Words Worth Hearing: Saved by Grace

Preached by Michael Cheuk, March 15, 2015
Taken from Ephesians. 2:1-10 (NRS)

Today’s lectionary text is from the book of Ephesians, which was a letter sent to a group of churches along the coast of what’s now western Turkey. In the second chapter of this letter, we hear the classic formulation of the role of grace in the life of the Christian: “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.” Many of us follow the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther in understanding that we are “saved” or we are put back in a right relationship by a gracious God. God, who is rich in mercy and out of God’s great love, saved us from wrath and death through God’s “grace” and not through our “good works.”

I’m sure you’ve heard various illustrations distinguishing between justice, mercy and grace. Several years ago in Farmville, I was driving down a country road heading heading back into town. I was preoccupied and failed to notice the speed limit was reduced to 25 miles per hour.  As I sped toward the stop light on N. Main Street, one of our intrepid Farmville police officers was parked on the other side of the street, and he flipped on his lights and signaled me to turn onto a side parking lot. When he walked over to me, I said: “Hey John, what’s up?”  He replied: “Did you know that you were going 40 miles per hour in a 25 zone?”  “Oh, I’m sorry, John.  I had a lot on my mind and was just rushing to get back to church.”  “Well,” John replied, “I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. However . . . I’ve been meaning to ask you to speak my church’s Saturday morning breakfast. Can you speak next Saturday at 7 am?” (Funny, how I found time to say “yes” and speak!)

My encounter with John is a (flawed) illustration of the difference between justice, mercy and grace.  Justice would have been served if John had given me a ticket, because I definitely broke the law and was speeding that day. Instead of justice, John showed me mercy by letting me go without a citation. But grace? I would have received grace if in addition to letting me go without the ticket, John also shared one of his jelly donuts with me!

I have heard many sermons where grace is understood in the context of breaking the law. Preachers use the illustration of Christians as criminals deserving the death penalty for our sins and transgressions, and there’s nothing we could do to stop the execution, much less secure our freedom. But, the preachers continue, God as the gracious judge decides to remove our death sentence and orders his Son Jesus to die in our place instead. This is one popular theory in evangelical Christian circles that explains how we are “saved by grace.” Some of us are deeply moved by this illustration, but others of us may be troubled that God would sentence His Son to die in order to get us off scot-free. Can there be another way to consider and understand how we are “saved by grace?”

As I said before, our New Testament lesson is a letter to churches in the region surrounding Ephesus. Ephesus itself was one of three largest cities in the Roman Empire and the church there most likely was multi-cultural, consisting mainly of Jewish and Hellenistic backgrounds. In this letter, the author addressed issues that arose from the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds present in the community. Those issues should be easy for us to understand today. As highlighted by our “Seek God for the City” devotion for today, we seek God in our international visitors. With a world-class university right across the street, people from all over the world are in Charlottesville. They are our neighbors, and they bring diversity to our culture, to our cuisine, etc. But with diversity, comes the challenge of unity. One of the main themes of this letter to the Ephesians is for Christ followers of diverse backgrounds to practice Christian unity made possible by the sacrificial death of Christ. It is through this lens of Christian unity that I would like to view and explore our scripture lesson for today.

In the first three verses of chapter two, you’ll find a litany of words like “dead,” “trespasses,” “sin,” “disobedience,” and “wrath.” These words are the consequences of “following the ruler of the power of the air,” enslaved by what the apostle Paul elsewhere calls the “principalities and powers” of the present age. They were the powers that fought against the purposes of God, and they are still fighting against the purposes of God. There are powers that work to enslave us, powers that drain the life out of us, powers that make us wrathful, angry and agitated. During the season of Lent, these words remind us of our brokenness, our mortality, our sin, and our failures.

Thankfully, these are not the last words. In the following verses, there is a radical shift of images, from “dead through our trespasses,” to “made us alive together with Christ” (v.5); from following the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (v.2), to being “raised up and seated in the heavenly realms” (v. 6); from “being children of wrath” (v.3) to receiving “God’s great love and mercy (v. 4) and kindness” (v. 7).

These shifts are made possible in the life of the believer through the grace of God through faith or trust in the work of Christ, and not in our work. We are not strong or powerful enough to defeat these powers. But Christ is plenty strong enough. Ironically, however, his strength was displayed in the weakness and death on the cross. When Christ died on the cross, we believe that He “saved” or “rescued” us from the “principalities and powers” that seek to destroy us today. In other words, for those in Christ, God moves us from “death” to “life” through the vehicle of God’s grace.

Understood in this way, grace is not about a transaction. Grace is not just a transaction between God and Christ that commutes the death sentence for human beings. Grace isn’t just about a free gift … of a jelly donut or even eternal life. Instead, grace is about the transformation of human beings through the beautiful movement of God that rescues us from a deadly existence marked by sin, disobedience, anger and bondage into a new way of life. God didn’t save us by grace so that we can enjoy a spiritual version of lounging in a swimming pool sipping umbrella drinks. We are saved by grace, so that we can truly be what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. In other words, we are saved by grace so that we can be gracious to one another, accepting each other in our weakness.

John Perkins, the life-long advocate of civil rights, once wrote: “I think Paul used the word grace as the all-encompassing word to describe the new kind and quality of relationship that Jesus makes possible. … That’s the incredible thing about grace. God doesn’t only save us; [God] also works through us—redeemed sinners—to redeem the world. Even more incredible is that fact that God is sovereign and doesn’t need us at all. But [God] chooses to work with us, to work through us. I don’t know if we really understand grace until we grasp this idea that God chooses to need broken people like us in his plan to redeem the world.”[2]

I’ve been deeply challenged by Christian counselor, Dan Allender, who, in his book Leading with a Limp, reminds me that true success involves failure, brokenness, and humility, and how God calls us to brokenness, not performance; to relationships, not commotion; to grace, not success.[3] I’ve also been deeply challenged by Brené Brown, who in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, talks about the destructive power of wanting to look perfect and lead perfect lives so that we no longer feel inadequate. And so I’ve been praying about what that might look like in my life, because it is hard to admit that I’m imperfect, broken and in need of grace.

You know what they say, be careful what you pray for! Months ago, when I was planning out my sermons for Lent, I decided to do a sermon series based on the notion that Lent is a time for listening, just as Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness listening to God before he began his ministry. Little did I know that God was preparing me to do some listening of my own – listening to how I have hurt church members whom I deeply love by the things that I’ve said or not said, how I’ve fractured some relationships in the things that I’ve done or not done. As I’ve listened, I’ve come to realize that there was truth in what I was hearing. And even as this letter to the Ephesians instructs us to practice Christian unity, I regretfully know that I have been the cause of some disunity. And yet, even as I acknowledge all this, I’m not sure how I can fix all this. But I am sure that I can continue to listen prayerfully, to try to understand the diverse opinions and perspectives in the congregation, while at the same time be aware that none of us can be all things to all people.

This morning, it is good for me to be reminded of these words worth hearing: “Saved by grace. Michael, you are saved by grace, not by works.” These words cannot be a cop-out, a shrugging of my shoulders to avoid the hard responsibilities of leading as your Senior Minister. But I stand before you today, first and foremost, to confess that I am a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace. In the coming days, I ask for you to pray that in God’s grace, God will save me from my addiction to perfectionism and performance. That God will save me from needing to defend myself when others criticize me. That God will save me not from hurt but from my own pride. That God will save me not from critics, but from my own willfulness and rigidity. That God will save me not from humiliation but from resentment, not from failure but from fatalism.

I also ask that in God’s grace, God will save me for leading with courage. That God will save me for displaying gratitude in the midst of challenges, for being willing to learn in the midst of my failures, and to be filled with a sense of hope in the midst of weariness. I pray that I will lead in such a way that requires more of God’s grace than my own competence. I pray these things because in the final analysis, the leader of University Baptist, and any other church, is not its imperfect Senior Minister. The leader is Jesus, our perfect Savior. I am only the under shepherd pointing people to the Good Shepherd, so that they will follow Jesus, and not me. We are the sheep of God’s pasture, and ultimately, the only voice we need to recognize and the only Word we need to hear is our Lord’s.

Lent is for listening, and how I need to hear (and believe) are these gospel words: Saved by Grace. These words are like refreshing water that quench my parched lips and slakes my thirsty soul. These life-giving words give me hope, they embrace me with love, they fill me with joy. May I be saved by the loving embrace of grace so that I may live into a new way of life that is grace-filled . . . toward myself and others.

Where are the places in your life in which words like “dead,” “trespasses,” “sin,” “disobedience,” and “wrath” still have a death grip over you? Now hear these words: “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.”

May you hear and believe these words. And may the grace of God that is greater than our sin be with you, so that it becomes our way of life.  Amen.

[2] Charles Marsh and John Perkins, Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, pp. 81-82.

[3] Dan Allender, Leading With a Limp, p. 52.