Sunday, 27 July 2008

A Farewell Sermon

Preached at St Matthews Ashbury Sunday 14th July

Ephesians 2:1-10

Life is full of paradoxes. For example, why are they called 'apartments' when they are so close together? Why do people complain about rain in London when the annual rainfall in Sydney is actually higher than in London? How did England lose the last Ashes series 5-0...actually I guess that is not really a paradox.

What I think we will see today is that the Bible presents the greatest paradox of all. We will get to that later. And yet the common understanding of Christianity is far from mysterious. There is no paradox – it seems simple. You see I guess the popular perception of what Christianity teaches is that it is about good – maybe even self-righteous - people doing their best to get into heaven.
And I guess that makes sense – we earn our way into heaven. However that popular conception of Christianity is is not what the Bible says. The Bible, rather, is actually a message of hope for bad people, for spiritual failures...for people who you would think could never get into heaven. Jesus came and preached to prostitutes, to sinners, to people who were despised by society – and he preached a message of hope.

And there is probably no better passage than this one in the entire Bible for explaining why he did this – why he could preach to seemingly spiritual failures with such hope.

So, if you are someone who would not call yourself a Christian – or maybe you are not sure that you are a Christian – this is an important passage for you to understand because it will open up the heart of the Christian message for you. And if you are someone who is a Christian – again this is a very important passage because we can never move away from or outgrow this message. It is to be the heartbeat of our very lives. And that is true whether you are struggling in the Christian life or – and perhaps especially so – if your Christian life seems to be going well.

Well, you have the passage and the points on the outline:

And, I have to warn you that this passage is painful before it becomes hopeful. To start with it makes uncomfortable reading, because God's view of us is that:

1. By nature, we are spiritually dead...

It is there in verse 1:

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked,
The Bible is clear that by nature this is true of every one of us. We are spiritually dead. Of course we are alive in a physical sense - we can all walk around – but we are walking in trespasses and sins. We are walking in a way that displeases God. Now, Paul does not imagine that everyone is walking around doing exceptionally evil things – murdering, stealing – no the rest of verse 2 expands on what he has in mind: 2 following the course of this world,

In other words living merely by this world's value-system – a system that has little time for God, that is not orientated towards God, that is not thankful to God. The sign of spiritual death is not necessarily a life of outrageous immorality – no it is usually simply a normal life of quietly forgetting God. Of simply living as if he did not exist. Of just following the course of this world. The measure of whether someone is spiritually alive or not is not whether they are nice, friendly, upright or decent. No, the measure of whether someone is spiritually alive or not is what place God and particularly the Lord Jesus has in their lives. Does God's Word rule their lives or are they following the course of this world...

[Based on illustration from Andrew Rees]
Jeremy Bentham was the founder of the economic theory Utilitarianism and left a large part of his fortune to the University College London. In return the college embalmed him and you can still see him sitting in a display case in the South Cloister of the University. At the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college he was brought out to the College Committee meeting. He sat at one end of the table, the Provost at the other, and the minutes record 'Jeremy Bentham, present but not voting'.

Spiritually that is a picture of us – we might be physically present but we contribute nothing because we are spiritually dead. Present but not voting.

I imagine that to many people – even perhaps to you – this is offensive. To be described as spiritually dead is not exactly what we like to hear about ourselves. And the implications are also very stark. It means that any attempt we make to develop our spirituality is futile – we cannot embark on any kind of genuine spiritual journey because, quite simply, we are spiritually dead.

But worse than that - the rest of verse 2 and verse 3 show just how completely our destiny is out of our hands. Spiritually we are not under our own control: So, verse 2 – we are effectively controlled by Satan following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-
At this point, we have to throw out all images of pointy horns, and pitch-forks. No, again the work of the devil according to the Bible is much more subtle. His work is not to create obvious moral anarchy- no simply to cause people to be spiritually stupified – to ignore God, to ignore the Bible.

And so we are in an utterly hopeless situation – spiritually dead, controlled by the devil.

This is hard reading. This is uncomfortable. It is not particularly uplifting ...but I think that very fact underlines its truthfulness. The Bible is not a book that flatters. It is not a book that tries to put a positive spin on things.

Steven Pinker has written a very interesting book – which I have to declare I have not read but I intend to. I have read the summary on Wikipedia though – which is surely good enough. The book is called The Blank Slate. In it he argues that babies are not born with a blank slate so to speak and then are purely shaped by their environment. No, he argues that we are all born with specific tendencies – tendencies which we have to work very hard to overcome. Now, Pinker is not a Christian and does not teach what the Bible teaches – that we are born with a sinful nature per se. However, even though you might say that his views are mild compared to the Bible, he has come in for some pretty strong criticism – that his views are negative and will cause people to just despair at trying to change themselves if their nature is fixed at birth. This is how he replied:

People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. [PCO: That is - they want reality]. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

People are surely better off with the truth... The Bible presents the truth of our nature clearly and unambiguously. We are spiritually dead.

But in fact we have missed the most serious aspect of our situation. You see the result of all this is that verse 3 we are: by nature children of wrath

We are by nature God's enemies – objects of his wrath and anger. God is against us. This applies to all humanity and means that we really are in a hopeless situation. Because to be under the anger of the God of the Bible is to be without any hope of salvation. The God who created the universe, the God who made the world, the God who sustains all things is angry with us because of our rejection of him. The God of the universe is against us...we are by nature children of wrath

We have no hope – we are spiritually dead, we are controlled by Satan and we are under God's right and just anger.

But all of this makes what Paul continues to say so stunning:

2. ...but because he loves us God makes us spiritually alive with Jesus

Do you see the wonderful paradox of the Bible – we are God's enemies and yet he loves us:
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses,
The gospel is a message of the mercy of God – Paul stresses that in verse 5 - even when we were spiritually dead and so objects of his wrath - God loved us and had mercy on us. That is why it is so important that we grasp just how serious our situation is. Because it helps us to grasp and comprehend the magnitude of God's grace.
Because of this love and mercy for us God does three things. Do you see them in verses 5 and 6

5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

a. he makes us alive with Christ
b. he raises us up with Christ
c. he seats us with Christ in the heavenly places

Here is the great truth at the heart of the Christian life – the Christian is united with Christ. And so spiritually we experience what he experienced. What is true of Jesus is true of us. Just stop and think about that for a moment. What is true of Jesus is true of us.

Just as he was dead, rose and then was exalted to God's right hand, the same is true of us in him. And so, in God's eyes we are no longer spiritually dead, but we have been made alive and spiritually we are in heaven already – because we are united with Christ. I think what Paul teaches here is something that as Christians it is very easy to neglect. Because we are spiritually dead, we need God to make us alive.

As much as we might be able to think back to a time when we first put our trust in Christ – the only reason we did that was the fact that God made us alive. That he gave us spiritual life. Our spiritual condition depends totally on God working through Christ.

But when we become Christians we aren't left in neutral territory. God doesn't just give us spiritual life and then tell us – there you go you can just get on with it yourself. No, do you see he does more than simply make us alive. Look at verse 6 he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus Spiritually the Christian is not just alive – we are seated at God's right hand in Christ.
Can you see the tremendous encouragement this is to the Christian – however you might feel, however you might struggle in your Christian life – you have been made alive with Christ , we you been raised with him, you have been seated with him at God's right hand. That spiritual truth remains true and cannot be altered by anything that happens outside of you. And so the Christian life is not about you making it to heaven – no it is being united to Christ who has gone into heaven already

If you are a Christian what is true of Jesus' experience is true of your spiritual status. I hope you can draw great encouragement.

But I guess that raises the question – who is a Christian? How do I know if I am a Christian?

That is our third point:

3.This all happens by grace through faith not by works which come later

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

At its heart, Christianity is salvation by grace not by works.
This is how the great Irish theologian Bono explains grace:

... the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma. [...]You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. [...]And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that [...]. Grace defies reason and logic.
Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.[...]I'd be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. It doesn't excuse my mistakes, but I'm holding out for Grace. I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.

Bono has hit the nail on the head.

God's grace defies reason and logic. Reason and logic says we should be condemned for our sins. That living as enemies of God we deserve his judgment. But because he is loving and gracious, God takes our sins on himself in Jesus – and so the punishment for our sins is paid forever by him.
But as we said the crucial question is who is this for – who benefits from this wonderful work of Christ.

What does it mean to be a Christian?

The answer is faith in Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

It is through trusting in Jesus and what he has done. The Christian is the one who relies on, who trusts in, who leans on Jesus and his work for salvation. That is what Bono was talking about when he said: I'm holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don't have to depend on my own religiosity.

But Paul tells us even this faith is a gift of God – so that boasting is ruled out altogether.
In other words the salvation from beginning to end is dependent on God – his love, his grace, his work in Christ. And so we receive it, we do not earn it.

Now, that 's not to say that good works have no part in the Christian life – they clearly do 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
As Christians we have been re-created in Christ – we are new people. And our purpose as new people is to live for him and that means doing good works. But they lie on this side of our new creation – they do not secure our salvation. But they are important – they are the reason we were -re-created as Christians. But works come after we have put our trust in Christ. They come after we have been raised with Christ.
What we have see this morning is that the Christian can have total confidence of their eternal life. Because our eternal life depends on what God has done in Christ – it depends on something that lies outside of us – that means we can be absolutely certain of our eternal life.
So it is not arrogant for a Christian to say I am certain that I have eternal life- that I will spend eternity with God forever. It is not arrogant because it has nothing whatsoever to do with what I have done or achieved. No, to say 'I am certain that I have eternal life' is actually to give glory to God. It is to say – my eternal life depends on God and God alone. I am certain because he has done it – he has done it all.
So, let me close this morning by asking you if you have that certainty. Let me ask you the question that often gets asked but which I think is very helpful: If you were to die to tonight do you know where you would spend eternity? The hope that this chapter holds out is that those who trust in Christ can be certain. You can know hat you will enjoy eternity with God forever – if you put your trust in Jesus. So, can I plead with you today – put your trust in Christ. Stop trying to earn your salvation and put it in his hands. Trust him.

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