A sermon drawn from Ephesians 2:1-10
This is a really dramatic, before-and-after description of our identities in Christ: we were dead, and now we’re alive, in Christ, sitting with Christ in heaven. It’s meant, I think, to be an encouraging reminder to a general Christian audience of who they are; a message to make them feel more secure in their Christian identity and help them live more like Christ’s people. Because the next thing Paul says is, “yes, you really are members of God’s household with everyone else.”
So what if … we ourselves can’t quite relate to that description … ?
I assume we all know that we rely completely on God’s grace for our salvation. We just got done singing Amazing Grace! I imagine I don’t need to tell any lifelong Christians that we don’t believe we earn our salvation by being good enough or doing enough good things, by coming to church and reading the Bible and praying through the prayer list and donating canned goods to the local food pantry and all the other things we know are good to do. We probably wholeheartedly accept the idea that “we are saved by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is a gift of God.”
And are very grateful for God’s grace, and very grateful for the faith to trust that it has already worked on our behalf, and is working on our behalf, and will continue to work on our behalf, and that we really can count on it in this life and beyond.
So, hopefully we don’t have a hard time relating to these statements about grace.
But I wonder … how many of us really relate to that description of having been “dead in our trespasses and sins” and then hallelujah made alive together with Jesus Christ?
That might be a kind of embarrassing question, because I think we know we’re supposed to relate to it …
And yet, for many of us, if we have grown up in a Christian family and a Christian community, and really always lived what is, basically, a Christian way of life, we may not feel that “before-and-after” as keenly – we may only feel the “after.”
We may not have a clear memory of the “death” Paul is talking about.
Whereas, most of those early Christians would have been new Christians, converts from pagan religion, who would have been wrapped up in the worship of pagan deities – like Artemis of the Ephesians who was a goddess of fertility and so, also, of prosperity – and would have once shared all the same ideas and feelings and habits that were the popular culture of the ancient world.
And we know ancient popular culture wasn’t hospitable to Christian ideas and values and feelings. We know it was very focused on status, for instance, very preoccupied with success and wealth and honor; we know the ancients scorned the weak and didn’t have much time for “losers.” We know the culture was casually ruthless. Fighting to the death was popular entertainment. Exposing unwanted newborn infants was routine. The “sanctity of life” was not a value of the ancient world, some lives were definitely worth more than others.
So those new Christians would have given up those ideas and practices to join the Jesus movement, and they would have had a dramatic before and after in their own experience. They would have felt the truth of that statement, that they had been dead in their old way of life before receiving this new life in Christ.
And we might, too – maybe if we met Christ or were drawn to Christ later in life, or returned to Christianity after a time away; or have had some experience of giving up an old way of life that was literally a way of death – for instance, if we’re recovering from an addiction which by the grace of God in Jesus Christ we gave up, or have escaped from a damaging relationship, or have changed our minds about some value we used to hold … maybe we used to put our job or money before people … then saw how damaging that was … we might also feel the truth of that before-after picture.
But we might not. We might only have the experience of the “after.” And in fact, some of those early Christians would also have had an experience more like that. Because even by the time this letter was written, there were people who had been raised in Christian homes, and some of them would have been people who had literally been adopted into the community – because one of the very counter-cultural things Christians did in those early days, that their neighbors thought was nutty, was to rescue newborn infants who had been abandoned – on purpose, they would go looking for them to rescue.
Those kind of early Christians would also always have heard about and known the Christian way of life, and thought of themselves as being in Christ, much like people who grow up in the church today. But they would also have known that they had been rescued from death, even before they could remember it.
And if we’re honest, we can picture ourselves that way, too – as people who have been rescued from death, perhaps even before we ever experienced it. That may help us relate to the before-and-after picture Paul paints here. Because as Paul tells us earlier in this letter, the basic reality is that we are all adopted members of God’s household, the household of the author of life, the household where life is and is celebrated.
And then, we have this powerful statement about Christian identity: “We are what God has made us” – some translations say, “we are God’s handiwork” or “we are God’s workmanship;” the New Jerusalem Bible says we are “God’s work of art.” In this new life, we are the products of God’s artistry, God’s creative work.
As if we have a stamp or a label on us, “made by God.”
Not only that, we are “made by God” for the very purpose of carrying on doing or making good and beautiful things, displaying our family resemblance to Jesus Christ, as people made in the image of God – walking in ways that God has painstakingly prepared beforehand.
As if, having been adopted into this household of God’s, we’ve also been adopted into a family business or craft – so that now we have a place in the studio or the workshop …
And here again, I wonder – Can we really see, and feel, the truth of this announcement, as being about us? Do we really see ourselves as God’s works of art, or as performing artists who have been trained and coached by God?
Because I don’t know, maybe there are some of us here who get up in the morning and look at ourselves in the mirror and think: Aha! the handiwork of our good and beautiful God!
And whoever has gotten into that habit, good! Because that is exactly what Paul is saying here, that because of the grace of God at work in us – we are what God has made us, alive with Christ, and made for this good and beautiful way of life of doing good for the people and the world around us …
But my guess is that many of us, maybe most, have the less encouraging habit of the world around us, the one where we look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and notice something we don’t like about ourselves and want to change or fix. And have that little voice in our heads that starts in on us pretty early in the day, pointing out all the ways we’re not measuring up … Because we have a lot of messages in our culture that tell us what’s wrong with us, that picture us as deficient, that blame us for that deficiency, and also, often, tell us we need to buy some product or some service to fix all the things that are wrong with us so that we can really be OK – the 21st century version of making a sacrifice to the gods of beauty, fertility, prosperity …
That’s a good example, by the way, of what Paul means when he talks about the “power of the air” – all that stuff that “everyone” knows, that “everyone” thinks, the unflattering or envious comparisons that “everyone” makes, all the assumptions and judgments and ideas that are just “in the air” around us.
Even Christians, who don’t have to accept all that, because we have a real alternative, are still affected by it, sometimes without even realizing how false all those messages about our identities really are, and how, if we don’t pay attention, that power of the air can seep into our minds, and suck us in to pursuing the approval of the world around us, and can become a habit – a really painful one – that can make us feel more dead than alive.
Those culture-based judgments and rejections can even seep into the church. When people say they’ve had a “bad experience” at church, it’s often for that very reason.
All that negativity can make it hard for us to embrace the truth of our positive identity in Jesus Christ – that we are, in fact, God’s handiwork, the products of God’s incredible creative activity in Jesus Christ, and loved by God.
Seeing the truth of that is something our gracious God has to keep calling us back to, keep calling us to trust.
But then, even if we do wholeheartedly accept the idea that yes, our core identity is that truest best most beautiful self that God makes us in Christ … when we look at ourselves in the light of Christ, the model of fully alive humanity that we see in Jesus, we are likely to think, oh, I have a long way to go.
If we are God’s works of art, we’re mighty unfinished ones. Still in the studio being shaped by that potter or being worked on by that painter. Or if we think of ourselves as works of the performing arts, say performers of the works of mercy and love and kindness and grace that God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life, we still seem to ourselves to be in rehearsal.
So that entirely honest appraisal of ourselves can also sometimes make us reluctant to claim our identity as God’s works of art. Ironically, the more we’re growing into this beautiful and dramatic Christian identity, the harder it may get for us to see how true it really is.
As our consciousness of what God is calling us to becomes clearer, and our awareness of what love and justice really would look like in our lives grows, and our ability to perceive the gap between what we are aiming for in our Christian lives and what we are achieving gets better, we may have an even harder time thinking of ourselves as God’s works of art.
That’s when it may help to remember how not instantaneous it is to produce works of art; how time is a vital ingredient of art; and how the involvement of the artist in the process is an integral part of the making of art.
Even the ordinary human works of art we’re familiar with take time. Oil paintings have to dry – for a long time. Maybe days until they’re dry to the touch, and six months to a year before they are dry enough to frame without damaging the surface of the paint. Pottery has to dry thoroughly before it can be fired in a kiln – if it’s not thoroughly dry, it can collapse in the heat. That first complete drying can take weeks, and then to be glazed and re-fired takes additional time.
Performing artists, to reach excellence in their art, whether it’s playing the violin or dancing or dramatic performances or any craft, famously need to invest something like 10,000 hours in practice, and ideally in interaction with someone who can help and coach their performance.
So when Paul tells us here that who we are – most deeply, most truly, most beautifully – is the handiwork, the craftsmanship of God, the divine artist of the heavens and the earth and life itself, the maker of the creation that God saw and called good, beautiful – because that word in Hebrew means both of those things at once – when Paul tells us that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good & beautiful works that God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life” – he seems to mean, really, that our identities as God’s good and beautiful new creation are secure in Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly household of God, and also that we are “living into,” growing into, these selves that are even now being created, being shaped by God as the particular works of art we are as the individual members of the artist’s family, using and working with the materials, the medium, of time, history, culture, ideas, feelings, choices, experience, to make us who we most truly are – God’s new creation in Christ.
By grace, of course – that is, by God’s kindness, God’s initiative, and God’s activity. Apart from God, we’d be at the mercy of those powers of the air; but in God’s art studio, as members of the artist’s family, can trust that we are growing into, taking shape, as what God is creating – and knowing the kind of artist God is, creating for goodness, and beauty.
That’s something for us to remember – and hopefully, relate to – the next time we’re tempted to listen to the power of the air, instead of the demanding, encouraging voice of the grace of God.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons