A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho
March 18, 2012
If you read the news, you’ll notice that there are many different ways of interpreting what Jesus said, what he meant, and what our faith should look like.
If you talk to each other, you will discover the same thing. There is a great diversity of understanding, of hearing, of experience with our faith.
And that is okay.
It is more than okay, actually. I believe it is the intention of God.
I don’t believe that every interpretation is equally valid. If you use the Bible to hurt people, to exclude people, or to speak with too much certainty about the mind of God, then we all lose. And our witness to the grace and love of God is overshadowed when we mistreat each other.
One of the reasons I think it is God’s intention to have different experiences of faith is because if any one of us thought we, and we alone, had the right answers about God, then God would not be very majestic. In other words, if God is something I can understand, then that isn’t much of a God. Because human minds are finite. God is infinite. We see dimly, as through a mirror. God is bigger, better, and more loving and gracious than we can even imagine.
I also know of the diversity of faith because of the many different churches there are. There are people who are at home in this place, who would not be at home in another congregation. And there are people who visit us once, and never walk through the door again. It isn’t because you weren’t friendly enough. It is because this wasn’t the place God was calling them.
But another reason I believe in the diversity of faith experience is because it is represented in Scripture itself.
If you were to turn salvation into a mathematical equation to solve, we’d have to figure out the relationship between the components of Grace, Faith, Works and how they equal Salvation.
Faith = Salvation?
Grace = Salvation?
Works = Salvation?
Or is it some combination?
Faith + Grace = Salvation?
Faith + Grace + Works = Salvation?
Our passages today solve this equation differently. I would like to start with the passage from Ephesians.
First off, some background on Ephesians. Many scholars agree that the Greek in this letter is different than Paul’s writing. It has much in common with Paul, but is likely written by a follower of Paul, not by Paul himself. Today, we would call that plagiarism. But that was a standard way of expressing respect and admiration back in the first century.
Early copies of this letter don’t mention Ephesus. One copy was addressed to the Laodicians, so the context of this letter is not well known either.
Whatever the history of this letter, it helps to consider as much context as we can so that the meaning can be as clear as possible.
You might have gotten hung up on the first couple of verses. All of the references to “the ruler of the power of the air” do not fit our cosmology. But they do fit a first century cosmology.
The Greeks believed that the “space between the moon and the earth was dominated by spiritual activity, operating in the arena where the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire were mixed. ” (Ian S. Markham, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 2, p 111). This is a very literal and spatial image. Hades below. We’re on earth. Layers above us.
So this may not be our cosmology. We might speak of Newtonian laws, and quarks and neutrinos. But it was their view of the world. And even if we have to add our own context, we also can picture those forces that seem to have more power over our behavior, over the behavior of the people we love. We know about the “spirit of destruction that is now at work” among our friends dealing with addiction, recovering from damaged childhoods, or trying to rise above pernicious social realities like poverty, drug abuse, and violence.
So put this story in whatever language you need to hear the truth that is there.
I wonder if another reason the first few verses of this passage are uncomfortable for us is because of the bold way he speaks of our brokenness. “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh…” There is no room here for us to say, “boy, am I glad Jesus died to save THOSE people”. It is clear for the writer of this letter that ALL of us are incapable of working out our own salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing…”
Here’s how Ephesians solves the equation.
F(Grace) – Works = Salvation (By Grace through Faith, not through Works, we are saved).
We know that, of course. But we don’t like it. We want to know grace is there, if we should ever need it. But we’d like to earn the stars in our crown by ourselves, with our good American gumption, and we’d prefer fewer reminders of the way we were “dead through our own trespasses”.
But, for the writer of Ephesians, the very bad news of our human brokenness is also the very good news of our salvation. “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.”
He reminds us that it is the gift of God, not our own works, so that no one may boast. But we still boast. Maybe not about all of the great things we do for Jesus. Or maybe so. But I think we try to get around the “no works” part of the equation by talking about our own faith.
This is one of the grey areas in this equation. Is it through our faith that we are saved? Through Jesus’ faith? If it is through our faith, how does that not turn our faith into a work? Once we start boasting, “I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior”, how is that different from saying, “I fed 42 people at the homeless shelter today and so Jesus loves me”? Once our faith becomes something about which we boast, it becomes a work, it becomes something that we do, not something that God does.
Somehow faith is a part of the equation for the writer of Ephesians.
And works belong there too.
F(Grace) – Works = Salvation = Works (what we were made for)
“For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Works don’t save us. Grace through faith saves us.
But works are a piece of why we were created.
Remember the beginning of this chapter, with the demons patrolling the sky? I suspect this is where works come in to play.
The powers that cause pain in our world are real, whether or not they live in the sky. When we claim salvation through grace, we claim that we are opposed to those powers. We claim a higher power. We claim that God is even more powerful than those forces that hurt us.
And when we claim this higher power, we are called to work for it and against the powers that seek to keep us “dead through our trespasses”. It means we speak out against societal conditions that hurt people. It means we rally at the state house if necessary to claim that there is another way, a better way, of living together. It means we feed people who are hungry. It means we clothe people. It means we build wells so people can have clean water. It means we share the news about the grace of God as often as we can, because many people need that life saving news.
I heard stories in the news this week about two different members of the cast of the HBO show The Wire. I’ve never seen the show, but after hearing these interviews, I want to. It chronicled life on the streets of Baltimore and exposed the breakdown of much of the social fabric. Both of these actors saw the pain and hurt in their communities and decided to use their resources that came with being actors to do something about it.
When the filming of the Wire ended, actress Sonja Sohn stayed in East Baltimore and founded a nonprofit that works with young people who have been incarcerated and are out on parole, seeking to help them choose better paths through education, creative arts, and mentoring.
She had grown up in a similarly difficult community, and her work on the Wire re-traumatized her, it brought up all of the difficulty of her own childhood. She realized she could use her success, her own salvation from the streets, to make a difference for other kids in similar situations.
Wendell Pierce also starred in the Wire and then went on to act in the show Treme, which takes place in his hometown of New Orleans. Pierce is now opening up grocery stores in poor neighborhoods in New Orleans. He is an actor, not a businessman. After Katrina, he was active in re-building efforts in his community, but grocery stores did not move back in. As a result, many people in those neighborhoods do not have access to healthy food.
During the interview I listened to, he was asked why he didn’t you just call up one of the grocery chains and try to use his influence to get them to open a store. And he said “Because Winn-Dixie left, and now I can spend most of my time trying to convince others to do it, or step into that void myself. If not me, who? If not now, when? If not here, where?
These are just a few illustrations of what I think the writer of Ephesians meant when he said, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”.
These two actors weren’t saved because of their good works. These two actors realized they had been saved and took their place in the story.
Rather than just sit back and say, “the problem is bigger than I can solve”, or in the words of Ephesians, “the ruler of the power of the air is too powerful”, we are to acknowledge that our salvation comes from an even greater power. By joining in the work of helping others around us, we claim that the powers of destruction do not have the final say.
Our very participation in the work for which we are created is a way to claim our allegiance to the gracious and merciful God who has chosen to be for us.
John’s gospel gives us a slightly different equation for salvation.
Believe = Salvation
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
John’s gospel has some different themes, or different emphases, perhaps, then do the other gospels. One of them is the theme of being “lifted up”. Jesus often refers to the Son of Man being lifted up. On one level, he’s referring to the cross event, of his literally being lifted up onto a cross. On another level, it means being lifted up as being exalted, a sign of God’s glory, of death being turned into life. And there’s also the sense of his being lifted up to heaven.
Remember the Greek cosmology from Ephesians. Lifted up is both literal and metaphorical.
There is no exaltation without the crucifixion in John’s gospel. You have to look up to the cross.
What God did through Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness is just an opening act, compared to what God did by lifting up Jesus. Because in the lifting up, in the exaltation of Jesus, our death will be turned to life.
“Whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John’s gospel, and this passage in particular, is often used to argue that our salvation largely rests on our choice. On our decision to choose Jesus. And that is a part of this passage. There is a sense in John’s gospel that we do need to respond to the truth that “God so loved the world that God gave the only son”. But our response to the grace that has saved us shouldn’t diminish the gift. The exaltation of Christ on the cross that turns into the glory of the resurrection should not be reduced to only being something in our possession. God didn’t so love just us. God so loved the WORLD. “Indeed”, we’re told in verse 17, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Also, where the writer of Ephesians talks about the noun “faith”, the writer of John never does. But John uses the verb “believe” more frequently than any other New Testament writer. We tend to use faith and belief interchangeably, but without overstating the differences between the words, we should allow the differences to stand. For John, “believe” is always an action verb. It is something you do, not something you agree to in your head.
So, our response to “for God so loved the world” is to believe in Jesus, to look to the gift, to the life, death, resurrection, and lifting up, of Jesus of Nazareth to know how to respond.
To believe in Jesus is to obey his commandments that we love one another.
To believe in Jesus is to do what he commanded us to do—bring justice, mercy, and peace to the world. For God sent the son not to condemn the world, but to save the world.
And this is where, for their differences, Ephesians and John would come together. Yes, the equation of salvation looks different in each of the books. But the response is the same. We work to help people look up, above the powers of the air that try to keep us down, to look up to the higher power that can save, even if we have to look up to a cross to see it.
And we leave it to God to figure out how that saving works. And we get busy, after we decide to follow him, creating a community where God’s love is abundant and available for all, lifted up for all to see.