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The Sleep Deprived Pastor

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Reading the Fine Print

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Marcus Aurelius

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Ephesians 2:1-10 By Grace Through Faith

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

“Reading the Fine Print”

When you think of the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde…usually the first thing that comes to mind is his wit. He was quite the socialite in Victorian era London and he had such a reputation for be a conversationalist that people were always writing down what he said. To this day you can still buy books of his wit and wisdom. Just to name a few examples, on hard work he said that “Work is the curse of thedrinking classes.” On living within one’s means he said “Anyone who lives within their means simply suffers from a lack of imagination.” 

On good versus bad he said “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." And on happiness he said “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go." Isn’t that the truth? In short, he was extremely funny…and brilliant. 

But arguably one of his greatest literary masterpieces is the exact opposite of all that. The Picture of Dorian Gray which was originally published in 1890 is a dark, brooding, and haunting novel about the evil and wickedness that resides in human nature. In comparing that to our Epistle reading for the day…if the Apostle Paul had read his book he probably would have put a blurb on there that said “very accurate.” 

Dorian Gray was this very good looking, young and wealthy aristocrat who was the subject of a famous artist’s portrait. At first, Dorian is a good and kind man, but through the artist he meets another wealthy aristocrat by the name of Lord Henry Wotton. Wotton teaches Gray about a hedonistic worldview…that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life. 

Because of this, Gray is filled with this overwhelming sense of pride and vanity. He comes to believe that his beauty is his most important quality and he’s terrified of losing it and growing old. So one night in a fit of rage…he curses the portrait and he sells his soul…ensuring that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. The wish is granted. He descends into a world of vice and amoral experiences. He maintains his youth and beauty while the portrait records every one of his sins and becomes extremely warped. One tragedy after another ensues. He wrecks all kinds of lives. He ends up killing his friend the artist. 

The novel finally ends when he looks at the painting. He goes into the drawing room, throws back the curtain covering his portrait…and he’s appalled and horrified. He sees this disgusting and monstrous image of who he really is…and he destroys it…which ends up killing him in the process. 

This is grim stuff. It isn’t light reading….but it is a masterpiece and like I said, this is a book that the Apostle Paul would have applauded. See, I think Dorian Gray is a perfect visual representation of the human condition….of what being ‘dead in sin’ as Paul calls it actually looks like. The things that we do because of our condition may not appear to affect the outer person…not on the surface….but they affect us on the inside. It’s so easy for us to say that we’re all basically good…but I wonder….do we look more like the Picture of Dorian Gray on the inside…without God? Maybe it’s not as extreme as that, but the possibility is definitely there. All in all, this is a complex question. Our Scripture lesson for this blog meditation is one of the most commonly quoted passages in the entire New Testament. 

It was instrumental in the Protestant Reformation and in the thought of Martin Luther….that we are saved by grace through faith. Now as I researched Ephesians chapter 2 this past week…one thing that really stood out to me is how a lot of commentaries and even sermons take the text in one of two directions. You can either emphasize the bad in humanity or you can emphasize the grace of God. Now both of these things are important, but there’s a lot going on here. In fact…this thing reads….almost like a giant run-on sentence. It’s a mouthful…and because of that…it’s easy to miss the fine print. 

The great Episcopalian social activist and theologian William Stringfellow once said: “Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issue of ethics and…of politics…is how to live humanly during the fall. Any viable ethic must deal with human decision and action in relation to the other creatures, notably the principalities and powers in the very midst of the conflict, distortion, alienation, disorientation, chaos, and decadence of the Fall.” 

In short, what he’s saying is for us to arrive at any real sense of ethical behavior…we have to be real about our situation. We have to be real about who we are. This isn’t an easy thing to do. In fact, I think that might be one of the reasons why Christianity is in a bit of decline in America. The dominant view of our culture, going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, is that humanity is basically good and our main problem is that we lose touch with our inner goodness. Oppressive or distorting societal structures are usually to blame for this. For example, if you’re born in poverty…you’re more likely to turn to a life of crime. Now there’s certainly truth to all of that. 

But Stringfellow shatters that myth as a sole responsibility…arguing that these structures are in place because we’re fallen. Poverty exists because we’re fallen and it’s in our nature to horde our resources rather than to share them. Yes, we’re made in the image of God and there’s good in each and every one of us. But we’re fallen. As Paul says here, we’re ‘dead in our trespasses and sin.’ We don’t want to go in to a room and see this ugly portrait of ourselves like in the Picture of Dorian Gray. But this is the reality of humanity and it isn’t an easy one to face. And the thing is we don’t have to be Dorian Gray. This comes about simply as a result of our orientation. If we allow ourselves to be shaped by self-interest rather than orienting ourselves towards God and loving our neighbors…then we become a kind of Dorian Gray. 

Now that’s an important point here. God is the source of life. God is the source of all that is. But what it means to be a child of wrath is to pursue the opposite… the way of selfishness….the way of Dorian Gray…is death and nothingness. See there’s a lot of bad teaching out there that makes God into a vindictive bully. He’s angry. He’s ready to smite everybody. But that’s not the case. 

A few weeks ago we learned as we studied Noah’s flood that God promised that He’d never act in a vengeful way towards humanity again. He was the first repentant. So what this means…to be children of wrath… is…you’re going to get exactly what you pursue. God says this world, this age is perishing and He wants us to live for the age to come. But when we pursue the nothingness of this world, our reward is of the world. We’re perishing, dying by our own design. 

And being a person of faith doesn’t make us immune to at least some of this Dorian Gray effect. One of the great saints of monasticism, John Cassian in his famous work the Conferences observed how so many monks and nuns who’d supposedly renounced wealth and the world….became possessive over silly things like a book or a pen. At one point, he describes a monk who flew into a rage over losing a dull pocket knife. He must’ve been having a pretty bad day. But you get the idea. The voices of people like William Stringfellow tell us that an ethic of nice just doesn’t cut it. We’re not as good as we think we are. 

This is why I think Lent is such an important time in the Christian year because it teaches us that the road to an Easter resurrection has to pass through repentance of all that we’ve done and all that we’ve failed to do. Things like denial, passive neglect, scape-goating, or rationalizations on our parts only delay our healing and add more scars and blemishes to our own portraits. 

And yet…things do get better. 

In fact…if you, my dear reader, own a Bible in your home….I want you, if you’ll indulge me for just a moment, to go get it out and set it down next to whatever device you’re reading this on. Then turn to this text and pause for just a moment and look at verse 4. What does it say there? It says “But God.” Now if you’re like me and you underline and highlight your books, I want you to draw a little arrow around those words “But God.” Don’t worry. It’s not blasphemy. It’s not sacrilege.

Why an arrow? My friends, the key to this whole text…is in those two simple words….”But God.” While everything seems grim and hopeless, look more carefully at Paul’s words. For me, for all of you, for every follower of Christ…all of that stuff is past tense. You were dead…you once lived….But God. That arrow…there’s a movement here. You’re no longer what you once were. Paul says “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.” 

This is the most important thing I could ever share with you my dear readers…and I mean ever: you are loved by God. That’s it. You are loved by God. If I didn’t love what I do, I could probably just retire if you get that one thing. See what Paul does here in verses 1-3 is diagnose our condition….and then he says in verse 4….you’re cured. You’re healed. And notice how all of this is also past tense. It’s already been done. It’s already happened, once and for all. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross has changed us from being these “children of wrath” to being His dearly beloved children and friends. Sin, death, and the devil have been defeated. 

There was once this infinite gap between God and humanity…but it’s been closed. We’re now reconciled to God through the bridge of Jesus Christ and the cross. 

I want each and every one of you to meditate on this today. Let it really sink in. Just like John Cassian once said, we’re never completely free from our old nature in this life. When we struggle with the sins and the imperfections in our lives…when we become obsessed with material things and our material pursuits….when we fail and when we falter….we need to remember this. 

Instead of being depressed about our struggles…we need to remember that we are loved by God…even if we’re losing our daily battles. Jesus walks into that drawing room, throws back that curtain covering each of our portraits and no matter what He sees there…whether it’s just a few minor imperfections and blemishes or whether it’s twisted and rotten….He says….I love you anyway. I can do something with this. 

And I’m not just being poetic. I’m being literal. In verse 10 when it says that we’re a work of God…the Greek word for work here is “poiehma”…which translates into “poem” and “work of art.” We are God’s poetic work of art. 

We are God’s poetic work of art. Isn’t that incredible? I want you to feel loved today…becausethat’s our reality. I’ll take this flawed and messed up painting and I’ll erase every flaw and every imperfection with my nail pierced hands. And I’ll redo it…and I’ll make you beautiful again. And every time you stumble, and every time you fall I’ll paint over it again and again…because you’ll always be beautiful to me. 

That’s what grace is. It literally means “unmerited favor.” God loves us even if we don’t deserve it. We don’t work our way into God’s Kingdom. We don’t buy our way in. All we have is bit coin. It isn’t really worth anything. No.  We’re beneficiaries. It’s just like if someone left us an inheritance of unimaginable wealth. We can’t repay it…but we respond with our loyalty. And that’s just what faith is. Belief plus trust. We trust in what God has done for us.

Now at this point we could say “amen” and call it a day. A lot of sermons on this text do. But if we did, we’d be missing the fine print.When I was a kid I had the original Nintendo and every game used to come with an instruction manual. I never read them. I’d just dive in and try to start playing the game. But then I wouldn’t know what in the heck I was doing. I’d just end up dying over and over again. After about a hundred “game over” screens I’d finally pick up the instruction manual. And that’s how it is with us spiritually sometimes. I’m saved. I’m good to go. But wait a minute. You’ve got to read the fine print. We’re not done yet. 

Verse 10 says we’re “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” What this means for us, simply put, is that by God’s grace we were created to create goodness in the world. See, we’re not saved by works….we’re saved for works. 

We don’t get into the Kingdom of God with our works...we bring the Kingdom of God here with our works. They’re part of the goal that God had in mind saving us. God has set things up so that each and every one of us here has the opportunity to do good works. It doesn’t matter if you doubt your ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re scared to step out in faith. Each of us has an eternally designed job description that includes the tasks, the abilities, and the places to serve. You may not even know it…but you’re ready for work. 

 And I’ve got to be blunt. If you want a sign that you’re truly alive in Christ…if you want a sign that everything I’m saying today is true and applies to you….this is it. You’re God’s beautiful work of art…and that should fill you with a Spirit driven desire to create more beauty in the world. To create life where there’s death. 

This is how we show our appreciation for what God has done for us. This is how we bring glory to God in a world that so desperately needs it. We should be doing good works in every area of our lives. We practice it at work, at school, at home, in our families and in our marriages. Now is that you? Does good works describe and define your life? That’s the fine print. That’s the sign of life. 

Maybe that doesn’t describe you. Your faith is important to you. You read your Bibles and your devotional books. You pray and you come to church on Sundays. All of that’s good. All of that’s important. But it’s not the definitive sign of life that we see coming from the great “but God” change in us.

And as ministers people like me…we have to admit our own mistakes as well. We have to be real with ourselves too…and that’s part of the problem….when we reduce salvation to a moment in time…as if being saved is simply so that all of us can go to heaven when we die. Is that why God saves us? No. That’s honestly bad teaching. We are God’s work of art and He saves us out of love and He wants us to respond by giving that love to others.

So if we’re not doing that right now…the good news is we still have time. In fact, when you go home today…or when you have time later this week…just type in to Google “United Methodist Spiritual Gifts test.” 

Even if you’ve done one before, it’s always good to look again and see where you might be growing. So if you take just 20-30 minutes of your day to do this…you’ll start to see God’s magnificent brush strokes in your life. You’ll start to see what you’re capable of. And I’d love to hear about it. You can comment on this blog or private message me. I’d love to learn about all  spiritual gifts of my readers and how you’re using them because it inspires all of us to get to work ourselves.

 Oscar Wilde created a lot of beauty in his lifetime, beauty that we still appreciate today. And a lot of it was through humor. Yes, it’s true that he was really funny. But some of his statements were profound. He was in many ways a philosopher, and sometimes he spoke like a theologian. He once said:  “Everyone may not be good, but there's always something good in everyone. Never judge anyone shortly because every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” That applies to each and every one of us in this Sanctuary today. There is potential in all of us. God has put an end to the death to which we cling and He’s given us new life as His works of art in creation. 

And when we heed His call to find our place in God’s mission, we too become artists. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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