When you were in school, at some point, you were taught how to write letters – whether it was snail mail or email you learned how to write a greeting, the body, and the closing line. And though some elements might get tweaked a bit here and there depending on the purpose of the letter, whether it’s written or emailed, and how well you know the recipient, those basic elements are still there.
The same true of ancient letters, they followed a certain format, and Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is no exception. He opens in the traditional way – by introducing himself. You remember that from two weeks ago:
Ephesians 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God,
It took us a whole week to get through that because we talked about who Paul was, and that he had not set out to be an apostle, but God made him one and Paul didn’t regret it one bit, because God’s plans for our lives are always much better than our own.
And then last week we moved on to the second part of a traditional letter – the recipients. Paul says he is writing:
Eph 1:1b To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:
And we spent another whole week looking at that line because we learned that what we think a saint is and what the Bible says a saint is, can be quite different – we think saints are special people and the Bible says all Christians are saints. And then we talked about what it means for us, as saints, to be in two places at once: to be in Ephesus, to live here in our city, in this place where God has placed us, in our school, on our team, in our club, at our job, AND faithful in Christ Jesus. Both. At the same time.
God knows how difficult that can be, and yet, that is what He’s calling us to do. We’re tempted to get comfy in Ephesus at the expense of our relationship with Christ, or turn away from Ephesus and withdraw into Christ, but God has called us to be both places at once and He wants to help us do that, which is going to involve some stretching and discomfort at times on our part.
But now we get to the third part of a standard Roman era letter and that is the greeting. So Paul writes in:
Eph 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a common opening for Paul, he mentions grace in the greeting of every letter he writes, but far from being a space-filler or tradition, this greeting is packed with meaning. It’s a summary of Paul’s theology and a statement of his purpose in writing. Grace was an especially important idea for Paul and he wanted everyone to consider it. In fact, if you count up all the times the word appears in the New Testament, you discover that 2/3rds of them come from his pen.
But what is grace? And why do we sing about it being so amazing? It’s not an unfamiliar term; you’ve heard the word before. But what does it mean to you?
Is it a woman’s name? Is it the ability to carry yourself in social settings? Or is it something we say at meals?
Christian, you need to know the answer to the question so you understand what you have, because Paul is writing grace to you, – and more than that, “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” So, whatever this grace is, it’s coming to you from God. And God gives good gifts.
The Greek word for grace is charis and it shares a common root with two other significant words – eucharist, or what we more commonly refer to as communion, and chara which is translated as joy.
Both of these words can help us understand more of the meaning of grace- it’s the blessings that come to use from God, bringing us joy, because of the peace we now have with Him through the sacrifice of Christ that is represented by the eucharist.
In fact, in the next chapter Paul is going to tell us that we are “saved by grace.” Skip ahead with me to chapter two where we discover that God saved us so that,
Eph 2:7 in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
In his letter to the Romans Paul talks again about the role grace plays in our salvation:
Romans 5:20 … where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So if you want to know what grace is, here’s the first and most fundamental thing we need to understand – grace is a word we use to speak of the kindness God shows in forgiving our sin. And that is why we sing the famous song, Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Grace is the salvation, forgiveness, and goodness of God coming to me from the outside and it helps me, it improves me. It saves me and opens my eyes.
But that is only the beginning. There are so many more things we could say about grace.
For example, grace is generous. That’s kind of wrapped up in the idea that grace comes to you, there was something you needed and grace brought it your way. Grace is God saying you weren’t good enough on your own, so I’ll fill in the gap. Grace covers the distance between who I am and what God wants me to be.
And that should be a message of comfort to all people, but especially to people living in Northern Virginia where we have this tremendous pressure to perform and achieve.
Think about just the example from youth sports. Talk to parents or kids and you discover that by age nine kids are being encouraged to make the commitment to a single sport, because there’s going to be so many practices and development opportunities that you’re not going to have time for anything else if you want to play at a competitive level. I know kids that hit the pool at 6:30 in the morning on school days so they can get their practice in. And that’s not an individual preference; it’s an organized team event. Swimming is not just a summer sport anymore, not if you’re going to take it seriously at least.
And if you’re going to play soccer, it’s not just a few weeks in the spring and fall; there are summer clinics and winter soccer indoors. If you want a spot on a competitive team, you’re going to need to be working on your form year round. And you need to start working on your form early because opportunities come early as well – I know a girl who was recruited to play lacrosse for the Naval Academy when she was a high school sophomore. It’s unreal.
Now, the good side of that is that wonderful character development can take place, you can learn commitment, drive, determination, and self-discipline. But all that work and effort can also make you jaded toward the concept of grace. And it can be brutal to be involved in a loss. Can you imagine the pressure being put on a 13 year old to perform at a higher level so the team doesn’t lose when parents have invested thousands of dollars into the team?
And it’s the same thing for adults. You work hard to make yourself stand out, you crush yourself in order to take a professional development course on top of your normal workload, you work hard to differentiate yourself and your skill set. You’re trying hard to prove that you’re the better candidate for the next opening. Friend, it’s OK to pursue excellence, but don’t lose sight of grace.
Because grace says ‘relax, it doesn’t all rest on you.’ You need to know that grace is real and it exists because you’re not always good enough, you’re not always going to make the cut, and even if you do, you may not like what you’ve gotten yourself into. So, can you live with not being selected, with not being picked?
Can you understand that God loves you the same no matter the outcome? Or, do you still feel this incredible need to prove yourself, to make it? Hey, can you relax and realize that maybe it’s a mercy of God that He hasn’t let you make the cut because if you did all it would do is wind you and the people who love you up even tighter?
Maybe that highly competitive and selective thing you’re trying to get into isn’t all that great. Now, maybe it is, maybe that’s the Ephesus where God wants you to be, I believe that. I believe God wants some of you to make special teams, to coach special teams, to have incredible positions of influence in government and industry. I believe that’s why some of you are here – so that He can continue to groom you and grow you and use you. But listen – if God wants you to get there, He’ll open the doors. He’ll put you there and sustain you.
But if not, if you don’t make the cut, don’t get the grades, don’t get the promotion, remember there is grace – you weren’t good enough to make God’s team on your own, and He still included you.
And actually, can I say something bold and blunt here? I think that why some people look down on Christianity: because it’s too easy to get into. It doesn’t give you any status. It doesn’t prove how good you are. Look at the things people take pride in around here – schools, activities, jobs, neighborhoods. Is it elite? Is it exclusive? Is it competitive? But the church isn’t like that. The church is open to everyone because the church is built on grace – but that means you’re not going to look as cool for being on the church team. You’ll experience a lot of other benefits though.
You see, grace brings us in, and grace builds us up, it’s generous and it’s extravagant. In ancient times the word was also used to describe an act that was beyond the ordinary course of what might be expected, and therefore was commendable. Grace was going above and beyond. And that’s certainly what Paul felt God had done for him.
Look at what he says in Ephesians chapter 3. Paul says God made him a minister by grace.
Eph 3:7-8 “I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. 8 To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
Two weeks ago we talked about who Paul was before Christ came into his life. He was not a nice guy, he had blood on his hands, he was actively trying to hurt people who believed in Christ, but Jesus hijacked his life, showered him with grace, and used him for good. And now he calls himself the least of all the saints and attributes whatever good he has done to the grace of God in his life.
And lest you think that’s only for him, go back with me to chapter one and look at verse three where we’ll be next week.
Eph 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
Think about that: God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing.” He makes me what I’m not. Things that I don’t have, He gives to me. Competencies I lack, strength I lack, wisdom I lack, endurance and courage I lack, He gives to me.
So again, think of grace as filling in the difference between what I am and what God wants me to be. It’s generous and it’s extravagant, and let’s add to our list: it has no expectation of return.
When God shows us grace he’s not expecting us to do anything in return. It is a gift freely given simply because the generous giver wants to give. Have you ever given that kind of gift?
Rose Martin used to bring me the best homemade tortillas, she would pat them out by hand and they were the most amazing things I’ve ever had. But she didn’t do it because she wanted me to roast her some coffee in my garage. She gave them because she knew they were good, and she wanted others to enjoy them. I think of Wanda and her cakes and other baked goods –she’s the same way, she likes to give simply because the things she makes are good. Or anything Tim Lemelin makes – when I found out he was signed up to bring meals to families after they’ve had a baby I asked Madeleine if we could have another kid.
I know that’s a lot of talk about food, but here’s the point – these things are simply an expression of grace. And God is the same way, He gives us good gifts, not because He expects something in return, but simply because it’s good, He’s good, He knows we could use it, and He’s got plenty to give.
So, grace is generous, it’s extravagant, it has no expectation of return, and one more, grace is a preservative. Most of us can look back on our lives and see things you’ve done that could have destroyed your life or career but you didn’t get caught or it didn’t turn out, and you can look back and say, “God thank you so much for keeping me from the consequences of that.”
Or what about grace of God in the resiliency of parenting? How many of you parents have experienced the gut sinking terror of having your toddler disappear – they just wandered off and you can’t find them? Or the horrendous parental guilt of neglecting a child – not paying attention and they suddenly rolled off the bed and you didn’t even realize they were rolling over yet? You don’t have to be a parent for very long to begin praising God for protecting your child from you. Grace is a safety net of life.
But to be honest, it’s not always there, is it? There are times when we beg and plead for grace and it doesn’t arrive in the form we want. Why? I can’t give you an answer that would satisfy every situation, and that’s not a question I can really speak to in the scope of this sermon, but I will admit there are disappointing disappearances of grace in our lives that I don’t always know what to make of. But, I am grateful for all the times God’s grace has shown up, and I know that if you think on all the evidence of His grace in your own life, you’ll be thankful too.
There’s certainly more that could be said about grace and we’ll do that as we make our way through the letter and encounter it again, but this morning we also need to say something about grace’s traveling partner in this greeting and that is peace.
Eph 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is another word that we’re familiar with. In fact, we’re far more familiar with peace than grace. Unfortunately, we have a limited understanding of the term, we only think of half of its Biblical meaning.
The Greeks thought of peace much the same way we do – in negative terms. Nothing bad is happening. If there has been war, peace is the cessation of hostilities, people stop fighting and that brings peace. But think about it: a ceasefire is not true peace, if you lived in a warzone sure, it would be great that no one is shooting at you, but there’s still a lot of restoration and reconstruction to occur. Your life among the wreckage is not going to be all that peaceful simply because the bullets have stopped whizzing by.
The Jews had a far better Hebrew word for peace, it’s one you might recognize too: shalom. Shalom goes beyond our negative views, that bad things stop, and presses on into the positive view as a peace involving reconciliation and restoration between the warring parties. Now, think about that in terms of daily life. I don’t just want my kids to stop fighting, I want them to love each other and have fun with each other, help one another.
When the Jews wished each other shalom, they’re wishing one another the fullness of life. The absence of hostilities yes, but also the richness of a life well lived in community with God and others in a time and place of blessing. Shalom is the idea of everything in life being right and going well, there is a richness and a fatness to it.
And that richness and fatness, that bountiful blessing and durable peace originate in the source Paul identifies:
Eph 1:2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The only way to really experience this peace is to receive it from God, to let Him begin to repair the holes in our lives because if we’re not at peace with God, we’re never going to find true peace anywhere else. It’s hard to enjoy anything else when you’re at war with God.
And that’s why back over in chapter two Paul calls his gospel, his message of what Jesus Christ has done, “the gospel of peace.” He’s explaining how God is bringing together both Jews and Gentiles through one savior and he writes:
Eph 2:14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, 15 having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, 16 and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. 18 For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.
And then in Chapter six, after encouraging us to put on the armor of God including the breastplate of righteousness, we’re told that our feet should be shod, (Eph 6:15) “with the preparation of the gospel of peace.”
The message of Christianity is one of peace. You don’t have Christian suicide bombers. You don’t have Christian fighters. You have martyrs, the history of the church is covered in blood, but it’s the same blood you find at the birth of the church where Jesus Christ was put to death for trying to bring a message of grace and peace to the world. Through the years His followers have suffered the same fate at the hands of men who could have known peace instead.
Those who persecuted Christians, and who still persecute them today, could know shalom instead – a peace that begins with God and then bubbles up within me, a peace that washes away all of my condemnation. All my regrets, all my mistakes and my worries. And a peace that enables me to live at peace with those around me, forgiving them and if they are in Christ, being forgiven by them. A peace that makes it possible for me to look back on things in my life and say, yes, that’s real, it happened, that’s who I was, that’s what I did, that’s what happened to me, but it’s not who I am any more. I’m someone different now and standing between that and me is God my Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who are showering me with the grace and peace.
But let’s talk for a minute about how all of this plays out in our lives right now. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety in our midst. In our personal lives, some of you dealing with hospitalizations of loved ones, tragic and unexpected losses of loved ones, diagnosis of medical conditions and illnesses or people you love making stupid choices. And while all of these things are going on, our country is falling apart at the seams. Our two primary options for president are an abomination in the sight of God and we fight and argue over whose going to win as if the WhiteHouse were a prize to be won instead of a servant’s quarters. Storms are threatening our loved ones and racial tensions have become fault lines for the fracturing of society.
So, what’s up with all that ‘grace and peace to you’?
Well, it’s easy to be cynical if you haven’t read the whole book.
You need to know that Paul was writing this letter from jail to a persecuted Christian minority. He opens his letter with grace and peace, and closes it with an encouragement to put on spiritual armor which will be helpful because of the fiery darts coming their way (Eph 6:16) and he reminds them to remain watchful with perseverance.
And then he makes reference to the actual Roman chains he’s wearing. Back in chapter three he asks them not to lose heart at his tribulations (3:14) and then goes on to speak of the troubles that are going to come their way.
In chapter four he warns them of dangerous ‘winds of false doctrine that will blow their way, of the trickery of men, and the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting’ (Eph 4:14).
Does this sound like they all had it easy?
Can I remind you: we are on a planet that is going astray. Adam and Eve turned their back on God in the Garden of Eden and there hasn’t exactly been a mob of people who want to reverse that course and go back to preferring God over our own desires. It shouldn’t really surprise us that we’re surrounded by conflict and sin and corruption of human lives and bodies. Yes, things are falling apart.
But let me ask: where else are you going to go? Where else are you going to look for grace and peace? Are you going to go rushing to the doctor? What do you do when they can’t answer, or can’t stop it, or heal it, or when they mess things up?
Are you going to go a vacation? Not all vacations are relaxing, I can tell you horror stories and I’m sure you can do the same. And on top of that, thoughts and worries come with you even if you don’t pack them, and when you get back you’ve got to deal with all those emails that came in while you were gone.
So here’s the big question – how do you deal with your greatest disappointments? How do you endure, how do you face them? I can’t tell you, take the blue pill from God and everything will be fine. I know life hurts some times, I’ve got my own scars. I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you that even in the face of many things I don’t understand or appreciate, there is still so much more that I do.
Paul kept it all in balance – he was in jail but in Christ, anticipating bad things, but also full of grace and peace. I want to encourage you – read what he has to say, read what God has to say to you, receive this grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and find the strength to face whatever He allows to come your way.