I can't believe it was now a whole month ago at Maplewell, that I had the pleasure and privelege of looking at the second and third chapters of Ephesians* alongside an awesome group of young people.
If I'd have chosen my inital favourite part of the book of Ephesians on which to focus I might have picked the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5, which talks mostly about how as Christians we should be living in light of what we believe. However, on another couple of readings, I began to appreciate more the brilliance of what comes before all this stuff. A friend reminded me that if we forget the first few chapters of Ephesians, all that we do afterwards, no matter how firmly we adhere to the back end of the book, is pointless! In short, if we have no understanding of what it really means to be a christian, the reason why we can live differently, and the cause for which we do so, then doing all the good 'christian' stuff is in itself worthless. The book of Ephesians both reminds us firstly what it means to be a christian - and secondly what impact our faith should have on the way we live today, in light of eternity.
Having never really done a talk-y bit (this sounds a more friendly way to describe it than calling it a talk and certainly a lot nicer than using the word 'sermon') as such before, this passage seemed a good starting point. I particularly enjoy the the first ten verses of chapter 2 which seem to overview the very crux of our christian faith.
Paul, once named Saul and a persecutor of christians, now writes as a follower of Jesus being held prisoner in Rome for preaching the very news he used to hate. It is this good news about which he writes in the book of Ephesians, a letter of encouragement to christians living in a place called Ephesus, now part of modern day turkey. Ephesus town was a wealthy port where people were generally pretty educated and people were writing all sorts of clever things; being a christian was probably to go against the grain.
Paul is writing to a church, to remind them of the huge change their new identity as christians brings to who they are, and the impact it has on how they are to behave. The first ten verses of chapter 2 sharply contrast the before and after of being first 'dead in sin' (or 'spiritually dead' as the youth bible translation phrases it) to then having 'new life in Christ'.
But what do these phrases mean? We might so often hear them thrown about, along with 'born again' and 'saved' in christian circles. If we're not careful we can end up using these words all the time without realising their enormous implications, in turn downplaying God, how great he is and the greatness of his gifts to us.
Let's imagine that my parents go on holiday, which a few weeks ago they did, leaving me to look after the house. To all intents and purposes, the house is mine for two glorious weeks. There are no rules, only that the house must be found upon the return of my parents, in the state which it was left. Two weeks later, the house is wrecked. There is my new favourite red wine seeped into all of the cream coloured carpets. All the handles on our new kitchen drawers have fallen off. The windows are smashed in and all of the radiators are leaking. I also borrowed the car which is now written off. When my parents return, are they angry? And is it right that they are angry?
In the first few verses of Ephesians Chapter 2, Paul (once Saul) talks fairly bleakly about us being once spiritually dead or 'dead in sin'. If our spirit is the part of us designed to relate with God, and we are spiritually dead, we are described as unable to relate to God as he intended us to. The passage says this is because of our sin, ('dead in sin'), put more simply, because of the way we have turned against God's plan for our lives and ultimate authority. Much like me messing up my parent's house when they left me home alone , we have been up until now, living in God's world as though we were in charge! Were my parents angry at my hypothetical house destruction? And was it right that they were angry? Certainly. So we are comparing the rebellion of all humanity away from God, to my (relatively small in comparison) act of rebellion in the form of trashing my parent's house. If my parents are right to be angry, how much more would God have the right to be angry at the rebellion of the the whole world? Ephesians 2 says we deserved to face God's anger, and rightfully so; we have a holy and just God who by nature then must be angry at our rebellion against his perfect plan for our lives.
However, we can not forget that the reason Paul writes this letter is to remind the Ephesians of the great change that God has now made in their lives! It's worth noting that Paul speaks to the Ephesians about being 'spiritually dead', 'dead in sin' in the past tense, as the recipients of his letter have had their hearts and lives changed. Now, there is hope. In the next few verses a dramatic turning point is given as Paul talks about being given 'New lives in Christ'!
Back to my hypothetical house sitting disaster. My parents return, and the scenes of devastation are unimaginable. There is certainly rightful anger involved. But for the million dollar question, despite the destruction, and their rightful anger, will they stop loving me? My answer here, is that they don't. So we are (quite crudely) comparing the unconditional love of parents, who are still human, only a reflection of what God is like, to God, the source of all, incomparable unconditional love. If my parents were still to love me despite me blatantly disobeying them, how much more love then does God still have for the whole of his creation, despite such a rebellion on an enormous scale?
For two and a half years (I am a slow reader at the best of times) I have been reading very slowly on and off this epic book by uber theologian John Stott, called 'the cross of Christ'. I'm only perhaps three quarters of the way through but it's helped as a useful reminder of why and how Jesus on the cross is so central to what we believe as Christians. Particularly when matching God's holiness and perfect justice system up with his unconditional love and compassion.
So If we believe the bible to be true, we have a God who as the perfectly holy and just creator of the universe can not tolerate our sin - a God who is rightfully angry at our rebellion. Yet we have a God who is wholly loving and compassionate to all he has made - a God who is unconditionally loving to rebels. Surely this is contradictory in the grand scheme of things? How can God be true to himself by retaining his rightful anger at the things in our world and our attitudes which go against his plan for us, whilst also showing us true unconditional love and compassion towards us in the form of forgiveness for these things and our attitudes of rebellion?
In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul explains. He reminds the Ephesians, 'For it is by grace you have been saved'. Saved from what? Saved from the consequence of our turning away from God's perfect plan and rejecting his rule and authority over our lives. The bible says, clearly that the consequence of turning against God is death, hence the Ephesian people are referred to as once 'dead in sin'. But indisputably, upon reading it, the overwhelming message of the whole 'landlubbers manual' (also known as the bible) is that 'the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.'
So what is this Grace, and how does it save us? One of my oldest friends Grace defines her name to mean 'undeserved favour'. I've also heard this acronym given for this word thrown around so much by preachers and people in the back end of the bible;
And here describes the painful yet perfect solution meaning that God is able to both maintain his rightful anger and perfect system of justice and show unconditional compassionate love to us who have broken the law. This is the crux of the christian faith and the ultimate expression of sacrificial love; we are given the riches of God, at the expense of Jesus Christ. to summarise, perhaps the most well known and most quoted sentance of the bible
'For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life'
If you were wondering why I previously refered to The Bible as the 'landlubbers manual' this is because I haven't quite dropped down out of the sky from planet pirate yet, where I have been this week having fun helping out with a children's holiday club back at my church in Norwich. Making, doing, singing and silliness have all been part of my every morning this week designed to most importantly teach primary school aged children what it means to be a christian and follow Jesus. They have truly loved it, and have certainly been learning.
The memory verse we have been learning together with the children this week comes from Phillipians Chapter 3, verse 8. 'Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as rubbish. All I want is Christ'. Each of the children can recite this from memory better than I can, and still could this morning at our family feedback service. If you pray, please pray that each of the children we have met with this week would be remembering all they have learned, considering it's truth for themselves and still wanting to know more about what it means to count everything else as rubbish compared with following the greatest captain, Jesus.
One particularly exciting part of the bible I had the great privaledge of reading with the older kids at holiday club is the bit where Paul and Silas (followers of Jesus and imprisoned for it) experience a humungous earthquake which knocks down the prison walls!** To cut a long story short, the jailor arises from his sleep and seeing possibly the joy/wisdom of the two men, runs in shouting 'what must I do to be saved?' Again, even for the untrained teacher, this bit is a joy to talk about because this is the very epicentre (apologies) of my belief system.
The two rapidly reply 'Believe in the Lord Jesus' - but to Believe exactly what about the Lord Jesus?
Rightfully, for turning against God and rejecting his ultimate authority, renouncing the fact that my creator knows better than me, I deserve nothing but the consequences of God's anger; my separation from God, my inability to relate to God as he had planned, death. But the bible says, whilst I have earned myself separation from God, it was Jesus, both wholly man and wholly God, who chose to die on the cross. In doing so, Jesus who had never sinned, sufferd everything which was due to me because of mine, ultimately the spiritual death Paul talks about in Ephesians chapter 2, separation from God the father. Any crucifixion involved immense physical suffering, and social humiliation. But the christian belief is that Jesus' death on the cross was not just a shameful,or tragic accident but a choice, part of God's plan to bring people back to himself. I believe that Jesus on the cross was taking the penalty I deserved. The sin debt I once owed, he payed. The separation from God I deserved as a result of my rebellion, he endured, explaining the significance of his words '"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?".
But truly God, he rose to life again, demonstrating power over death itself and with him his followers too inherit the gift of eternal life and a one day fully restored relationship with the Father and his creation.
This is what it means to believe in the Lord Jesus. That his death has paid the sin debt I owe, making me righteous in the eyes of God. Here there is grounds to be joyful in absolutely every situation, peace admist any trouble, and an assurance that God's goodness and mercy follow me every day of my life.
Thank God, that this salvation is not something I have to earn, because I could never. Thank God that i need not live life depending on my own strength or righteousness to impress a holy God - to do so would be to fail. Thank God, that this salvation is a gift! Thank God that I am to depend on the righteousness and strength of the Lord Jesus.