Two of the most important passages of the Bible feature in today’s readings which were Psalm 107:1-9. Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21.
No matter how much success we have in life, no matter how big our house or our car, there is nothing we can do to earn our way out of spiritual death, which is our natural condition until God intervenes. Boasting about our achievements is really pretty pointless.
Read on to find out the message preached at 1pm in the Cathedral.
Recently a friend posted on his Facebook page that he now has a daughter who can say ‘No’ and his comment was: ‘Let the fun begin!’ After the joy and pride of hearing ‘Mumumumum’ and ‘Dadadadad’ from the lips of your child, it comes as quite a shock when one of the next words to be learnt is ‘No’ and to realise that your child actually means it. Depending on the age of the child, this single short word can be accompanied by a stamp of the foot, a determined face or perhaps a full blown tantrum with kicking and screaming. The baby who needed everything doing for him or her is suddenly asserting that there are choices to be exercised, regardless of whether parents agree or not.
Later as sentences develop, it doesn’t take long before we hear: ‘Me do it!’ The drive to be independent and in control seems to be very strong in toddlers. No wonder we speak of the ‘Terrible twos’. Everything can take an age to do as a small child often has the will to do things alone but not the skill. It would be so much easier to do it all ourselves but as parents or carers we have to give the child space to learn.
As children grow up, at least in Western culture, this independence is encouraged. Studying hard, getting a job, bringing home money, not being beholden to anyone for hand outs – these are virtues. We’re told that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; you have to work for what you get. I recently heard some redundant people being interviewed on the radio. One had a family and was struggling financially. His wife said the reality of the situation hit home when they realised there was not enough money to buy all the food on the grocery list that week. Despite that problem, and having children to feed and clothe, this man was determined not to go and ‘sign on’ as a person seeking work. That would have entitled him to some money, Job Seeker’s Allowance, but his pride would not allow him to do this. He had given himself three months to find work and he was prepared to take any work rather than take State aid.
And what happens when things go wrong in life – finances get in a mess, marriage is on the rocks, health is compromised, and so on? Really we are encouraged to soldier on, the British stiff upper-lip or the equivalent elsewhere in the world. People seldom admit to weakness, especially men, but just put up with things and work at finding a solution themselves. Is there any wonder that the rates of depression and despair are high? All that stress bottled up inside a person does no good at all. But our society encourages us to be strong and independent, to make our own way in life, to persevere, to be self-made men and women. For those who do admit to problems, who take anti-depressants or go to a counsellor, it can be a humiliating thing, an admission of failure.
Having worked hard people feel they have a right to be proud of their achievements, to maybe boast a little. Maybe you have a nice car, a pretty good house in a smart area, a good job with prospects; perhaps you rose above others of your age to get that promotion you craved; possibly your children are a source of pride as they win prizes at school, preparing to follow in your footsteps as they strive for the top. Why not tell your friends your good news, your great achievements, the things that have come to you by dint of your own efforts? What is wrong with that?
On one level I can actually see nothing wrong with this. I can imagine a person who boasts too much becoming a real pain of course. You can just hear colleagues and friends of such a person saying, ‘Oh no, here he comes again. Wonder what it will be this time – bigger car, better yacht?’ Assuming that a person does not go OTT, being proud of achievements is fine and striving to do better is also fine. However, unless we are careful we can easily find ourselves doing well in the things that don’t matter in any eternal sense while turning our backs on what would really benefit us.
Today in the readings we have two absolutely key passages which between them sum up the message of Jesus. First in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he explains the condition that people are naturally in. They are naturally spiritually dead. Just as a physically dead person is in no position to notice things in the material world, a spiritually dead person cannot notice or understand things of a spiritual nature. That’s the way we would stay unless something changed. That something is God’s grace, his free gift of favour which is given to us. Paul says that ‘By grace you have been saved’. Unlike in the rest of life, no amount of striving, pushing and shoving to get to the top, trampling others underfoot on the way, is going to make the slightest bit of difference in the spiritual realm. We can’t earn our way out of spiritual death.
Much of the Christian faith turns what we would call common sense, upside down. As a result, the spreading of the faith turned the world upside down as the Apostles preached their message. Paul explains in I Corinthians 1:21: ‘it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.’ And what sort of folly were they preaching?
If you want to be important, take the lowest place in society and God will lift you up.
If you want to be a ruler over others, choose to be their servant.
If you want to have a life worth living, give it away.
If you want to enter the kingdom of God, forget that you’re an adult and become as a child.
If you want to be strong, admit your weakness.
And then this message from Ephesians: if you want to be saved from spiritual death and have eternal life, accept the free gift of grace from God by simply having faith. Don’t try to earn it; you can’t. This is not a case of doing enough good things to more than compensate for the bad things in your life so that you will earn your way into heaven. We haven’t got a chance of doing that. But Paul says, ‘And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’
What are the details of this gift? We are ‘made alive with Christ’ in other words we are promised that we will experience resurrection to a new life after this one. Not only that but we are ‘seated in the heavenly places with Christ’. Now it’s pretty obvious that though we are seated somewhere in RL looking at a computer screen, and though we are seated in the Anglican Cathedral in SL, we are not seated in heaven also. What we have is the assurance that we are now joined to Jesus who is in the heavenly realms and we will be with him one day. We have no need to fear death or judgement in the future.
If someone were to come up to us in the street and offer us a very expensive gift we would want to know why. This gift which God offers us, the gift of salvation, is beyond price. Once we accept it we become God’s ‘workmanship, created in Christ Jesus’. This word ‘workmanship’ is ‘poiema’ in Greek and gives us our word ‘poem’. It is the same as is used of a work of art, a wonderful creation by an artist or sculptor. God wants to give each of us this gift because then as a believer each becomes his masterpiece, made alive in Christ and of infinite value to God.
How does God make this gift possible? It is made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross, something we remember particularly at this time of the year as we draw near to Good Friday. The gospel for today contains probably one of the most famous verses in the Bible, John 3:16, which sums up the message of the ‘how’ of grace. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’
In this verse we see that God loves everyone, the whole of the world. Not just good people, not just those who work hard to please him, not just one nation, one gender, one race, but everyone. We see that he was prepared to love in a way that was costly. It cost him separation from his Son Jesus while Jesus bore all of our sins as he hung on the cross. Finally we see why Jesus died, the wonderful purpose God had, to provide eternal life for everyone who chooses to believe in Jesus.
Paul tells us the outcome of our accepting God’s gift of salvation. Our lives will be changed and we will begin to do the works that God has prepared for us to do. God’s plan for us is wonderful. He loves us, chooses us to receive his gift and has a fulfilling life prepared for us. All we have to do is accept rather than trying to buy, earn or achieve our salvation.
We are in the season of Lent and many people speak of giving something up at this time. One thing that we can all benefit from giving up is our independence and trying to earn a better life by our own efforts.
Let’s remember the key verses from today’s readings:
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)
‘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.’ (Ephesians 2:8-9)
If you still feel like boasting, follow Paul’s advice:
‘Let anyone who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.’ (2 Cor 10:17-18)