Sermon by Mr. Ben DeHart preached at St. Andrew's on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, September 22, 2012. Ben is a 2012 graduate of the Trinity School for Ministry and a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. He is currently assigned as assistant to the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright in the Episcopal Ministry at the University of Pittsburgh.
“In Christ, You Are Unconditionally Accepted and Given Purpose”
It’s an absolute pleasure to be here with you in your beautiful building this morning. And while it is noble and very Christian of you to welcome a complete stranger into your midst, it probably wasn’t very wise giving him the pulpit. With that said, have no fear, your valiant rector will return next week to undo any of the damage that Tim, Philip, and I most certainly have done or—in this case—will do.
But in all seriousness, I am very excited to be here this morning, not only because I have the chance to meet new people, but also because I get to talk about my favorite thing in the world—the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What one theologian refers to as the one-way love of God for suffering sinners like you and me. What NT scholar F.F. Bruce summarized using in these words, “Christ died [not for the healthy but] for the ungodly.”
It’s been offending self-righteous people like myself for two thousand years now. For just like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, some of us find it downright upsetting that the wayward son is just as acceptable to the Father as us—the diligent, hard-working, rule-keeping—older brother (or sister) types. We’ve been trying to earn his love for some time, how dare he accept these reprobates who turn to him at the last minute?
Yet when we internalize the truth of the Gospel even we begin to realize that this unfair reality—this message that is too good to be true—is, in fact, what we’ve wanted all along. A love from the praiseworthy that is truly unconditional—a love, that as the great hymn says, will never let us go.
This Gospel, while found throughout both Old and New Testaments, is most explicitly stated in what has come to be known as the Pauline Corpus—and that just means the collection of letters traditionally attributed to St. Paul. Unfortunately, for many of us Episcopalians, we have picked up the notion somewhere that Paul somehow complicated what Jesus made simple.
This truly is an unfortunate reality, and we would do well to learn from our Lutheran brothers and sisters that, rather than complicating Jesus’ teaching, Paul makes explicit what is left implicit in the Gospel narratives. And I’m going to say that again because that was profound for me the first time I heard it. What Jesus left implicit, Paul makes explicit.
And hopefully this will become evident as we take a look at the actual passage read just a moment ago.
In our text for this morning the author of Ephesians is pressing a point Paul made time and time again, that we have been saved by grace and not by our works. If there is any doubt or confusion about this, I’m going to read a portion of the passage again—starting at verse 8—“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.”
Notice that the author writes that salvation is not by works twice for effect. Just like the Hebrew prophets of old, he is purposely redundant to emphasize his point. In doing so, he makes it very clear that salvation it is a gift of God. Therefore, the grounds for self-righteous boasting have been pulled out from underneath us. The older brother’s salvation in the parable of the prodigal son was just as much a gift as that of the prodigal.
Earlier in Ephesians 2, the author spilled much ink to show us that we were not in good standing with—our creator—the Triune God. He’s goes so far as to write that we were spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins, because from time immemorial we have chosen to go it our own way. As Martin Luther would later comment, “we are curved in on ourselves.” Put simply, we are profoundly selfish. And no, not just those “real sinners” like the prodigal son who make the 10 o’clock news, but all of us, even the most pious.
I think a scene from Clint Eastwood’s movie “Unforgiven” illustrates the author’s point well. Having just participated in the shooting and painful death of another man, Clint’s young sidekick, the ‘Schofield Kid’ is shaken, he’s visibly disturbed by the consequences of his action. Trying to justify his actions, to reassure himself, he says, “[Well,] He had it coming.” Only he receives no comfort from Clint, who utters that deathless line, “We all have it coming, kid.”… Indeed, Clint, we all have it coming; maybe even especially the self-righteous.
But the author’s point here is not to make us depressed or for us to wallow in self-pity. He calls us dead to get his point across well, and his point is this: dead people do not rise. They cannot release the grip of the grave by picking themselves up by their own bootstraps.
He emphasizes the fact that we are utterly helpless to make ourselves right with God to show us that we are not self-sufficient, that all of us were in desperate need of an external solution (of outside help.) Not even being made better was an option. We were in need of something much more radical. We were in need of being made new. We were in need of resurrection.
And that is exactly what God has done for you and for me, for while all of us “have it coming,” we are not going to get what we deserve. Our past, present, and even our future sins have been cancelled not because we’ve been able to make up for them, but because of the Cross of Christ. Because our God loves us—the ungodly—so much that he took what we deserved upon himself so that we might be reconciled to him.
Just as Christ was made alive after his crucifixion, so, too, has God made us alive. We, his servants, have also been resurrected.
And the crazy part about all of this—as noted in the passage that we just read—is that he did this without regard to our efforts. He did it entirely free of our help.
For as Paul and his disciples make clear, reconciliation with God is not contingent upon our works. Peace with God has nothing to do with what we bring to the table. It is the gift of God. For as verse 9 makes clear, “[it is] Not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
And that is the good news for you and me—that his grace triumphs over karma. The Good news that is too good to be true and yet it is…
Now I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I’d be willing to bet that you’ve been the victim of conditional love at some point in your life. Maybe a lifelong friend bailed on you because you just weren’t cool enough. Or maybe—back in high school or college—your boyfriend or girlfriend abandoned you when the going got tough, or maybe you just never lived up to your father’s expectations.
Or maybe you’re the guilty one. Notice I told the story of when I was the victim, but there are plenty of occasion when I was the victimizer—when my love for others was conditional.
Thankfully, the living God is not like this. Although our friends, lovers, and earthly fathers fail us—and we, at times, fail others—our heavenly Father will never leave us or forsake us. Not when we ignore him, not when we fail him, not even when we betray him (not even when our love is conditionally granted to him). For recall the definition of the Gospel I gave at the beginning of the sermon—God’s one way love for suffering sinners. One of my favorite verses in the Bible reads this way, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly.” It is the very moment that we were at enmity with God that he reconciled us to him by dying for you and me on the Cross.
You see, the Christian life is not a burden that our parents passed on to us, or a call to a life marked by self-righteousness. Instead it is an invitation into a love that will not let you go…
But before I close I have to address those of you who inwardly protest. Those of you who see all of this as being too easy. For there is a rejoinder in the back of my head as well. If law observance is not what makes us right with God, well, then what’s to stop us from sinning? What’s to prevent those stories on the 10 o’clock news from happening? Or maybe, even more personal, what then am I supposed to do? If God is doing everything, if none of it is my doing, if good works don’t make any difference regarding my standing before God, what’s the point?
And as if anticipating our retort, this is what the author writes next (verse 10), “For we are God’s workmanship… we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand for us to walk in.”
Thus the author clears himself of the charge of antinomianism. We do good works. Not because we are saved by them, but because we are saved for them.
In the Rite I post-communion prayer we ask that God would help us to “do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” You can see how directly it is modeled on Ephesians 2:10. The point of good works is that they are already prepared for us by God ahead of time. That is his gracious will and purpose, so that we do not need to be anxious, nor do we need to be prideful. When we manage to do something good, that is the grace of God operating in us. And all of this comes from “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
So having just been offered the peace that passes all understanding, we are now given purpose. And while there a plethora of things we can do to the glory of God, one of these things is what the author writes about next.
For not only has Christ leveled the playing field when it comes to piety, but he has also done the same regarding race and class. On the Cross, not only did he forgive us our sins, but he also broke down the wall of hostility that separates us from each other. We’ve learned that we may not boast on account of our piety, but we also have no grounds to brag on account of our race, gender, or socio-economic status. The work of Christ has undone racism, classism, and gender inequality for we all come before the Lord with empty hands.
All this to say that one of the works which we have been prepared to walk in is to work to eradicate these prejudices in the life of the church, because discrimination is incongruent with the truth of the Gospel.
And even though we still see these things all around us today—especially on the 10 o’clock news—when Jesus comes again it will be done away with forever.
Only until then we don’t wait passively for the 2nd coming. We work for these things God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in. Knowing that work done for justice, in love and obedience to the Scriptures, in the power of the Spirit, will be completed and fulfilled in the new Kingdom. Therefore, none of your efforts are in vain.
So for those of you who didn’t get that job because you are a woman, or for those of you who have been discriminated against because of your race, or for those of you who have suffered impartial treatment due to your economic status, know that justice is coming, that all wrongs will be made right, that all sufferings and ills will somehow truly be undone.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.