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15-43 149th Street
Whitestone, NY 11357

718.746.7858

The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has been at work in northeast Queens since 1871, seeking to proclaim God’s Word and live out God’s justice and peace in our lives and our community. We welcome all to join us for worship, fellowship, learning, and service in our small but vibrant community of faith.

Sermons

Returning to Grace

Andy James

a sermon on Ephesians 2:1-10

On Ash Wednesday, the calls come loud and clear: “Return to the Lord your God.” Find your center again. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Do not forget who you are. “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” God brings you back to where you have been and makes a new way. This season of Lent is an important time for this kind of restoration of what we have known, for remembering who and whose we are, for returning to our roots in God’s grace.

And there are few texts that get us closer to our roots of grace than this morning’s readings from John and Ephesians. The familiar words of John 3:16 are so well known that they can be recited by people who have no church or faith background at all. And the perhaps less familiar but equally insightful words from our reading in Ephesians approach our roots in a slightly different way while keeping the focus on the depth and breadth of God’s love and grace as revealed in Jesus Christ.

As I’ve considered this return to grace over the past week, our text from Ephesians really stands out. In these ten verses, we hear wonderful reminders of so much that is fit for this Lenten season: the depth of our sinfulness, the reality of evil and the powers of disobedience that keep us mired in the ways of this world, the mercy of God that steps into the messiness of our lives and our world to bring us transformation, the grace of God in Jesus Christ that saves us, and the challenge of this gift to be more and more like the beloved creations of God that we are.

Paul starts out here by declaring the state of things before God got involved. The life we thought we had was a false life—the things of this world that seemed to make us live actually were proof that we were dead. Even more than this, the world was and still is filled with powers and rulers and spirits that place their own existence and preservation above the well-being of all, and we once lived among them, following our own whims and desires and ignoring the intentions of God.

But this is not the end of the story. Paul quickly turns to connect our sinful condition to God’s action to change it. Even before we could do anything about all this, God got involved. Even before we knew the depths of our brokenness, God stepped in to raise us up. “Even when were dead through our trespasses,” God gave us new life in Christ.

This is a radical claim. God’s care for humankind is greater than our propensity to sin. God’s love for us comes before any action of our own. God’s mercy is from everlasting to everlasting, from the beginning of time until the end. God’s grace extends beyond our human attempts to place limits on it. In the end, our sin is not the story—God’s grace is.

If we were tempted to miss this point or if we got confused in any way, Paul will not let us forget this. Three times he makes it clear that God’s grace is at the center of our salvation. If we missed it the first time, he doesn’t want us to miss it the second or third! Our salvation, our understanding of God’s mercy, our new life in Christ—all this comes into being because of God’s grace. All this is summed up beautifully just one verse that ought to be as memorable as John 3:16:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

This stands at the center of everything for us as Christians. The life we share in Christ comes to us not through our own actions of good works, not through our historic relationships to one church or another, and not even through our own acceptance of this amazing gift. Instead, here Paul reminds us that grace comes first and last and everywhere in between in our lives of faith. God’s grace comes to us before we can even begin to know about it. God’s grace is present at every turn of our lives, and especially when we think we can do it all on our own. God’s grace accompanies us as we return to dust. And God’s grace extends through all time to bring us to new life in the age to come.

Even more than this, God’s grace makes us more alive that we could ever imagine. In it, we are raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places, gifted with “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us.” As one commentator puts it, “Christ does more than bring us out of death to life; Christ makes us royalty.” (Jeff Paschal, “Homiletical Perspective on Ephesians 2:1-10,” Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 2, p. 113)

God’s grace is an incredible gift that helps us to see ourselves and others in new ways. We need not worry about what is in store for us—God has bigger plans for us than we could ever imagine. We need not worry if we have enough faith to be saved—God’s grace is enough for us all. We need not worry if we have accepted this in the right way at the right time—God’s love and power are not dependent upon our acceptance, permission, and support to be effective and real. And we need not worry if we have done enough to seal God’s grace in our lives—God has already done that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Freed from our worries and wonderings, we are freed to respond in joy and hope to this gracious and amazing gift. The very good works that we would think bring us salvation are not so much required of us as welcomed of us. Paul makes this abundantly clear:

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.

The good works that emerge from us because of God’s grace are the reason why we are created, not the source of our salvation, and this allows us to live so much more freely, to deeply and truly embody God’s grace in our lives and our world, not because we have to but because we want to, not because we are forced to but because it is part of who we are.

If we truly welcome this amazing gift of grace into our midst, why would we live any other way? Grace inspires us to be the people God created us to be, to be beacons of light and hope in our broken and fearful world. Grace invites us to join in Christ’s ministry of love and justice to all, as it open our eyes to the poor, the friendless, the oppressed, the hurting, the outcast, and the hopeless, to bear this mercy and grace and love to them, too. And grace helps us to embody now the incredible, immeasurable gifts of God, the new reality for our world that all things will be transformed by God’s mercy and the amazing grace that stands at the center of everything.

So as we recenter our lives in the gift of God’s grace this Lent, may we know God’s amazing grace all the more, and may we be the people God is creating us to be, people made for good works of transformation and new life, in this world and the next, so that we might always keep returning to grace. Thanks be to God! Amen.