Sermon by Stephen Linton 14.03.2021

St Mark’s Farnborough Sermon, by Stephen Linton 14.03.2021

By Grace Alone

 

Ephesians 2: 1 – 10

In 2017 we reached the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the church in the German town of Wittenberg – the starting point of the Reformation.   And following Luther, 5 principles have emerged on which our Christian faith is based.   5 principles said to be uniquely important.   So we may say that our path back to God is witnessed to by Scripture alone; it is received through faith alone; it is offered by grace alone; it is in Christ alone; and it is unto God’s glory alone.   Five principals of faith.

And our set reading today tells of 2 of these principles:   Eph 2 v 8:   ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’.  And today I want us to look in particular at this word, Grace.   The dictionary defines it as the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.   The free and unmerited favour of God

Paul in Ephesians is quite clear:  our salvation, our path to return to a relationship with God, originates with God, not us.   ‘We’, Paul tells us in v1, ‘were spiritually dead, unable to help ourselves’.   But, says Paul, God acted.   V4:  ‘But because of his great love for us, God made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead’.   And he did it, v7, ‘in order that he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus’.  

So there’s nothing here about anything we are, or have done.   Everything comes from God, by sheer grace, free and unmerited favour.   Our part, v 8, is simply to receive God’s grace through faith:  ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no-one can boast’.

So grace is freely offered by God to everyone, without regard to anything we are, or say, or do.   So there is nothing we can do that will make God love us more.   And there is nothing we can do that will make God love us less.   That’s Grace, God’s grace, God’s free and unmerited love shown to everyone.

So let’s think about what the rest of the Bible has to say about grace.   And it’s not just confined to the New Testament.   We might imagine that in Old Testament times, obeying the law, the 10 Commandments and the various instructions in Leviticus was the way to be accepted by God.   But not so.   Remember that God called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 400 years before the giving of the 10 Commandments.   And God’s promises to Abraham were sealed in a covenant freely entered into by God to bless this family and through them to bless all nations.   That was done on the basis of God’s pure grace.  

It was only 400 years later, at Mount Sinai, that God gave instructions as to how people should live under this covenant.   And then, even though they persistently broke those laws God still loved them and blessed them.   God’s covenant of grace was not dependent on their keeping the law.   And even when God’s patience was seemingly exhausted and they went into exile, God still stuck to his promises and brought them back to the land.  

So in the Old Testament, the Law was something to keep out of response to God’s love and grace.   And when we come to the Gospels, we read of Jesus telling us of God’s love in his parables and teaching.   Time and again Jesus rejected those who sought to keep every last instruction of the law, compared with those who came to God humbly admitting their inadequacy and relying on God’s gifts for healing and acceptance.   Perhaps the outstanding example is the story of the Prodigal Son.   He messed up in a big way, but eventually returned, and before he could say his prepared grovelling speech his father ran to hug him and throw a party.   It was the older brother, who had appeared to be the one who kept the rules, who seemingly ruled himself out of the celebrations.

And it was for such self-righteous people that Jesus reserved his harshest criticism:  ‘Hypocrites, blind guides, white-washed tombs’ he called them.

So the consistent teaching of the Bible as a whole, the Old Testament, Jesus in the gospels, and the letters of Paul and others, is that God loves us and offers to us, by grace, God’s free unmerited favour, a way to be restored to our rightful relationship with God our Father.   St Augustine wrote, ‘O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you’.   That rest, that acceptance, that return to what we were made to be, is freely available to us by God’s grace.

So where do we go wrong?   I think that the problem is that the church is so easily tempted to add its own requirements.   In Luther’s time people thought they could improve their chances with God in this life and in the afterlife by purchasing indulgences, buying their way into God’s favour.  

In my youth it was a matter of avoiding smoking, drinking, dancing and the theatre.   Now it’s more about drugs and sex.   And it’s not that those things don’t matter:  of course they matter.   But they don’t matter in respect of God’s love and grace.   Those issues of behaviour are about how we respond to God’s love, not how we merit it.  Jesus preferred to mix with prostitutes and sinners, rather than the religious people of his day who tried to keep all the rules.   Why?   Because the sinners saw their need of God’s love, grace and forgiveness, while the self-righteous thought they were acceptable to God through their religious practices.

Today some other religions ask their followers to achieve God’s approval through their own efforts.   Only Christianity and Judaism tell of God’s gracious love, unmerited, and unconditional, which Christians see revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ.

Yet unfortunately in the world around us and in the media we are seen as a group that lives by a set of do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts, rules that are unpopular and stop people enjoying themselves.   And perhaps worse, they delight in publishing stories about when we ourselves fail to keep those rules:  so we are hypocrites.  And in a sense they’re right.   We don’t keep the rules because we can’t keep the rules. 

But our faith is surely not about rules and regulations for living a moral life.   It is a message of God’s unconditional love.   Of God’s grace.   His free and unmerited favour.   That’s the basis of our faith:  it’s about God’s love for us, for me as an individual, and for those outside church, who need that love as much as us here today.   And that unconditional love of God is freely available to everyone, whatever they are, think, or do.  There’s nothing we can do that will make God love us more.   And there’s nothing we can do that will make God love us less.

By grace alone.   Well, not quite alone:  witnessed to by scripture alone; received through faith alone; to the glory of God alone; and achieved by Christ alone.

And so as we come to Holy Communion we come again this morning to accept God’s offer of grace.   We come with our hands open to receive bread and normally, but not today, wine, symbols of what God has done for us in Christ.   We come just as we are, from different backgrounds, with different needs, perhaps with a sense of shame or guilt or isolation or hopelessness; or perhaps we come out of a sense of duty, of habit, because that’s what we do on Sunday mornings.   Will we this morning afresh experience God’s amazing grace, his love for each of us, whatever our condition, whatever our need, however much we fail him?

So we say in the Prayer of Humble Access, we come trusting not in our own righteousness but in God’s manifold and great mercies.   We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under God’s table, but God’s nature is always to have mercy.   And so we draw near with faith to receive God’s free offer of grace.   And then we are told to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the grace of God which we take with us as we go out of church into God’s world, the world which he loves and for which Christ died.  

Let’s pray.   Father thanks you for your amazing unconditional love for each one of us.   May we reflect something of that love to those we meet this week.   Amen.