“Grace to Practice”
As the weeks of Lent fly by, I am continuing the Lenten discipline that I began on Ash Wednesday. The United Methodist Church in the U.S. has provided a list of words – one for each day in Lent. So each day I reflect on the word, consider its meaning and significance, look around for inspiration, and then take a photograph that somehow connects with the word of the day.
Friday’s word was “practice,” which made me think about learning to drive a car, learning to make my own bread, and learning to write and preach a sermon – all skills that can’t just be learned from a book, but they take giving it a try, and trying again, and practicing over and over. As I was working in my office that morning, I heard Gillian giving a piano lesson in here, and remembered how I hated to practice when I was trying to learn to play the piano as a young person.
But as I turned my attention to this morning’s reading from Ephesians 2, I noticed another kind of practice that didn’t immediately come to mind. I’m not talking about an activity or skill that you need to repeat over and over in order to perfect it. And I’m not talking about something that you do for an intense but short period of time… until the performance or until the exam.
Instead, I’m talking about a practice as in a thing you do regularly… every day, every week… something you keep on doing, not in order to master it, but just in order to do it, to do it well, to enjoy it, or just because you believe it is what you are meant to do.
I wonder what you would identify as your daily or weekly practices. Reading the paper in the morning? An exercise routine? Story time with your kids before bed? Volunteering in a church or community group? Visiting someone who could use your help or your company? Coming to church on Sundays? Doing a daily devotion? Praying for your family, your co-workers, your friends?
There has been a noticeable shift in the last several years among Christian authors and speakers and their reflection on what it means to be the church. And that shift has been towards an emphasis on practices of faith. Whereas Christians may have been defined very clearly in the past as people who believe certain things – who accept a certain set of doctrines and beliefs – Christians are very often now being defined as people who choose a certain set of practices, a way of life.
In a way, it’s not really a new idea. For example, I don’t remember Jesus going over a list of beliefs that his disciples had to sign on to. Instead, he invited them to leave what they were doing, and follow him. He asked them to change their daily lives, their priorities, and their practices. He taught them how to pray, he invited them to spend their lives teaching and healing, and he called them to become servants to one another and to the people they met.
On Friday evening, for my photograph of the day, I took a picture of a wooden cube we have on our kitchen table. On each side of the cube there is a prayer of thanks and blessing that can be said before we share a meal. It serves as a physical reminder to engage in a practice of prayer – a reminder we don’t always heed when we are in a hurry – but we could, and we should.
But this shift towards an emphasis on practices of faith like prayer, worship, hospitality, giving, healing, and witnessing is not a shift towards viewing these good works as the sources of our salvation. Ephesians chapter 2 is very clear that we are not saved by our good works: “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… 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.”
We can’t go to church enough, we can’t pray enough, we can’t help others enough, we can’t give generously enough to earn God’s favour, God’s love, or God’s salvation. We just can’t do it, and so we really can’t boast. All we can do is give thanks to God for God’s great love for us. As John’s Gospel expressed it this morning, “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I like the way Jeff Paschal explains the fullness of this gift from God. He writes, “The good news is that we do not need to launch into a frenzy of good works in order to earn God’s love and forgiveness. Nor do we need to engage in the endless navel gazing of asking, ‘Do I believe? Do I really believe? Am I saved? Am I really saved?’” He points out that our salvation is neither dependant on our doing enough good, nor on believing strongly enough. Even faith itself is a gift from God.
But Paschal goes on to point out that just because we are not saved by our good works does not mean that we’re not meant to do them. He cautions that, “before we decide that the Christian life simply means relaxing by the swimming pool, sipping drinks with little umbrellas jutting out the top, Paul reminds us of the second part of the equation: ‘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.’
“Yes, we are saved by grace through faith. No, we do not rely on good works to be saved. But we are what God has made us – people ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works.’ So good works are now transformed. Instead of being frantic means for trying to save ourselves, good works are the blessed opportunity for us to live out the lives we were destined to live. Good works are expressions of Christ alive in us ministering to the world.”
If you re-read the passage from Ephesians, you may notice that there is a kind of “before and after” theme… Once you were dead in your sins following the course of this world, but now you are alive – you are saved. Once we were ruled by the passions and desires of the flesh, but now we are what God made us to be.
The biblical commentaries get into a lot of discussion about what it means in verse two to be “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.” Are there spiritual powers of evil that lead us away from what is good? Is Paul talking about the devil tempting us to sinful and selfish behaviour? Perhaps.
In order to explain what affect those powers can have on us, several commentators make the comparison to individuals who struggle with various kinds of addictions – to alcohol, drugs, gambling, eating, social media, or anything that becomes a ruler in our lives. People who have come to terms with the reality of an addiction and participated in a 12-step program know from their own experience and the witness of others that addictions can take over our lives and stop us from being the people we were intended to be.
And they also know that they cannot beat these addictions on their own. They need the help and the accountability of the community, of supportive sponsors, and most of all they need God’s help each and every day, one day at a time.
Of course, we know that we don’t need to have an addiction to be controlled by negative forces. None of us can claim not to be influenced by our desire for status, power, popularity, or pleasure. And when these things take over and lead us to cruelty, selfishness, greed, and gluttony we are very much being ruled by the evil spiritual powers.
The author of Ephesians expresses the gift of God’s grace to us in a really interesting way. Whereas the evil powers ruled our lives in the past, now we will become rulers of our own lives together with Christ Jesus. Here is the text from Ephesians: “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… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
Now, it doesn’t quite say that God puts us on a throne beside Jesus, but that’s the image of Christ in heaven that we have from other parts of scripture and in the creeds of the church. After Christ was raised, he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God where he rules with all power and authority.
According to Ephesians, because of God’s grace we are sitting with Christ in heaven, no longer ruled by evil powers, but free to live in grateful response to God’s goodness and grace to us.
We are no longer slaves to sin, but free people who can choose to become servants of the Saviour, practicing the way of life that God intended for us, being what God made us to be – people created in Christ Jesus for good works.
The bonus is that when we begin to fill our lives with practices of faith like worship, and prayer, and giving, and serving, and offering hospitality, we crowd out those other practices that could so easily rule our lives. When we begin to order our way of life around God first, those other distractions cannot take priority.
With thankfulness for God’s amazing grace, that our practice does not need to be focussed on trying to be perfect, let us be what we are, people “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”