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The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
The Epistle: Ephesians 2:1-10
Sermon: "Grace That Works!"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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. 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. 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.
Grace That Works!
An Army chaplain was addressing the soldiers in his company one day. He said to them, ďThere are two possibilities following death; Heaven or Hell. If you would like to know your destination, I will be happy to give you a little test; the results of which will be your answer.Ē They answered in unison, ďOk, Give us the test.Ē They found some pencils and paper and the chaplain told them to number off ten spaces. Each question would count ten points. Question number one was, ďHave you always loved God above all else and not put anything else before Him?Ē Each soldier was to grade himself or herself on a scale from one to ten, ten being best. ďHave you ever misused Godís name or made light of Him?Ē There were other questions about family, God and conduct as the chaplain went through the Ten Commandments. When the test was completed, he asked the soldiers to tally up their scores. One thought that he had scored quite well and had given himself a 75. He recalled in school that was considered more than passing. Eventually, one of them asked, ďSay Padre, whatís a passing score for this test, anyway?Ē The chaplain answered, ď100 points.Ē They shook their heads. ďWhatís the use of trying? No one could be that perfect. Weíre all doomed.Ē The chaplain smiled and said, ďIíve got good news. There was a man who walked this earth and took this test and scored 100 points. His name is Jesus, and he says that the purpose of the test is not to score 100 points but to indicate our need for help. There is mercy and forgiveness for all who will receive it. Even though we cannot score 100 points we can substitute his test score for our own. Because of what he has done, we are accepted.Ē
We donít earn Heaven. It is a gift. That is, of course, the meaning of the word grace; unmerited favor, a gift. From our Epistle lesson this morning, the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians and us that there is no way we can earn Godís favor. However, there is no need to. Christ has done it for us. The theme of Godís unmerited, unrestrained love was so important to Paul that the word grace occurs 101 times in his writings. It only appears 28 other times in the entire New Testament. Why was it so important to Paul? Because he had tried his very best to earn his way to Heaven. He was the most passionate Pharisee of all. He had even persecuted the early Church in his zeal. Then Jesus met him on the Damascus road. There Jesus turned Paulís life around. He, who was in his words, the chief of sinners, came into the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ not because of works, but because of grace. So, Paul wanted the whole world to know that salvation is something we cannot earn. Salvation is a gift freely given.
Why is this distinction important to us? Simply put, works religion doesnít work. It makes us into self-righteous, inhuman, hypocrites. Grace, however, does work. It ennobles us; it brings out the best in our humanity. The knowledge of our acceptance by God, in spite of our unworthiness, is important for at least three reasons. The first reason that itís important is this: Godís grace instills humility. No one can boast, says Paul in his letter to us last Sunday from I Corinthians, about his or her status before God. We are all sinners saved by grace.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, divided pride into three categories. There is the pride of power. Thatís the sin of Hitler, Napoleon, and Genghis Khan. There is the pride of knowledge. There are many people who allow their intellect to be destructive to their spirit. Then there is the pride of virtue. And, of course, this was the grievous sin of the Pharisees. ďGod, I thank thee that I am not as other men,Ē prayed the Pharisee in Jesusí parable (Luke 18:11). The Pharisees were proud of their virtue. It became a barrier in their feelings toward other people.
The great preacher Dwight L. Moody once said, ďIt is well that a man cannot save himself, for if a man could only work his way into Heaven, you would never hear the last of it. Why, if a man happens to get a little ahead of his fellow and scrapes a few thousand dollars together, you will hear him boast of being a self made man. Iíve heard so much of this sort of talk, that I am sick of the whole business. And I am glad that through all eternity in Heaven we will never hear anyone bragging that he worked his way to get there.Ē
The knowledge of Godís unmerited, unrestrained love for unworthy humanity first instills an honest humility. Thatís the first reason that Godís Grace is important. Hereís the second reason itís important: Godís grace instills compassion. Once we admit our status as sinners saved by grace, then we can look with compassion toward other people. Rather than divide the world into two camps, the deserving and the undeserving as way too many are prone to do, we can move toward acceptance of all persons.
This was Jesusí problem with the self-righteous Pharisees. They had a superiority complex that would not allow them to reach out to others. The very opposite of that came to mind when I read about an incident at the Special Olympics a while back. Ed Beck is a former basketball player at Kentucky, former chaplain to the U.S. Olympic team, and a pastor. Once, he said, he thought that the Kingdom of Heaven was like the best, first class athletes. Observing their training at the Air Force Academy practice field with all their dedication and native skill, seeing all that self-sacrifice and effort to be the very best, he concluded that here just might be the ultimate symbol of Godís Kingdom.
But then he wandered down to the running of the Special Olympics, which feature physically and mentally challenged persons of all ages, races and backgrounds. He watched while eight of these special Olympians lined up for the world 100 meter dash. All eight charged off the starting line at the sound of the gun, but suddenly a small-framed boy among them fell to the asphalt and began to cry loudly. What happened next was an amazing thing. The other seven heard him and all stopped and went back to help. One large girl bent down, kissed his hurt knee and said, ďThat will help it feel better.Ē Then all eight joined hands and walked to the finish line to the roar of the crowd. In this self-centered, competitive-prone, isolated, suspicion-driven world, that is like the Kingdom of God.
When we come to God by his grace, and not by the attempt to earn Godís favor through personal works, we are led to a sense of honest humility and to compassion for others. Thatís a second reason that Godís Grace is important. And it is important for a third reason: Godís Grace leads us gratefully into good works. Acknowledging Godís unmerited, unrestrained love for us moves us out to do good works in the world. If, while we were unworthy, Christ would give his life for us, then we can now give our lives to others. Our giving of ourselves is in response to Christís giving of himself. We are set free to do good works; free because we no longer have to do them to get to Heaven; free because now we can do them purely out of humility, compassion, and gratitude. Grace ennobles our humanity. Far from doing good for selfish, fear-based, self-involved reasons, we do it for love. We do it in humility, with compassion, from gratitude.
I have always been astounded at the number of times Jesus sent his followers out to do something. The record is punctuated with these orders. Go preach. Go tell. Go into the highways. Go to the next town. Go into the country. Go to the other side. Go into the deep. Go into the streets. Go into the city. Go into the village. Go to the lost sheep. Go call your spouse. Go make it right with your brother and sister. Go and learn. Go quickly. Go in peace. Arise and go!
When we understand that we are the recipients of the grace of God, it leads us to humility and compassion, but more than anything else it leads us to a grateful sense of mission.
God is the lover of our souls. Someday you and I will each see God face to face. Not because of anything we have done or not done, but because of what Christ has done for us. You are saved by grace. In that grace, you are now free to live and to serve. That is Grace that works!