Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-20
There is a story that author Philip Yancey tells in his book “What’s so Amazing about Grace?” It goes like this:
During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods’ appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eightfold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law — each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.
Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often. He described a world suffused with God’s grace: where the sun shines on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into bloom on the rocky hillsides. Like a visitor from a foreign country who notices what the natives overlook, Jesus saw grace everywhere. Yet he never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word.” (What’s so Amazing about Grace p.45)
As Yancey says throughout his book, Grace is the most unique contribution that our faith tradition has to the world, and yet it remains the most difficult concept… even to the point that many different parts of Christian traditions have re-imposed conditions that one has to meet in order to be “saved.” Whether it is saying a special prayer, whether it is taking a certain doctrinal stance… and at one time by how much one contributed to the church… all of these were re-imposed on people because the idea of grace was and is so difficult for us to get our heads around.
But the promise of Grace is so powerful, so freeing, it has the power to change the world… and that can be scary! So we try to control it, and in so doing we re-create God in our own image, rather than the other way around. When we become obsessed with morality, or trying to control people’s behaviour, or become judgemental of others based on appearance or behaviour, we’ve lost that sense of grace… We need to re-learn what the promise of grace really is.
The letter to the Ephesians is a fantastic summary of Paul’s theology. In the opening chapters, there is this powerful reminder of the foundations of our faith that is so eloquently expressed:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Which we are familiar with, but then there is this excellent line: “this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”
The Good News is that our faith is about what God is has already done, not about what we need to do.
Often we hear stories of faith where one goes on a pilgrimage in order to achieve enlightenment, or knowledge, or some sort of spiritual awakening. You’re probably familiar with the image of a seeker who wanders through the wilderness, climbing to the top of a mountain to consult with some solitary hermit to gain some pearl of wisdom or meaning. The implication is that one has to undertake a great task or journey in order to earn some sort of spiritual reward.
But this isn’t the case at all. The witness of the early church was not about earning God’s love through some great act of faith, but rather spreading the good news that God’s love is for everyone, freely given, through the life and work of Jesus Christ. That’s why it was so infectious, and why Christianity was able to take hold in the social environment where the society around them was at best apathetic and at worst hostile. In a world where the privilege and social order determined who was in and who was out, the Christian message that God’s love and God’s world was for everyone, freely given. This was subversive, and yet infectious… but the powers-that-be of the day had no idea how to handle it.
Has someone ever given you a gift that you know you don’t deserve? Our first instinct is either to try to pay them back, or perhaps worse yet, refuse the gift because of our own feelings of inadequacy. We feel obligated to repay someone for the gift given. The hardest thing is to figure out what to do with it. We have an inherent desire to turn the free gift into a transaction: we give back something of equal value, or even try to return it..
Maybe this is where we have such a terrible time with grace, because we don’t know what to do with it. We try to turn God’s gift into a transaction. Despite Christianity’s prominence in the culture that we have been raised in, despite it being influential in the development of western society over the past 2000 years, we still don’t know what to do with grace.
But Paul did… Jesus did. They knew and understood that the world we live in is a gift, the life that we live is a gift, and it is not something that any of us have done. It’s about what God has done, and our response to that.
So here’s something to think about: How many of you, on your own merits, earned the right to be born?
I didn’t think so. None of us asked to be born. None of us asked for the gift of life, and yet we have it.
Grace goes hand in hand with the gift of life. Grace is truly the unrequited gift, it is not a transaction that we pay back. It is the gift that God has given to us without any expectation of anything in return. Full stop. God’s love and salvation isn’t something we earn, but rather is a gift that we are given and it is up to us what we do with it.
So the question isn’t “are you saved?” The question is “you ARE saved, what are you going to do with that gift?”
The point is not about paying God back, but rather living life with meaning and hope, freed from all the shackles that society would have us put on us. Not only that, it is to share the good news that all of us are freed from those shackles that hold us back, and that God’s unbridled gift of life and love is for everyone. No one is excluded, no one is alone. That is what’s so amazing about the promise of grace. Amen.