Benediction Online

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saved by God's Grace

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Today we continue our Lenten reflection as we practice looking at our readings from a different perspective. Rather than assuming that Jesus died on the cross to bear our punishment for sin, we are considering the idea that God did not need him to die. We are entertaining the possibility that Jesus died because the message he brought was so unpopular and so threatening to the powers of the world that they killed him. But that was not the end; Jesus the Christ was raised and in his resurrection God proved that he is more powerful than the forces of sin and violence.

It is from that perspective that I want us to look at the New Testament reading today, from the letter to the Ephesians. Scholars don’t agree about who wrote this letter but most think that it was not Paul but someone imitating his style. Its focus is the unity and reconciliation of the whole of creation to God through the work of the Church. I want to us to look at this passage quite carefully, section by section.

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.

I know that we all like to think that everyone wants the best for everyone else and that we can all get along if we’re courteous and careful to play well with others. But just a cursory glance at the news suggests otherwise. Or spend a few hours watching reality TV. So-called reality shows depict people in strange and extreme circumstances clawing their way up at everyone else’s expense. It is a battlefield where only the fittest or the slyest survive and it makes sense to do everything you can to be the one ultimate winner.

That is “the course of this world” is to put ourselves and our group first, even at the expense of others. It is to put our own interests above those of others regardless of the consequences. We can see this on a big scale in corporations who are so concerned about immediate profit that they exploit their workers and ignore environmental concerns. We can see it in the political moves of those who want to deny that global warning is happening because to take that threat seriously would mean government intervention in industry and government intervention in the market because effective action is not going to happen if we all go on doing our own thing and no-one is taking care of the long-term consequences.

The writer’s description of the sin-system is a little difficult for us. Many of us grew up in households which at least dabbled in the kingdom of God and so it doesn’t fit to say “All of us once lived among them – the disobedient – in the passions of our flesh.” Things are not as clear cut today as they seem to have been for the early church; the seven so-called deadly sins are much more subtle in our day. But when we look at the world we can see that humans are by nature children of wrath. It doesn’t seem to take much for us to feel so threatened that we start to view those around us with suspicion. It doesn’t seem to take much for us to begin to put down people who don’t think the way we do. In the rapid response world of the Internet we can flame someone we’ve never met much more quickly than we can think about the nuances of what they’re saying. Most of us only have to listen to the conversations in our own heads to recognize that we are by nature violent even if only to ourselves.

The traditional concept of original sin is individualized – we are each sinful from the moment of our conception. I certainly prefer the idea of original blessing – we are blessed with the calling and opportunity to become the adopted children of God. But human society has a dark side and we are all mired in it just because we live in a world of sin and violence. It isn’t any individual’s fault, it is the way things have developed over thousands of years and continue to develop. If we don’t stop the cycle.

Let’s go on to the next bit: 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.”

Even when we were so caught up in the sin-system that we were spiritually dead, God loved us. God loves us even when we are totally turned away from him. As the gospel reading says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Notice it doesn’t say anything about God giving Jesus to die a violent death, just that he gave his Son.) God is rich in mercy and great love so she has made us alive together with Christ and raised us with him. We are joined with Christ in his resurrection – Paul says that in our baptism we are joined with Christ and raised with him. And here the writer to the Ephesians says that we are raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places!!

Are we?

One of the important things to grasp in this New Testament living is the sense of both now and not yet. We are seated with Christ in the heavenly places - it’s a done deal, but we haven’t realized it yet, it isn’t actualized in our day to day lives.

How did we get here, to our seats in the heavenly places? By God’s grace we are joined with Jesus in his death, his resurrection and his victory over death and over the whole sin system. We no longer need to claw our way to the top, trampling over everyone else, because we are already here and no-one can take that away from us.

Let’s read on: 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.

Our salvation, our joining with Christ and being reconciled with God and getting to sit in the heavenly places is not our own doing. We did not do it by managing to get everyone else voted off the island. We did not do it by pushing our way up. Neither did we do it by diligent hard work. It is the gift of God, freely given from God’s unconditional love. So now we get to live the way God made us, we get to be the people we were created to be, living in relationship with God and showing forth God’s kingdom in all we do and say.

God’s gift to us is forgiveness, God’s gift to us is love, God’s gift to us is Jesus the embodiment of the kingdom and the author of our salvation.

And Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Moses held up a brass serpent on a pole and everyone who looked at it was healed from fatal snakebites. So too we must look at Jesus – we must keep our eyes on him as if our lives depended on it, for in a real way they do.

Only when we keep our eyes on Jesus, on his life and teaching and his presence here today, can know that we are raised with him, seated in the kingdom of heaven, the daughters and sons of the Most High God.


  • It is the nature of blessing to be a gift; unmerited favor. This would preclude the violence of self-will, the clawing and the striving, the killer instinct to get what we think we want, rather than what we may need. The insight offered by Katherine Bourgeot was that it was the "egoic mind" that killed the Savior; The Wisdom Jesus. The self-realization that we have all that we need is to come more to the forefront. This insight may be the message and the affect Jesus would have, enabling us to give him the pre-eminence more often.

    By Blogger Herb Garfield, at 2:18 PM  

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