My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Grace to you and Peace in Christ Jesus, our Lord, as we continue on our Lenten journey of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In today’s readings, we hear three difficult passages that challenge our conceptions of God’s relationship to us and our relationship to God. In fact, the second reading and gospel are favorite passages of our Protestant brothers and sisters. You may recognize the gospel as the oft cited John 3:16 from sporting events, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that those who might believe in him might not die but have eternal life.” On the other hand, one could argue that the second reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was the passage that caused the Reformation. So, this Sunday more than most, I’m going to do something that I don’t normally do: I’m going to focus on a reading other than the gospel for this homily and see what we can understand from that reading that may help us understand better the gospel.
The letter of Paul to the Ephesians is very interesting, not the least reason being that the title may be a complete fabrication. Several scholars don’t even believe Paul wrote this letter, preferring it to have been written by one of Paul’s disciples after the apostle’s death and given his attribution since most of the theology was based on his teaching. Further, the letter may not have been intended for the Ephesians at all. The earliest manuscripts have no notation as to its destination. Marcion, an anti-Semitic early church heretic, said that it was to the Laodicians. Oftentimes, when Paul writes a letter to a specific community, there are names of people he has met there that he wants to greet. However, in this letter, he only ever greets one person, a fellow named Tychicus. Now, imagine for a second that you had lived in a town for three years and spent a lot of time with the leaders of the town helping them to convert to Christianity. You made tents during the day but you spent a lot of time at night and during both Sabbaths (Saturday for the Jews and Sunday for the Christians) evangelizing. Wouldn’t you think you would have a ton of people he would want to greet? I think, if anything, there were just too many to mention.
I mention these two controversies because I think they help us understand a bit of the controversy surrounding this letter and, perhaps, a bit of what we need to understand about this letter in our own day. If Paul did write this letter, he did it basically on his deathbed. And, he did so with a yearning for “better days.” And, he may have done so wishing that he could have done things a little better. You may remember from a few weeks ago, Paul had to defend himself against charges that he was lazy. He made a promise to return to the Corinthians and he couldn’t quite get there so he sent a second letter instead. Paul has regrets that he failed in ministry, that some didn’t hear the gospel because he couldn’t keep on evangelizing. Did Paul fail in gaining heaven because of this failure in ministry?
In some ways, in the passage we read from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul is answering the question of how much we have to do in order to earn salvation. Paul’s answer: there is nothing we CAN do to EARN salvation. Salvation is freely offered to us in Christ. He says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” It’s not as though my giving up pop for Lent has saved me. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the life-giving sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the light that conquers all darkness. He is the word that breaks the silence of doubt. Jesus alone can save us.
And yet, does this mean that we are left entirely off the hook? Does it mean that the people who just spent an entire week serving the poor on spring break didn’t earn salvation by doing that? Yes it does. We can’t earn heaven. We can, however, cooperate with the gift that is offered to us. For, even though we don’t earn heaven by doing good works, Paul says in the very next sentence, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” As believers, God points out to us certain things that we should do in order to grow in the grace that he offers us. Just like a gifted athlete or musician or architect or janitor still needs to train each day and grow in that gift, so we Christians must continue to grow in grace throughout our lives. And, the amazing thing is that God has kind of set us up for these good works. Even the good works we do are really prepared for us by God. The sense of injustice at seeing flood damaged areas after Hurricane Katrina has forced people to work for those who have been homeless for years. The sense of injustice at seeing places of deep poverty in our own country as is present the Appalachia mountains. The sense of injustice that our politicians take private planes while deriding those who come before them in the same private planes and while ignoring those who, in Washington D.C., are incredibly poor and destitute. The sense of injustice at seeing people in our own state ravaged by floods in Cedar Rapids being ignored while their homes and businesses remain abandoned and unlivable. God planted this sense of injustice in the hearts of some of our parishioners and it forced them to do good works. They heard the call of God to reach out in loving service to do good works for those in need in those places I listed and we thank them for representing this community and for listening so intently to God’s voice calling them to that service. But, thankfully, that call to do good works does not simply exist in these exceptional calls to go somewhere else and show God’s love to a foreign people. It happens in our daily lives, we just need to be intent enough to listen. That’s why the church continues the call that our Jewish brothers and sisters received so long ago. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer is where we hear the voice of God. Fasting is what leaves space in our crowded lives. Almsgiving is where we fill that space with the love of God lived out in good works. It is truly by grace that we have been saved through faith. It is not from us; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should (find eternal life) in them.