop the crazy lie that we have done everything right. We turn away from the things that are killing us and killing other people. We ask for forgiveness and make whatever amends we can. And then we give it up to God - we give all of it up - and say, “Lord, you are so rich in mercy; let’s begin again.”
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)