SERMON: Epiphany II (Ephesians 2:1-10)
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. 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. (Ephesians 2.8-9)
The Lord be with you.
In California, within a relatively short span you can travel from the lowest elevation in North America to the highest elevation in the continental U.S. Badwater in Death Valley, is 280 feet below sea level. You can go from there in just 135 miles to the summit of Mt. Whitney, which is 14,495 feet above sea level. The journey will take you from salt flats to snowy peaks, from the lowest place to the highest place.
Some people have hiked this path from lowest to highest. For about fifty years, a group called Summit Adventure has held a mountain bike race on this route called the Whitney Classic. There is even a race called the Badwater Ultramarathon, which describes itself as “the world’s toughest foot race.” People have expended a lot of energy to go from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney.
Today’s text from Ephesians also takes us from lowest to highest, in this case in terms of spiritual geography.
- Ephesians 2:1 pictures us dead in sin. Ephesians 2:6 shows us seated with Christ in the heavenly places.
- Ephesians 2:1-2 places us walking in trespasses and sins according to the course of this world. Ephesians 2:10 says we are now walking in the good works God has planned for us from before the world began.
- Ephesians 2:3 portrays us as people who are experiencing the wrathful consequences of living in sinful disobedience. Ephesians 2:7 says we will forever enjoy the riches of God’s immeasurable kindness toward us in Christ.
And the summary of this journey from lowest to highest is found in verses 8-9.
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. 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.
You will note right away that the journey Paul describes is quite different. The journey from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney is all about effort, and training, and sweat and toil. It’s something the hiker, the biker, or the runner achieves. It’s a great accomplishment, the result of an incredible amount of work and struggle.
The journey from death in sin to life in Christ, on the other hand, is by God’s grace alone and it comes to us when God gives us the gift of faith to trust in and follow Jesus.
- It is about God’s work, not ours.
- It is about what Jesus accomplished, not what we have achieved.
- It is a journey for which we praise God, not something about which we can boast.
The journey from death in sin to life in Christ is due to God’s creative, life-giving action in Christ. As God created the heavens and the earth and called light out of darkness, so he created new life in us and called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.
We celebrate and enact this in our baptism. As Jesus died and was buried, then rose and ascended into heaven, even so, we die and are buried with Christ in baptism, then raised up to walk with Christ in newness of life, now and forever. From the lowest place to the highest, from death to life, from the grave to seated with Christ in heavenly places. All this is what God has done by grace for us and with us and in us.
But one of the greatest aspects of all of this is the way this passage ends. God raises us from death to life and then enters into a wonderful partnership with us.
When God created the first humans, God blessed them, then gave them a vocation to be fruitful and multiply, to exercise stewardship over creation, to subdue the powers of evil in the world and to bear God’s image in all of life.
Now, Ephesians tells us, God has recreated us in Christ, and he has done so that we too might walk in the good works he has prepared for us. In Christ, we not only have life but we also have a purpose, a calling, a destiny to fulfill. We are God’s image in the world.
The good works that God calls us to walk in are deeds that will bless our families, our neighbors, our communities, and our world. The vast majority of them are not big, spectacular projects but simple acts of kindness, generosity, respect, and love. The grace of God we have received is designed to make us grateful and gracious people. The faith God has given us is meant to help us be more faithful, more willing to believe the best and to encourage the best in others.
We have reached a transition point in Ephesians. Thus far, we have been meditating on the grace of God that has brought us salvation and has given us new life and new identity in Christ. We are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, and we are called to rest in that, to rely on that, to rejoice in that. We sit with Christ, alive and new.
The next step, which this passage in Ephesians introduces, is that we are to get up and start walking. It says it very generally here — we are to walk in the good works God has planned for us. If we rest in Christ, we are also to walk with Christ and to walk as Christ himself walked.
From the lowest place to the highest place. From Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney. From the grave to seated with Christ in the heavenly places. One, a journey of incredible human effort. The other, a journey of grace from beginning to end. May God, in grace, continue with us on this journey.
May the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. Amen.