We are still in our series looking at the letter to the church in Ephesus. Last week we heard about Christ’s kingdom, and how we as citizens can go to battle in prayer on behalf of the king. This week we are going to one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Interestingly, it doesn’t really go with the rest of the flow. It’s like a side comment or if you remember in college textbooks they had those sidebars for more information, it’s like that. So this is one of the most famous asides, one of the most famous “oh by the ways” in history.
1You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in 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. 3All 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. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
One day a computer programmer was searching on Google for some help on an advanced topic and, just like every other search, the familiar list of links and summaries appeared on the page. But then something strange happened. The searches peeled back to reveal something new on the page. It said, “You’re speaking our language. Up for a challenge?” And there were three options: “I want to play,” “No thanks,” and “Don’t show me this again.” Curious, he clicked, “I want to play.” From there he continued to follow a trail of strange clues that culminated in six progressively more difficult computer programming challenges. After two weeks of work chasing this rabbit trail to the end, the strange website asked for his contact info and then disappeared. Two days later, a recruiter for Google called and invited him to interview for a job. He had passed the test. He was worthy.
Or maybe you know someone who was a part of a fraternity or sorority. To receive the benefits of membership you usually have to go through some kind of initiation ritual. First off, people already in the group have to like you and think you’ll be fun. Maybe you have to memorize the Greek alphabet or some silly rhyme or story. Maybe you’ll have to walk a straight line – oh wait, no, that’s a field sobriety test and they definitely won’t do that in a fraternity! Whatever it is, you have to pass the test. They have to deem you worthy.
Or maybe you’ve got certifications for work. Or midterms or finals coming up. Everywhere we look we have to prove what we know, prove what we can do, prove we belong. Now if you’re a civil engineer, I want you to have to pass a test before building the bridge I’m going to drive over. That’s a good thing.
In the ancient world, they had much of the same thing. For instance, you couldn’t just declare yourself to be a convert to Judaism. There was a long process that culminated for men in circumcision before you could convert. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a big line for that.
Similarly, there were groups of people who followed certain philosophers – certain ways of living. So, for example, to become a Stoic, you had to commit to four virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. And you also had to commit to a certain way of thinking about the world. In fact there are debates even today about whether certain leaders were, “Stoic enough” to be considered “proper Stoics.”
But think about how strange that would be for Christians. Do you look back and debate whether leaders who claimed to be Christian actually were Christian-enough to count? There are maybe a few instances where that happens, but it’s exceedingly rare. Or what about today? What if I told you to look to the person on the left, to consider deeply, pray even, and then write down 1-10 how Christian they are? If you don’t score at least a 6, I’m sorry you don’t count in worship today.
Wouldn’t that be absolutely bizarre?!? If you’re rating a candidate in a job interview, that’s what you do. If you’re being scored on a test, that’s what they do. If you’re trying to get into a group or a club, that’s what they do. But that’s NOT what we do as Christians.
Why? Verses 8-9: “8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Let me read that again: “8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
That means you belong here. That means you belong in Christ’s family. You belong.
But you don’t belong because you’re a good person. You don’t belong because you’re a changed man or woman. You don’t belong because you’ve learned all the rituals. You don’t belong because your Bible isn’t dusty. You don’t belong because of anything you’ve said or thought or done or not done.
You belong because, in Jesus, God said you belong. End of story. The end. Roll the credits. Nothing more to see here. No special scene at the end for those who stick around to the very end. Leave the theater but as someone who used to clean up afterward, please don’t forget to take your popcorn with you. You belong because, in Jesus, God said you belong. [LONG PAUSE]
Am I Good Enough?
I’ve known this for a long time, but I still sometimes wonder, “am I good enough.” Do you ever wonder that? If you were going to stand at the pearly gates tomorrow and say why you should get in, what would you say? What credit have you gained?
I think deep down we think that God’s judgment is kind of like when two people go hiking in bear country. And one person says, “I’m worried that we’re going to be attacked by a grizzly. I’ve heard they’re pretty fast. Are you worried?” And the other person says, “Nope. Not worried at all.” “Why’s that? Do you think you’re faster than the bear?” “No, but I KNOW I’m faster than you.”
Does this happen to you? Do you ever find yourself thinking, “as long as I’m a little better than the next guy,” or “as long as I make better decisions than that girl?” We tend to think that life is graded on a curve. My first test in college calculus I got a 67 and I was distraught. Until the teacher wrote the curve on the board and suddenly I had an A because everyone else did way worse than me! So often we think we just need to be a “good person” and a little bit better than the “those people.”
But Jesus blows this out of the water in our reading from Matthew today – “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments…will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Or Paul writes in our Ephesians text, “you were dead through the trespasses and sins.” On the test of life, we fail. Period. We have a big fat red “F” on our test as we reach the pearly gates.
But Jesus says, “he’s with me.” “She’s with me.” “They’re mine.” “You belong.”
I’m not good enough. And if I think I can bring my goodness to the table, I’m mistaken. I have no reason to boast. And neither do you. But you and I belong anyway.
For it is by grace that we have been saved through faith.
Now the last verse adds to this, “10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Doing Christ-like things isn’t how we earn our way into the club – we already belong. Instead we can do Christ-like things because we belong. Because we have been hand-crafted by the Savior for a purpose.
I actually don’t like this translation of verse 10. Saying “he made us” really doesn’t do this word justice. The image is of a master carefully weaving a fine fabric. The image is of a master carpenter getting everything just so. And so I’ll end with one of the finest poems to ever capture the essence of our hand-crafted lives, our senseless belonging. You probably have heard it before, The Touch of the Master’s Hand.
The Touch of the Master’s Hand
Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer thought it scarcely worth his while to waste much time on the old violin, but held it up with a smile; “What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried, “Who’ll start the bidding for me?” “A dollar, a dollar”; then two!” “Only two? Two dollars, and who’ll make it three? Three dollars, once; three dollars twice; going for three.” But no, from the room, far back, a gray-haired man came forward and picked up the bow; Then, wiping the dust from the old violin, and tightening the loose strings, he played a melody pure and sweet as caroling angel sings.
The music ceased, and the auctioneer, with a voice that was quiet and low, said; “What am I bid for the old violin?” And he held it up with the bow. A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two? Two thousand! And who’ll make it three? Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice, and going and gone,” said he. The people cheered, but some of them cried, “We do not quite understand. What changed its worth?” Swift came the reply: “The touch of a master’s hand.”
And many a man with life out of tune, and battered and scarred with sin, Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd, much like the old violin, A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine; a game – and he travels on. “He is going” once, and “going twice, He’s going and almost gone.” But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd never can quite understand the worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought by the touch of the Master’s hand.
Sisters and brothers, you belong simply because, in Jesus, God said so. Now that you belong, you can live a life that is touched by the Master’s Hand. Amen.