Grace. What do we mean when we say the word “grace”? We are graced by the presence of another. We fall from grace. We play grace notes on the piano. We say grace before the meal. When we put our foot in our mouth we are grateful for a gracious host. We say that a dancer is graceful. We name a daughter ‘Grace’. We sing that grace is amazing. Grace is hard to name. It almost defies language. Then Paul says “by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).
Wow. Saved. And not just from an embarrassment at dinner. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world ... following the desires of flesh and senses” (Eph. 2:1-3). Saved from a living death. By grace. We have been reading Ephesians together now for four weeks. We have been transported to the world of the early church. It is a world in which entering the little congregation changes everything in one’s life. Remember, when Paul, says “you” he is speaking - yes, you already know where I am going - he is speaking to “all y’all”. It is a plural you. “Y’all were dead ... and y’all are saved by grace ... by the grace of God”.
This little congregation in Ephesus is full of people who have spent their lives living by the common sense wisdom of the streets and the schools and the families and the work places of their world. They have absorbed the philosophy of the age - the mentality of the drivers and of the talk-show callers, of their mothers and fathers, teachers and friends. They wander through life looking for something more, never feeling good enough, always trying to fill an empty place inside with one more item on their cv, one more purchase, one more drink, one more affair. They make themselves feel better by making judgements about others, placing blame elsewhere, adopting an attitude of self-righteousness and hanging out with like minded folks who reinforced their brand of politics. They fling themselves into work, into family, into social causes. But somehow they are not whole, not fully human, not really alive. They are, says Paul, “dead ... following the course of this world.”
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4-5). This is Paul’s description of being formed into a congregation. He calls it being “made alive together in Christ - being saved by grace”. He says that the creation of little congregations of life in Christ is the great gift of a God rich in mercy. A God who loves dead people to life when they have all but given up any hope in coming back to life from their boredom, their anxiety, their brokenness, their grief, their addiction, their depression, their sadness, their disappointment with what they had hoped would be life but had instead become death. We have been calling it “going to church”. We have thought of it as one more important part of a balanced life. But Paul says no. It is a new life, a life out of death. That is what it is to enter the life of Christ’s church. That is what it is to find yourself coming alive together with others in Christ.
“And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is what I have been learning here with you over these past seventeen years. I have been learning that the church is not the result of my work, or yours. I don’t think that I really knew that until I came here. And it has taken me sometime to really come to believe it, here with you. But today, standing here, I know that the church is the gift of a God who is rich in mercy and who has loved us into life together. And look what God had to do in order give us this life. God had to end the kind of church that we were busy building, the kind that we took for granted. The kind that runs programs and has a building and is busy planning its own future. God had to create a space for worship and an excuse for meetings in homes and restaurants and offices and a reason for meals and connections. God had to give us a hunger to rediscover the story that we so easily forgot, swimming in a sea of so many different stories. No boasting here about what we have done to form a church. It just happened. God just gave it to us. God just gave you to me. It is all such a gift.
Grace is our shorthand for everything we know about God. Grace includes Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Grace is the power of God that saves us from the darkest hours of our lives and the glory of God that carries us through the loneliest nights of our souls. That is why it is amazing. Grace is the seeking Son of God who finds us when we are lost. Grace is the healing Holy Spirit that gives us inner sight when we are blind to the beauty that God sees in us and in our neighbours. When we say grace at a meal we are not so much thanking God for our food as we are being reminded by gathering over a meal that our lives have been saved from a living death by the grace of God. It is not our own doing. Our own doing was leading us into trouble, getting us nowhere, leaving us as empty and as frustrated as the next person. Even the church we constructed felt empty, dead, a lot of work and not much to show for it in the end. But then, somehow, in some way, we were saved by grace, by the grace and the power and the glory and the love of God.
That is the only way that I know to say what it is like to be with you in this congregation right now. I have been saved by God’s grace in the midst of what should be the most frightening and difficult part of my life’s journey. That is what one expects when the doctor says you have incurable cancer. You expect that now death is beginning to win. You expect that now life is coming to an end. But, instead, death gives way to life. Instead, you are saved by grace, by the grace of God that makes us alive together through Christ. Because you see, I am the one privileged to witness this life together in so many different ways each week. On Wednesday morning at the White Spot over eggs and coffee as we open the scripture together with laughter and debate and such care for one another. On Thursday evenings at Janet’s as she sets the table and pours the sherry and as we wander in off the street, sharing the stories of the day, then singing a hymn and wondering together that we have found each other or, rather, that God has found us at last. And then on Sunday mornings in my office. I could never have imagined being relaxed enough to host a gathering in my office before worship. Worship was work and I needed to get ready, to focus, to be nervous. But now it seems the most natural thing in the world to leave the worship in God’s hands and to simply enjoy the coffee and dough-nuts and the warmth of the community that gathers to read the scripture and to pray and to delight in what God is doing. Then we gather here. Here I receive gift after gift after gift - music, prayers, your presence, your warmth, your tears, your love for God, for one another, for me. I see the grace of God giving life where there was death. I see the future of God’s church. I don’t know what the future of University Hill Congregation is. I don’t know what my future is. But I do glimpse the kind of congregations that a God rich in mercy created in Ephesus and is creating here and will continue to create. Congregations filled with grace, the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
That is where the good works come from. The good works are not the things that make a church. They are the results of the church that God makes through us. We thought we were saved by going to the right kind of a church that did the right kind of good works and then by doing them, too. But it doesn’t work that way. First you are a part of God’s good work. First you are the one being saved from a living death. First your life is turned inside out and your way of seeing the world and of seeing yourself is turned upside down. First you learn that your beauty in God’s eyes is not at all predicated on how good or beautiful, or not so good or beautiful, that you think you are. First you are saved by grace, by God’s grace. Then, slowly but surely, you begin to live out of that grace and to see other people through that grace and to act as though they, too, are being saved by grace, saved by the grace of God. Because, of course, they are. This new life is the “good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10).
If you want to see grace, watch closely now. Soon all manner of people will come to God’s table of grace where Christ’s own body and life blood is given as a gift of grace, a gift of energy, a gift of power to overcome death itself - even a living death. And you will come, come from death to life, come home from the wilderness, come to receive manna in the desert of your days, come to be saved by grace, by the grace of God. No wonder this meal is called the Eucharist - it is the Greek word for a Great Thanksgiving banquet. It is the thanksgiving celebration of being saved from death by the grace - in Greek, the “charis” - of God.
Then keep watching. Watch those who come beyond the table to receive an anointing with oil for the healing of their brokenness, for the soothing of their ache, for the gracing of their souls. See that death is still at work among us. See that many of us are somewhere between death and life, still on the journey from Good Friday through Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday. See that you are not alone if you, too, are shadowed by death - within your soul or household or world. See that God’s grace is not an idea. Grace is a reality, as real as the anointing oil - the chrism (yes, the same word from which we derive “Christ”, the Anointed One) - that marks each forehead with the cross, sign of God in Jesus overcoming death, overcoming death by grace, by the grace of God. Then come, come to stand or sit or kneel and to be anointed, to receive grace, the grace of God. Receive the blessing as the oil marks your forehead:
In the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ,
be strengthened and filled with God's grace,
that you may know the healing power of the Spirit.
Yes, friends, be strengthened and filled with God’s grace, that you may know the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Take it from me. When faced by the prospect of death, grace - the grace of God - is the great healer of the human soul and heart and mind. By this grace we are being saved through the faithfulness of God. It is not our doing. It is the gift of a God who is rich in mercy and who is making us alive together in Christ. That is what a church is. I once thought that a church was a collection of good people doing good things together. But I was wrong. It is not. A church is a collection of dead souls coming alive in Christ, by grace, the grace of God. Wow. Eucharist, indeed.