Sunday, November 6, 2016

God's Masterpiece (a sermon for All Saints' on Ephesians 2:8-10)

Today in the Christian year we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is actually on November 1st, but recently the custom has grown of celebrating it on the first Sunday after November 1st. And since baptism is part of the process of becoming a saint, it’s particularly appropriate that we celebrate baptisms on this feast day.
I have to start by saying that I’ve always been unhappy with the use of the word ‘saint’ to mean a particularly good Christian, one whose way of life is superior to the ordinary, run of the mill believers like you or me. This understanding of ‘saint’ is completely foreign to the Bible. In the New Testament, you don’t become a saint by being recognised by the Church as being a cut above the rest in terms of your goodness or holiness or love. No: you become a saint by putting your faith in Jesus and being baptized. The word ‘saint’ in the New Testament doesn’t describe a special kind of Christian - rather, it describes any member of God’s people. The letters of Paul are regularly addressed to ‘the saints of God in such and such a town’ - meaning not the especially holy minority, but all of them. If you are a Christian, then in New Testament language you are a saint. And if we understand the word in this older, more biblical way, then the Feast of All Saints becomes your feast – the feast that celebrates the untold millions of ordinary baptized Christians who have put their faith in Jesus and followed him.
As we think about what it means to be a saint today I want to direct your attention to three verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in chapter 2:8-10; you can find them on page 192 of the New Testament section, near the back of our pew bibles:
‘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’.
I want to look at this passage with you under three headings: ‘Grace’, ‘Masterpiece’, and ‘Way of Life’.
First, grace. We start with grace, because that’s where the whole New Testament starts. As most of you have heard many times over, grace is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t have to earn’. Jesus and his apostles taught us that God is a God of grace, which means that God loves us with an unconditional and indestructible love. God doesn’t love us because we are especially deserving specimens of humanity. God doesn’t love us because we’ve tried our best to obey the Ten Commandments. God loves us because it’s God’s nature to love. Even if you are an enemy of God, you’re not exempt from God’s love. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that God sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike; that’s why we Christians are commanded to love our enemies, because God also loves his enemies and reaches out to bless those who hate him.
Philip Yancey is one Christian writer who has returned over and over again to the theme of grace and has written eloquently about it. One of his best books is called What’s So Amazing About Grace? I heard Philip speak about this just before the book was published; he said that he had originally wanted to call the book What’s So Amazing About Grace and Why Don’t Christians Get It? but his publisher wouldn’t let him do that! But I think it would have made an excellent title, because many Christians really don’t ‘get’ grace. We seem to think that we have to earn God’s love by being good, and if we succeed in this, we are then allowed to sit in judgement on other Christians who haven’t succeeded in reaching our high standards of goodness.
Jesus once told a parable about this; we heard it a couple of weeks ago in our regular Sunday lectionary. He told about two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee went right up to the front of the Temple and prayed out loud, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there. After all, I fast twice a week and give you a tenth of all my income’. But the tax collector didn’t dare come to the front of the temple; he stood at the back, crying out over and over again, ‘God, be merciful to me, because I’m a sinner’. In summing up the story, Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went home in the right with God and not the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”.
The point of the story is not that the Pharisee was bad and the tax collector was good. Actually, the Pharisee was probably a very good man, and the tax collector was probably a thief and a rogue. But the Pharisee was full of himself, whereas the tax collector was honest about his sins and asked God for forgiveness. And God did forgive him, and welcomed him, because God is a God of grace.
Paul says, ‘By grace you have been saved through faith’. ‘Faith’ doesn’t mean ‘right belief’; it means ‘trust’. When I am saved by grace through faith, it means that I accept the fact that my troubles are too big for me to deal with all by myself, so I take the hand of Christ and cast myself on his strength and love to bring me through. My sins are too big for me to overcome all by myself. My fears are too overwhelming. My hurts go too deep. So in faith I come to Christ and say, “Lord, this is too big for me, so I’m going to put my hand in yours and trust that you will guide me into the right pathways and give me the strength to do what you want me to do”.
That’s what Maria, Dustin and Monika, and Nick and Christine are doing this morning, on behalf of their children Ethan, Lincoln, and Liam. Ethan, Lincoln, and Liam aren’t old enough yet to be able to consciously put their faith in Christ, so their parents do it for them. As the children grow, the parents teach them by word and example about the wonderful grace of God and about how we respond to it by putting our trust in him. In a nutshell, that’s what baptismal promises are all about.
So we start with grace. Grace means that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing we can do can change that. All we can do is believe it, and put our trust in Christ in response.
The second word is ‘Masterpiece’. Now you might wonder where I got that word from, because it doesn’t appear in the the translation of our text in the pew bibles. But take a look at verse 10: ‘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’. ‘For we are what he has made us’ is actually a pretty lame translation of the original. The Greek word is ‘poema’, from which we get the word ‘poem’. Older translations say, ‘For we are his workmanship’; other versions have ‘handiwork’, but ‘poema’ is often used in Greek for a great masterpiece created by a wonderful artist. That’s what you are: God is the great artist, and you are his masterpiece.
Paul isn’t talking here about God’s work of creating us in the first place. It’s absolutely true, of course, that God has created each one of us in his image, and that this image is good. Yes, we are his masterpiece in the sense of being created by him, but what Paul is talking about in this passage is the new creation in Jesus. The Bible talks about us having an old sinful nature that is going to pass away one day, but the Holy Spirit is also creating in us a new nature, patterned after the character of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul means when he says ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works’. Faith and baptism were the beginning for us of this new nature.
Some of you here came to faith in Jesus later in life, after you had worked quite hard at creating highly effective forms of misery for yourselves! This is the position John Newton was in when he wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’: ‘Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me’. John Newton used that word ‘wretch’ purposely; he had been a slave trader, and in many other ways he knew he had rebelled against God and put himself at the centre of his own life. And even today, most of us have times when we feel really wretched, don’t we? We not only fall short of God’s standards; we fall short of our own, too. We try so hard, but we fail over and over again. We long for a power greater than ourselves to remake us so that we can be the people we long to be.
That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing in you. He’s creating a masterpiece in Christ Jesus: he’s forming a new person, with Jesus as the template. And when God looks at you and me, he doesn’t see all the failures and the disappointments; he sees the masterpiece, and he is pleased with it. Or, to put it another way, in our baptism God says that we are his saints, and when he looks at us, that’s exactly what he sees.
There’s a lovely example of this in the gospel of John. One of the first disciples of Jesus was a man called Andrew, and the first thing he did was to find his brother Simon and bring him to meet Jesus. Now we actually know quite a bit about Simon: he was the sort of guy who makes promises and then finds he can’t keep them, or starts speaking before his brain is in gear – enthusiastic, but not very reliable. But that’s not what Jesus saw when Simon came to him. Here’s what he said: “You are Simon son of John, but I’m going to give you a new name: Peter, which means ‘the rock’”. I’m sure Simon knew that he wasn’t actually very rock-like, but Jesus didn’t see the failures and disappointments, you see: he saw the masterpiece that he was going to create in Simon Peter.
So we’ve seen first that God reaches out to us in his grace, his unconditional love, and we respond with faith and trust in Jesus. Secondly, God then sets this process in motion in our lives: the creation of a masterpiece, a new person, patterned after the character of his Son Jesus Christ. And what does this look like? Look again at verse 10: ‘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’.
At the beginning Paul told us that we are not saved because of good works: in other words, we don’t have to earn God’s love by doing good things. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often taunt Christians with this: ‘You Christians think that the only legitimate reason for being good is because you’re scared of going to hell’. Not at all; God doesn’t rescue me because I’m good but because he is good. And so I’m free to learn a new way of life based on doing good – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for all that God has done for me, and because I trust that this new way of life he’s teaching me really is the best way.
What is this new way of life? What are these good works? Of course, there are many passages in the New Testament that describe them. One of the most famous of those passages contains the two great commandments that Jesus gave us: to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. And of course, Jesus spelled this out for us in more detail in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven.
Paul spent a lot of time teaching his converts how to follow Jesus in their daily lives. Here’s one of my favourite passages of his, taken from his letter to the Romans:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21).
That’s as good a description of how to live as a follower of Jesus as any I’ve heard. It might seem a tall order, but of course we need to remind ourselves that this is going to be a lifelong journey for us. We are called ‘saints’, but we are also called ‘disciples’, a word that means ‘apprentices’. We have been apprenticed to Jesus and we are in the process of learning a new way of life from him. None of us has arrived at that destination yet; we’re all on the journey. Today God is setting our baptismal candidates on that path; all of us Christians are on that journey of faith with them.
Let’s go round this one last time. Our Christian life starts with grace: God reaching out to us in love, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. We respond to that love in faith, and God begins the process of recreation – making a new ‘me’, a ‘masterpiece’, patterned after the character of his Son Jesus Christ. And this leads to a new way of life as I put the example and teaching of Jesus into practice in all I do and say.

That’s the journey our baptismal candidates are starting today. That’s what it means to be a saint. May God guide and strengthen us all in that journey.

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