“Construction” by Alex Kislow (2011, CC BY 2.0)
Ephesians 2.1-10 (NRSV)
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.
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— 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.
My first job was working as a custodian at a big church in downtown Colorado Springs. During my first days there, I remember barely stopping for a break until our boss let us go home. I also remember having a nagging worry. I would lay down to go to sleep and start worrying about whether or not I was working enough to justify the five dollars and fifteen cents an hour the church was paying me.
That anxiety was hard to shake.
Looking back, I don’t know if there was anything that would have helped me feel like I had done enough.
I am curious if people sometimes feel similar anxiety … wondering if they are doing enough … working enough … doing enough, when it comes to their faith and God.
Sometimes people get stuck in this idea of earning standing with God. If that is how life with God works, if it is all about earning, how would we ever know we have done enough? What would settle our minds? What would assure us that we have done enough and let us sleep at night?
Ephesians offers us good news in the passage Dave just read. Life and relationship with God is not about earning.
There is so much about God’s character in these verses. There is so much about how God interacts with people in these verses. This isn’t guilt or anxiety inducing stuff. The way God interacts with us moves us to gratitude. We can’t boast about it – it is God’s doing. We don’t worry about it either – the grace, kindness, and love, God has given to us in Christ, fills us with gratitude, not with anxiety.
We don’t get our lives in order so we can approach Jesus. Jesus approaches us in the messiness of our lives. As Christians, we aren’t achievers of salvation, we are receivers, maybe we could even say, as Christians we are people who have surrendered to God’s grace. There is a time for doing good stuff, but doing good stuff is our grateful response to God’s involvement in our lives.
We are not saved by good works. We are saved to good works.
I think Paul gives us a picture of what this “good works way of life” looks like as he continues in chapter 2:
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
This way of life looks like living in ways and making decisions that live into this peace and unity. It looks like building connections between people and God and people and people. A life built around loving God and loving neighbors seems like it would be a life that builds connections and unity.
On Easter Sunday, I received one of the best emails ever. It is from my friend Rubye, and I think it speaks more to her grace and to what God is doing in her and through her than it does anything else.
Here is the email:
Blessings Pastor Shaw & Family:
…Thank you for introducing us to Pastor Curtis Wilson. Thank you for calling me to discuss the Black Panther [flyer]. If you did not have the knowledge and ability to seek the truth, our paths would have never crossed.
Each year Pastor Wilson brings knowledgeable individuals to help with so many areas at the Center. If you are ever in McGehee, please stop by for dinner.
Kisses to the family.
There is a story behind it. (You probably guessed that when you heard “Black Panther flyer.”) Looking back, the story seems so far-fetched, but the background that helps it make more sense is that back then Sarah and I couldn’t go a day without experiencing some sort of racial tension, or hearing from someone worried about crossing paths with “the wrong people.”
In the community we lived in, Sarah planned and led 4-H programs for elementary school kids. Rubye Emerson, the director of the McGehee/Desha Alumni Center, asked if Sarah would pass out flyers for her bicycle factory project to 4-H kids. The project sounded great – the town had a storage building full of bicycles the police had confiscated. The bicycles were gathering dust. The police didn’t want the bikes and there were lots of kids around who needed bikes. Rubye had the idea to teach kids to fix up those bikes, sell the bikes for cheap to kids who needed them, and use the money to start college savings accounts for the kids who worked on the bikes.
It sounded like a win, win, win situation.
Except the 4-H parents weren’t very excited about the project.
I was helping with 4-H the day Sarah handed out the flyers. I overheard parents talking to each other – “I knew she was up to no good … I knew we had to watch out for her … who does Rubye think she is … giving our kids Black Panther propaganda?” I asked what they were talking about. They explained how the Black Panther’s were these radicals … I wanted to say duh! (I’ve heard pastors aren’t supposed to say that, though.) They held out the flyer and pointed to the top corner – “That picture on the top, it’s a picture of a black panther … we knew she was up to something … passing out Black Panther literature to our kids … there is no way our kids will be part of anything she does.”
It sounded crazy. But I thought of how the rumor mill worked in that town …
Rubye is African-American, she grew up in that town, moved away for career opportunities, and when she retired, she felt a call to move back and do something that would make a difference. I didn’t know her that well, but I couldn’t imagine Rubye having anything to do with the Black Panthers.
The parents kept talking about Rubye’s connection with the Black Panthers. It sounded crazy. I couldn’t see it … it was frustrating to think Sarah could be wrapped up in something like this. I walked back to the church trying to make sense of it.
Finally, sitting in my office I decided I should call Rubye. I looked up her number, and psyched myself up for one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had. (In her note Rubye makes it sound almost courageous … I remember it as clumsy and bumbling.) I introduced myself … I awkwardly asked about the clip art on the bicycle factory flyer. She said, “The panther? Back when the town had segregated schools, Desha High School, the black school’s mascot was a black panther. I put that on there since we are the McGehee/Desha Alumni center.”
“So it doesn’t have anything to do with the old political group?”
“Parents at 4-H were thinking you were passing out Black Panther propaganda. And weren’t going to let their kids be part of your bicycle factory.”
Rubye was so gracious. She let me ask a really crazy question. She changed her flyer. 4-H kids wound up participating in the bike factory. After that conversation, we got to be better friends. She taught me about the center and what it was doing. I introduced her to people I knew who had resources and similar visions for communities – she is still working with those people.
I think in my friendship with Rubye, I stumbled into something that matches up with what Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus.
So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God …
This “good works way of life” has to do with remembering God has gone to great lengths to build connections, and as Christians, as the church, we should be serious about building connections. Our culture has a tendency to break or withhold connections. On Facebook, if there is someone we disagree with we can just turn them off and not deal with them. Maybe we just don’t answer the phone when they call. We can avoid people who are more difficult … or who are just different.
God gives us a different model. God moves toward people who are difficult, God goes to great lengths to approach us … to build a relationship with us. God breaks down the ways people divide themselves. God is in the connection fostering … bridge building business and God invites us to be connectors and bridge builders.
What if we took this seriously? What would the world look like if we ask before we respond or react, “does this build connections?” “Does this foster relationships?” “Does this help me to love God and to love my neighbor?”
This is the life of gratitude and grace God has called us to and prepared us for.
If we take it seriously, I bet the world will look very different.