A message by Kim Cornford at Footscray Church of Christ, August 2010
This passage is yet another one of those brilliant passages of Paul’s which expresses beautifully, almost poetically, and grippingly the power of the God we follow:
…because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…
…God raises us up with Christ… that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace…… it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…
We’re going to think about salvation: being made alive in Christ, being released from our transgressions and being freed from our sins.
For many of us who have been following the Christian faith or attending church for a while, these words can sound tired to us. They sound old. We can think,
“Salvation, yeah, yeah, been there, done that, let’s move on shall we?”
“Jesus died for my sins, yeah, yeah, now I’m saved, I’m going to heaven. Yep, got that.”
These ‘church’ words – that some of us have heard over and over since we were children, teenagers, or young adults – get a bit tired, or we get a bit desensitized to them.
Maybe that’s how you’re feeling at the moment, or maybe you’ve been feeling like that for a while. I want to especially invite you today to enter into this passage. The truth of our salvation in Christ needs to be as real to us today, as it was the first time we felt God’s hand upon us. If this is not how we are knowing and experiencing God, then we need to come back to Him and be made alive again.
Read for yourself Ephesians 2: 1-10.
We’re going to take a look at sin, God’s gift of grace, and our response to that gift – good works.
What is sin? What are the first things that come to mind? What things are you thinking about right now? Are you thinking about yourself? Are you thinking about others?
Sin is often a bigger concept than what we allow ourselves to understand. I want to suggest that sin is anything that separates us from God. That’s pretty broad isn’t it?
To illustrate sin, imagine that sin is like taking a step away from God, or turning around to face away from God.
Faith is a journey, an interactive relationship with movement. Perhaps I’ve sinned, or know I’m living in a way that I’m distanced from God (standing away from God), but I’m facing God and I’m moving in His direction. Or perhaps I’m very close to God, and I just need to turn around and face God. Or, perhaps I’m facing God, but moving away.
Not long ago, I was talking with a friend, and she said to me, the church doesn’t talk about sin in a very helpful way. When I asked her what she meant, she said:we often understand sin as acts of naughtiness or acts of hurt. How many of us, in a time of confession, start trying to rack our brains at all the naughty or mean things we’ve done in the past week? And we get through that list, say sorry, and receive God’s forgiveness. Actually, if we all did go through a process of confessing our sins on a regular basis, like this, we would probably be all the better for it. But this conversation with my friend, took us to another place. Are our acts of naughtiness and hurt where our sins finish?
Sin is not simple. It is not black and white.
For example, let’s consider our acts of hurt. If I confess my act of using angry words but still have an attitude of anger, am I freed from my sin? If I confess my lustful thoughts but still have an attitude of sexual desire, am I freed from my sin? If I confess self-indulgence in material objects, but maintain a budget and an income which can support it, am I freed from my sin?
Sin involves acts of hurt, but it also involves the bigger questions of our attitude. Sin isn’t so straightforward is it? No surprise that this is what Jesus talks about a lot. He asks us where our heart is. Do not murder says the Law, and Jesus says, if you have anger towards your brother, you will be subject to judgment. Don’t do your acts of righteousness before others to be seen by them, instead, Jesus says: your giving should be done before God. The law says do not commit adultery, but Jesus says looking at another lustfully commits adultery in their heart.
Let’s expand on the idea of attitude and sin. One of the striking things of our faith (and indeed, the book of Ephesians focuses on this directly) is its communal nature. Community and attitude have an important role to play, not only in how we live Godly lives, but how we understand sin. Let’s consider the idea of communal sin. I’m meaning here: the attitude of the people around us as a whole. Ask yourself, what is the attitude of the people around me to faithful relationships? What is the attitude of people around me to poverty and marginalized people? What is the attitude of people around me to caring for creation? The way we live is so intricately bound into the people we hang out with, sometimes, we don’t even know our attitude to things is sinful.
Well! This Christianity thing asks a lot of us, doesn’t it?!
I’ll give you an example of ignorance of my own. I come from a pretty well off middle class family. My school and university peers own their homes, work in professional vocations, and enjoy very comfortable lifestyles. In some contrast, my husband and I rent a small home around the corner from our church, we work part-time, grow some veggies, mostly stay at home, and enjoy life with our kids. My attitude to life is very different from the people I knew as a young adult, but I am surrounded by others who have a similar attitude and therefore seek similar hopes in life and in God together. A while back at bible study one night I remember the group leader make a joke about our hotchpotch lounge room furniture and living simply. I did laugh, but truth be known, I did feel a tinge of embarrassment. A few days later we had a visit from some new friends, a Burmese refugee family recently arrived in Footscray. When they came into our house, their eyes opened in amazement. It was like they had entered a palace. And with no social etiquette whatsoever, they walked through every room in our house, ogling everything and saying things like, “whoa, so many rooms” and “this is such a beautiful home” and “thank you for having us in your home.” This was very confronting. I felt more than embarrassed. For some reason, I somehow felt sinful.
This same family showed me more of my sin and the sin of our society in the coming months after this. I have strong feelings and opinions on the issue of global warming. This wasn’t always the case.
In a period of revelation about climate change a couple of years ago, it was these same friends who helped frame my understanding of how we are impacting our earth. They were one step in a series of events which God set before me. (I had been learning about what the world might look like as the temperature rises globally, and how our lifestyle releases gases into the atmosphere which are causing it to heat up, and is changing the weather patterns here in Australia, and around the world.) One afternoon my girls and I went around to visit Sung (in their tiny one bedroom flat) and with her stilted English Sung asked me to watch a DVD from Burma… Can people remember Cyclone Nargis in 2008? It was a massive, devastating cyclone affecting millions of people. The DVD was a Burmese Christian music video raising awareness and funds for people affected by Cyclone Nargis in Burma. The images on the DVD were graphic and distressing. It was very confronting. It was very confronting for me because pieces started connecting for me, like puzzle pieces falling into place… my comfortable lifestyle, my emissions, changing weather patterns, floods and cyclones, people dying, children crying. I was looking straight at it. And sitting on the floor with me were Sung’s 3 yr old daughter who sat with her hands over her eyes, and my daughter, who asked me “Mummy, why are those people floating in the water?”
And the words of the church’s Eucharist liturgy are running through my head,
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Sin separates us from God, and sin separates our world from God. It is our individual acts of hurt, it is our attitude to life, it is our communal attitude.
And we, as followers of Christ, need to be asking ourselves, where we are. Where am I heading? What is moving me away from God, what is moving me towards God?
And what, in the midst of all this, does God offer us?
While we were still dead, while we are engulfed by a world of sin – God offers life.
Why do we need to understand the depth of our sin? Because only then can we understand God’s amazing grace and the power of salvation.
When we begin to get a glimpse of the enormity of this salvation, we see God. And it should cause us to fall on our knees with thanksgiving.
…because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…
God raises us up with Christ… that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace…
…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…
And, we are inspired to respond to God with acts of love. Love for God, and for all that he offers us in this life. A life of good works, for which he has a plan.
A life of good works. And this is an important idea to capture. Our works are a response to the gift of grace from God.
Sometimes we hear preached a dissonance between faith and works. It’s like a clanging disconnection. It is the idea that salvation, or freedom in Christ (as Paul also calls it), comes either by faith OR works.
For example, for some reason, people have read the letter of James and interpreted it as a salvation of works.
It is the idea that we have to do good things to earn our way to heaven. Some examples might be: “if I put in some hours at the local homeless shelter at Christmas,” “if I attend enough working bees at church” or, “if I cook enough meals for others”…
Who’s ever felt like this? Are we responding in joy to God’s gift of grace?
The flip side of the faith OR works, is equally unhelpful. It’s the idea that I’ve been saved by grace, and now I’ve got my ticket to heaven! You beauty! Thank you God, now let’s get on with my life. Gee, other people should get onto this God thing, what a relief, I’ve got everything sorted now. I don’t have to do anything. Do you know the attitude I’m trying to convey?
But let’s hear what James actually says:
James 2:14-16: What good is it brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?
In James 2:26: As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
It is clearly NOT a case of faith or works, they are inextricably linked.
If we are able to truly glimpse the grace and freedom which God offers to us, our good works are an inevitable response.
If we understand salvation as grace only, we will miss the point of living out our life for God.
If we understand salvation as works only, we will miss the point of God’s amazing love for us.
In conclusion, let’s ask again: Where are you with God? Which way are you facing? Which way are you moving? Who are the people of God surrounding you?
Is the truth of your salvation in Christ as real today, as it was the first time you felt God’s hand you? Do you need to come back to Him and be made alive again?
Finish with a prayer using the words of Paul in Ephesians 1:17-21.