Grace: God's Breath of Life
March 17, 2010
Updated September 27, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10
Purpose: to encourage listeners to recognize God’s life-giving gift of salvation by grace through faith, especially in contrast to the toxicity of living according to sinful human nature.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Douglas J. VandeKamp, Orillia, Ontario
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
There’s a store like it in just about every shopping mall. It’s a store that almost knocks some customers over every time they walk inside. Some people don’t even need to be in front of the store before they are overpowered by something in the air all around the entrance. One store you may be familiar with is called the “Stinky…” I mean “Yankee Candle Company.” And if you haven’t been to that particular store, you can probably think of a store or section of a store where the odor is overpowering.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with candles. Many people like candles. Many people like scented candles, and I suspect that some of you do, too. But sometimes, even for those who enjoy scented candles, an entire store stuffed with shelves groaning with candles of every fragrance possible is just too much of a good thing. At times the odor can be so thick, you look around and wonder how store staff can walk around and work in that air for hours and hours, yet there isn’t a gas mask in sight! How can that be? Well, store staff can work in that air space because they probably don’t even notice the fragrance that, to some, seems way on the strong side; they’re surrounded by it the whole shift long.
Now, it’s true that 2000 years ago, there weren’t too many Yankee Candle Company stores around anywhere in the world, let alone in the city of Ephesus. But the Apostle Paul knew quite well what certain kinds of air can do to the people who live in it and breathe it in. Paul knew about the spiritual smog that surrounds every person. Let’s see what he means for our text for today.
Paul starts the second chapter of his letter to the new believers in Ephesus this way: “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” (v. 1). Now, the phrase “Following the ruler of the power of the air” sounds a bit strange to our 21st century ears. But back then, the Ephesians understood Paul to mean the spiritual forces that did not obey God. In their understanding of spiritual geography, God in his glory, with his heavenly host, lived in the highest heavens. The evil spirits lived in the lower level of the heavens, closest to ground level. In other words, these evil spirits lived “in the air.”
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, really helps us understand what’s going on. In his words, Paul is saying: “It wasn’t long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience.”
With Ephesus being the pagan worship center of the Roman world that it was, it’s not hard to imagine the kinds of disobedience that went on there. And with the church in Ephesus made up of both Jews and Gentiles, it’s easy to think that the Jews held on to their kosher customs with pride, and looked down on their ex-pagan Gentile brothers and sisters. But Paul doesn’t let the Jews off the hook, either. Paul, with his impeccable Pharisee credentials, continues: “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, just like everyone else” (vv. 3-4, NRSV). In other words, Paul is saying, “We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us” (vv. 3-4, The Message).
So, they filled their lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. To Paul, it didn’t matter if the lungs were Jew or Gentile. Paul may have been reflecting on his former Pharisee life, mercilessly persecuting the church. Paul may have been thinking of his credentials as a Roman citizen, noticing the immoral pagan customs that people in Roman culture performed. It didn’t matter, because Paul knew that all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Instead of a store, imagine an entire city with a chronic smog problem. Human sinful nature is like pollution in the air: people get so used to it that sinning becomes as natural as breathing in and breathing out.
Nowadays we have catalytic converters and Kyoto Protocols. Yet, we know that air pollution isn’t going away anytime soon. Sorry to say, the same applies to sinful human nature too. We look out at the world and see all sorts of polluted unbelief and disobedience. How about these acts of the sinful nature: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like”? (Galatians 6:19b-21a). Do you think that list describes first century culture or twenty-first century culture? This specific list came from one of Paul’s other first-century letters, his letter to the Galatians. But a quick scan of twenty-first century TV shows and magazine stands will tell you not a whole lot has changed, has it?
Sure, many people filter out the good from the bad in what they watch and read. But the smog of sin also seeps into society’s deeper structures and cultures. A little while ago, there was an interview with the former businessman Michael Bloomberg. He was the man who set aside his business empire and took over as mayor of New York City after Rudolph Giuliani completed his term. Someone asked Mr. Bloomberg to reflect on his many years in many different parts of the business world and compare his experience with what work was like in his role as mayor. He replied, “In the business world, it was dog-eat-dog. In politics, I’ve noticed it’s exactly the reverse.” We might not live in the exact same world of business and politics as Michael Bloomberg’s. But I suspect we’ve all sniffed a whiff or two of what he’s talking about.
As Christians, it’s easy for us to look at the world “out there” and shake our heads about what’s going on. It’s probably a good thing that we see things and notice that there’s a problem. But we should be careful about looking down our noses at others. As Philip Yancey notes in his thoughtful and thought-provoking book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, “All too often the church holds up a mirror reflecting back the society around it, rather than a window revealing a different way.” It’s sad, but it sure seems that way, doesn’t it? We look back over 2000 years of church history, and notice sometimes that preaching and teaching about biblical ideals seem like hot air compared to the way Christians actually treat other people. We look around and notice that many negative trends in society are wafting into our families. We look inside our church family life and notice that we confess our sin on a regular basis. But how often do we actually admit and air out our specific sins believer to believer?
We can look inside our own souls and ask ourselves, Do we really love God? Do we truly love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we really follow the letter and spirit of the Ten Commandments perfectly? No, all humankind is fallen humankind. All have sinned and fallen – fallen short of the glory of God.
The Bible speaks clearly and consistently about the human condition. Maybe you remember other descriptive images the Bible uses to describe the human condition. It describes a variety of senses to show this. Here are just a few examples…apart from God, by nature people are described:
-in Acts 16 as having hearts that are closed;
-in 2 Corinthians 4 as having minds that are darkened;
-in Matthew 13 as having ears that are closed;
-in John 9 as having eyes that are blind
Yes, the Bible speaks clearly and consistently about the human condition. It clears the fog, saying that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. To go back to the main imagery for today’s message, the bad news is that humanity is surrounded and poisoned by the smog of sin. Sin choked humans to the point of suffocation and death. But thanks be to God, the human condition does not have the final say! Yes, Paul does say, you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived. All of us once lived among them. We were dead (vv. 1-3).
But then the good news breaks through! “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”! (v. 4) Grace—God’s gift, God’s special favor, God’s undeserved goodness to fallen humankind! The English pastor and writer John Stott describes the situation so well: “In Christ, God meets the stench of the human condition with the sweet smell of pure, live-giving divine compassion.” Paul proclaims: we are made alive with Christ! His resurrection becomes our resurrection. And Paul continues: God’s grace not only gives us the breath of life and resurrects us with Christ; God’s grace also exalts us and seats us with Christ in his ascension to heaven and reign from heaven!
Imagine the Ephesians trying to wrap their minds around it. They were no longer dead in their trespasses. Neither were they bound by fear to Fate or superstitions about spirits that floated in the air around them. They were raised with Christ and ascended with him straight to the top. They once were dead, but God, who is rich in mercy, made them alive! They once were enslaved…but God, who is rich in mercy, enthroned them together with Christ.
“Now,” Paul says, “God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and the saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing” (vv. 7-10, The Message).
God’s grace flowed in and through the Ephesian church in all sorts of ways. With God’s example of grace in mind, Paul continues a few chapters later and says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32). Before, the Ephesians were children of wrath, but God’s grace enables them to “Be imitators of God as dearly loved children” (Ephesians 5:1). At one time they lived in the passions of the sinful nature, but God’s grace joins them with Christ to “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).
God prepared these good works to be a way of life for the Ephesians. By grace God also prepared these good works to be our way of life today. Think for a moment about how God has been busy pouring His grace in and through His people. Maybe you have noticed God using you to offer love and care to a person or family in need. Or, maybe you’ve been knocked down by disease, unemployment or some other hardship. And then – there God is, pouring His grace into a pastor, elder, deacon, small group member or some other believer, and you notice that you’ve been deeply blessed by their good works. Congregation after congregation can testify that they can look around their church family and notice love and care for one another. Even (perhaps especially) in the dark days of disease and death God’s people provide each other an atmosphere of deep care and concern.
One believer expressed her appreciation to her church family this way: “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your love and concern during this crisis in my life. I have begun hospice care in my home this past Wednesday and I’m grateful for their loving support. The flowers, cards, notes food and other expressions of Christian love have touched me deeply. I rest in the cradle of God’s grace.”
God also helps his people to look beyond their church’s walls and notice all sorts of new opportunities to share God’s grace with their neighbors. For example, a certain church wanted to connect more effectively with its neighborhood. As a result, the leadership decided to recommend an ambitious construction project. Many experts in congregational life will tell you that few things can potentially poison the atmosphere in a church fellowship more than a building project. Yet time and time again, God poured His grace through the process, and church members (on all sides of the campaign) were empowered with grace-filled attitudes and actions towards each other.** That’s just one example. In many villages, towns and cities God is nudging churches to look beyond their walls and share the good news of His grace with all sorts of good works.
We look also around our world and notice that by grace God breathes life into believers in many different places. As God does that, these people show their grace-filled gratitude in all sorts of amazing ways and challenging situations. Take the Cold War, for example. It’s an era that many of us lived through. The Communists thought they could suffocate Christianity, but God had other ideas. In the Eastern European country of Romania, the Communists tried to choke off the church leadership. But God had plans for His people, many of whom served in Reformed churches all over Romania. They organized grace-filled protests in the larger towns and cities. The movement spread across Eastern Europe, and as one prominent American politician observed, “The Cold War ended not in a nuclear inferno, but in a blaze of candles in the churches of Eastern Europe” (Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, p. 185). Ask yourself, How many flames is God fanning in secret gatherings today in China? In North Korea? In Iran and Iraq?
Today, here in a corner of the kingdom known as [name of congregation’s city/town/village/region] God is filling us with a fresh sense of his calling and equipping us to live lives that bless others and bring glory to him. Brothers and sisters, do you feel it? Can you sense it? The fresh sense of new life that God is bringing? Most importantly, do you know the source: God and his gift called grace? Have you sense that this grace, this gift of undeserved kindness, may be something God is offering to you? Have you accepted it?
God’s desire is to have a relationship with you through Jesus Christ. Through that relationship, God wants to undo the effects of the Fall in your life...to turn you away from sin that leads to death, and towards him and new life that lasts forever. By nature our minds are darkened, but by grace God enlightens us. By nature we are spiritually blind, but by grace God enables us to see. By nature we are spiritually deaf, but by grace God opens our ears. By nature we are unable to believe…we are dead…but by grace God makes us alive and gives us the gift of faith!
[Conclusion option #1 for “regular” service:]
May God fill each one of us with His life-giving grace. As He does that, may we offer our good works as fragrant offerings of gratitude to Him.
[Conclusion option #2 for Lord’s Supper service:]
Today, here in a corner of the kingdom known as [name of congregation’s city/town/village/region], God is gathering us around his table of grace. As we see and partake in these gifts of God, let’s notice the sweet fragrance of this food and drink. Strengthened by God’s life-giving grace, may we offer our good works as fragrant offerings of gratitude to Him.
** This was the author’s experience of the Grand Rapids, MI congregation of Woodlawn Christian Reformed Church and their process of building a Ministry Center from 2003-2006.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS AND PREPARES HIS PEOPLE FOR WORSHIP
GOD HEARS OUR CONFESSION AND GIVES FORGIVENESS
GOD HEARS OUR RECOMMITMENT TO GRATITUDE-FILLED LIVING
GOD SPEAKS THROUGH HIS WORD
GOD HEARS AND SEES OUR GRATITUDE-FILLED RESPONSE
GOD BLESSES US AS WE SERVE IN HIS WORLD
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