Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
Not Your Own Doing
Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Not Your Own Doing!
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge - Third Sunday in Lent 2012
Martin Luther said that our surest hope and most certain confidence is this: “I am a baptized Christian.” The sacrament of baptism is not specifically mentioned in the passage from the letter to the Ephesians this morning, but it’s a story of Christian baptism just the same. To everyone here who has been baptized as a Christian, this is your story. To anyone here who has not been baptized, this message is held out to you also, and this very day it can become your story.
This passage could easily be the subject of ten sermons, one for each verse. It’s one of those biblical passages that you could take home and stick up on your refrigerator to tell your story back to you every day for the rest of your earthly life. You can memorize it and tell it to yourself every day. This is the story of what God has done for you, the story of what God has done for us all when he made us a community of witnesses as baptized followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does it say, this passage? What is the story that it tells? I’m going to break it down into parts, beginning with the first verse:
That’s a summary of what Ephesians is telling us in the first half of the passage. Before we go on, I’m wondering what you think of this description of our natural condition. Perhaps some of you don’t recognize it. But now listen to the questions that are asked at every service of Holy Baptism:
"Do you renounce Satan and all the forces of wickedness that rebel against God?"
"Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?"
"Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you [away] from the love of God?"
Perhaps you can see how closely these baptismal questions follow the description of our natural condition in the Ephesians passage. So if you’re saying to yourself, "I don’t believe in Satan," or "I believe that people are basically good," or "I don’t believe in a God of wrath," just stick with us for a little longer. You’re about to hear two little words that always announce the gospel message. Whenever you hear these words, prick up your ears!
We were dead, we were prisoners of Sin and Death, we were unable to extricate ourselves from the grip of the Enemy, we were unable to control our worst instincts. But God! The apostle continues:
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.
So the second half of the passage tells the baptismal story of God’s victory over the “evil powers of this world”—God’s victory on our behalf. He has made us alive in the same way that he made Jesus Christ alive, raising him victorious from the kingdom of Death and Hell. This is the second half of the story as Ephesians tells it—the story that is yours, or can be yours through baptism.
This text from Ephesians is a pure distillation of the Christian message. The seven verses following those two words, “but God,” are a package that you can hug to yourself. Here in just a few perfectly chosen sentences is the radically new announcement of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. You’ve heard the story of our natural condition; now hear again the incomparable story of our new condition:
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!
By grace you have been saved! Not by nature, but by grace (charis). Here’s the sticking place for most people. No matter how many times we may sing that perennial favorite, “Amazing Grace,” we don’t really want to be saved by grace. We want to be saved by some means that we figure out for ourselves.
I have been teaching Bible studies for most of my life, in settings all over this country. Often I’m asked to sit in on Bible studies in various places. It’s discouraging sometimes. People don’t really understand the meaning of being saved by grace. They don’t admit that in so many words, but it becomes obvious as they drift away from the biblical testimony into their own ideas about being religious. Many people will argue that the central meaning of being a Christian is being “loving and caring,” which is true up to a point, of course, but who can claim to measure up to that standard as set by our Lord? Others will insist that they can find out more about God in nature than they can in church, without realizing that nature itself is fallen and in need of redemption. Others will talk about walking around a labyrinth, or having visions, or keeping a journal. Sometimes people will say that they can’t accept Jesus because they don’t believe in excluding anybody. This sort of thing can go on for some time without anyone referring to the meaning of the grace of God—that it’s unearned. It’s our nature to prefer to believe that we have somehow earned God’s grace and can dictate its terms—such as not needing to meet together with fellow Christians on the Lord’s Day. We like to think we can bring something to God, instead of receiving his grace into our empty hands, with thanksgiving. We want to see ourselves as deserving grace, by being somehow superior—more charitable, more spiritual, more sincere, more inclusive even than God himself. The apostle Paul has a name for this—he calls it justification by works. The opposite of justification by works is justification by grace through faith.
We have only begun to hear the message of Ephesians. It goes on:
God, who is rich in mercy…loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses…
Do you see? Understanding the love of God in its radical depth involves understanding that in our natural condition we are dead in our trespasses. We don’t ordinarily think that way, because our default condition is to try to hold on to a notion of our essential goodness, our inviolate spiritual core. Baptism is based in another understanding of human nature. Baptism effects a wholesale transfer from one rule to another, from the kingdom of Sin and Death to the Kingdom of God. The baptismal hymn in Colossians 1:13 says it in just a few words: “God has delivered us from the power (exousia) of darkness and has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” Ephesians develops this in pristine, compact terms that are not excelled anywhere in Scripture.
Here’s more: God plans to spend “the ages to come” in showing us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith….”
Whoever wrote Ephesians learned his lessons from Paul, you see, and Paul learned from the living Lord Jesus by the power of the Spirit. “By grace you have been saved, through faith!”
In the many, many years that I have spent teaching the Bible, I have found that it is extraordinarily difficult for people to hear this without resisting it. We always want to clutch at some piece of righteousness that can be our own. Not infrequently in church discussion groups, a member will give a testimony about faith. I’ve seen this many times. A woman (men can do this too) will go on at some length about the depth of her faith. She does this because she means it to be helpful to the others, but I don’t think it is. No one else in the group is able to share the intensity and the certainty of her faith. Without meaning to, she is presenting her faith in a way that put it out of the reach of everyone else. It may be her story, but it is not our story.
So listen now to what Ephesians says next:
By grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—[it is] not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Faith itself is a gift. No one can brag (boast) of having faith. It is not the result of anything human. It can only be received, with gratitude and humility.
Now comes the climax of the passage. Whoever wrote this must have been thinking of the universal protest against the news of the unearned grace of God—what then am I supposed to do? If God is doing everything, if none of it is my doing, if good works don’t make any difference, what is the point? Here is verse 10 (in another translation):
For we are God’s workmanship …we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand for us to walk in.
One of the collects that we used to say in Morning Prayer asks that God would help us to “do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” You can see how directly it is modeled on Ephesians 2:10. The point of good works is that they are already prepared for us by God ahead of time. That is his gracious will and purpose, so that we do not need to be anxious, nor do we need to be prideful. When we manage to do something good, that is the grace of God operating in us. And all of this comes from “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
At the beginning I said that you could tell this story to yourself every day. But that’s not quite right. When you keep this story in your heart, you are not telling it to yourself. God is telling it to you, again and again. That’s the meaning of the Holy Scripture as Word of God. By the power of the Spirit, God himself speaks living words directly to you: By grace you have been saved! It is not your own doing! It is my gift. I have made you alive and freed you from the grip of Sin and Death. Behold, I have laid before you those good things that I have already prepared for you to walk toward. My riches given to you in Christ Jesus are immeasurable. You are my workmanship; you are safe; you are free; you are a baptized Christian.
Let us pray.
O God our Father, by the power of your Holy Spirit, make these great affirmations true in our hearts and in our lives. Whatever is unworthy in the words of this sermon, drive it out; whatever is of the truth, establish it; and whatever is of the light, let it illumine nothing but the immeasurable riches of your son Jesus Christ, so that we may leave behind the works of darkness and take up all such good works as you have prepared for us to walk in, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.