Meanderings

How Do You Spell Grace? — Ephesians 2:1-10

Philip Yancey in What’s So Amazing
about Grace
tells this story:

“A young girl grows up on a cherry
orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, just a bit
old fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she
listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times
and she seethes inside. "I hate you," she screams at her
father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument. And
that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of
times. She runs away. She runs to Detroit, the biggest city closest
to her. And the second day she’s there she meets a man who drives the
biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch,
and arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that
make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all
along, she decides. Her parents were keeping her from all the fun.
The good life continues for a month, two months, a year.

“The man with the big car, she calls
him "boss," teaches her a few things that men like. Since
she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse
with room service whenever she wants. Occasionally, she think about
the folks back home, but their lives seem so boring and provincial
that she can hardly believe that she grew up there. After the first
year, sallow signs of illness appear. And it amazes her how fast the
boss turns mean. "These days we can’t mess around," he
growls. And before she knows it, she’s out on the street without a
penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but
they don’t pay for much. And all the money goes to support her habit.

“When winter blows in she finds
herself sleeping on a metal grate outside a big department store.
Sleeping is the wrong word; a teenage girl at night in downtown
Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes; her
cough worsens. "God, why did I leave," she says to herself,
and pain stabs her heart. "My dog back home eats better than I
do now." She’s sobbing and she knows in a flash more than
anything else in the world she wants to go home. Three straight phone
calls, three straight connections with an answering machine. She
hangs up without leaving a message the first two times. But the third
time she says, "Dad, Mom it’s me. I was wondering about maybe
coming home. I’m catching a bus your way and I’ll get in tomorrow
about midnight. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on
the bus until it hits Canada."

“On the bus she wonders what if her
parents are out of town and miss the message. And even if they are
home, they probably wrote her off for dead long ago. She should have
given them time to overcome the shock. Her thoughts bounce back and
forth, those worries and the speech she’s preparing for her father.
"Dad, I’m sorry I know I was wrong, it’s not your fault it’s
mine, can you forgive me?" She says the words over and over, her
throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized
to anyone in years.

“When the bus finally rolls into the
station, its airbrakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a
crackly voice over the microphone, "Fifteen minutes, that’s all
we have here." Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks
herself in a compact mirror, smoothes her hair and licks the lipstick
off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips and
wonders if her parents will notice. She walks into the terminal not
knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousands of scenes that have
played out in her mind, prepare her for what she sees. There, in the
concrete walls and plastic chairs bus terminal of Traverse City
Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great
aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great grandmother
to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing
noisemakers. And taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a
computer-generated banner that reads, "Welcome Home."

“Out of the crowd of well-wishers
breaks her father. She stares out through the tears quivering in her
eyes like hot mercury; she begins the rehearsed speech.

"Dad …"

"Hush
child we’ve got no time for that — no time for apologies, you’ll be
late for the party. A banquet is waiting for you at home."
(Philip Yancey,
What’s So Amazing About
Grace
,
Zondervan 1997, pages 49-51).

What do you think when you hear that
story?  What is your response?

  • For some of us, it puts a lump in the throat, and
    we may think "Sweet forgiveness, bring it on!"
  • For others it puts a question in the mind, and we
    may think, "Where’s the justice, bring it down!"
  • And for others of us it creates both feelings.
    It puts a lump in our throat and a question in our mind. And that’s
    what grace does.

As I have come to understand God’s
grace I might say it this way: grace demands nothing – it’s yours
when you need it – and will teach you to give that same grace away.
This is kind of grace that we find Paul talking about in the second
chapter of his letter to the Ephesians.

You
were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived,
following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power
of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are
disobedient.  All of us once lived among them in the passions of our
flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by
nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  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–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 ages to come 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 the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we
are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Ephesians
2:1-10, NRSV).

I invite us to ask the question “how
do you spell grace?”  What is Paul, teaching us about this gift of
God’s grace?

How Do You Spell Grace? NEED

Paul suggests in verses 1-4 that the
first way we spell grace is NEED.  Grace is in the world because we
need it.  In one sense we are dead men walking – dead women walking
– about in the world driven by our passions and desires for what
Paul calls “flesh.”

I continue to find it interesting that
John Wesley’s requirement for membership in the United Societies
was simple: do you have “a desire to flee from the wrath to come
and to be saved from your sins?”  If you have the need to change
the empty way you are living. If you know your life is messed up.  If
you stand in the need of grace, then Paul’s promise it that God is
already there with the gift of grace.

But are we really “dead men and
women walking?”

What does it mean to be dead some may
be asking?  I am here at worship today, I woke up, I walked in here,
and I shook my neighbor’s hand and even they felt alive.  What is
Paul talking about?

Paul is saying to the church in Ephesus
that you have come with an understanding that God is in the world.
You may have a sense for the “something more” that is needed in
your life.  You may have a spiritual nature that drives you to search
for a better way of living.  You may comb the self-help, leadership
development, or the religious section of the bookstore.  All of that
points to your readiness to make another step in your spiritual
growth.  Paul tells us this step is grace.  This next step requires
you to do nothing – except to accept the gift.

Several weeks ago I introduced us to
John Wesley’s concept of grace.

  • God’s prevenient grace – love going before us
    and wooing  us – leads us to enjoy God’s company on the “porch
    of repentance.”
  • God’s justifying grace leads us through the
    “door of faith.”
  • God’s sanctifying grace leads us to the “house
    of holiness.”

The church labels that grace we are
talking about today justification – the door of faith mentioned by
Wesley.  It is also this week’s topic in our study of Bishop Reuben
Job’s A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader.  Justification is a legal
term for what we do when we try to explain our actions before a
judge.  We justify ourselves, put the best spin on our action or
inaction, and pray that the judge will believe us.  Paul tells us
that God does not have time for our excuses and, besides, in Jesus
God set the matter right.  The mystery of the atonement is not how
God did that (a fight for another day).  The mystery is that God
gives us grace through Jesus Christ and we cannot earn that grace.

How Do You Spell Grace: GIFT

The second way to spell grace is GIFT.
Paul tells us about this second spelling in verses 8 and 9.  ”For
by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own
doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no
one may boast.”  The scandal of grace comes when we realize that we
don’t deserve grace, yet God gives us grace anyway.  When we look for
love in all the wrong places, when we rebel against God and chase
other desires, when we are living out the two-year old credo of “I
can do it myself,” and when we are in a far country and come to our
senses, what do we hear from God?  "You’re forgiven."
That’s grace, and it’s free.

Why is grace a gift? Paul suggests that
if grace were not a gift we would end up boasting about our gift.  We
are prideful people and the best antidote to “I can do it myself”
is an undeserved, unearned gift.  And what prompts this gift?  What
prompts any gift?  Love!

How Do You Spell Grace? RECEIVE

The third way you spell grace is
RECEIVE.  There is one little hitch about grace — just one.  You
have to receive it.  We have to say yes to grace.  God cannot put a
gift in any hands, but empty ones.  Our hands have to empty.  If our
hands our full of all of the lesser things of life, it will be hard
to receive grace.  However, when we release it all to God, grace can
flow in.  It comes down to receptivity.  Now here’s where all the
words start to converge.  You see, the way to receive grace is to
know you’ve got a need for it.

How Do You Spell Grace: GIVE

And the last way you spell grace is GIVE.  The circle isn’t
complete until I give the grace I’ve received away to others.  Look
at verse ten, let me read it and with this we’ll close.  “For we
are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which
God prepared in advance for us to do.”  You see, the best gifts are
those we give away.  And, grace is the kind of gift that wears best
on us when we’re consistently giving it away to others.