Part of Something Bigger (Ephesians 3:1-13)

In 1993, Bill Murray starred in a film called Groundhog Day. He plays a weatherman who's assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day event. He hates this assignment and wants to get it over with as soon as possible. But he wakes up the next day and finds that he's in a time loop. Every day is now Groundhog Day for him. The basic plot of the movie is, "He's having the worst day of his life, over and over..."

Do you ever have the feeling that it's Groundhog Day, the same day of your life over and over? Years ago someone said, "The hardest thing about life is that it's so daily." Life can easily become a drudgery, when our hearts are really longing for more. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and do more than get up every day to repeat the same things over and over.

Some of you may say, "I'd like for my life to be a drudgery." Things may be so bad in your life right now that you actually miss when your biggest problem was boredom.

If you are struggling with either problem - drudgery or trials that are worse than drudgery - then today's passage is going to be a help to you. Today's passage is really a digression or a detour in the book. The apostle Paul is writing to a church and describing how God's great power is at work among them. he begins to pray for them, and as he begins he gets sidetracked. It's important to see what sidetracks him, so we understand why he writes what he's about to write. We'll then see how relevant this passage is to our own lives as well.

So what sidetracks Paul? Look at Ephesians 3:1 with me. Paul writes, "For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—" and then he breaks off and switches topics. You have to ask, what made him lose his train of thought and take this big digression? You get a hint to the answer if you look at how he concludes his digression in verse 13: "I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory." This is so important if we're going to understand this passage and why Paul wrote it.

The problem that prompted Paul to write this passage is that he is in jail and suffering. He's a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and he's suffering. Paul realizes that this could be very discouraging to his readers. Acts tells us that Paul was seized by an angry mob, beaten, and bound in chains. People plotted to kill him. Some swore an oath that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul. Within a few years of writing this, Paul would be martyred in Rome. This raises big questions and big doubts. The very reason Paul gets distracted is because he is in the middle of major trials, and these trials are likely to affect the churches that know and love Paul. They're likely to get discouraged too.

So what do you do when you're in the middle of trials that discourage you? What do you do when you are caught in the middle of trials that are not only yours, but that are dragging the people around you down? This is relevant to us because many of us are dealing with stuff that overwhelms us, or maybe we're just dealing with the discouragement of daily living which can cause us to lose hope.

Paul gives us insight into two truths that give him confidence and hope even in the middle of these trials:

One: That he is part of something bigger

Read verses 2 to 7 again with me:

Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.

As Paul wrote this letter, he was probably under house arrest in Rome. If the average person had met Paul, they probably would have seen him as nothing more than a common prisoner waiting trial. But as you read this passage, you get a sense that Paul understands that he is part of something much bigger. In verse 2 he talks about being a steward of God's grace. Paul sees himself as having a God-given role in making the gospel known to others, specifically to the Gentiles who hadn't heard it yet.

This gospel never ceased to amaze Paul. He's already told us that what the gospel is in chapter two. First: God has taken spiritually dead people and has made us alive by grace through faith. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5). Second: God has already begun to unite all things together again in Christ, and he's begun in the church. He's done this by breaking through all the barriers that divide us to make us into a new humanity in Christ. He alludes to this again in this chapter, verses 5 and 6: God has revealed something now that nobody in previous generations understood. Sure, they understood that Gentiles would be included in God's plan. But nobody ever thought that Gentiles would one day be on completely equal footing before God. We are, Paul says in verse 6, "are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus."

In other words, Paul realized that he was part of something much bigger: part of the plan of God who created all things. Notice the change that it made:

  • He calls himself a "prisoner of Jesus Christ" in verse 1. Not a prisoner of Caesar, but a prisoner of Jesus. He could see that God, not Nero, was in control, and had put him right where he wanted him.
  • He said "on behalf of you Gentiles." Paul had been arrested because of his association with Gentiles. He could see that his suffering had a purpose. It wasn't just random. He was giving his life to a purpose that transcended his imprisonment.
  • He spoke of becoming a "a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace" (verse 7). Most of the time, I think we tend to talk about what we do for God. Paul didn't. He saw ministry not as his gift to God, but God's gift to him.
  • Then notice his humility in verse 8. He calls himself "the least of all the Lord's people." This isn't false humility. Paul knew that he was in need of God's grace as much as any person who has ever followed the LORD.

Because Paul grasped the gospel and his part in it, he had confidence and hope even in the middle of trials. He knew he was part of something bigger, and it gave him hope even under house arrest. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.

We all need to live for something bigger than ourselves. Paul David Tripp writes, "There is woven inside each of us a desire for something more - a craving to be part of something bigger, greater, and more profound than our relatively meaningless day-to-day existence." That longing to be part of something more in your life - that's God given.

What is it? It's the gospel. Understanding the gospel allowed Paul to see his life completely differently. The same thing can happen for us. Instead of seeing ourselves as a teacher working for the board of education, we can see ourselves as a teacher working for Jesus Christ. When we suffer, we can see that even our suffering has a purpose. When we serve God, we can see the ministry as a gift from God rather than an obligation or something we're doing for God. And it will give us a humility, because we'll marvel that God has chosen us even though we are the least of all of God's people. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.

If you ever go to the south coast of England, I hope you get a chance to stare out over the English Channel and imagine what happened there in the spring of 1940. Hitler had the Allied Forces in a corner and was getting ready to invade Great Britain. His troops were closing in on the Allies in what was going to be an easy kill. Nearly a quarter million young British soldiers and over 100,000 allied troops faced capture or death, and the Royal Navy could only save a small fraction of this number.

But a bizarre fleet of ships appeared on the horizon of the English Channel. Trawlers, tugs, fishing sloops, lifeboats, sailboats, pleasure craft, an island ferry named Gracie Fields, and even the America's Cup challenger Endeavor, all manned by civilian sailors, sped to the rescue. The ragtag armada eventually rescued 338,682 men and returned them home to the shores of England, as pilots of the Royal Air Force jockeyed with the German Luftwaffe in the skies above the channel. It was one of the most remarkable naval operations in history. And for those few days they were more than trawlers and fishing boats, and they could put up with all kinds of trials because they had a purpose. You can have the same thing happen in your life. It's the gospel that gives us purpose that we're part of something much bigger even in our trials.

There's a second truth that kept Paul going. Honestly, this one could blow us away if we really understood it.

Two: That the church is part of something bigger

Not only did Paul see his life as part of something bigger, but he looked around and saw that as the mystery of the gospel was being revealed, God was accomplishing something that boggles our minds. He writes:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)

This is going to blow our minds. The very existence of the church, Paul wrote, has a much higher purpose than we realize. It's an amazing thing that spiritually dead people are raised to new life, and that former enemies become family with each other within the church. This is such a big deal that it is the way that God has chosen to reveal his wisdom in its reach variety. Think for a minute of all the ways that God could show to angels and demons that he is wise. The human genome shows that God is wise. Scientists are unravelling all the ways that information is stored in our DNA that makes us who we are. It's amazing. The universe shows God's wisdom. I could think of many ways that God could choose to show angels and demons his wisdom.

But look at how God has chosen to reveal his wisdom: through the church. As somebody has said, the history of the Christian church has become a graduate school for angels. Demons thought they had Jesus killed once and for all. All of his followers were scattered. But he rose from the dead. But then he left. You can't expect much from a small group of followers who had never amounted to much. But then Peter - yes, that Peter - got up to preach, and thousands joined the church. Satan and demons threw everything they could at the church, but the church continued to spread all throughout the Roman Empire, so that this obscure, marginal movement became the dominant religious force in the western world for centuries.

The very existence of the church is a sign to demons that their authority has been broken, and that their final defeat is imminent. God shows through the church that his purposes are being fulfilled and they're moving toward their climax. F.F. Bruce says that the church is "God's pilot scheme for the reconciled universe of the future." God has chosen to display his wisdom in all its dimensions through, of all things, the church. It blows my mind.

By the way, this has huge implications for how we see church. A lot of us try out a Christianity that's all about us and Jesus and has nothing to do with the church. But that doesn't fly as you read Ephesians. The church, according to Paul, is central to history. It's central to the gospel. "The church is good news of a new society as well as of a new life," says John Stott. The church is a showcase to the entire universe of God's wisdom in all of its variety. This makes all the difference in how we see the church.

And because Paul saw his life as something bigger, and the church as something much bigger, he was able to write in verses 12 and 13:

In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.

Because of all of this, we have access to God that's unhindered by hostile powers. We can have assurance that our sufferings have a purpose, and are actually tied to our glory. Understanding the gospel gives us confidence and hope in our trials.

I don't know what you're going through this morning, but I know that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, that you are part of something much bigger, and this can give you confidence and hope even in the middle of your trials. And if you're not yet a follower of Christ, then the good news is that the gospel is about taking people just like you and making them part of something much bigger, something that can give a prisoner, a cancer sufferer, a divorcee, a doubter, a struggler, a sinner hope confidence and hope, even in the middle of trials.

Why Worship? (Deuteronomy 5:7)

Once a month, on the third Sunday, we're holding family services. I want to try to explain why we're doing this. It's not so we can give our teachers a break, and it's not a devious plot to bore our children.

We're doing this for a few reasons:

  • to include children in the life of the church
  • to expose our kids to the worship of the entire church
  • because we all need each other - young need the old, old need the young
  • to start a conversation that can continue at home

This year we want to explore why it is that we worship the way that we do. Today I'm going to ask why we worship, and in coming months we're going to look at many of the things we do when we worship together: sing, pray, read God's Word, and so on.

Let me ask you some questions to get us going:

1. Who or what do I love most?

In other words:

  • what do I think and daydream about?
  • what do I value?
  • what couldn't I bear to lose?
  • what is my greatest nightmare?
  • what keeps me going?
  • what do I rely on or comfort myself with when things go bad or get difficult?
  • what makes me feel the most self-worth? What am I the proudest of?
  • what do I really want and expect out of life?
  • what would really make me happy?

Get answers. We can try to find comfort, approval, control, and power in these things.

2. What's the problem with this?

These things - good things - can become idols in our lives. We are worshipers, but God is not always the object of our worship.

The question we're asking today is "Why Worship?" In a way, this is the wrong question. The real question is, "Who or what are you worshiping?" Any of the things we've listed can be objects of worship.

The first word from God: "You shall have no other gods before me..." (Deuteronomy 5:7)

A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing less than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol...That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God. (Martin Luther)

Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that is meant to be worshiped. (Augustine)

Somebody's said that idolatry is making good things into ultimate things. Louie Giglio has said:

I think that all music - not just Christian music but all music - is worship music, because every song is amplifying the value of something. There's a trail of our time, our affections, our devotion, our money. That trail leads to a throne, and whatever is on that throne is what we worship. We're all doing a great job of it because God has created us to be worshipers. The problem is that a lot of us have really bad gods.

Problems with idols:

  • they promise more than they deliver
  • they lead to a loss of freedom (bondage)
  • they are impermanent and threaten us when they're taken away
  • they can never truly make us happy
  • they are all forms of sin and break God's first word

3. What choice do I have?

You don't have a choice about being a worshiper.

It is as impossible for a man to live without having an object of worship as it is for a bird to fly if it is taken out of the air. The very composition of human life, the mystery of man's being, demands a center of worship as a necessity of existence. All of life is worship...The question is whether the life and powers of man are devoted to the worship of the true God or to that of a false one. (G. Campbell Morgan)

You really don't have a choice about being a worshiper. Your only choice is whether you will worship God or be an idolator.

4. How do I get rid of idols?

This leads us to the answer to the question I asked at the beginning, "Why worship?" By that I mean, "Why worship together like we do on Sundays at church?"

The only way to get rid of an idol is to replace it with another object of worship. "The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one." (Thomas Chalmers)

The only way to stop worshiping idols is to worship God - to seek our happiness in him, to love and desire him above all things.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

That's why we worship together. When we come together on Sundays, we are helping to reestablish the reign of God within our lives, and reminding each other that God alone is worthy of our hearts and worship.

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)

That's why we do this every week. We repent from idols, and turn to Christ and his work on the cross, which is our only hope.

Israel never managed to deal with their idols. Jesus came, and was tempted to worship idols during his temptation in the wilderness. He is the first person to ever live who never worshiped an idol. Through the cross, his perfect record became ours, and our sins were dealt with at the cross.

So why worship together on Sundays? To remind ourselves that God alone is worthy of our worship, and that we can become worshipers in spirit and truth through Christ.

So to review:

  • We all worship
  • The only choice we have is whether we are worshiping God or idols
  • We gather together to remind ourselves that only God is worthy of our worship
  • We can repent of our idols and find freedom in Jesus Christ alone

From Exclusion to Embrace (Ephesians 2:11-22)

One of the worst feelings you will ever experience is that of feeling excluded. Just this past week, a mother wrote to an advice column in a major newspaper:

Dear Amy: My daughter is in elementary school. Over the past few years, she has experienced some unfriendly behavior from other girls, mostly in the form of obvious exclusion. There are times when she has addressed these issues, and times when I have contacted a teacher or a parent.

Last year, a good friend stopped speaking to her. She was devastated. It went on for months. I know the parents, but I didn't speak with them about it...

I cannot force this kid to like my daughter, but should I try to contact the parents and find out what is up? Am I over-involved?

Perplexed Mom

You can feel that mother's pain as you read the letter. Most of us can remember what it's like to be excluded as a child at school. But exclusion isn't just a school-age problem. Exclusion happens to adults. At work, it can take the form of "incivility, yelling, spreading gossip or lies, insulting employees, as well as hostility, verbal aggression, and angry exchanges" - or just a cold shoulder. In can also take place in families as one person begins to turn the shoulder on each other. It happens within people groups. In Rwanda, the exclusion of one people group (the Tutsis) by another resulted in the slaughter of over half a million people in just a hundred days.

Exclusion is horrible. Yet there's another type of exclusion we rarely think about: spiritual exclusion. This is very real. Here are a couple of examples, although I have to admit they're extreme. The son of a prominent Hamas family recently became a Christian. He's said, "I know that I'm endangering my life and am even liable to lose my father, but I hope that he'll understand this." He's been told by some to change his name and facial identity for his own safety. In August, a young woman was found guilty of converting to Christianity in Saudi Arabia and was burned alive by her father, a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Against Vice.

I told you that these are extreme examples, but you almost have to think of this type of exclusion as you come to the passage we're looking at today. Paul is writing to a church, particularly one that is full of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Jesus Christ. The division between Jews and Gentiles in that day was one of the most fundamental divisions in the first century world. These tensions would have been felt as Jews and Gentiles came together in the church as followers of Jesus Christ.

Let me give you a bit of a taste of what the tensions were like between these groups. In the Jewish temple, signs were posted at the barrier separating the Court of the Gentiles from the Court of the Israelites. They've found two of these. The signs said: "No foreigner is allowed to enter within...Whoever is caught will be personally responsible for his ensuing death." Some believed that Gentiles were made as fuel for the fires of hell, and that it was wrong to help a Gentile woman give birth, because it would bring another heathen into the world.

Gentiles were also suspicious of the Jewish people. Plato said said barbarians (non-Greeks) were his enemies by nature. Closer to the time that Ephesians was written, a Roman historian wrote, "The Greeks wage a truce-less war against people of other races, against barbarians." The tensions between the two groups would have been monumental.

Because these tensions aren't part of our world. it's tempting to think this passage has nothing to do with us. But this passage still about us: most of us are Gentiles, so this is about us, even if we don't feel it. Not only that, but our world is still full of these types of divisions. The world is divided into two groups: people who are like us, and people who aren't. We feel these divisions in society when we're with someone who's from a different group than us. These tensions can spill into the church in all kinds of ways as well when different kinds of people come together as followers of Jesus Christ.

This is also one of the most significant passages on the church in the entire New Testament.

So what do we learn from this passage? Three things: we learn how significant these differences are; how the gospel applies to these differences; and what this teaches us about the church.

First, Paul tells us about how significant the differences are.

We've already seen how Gentiles and Jews viewed each other. Besides the tensions I've already mentioned, Paul lists five ways that we as Gentiles were excluded not only from Israel but from God. The background to this passage is that God had chosen Israel out of all of the nations of the world. This was great news for Israel, but really bad news for everyone else. In Deuteronomy 7:6 Moses said to Israel, "For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession." This means that Israel had something that no other nation enjoyed: a covenantal relationship with God.

Paul explains what this means to those of us who are not Jewish. He writes in verses 11 and 12:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.

If you look at this, there are five things that separate those of us who are Gentiles from the covenant God made with Israel:

  • "separate from Christ" - When we read this, we think "Jesus Christ," when we really should be thinking "Messiah." Israel had the expectation of a coming Messiah who would triumph over all their enemies; Gentiles had no such hope.
  • "excluded from citizenship in Israel" - God had chosen to known by Israel and no-one else. If you were non-Jewish, you were excluded from all of God's blessings unless you became Jewish. None of God's blessings for his chosen people were yours.
  • "foreigners of the covenants of the promise" - God made all kinds of promises in the Old Testament on the basis of his covenants with Israel. The Gentiles - that's us - had no share in these promises.
  • "without hope" - As bad as things got in Israel, the faithful always had God's promises. They believed in the promised messianic salvation. Gentiles had no such hope.
  • "without God in the world" - Gentiles had gods, but they didn't have the one true God. So it's like Israel had the one true God and the rest of us had fakes.

Put this altogether and you have a picture of our exclusion: cut off from the Messiah, cut off from God as king, as well as all of his promises; cut off from hope, and from God himself. Paul wants the readers of this letter to feel the significance of their exclusion, not only from Israel but their exclusion from a covenantal relationship with God and all of its benefits.

Paul's telling us that we need to see the enormity, the significance, of our exclusion, both from Israel and from God. Part of the reason is that perhaps the recipients had forgotten the gravity of the situation and had forgotten the Jewish heritage of their faith - something that is probably very true of us as well.

One of the major themes of the book of Ephesians is God's eternal purpose to bring all things together under Christ. Paul wrote in chapter 1 that God purposed "to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). What Paul writes here is significant not only for the Jewish/Gentile divide, but also for all the ways that people are excluded, even within the church. Most of us are tribal by nature. We divide by class, race, economics, age, music. This is true not only in society, which is very fragmented. It's also true within the church.

Paul says that we need to understand - not only understand, but feel - the significance of these divisions.

But then Paul applies the gospel to these differences.

You may be thinking, "What does the gospel have to do with any of this?" There's a lot of confusion about the gospel today. We tend to think it's about how someone becomes a Christian. For Paul, though, the gospel is much more comprehensive than that. The gospel isn't just about individual souls going to heaven. It's not just that God has reconciled us to himself; he's also reconciled us to each other.

Read what Paul says in verses 13 to 18:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Paul is clear: the solution to exclusion and alienation and division is nothing less than Jesus Christ and his work at the cross. Peace is found in a person: Jesus Christ. That's why verse 14 says, "He is our peace." He has overcome every division that separates Jews from Gentiles.

And you can't miss this. Before, the world was divided into two kinds of people: Jew and Gentile. But Paul says now there are three kinds of people: Jews, Gentiles, and the church. "His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two..." (Ephesians 2:15). There's a new category of people now. God has already begun to bring together people who would otherwise have nothing in common, and make them into a new people. In other passages, Paul make it clear that this obliterates all that separates us and makes us one in Christ Jesus. The Gospel is the good news that God reconciles us to himself, and also to one another.

This means, by the way, that whenever we separate in the church according to our distinctives - age, class, culture, economics, music - we're acting contrary to the nature of the gospel. One of the purposes of the church is to show to the world what it's like when God's reconciling power brings people together who would otherwise have nothing to do with each other. We're like a pilot project showcasing God's reconciling power. Tullian Tchividjian writes:

Plainly stated, building the church on age appeal (whether old or young) or stylistic preferences is as contrary to the reconciling effect of the Gospel as building it on class, race, or gender distinctions. Negatively, when the church segregates people according to generation, race, style, or socioeconomic status, we exhibit our disbelief in the reconciling power of the Gospel. Positively, one of the prime evidences of God's power to our segregated world is a congregation which transcends cultural barriers, including age.

The Gospel is the good news that God reconciles us to himself, and also to one another. It breaks down all the barriers and makes us into a new humanity in which all the divisions that separate us are destroyed.

Let's close with what this means for the church.

Verses 19 to 22 say:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

We're tempted today to think that the church is an optional extra. What matters is our relationship with God. Here, Paul challenges that view. He wants us to see who we really are. He gives us three images, and each one is more intimate than the one before:

  • We're citizens in God's nation. We're not second-class citizens. We're part of his kingdom, part of his new society.
  • But then it gets even tighter: members of his household. We're related by blood. If you're a fellow citizen, you're still distant. But if you're family, the ties are intimate and the bonds are tighter. We're related to each other. God has brought us into intimate relationship.
  • But then it gets even tighter. We, together, are the temple in which God lives. You're a living stone in God's dwelling place; we're part of where God has lives all throughout this earth. Alone you're just an isolated stone; together, we are where God himself has chosen to live.

Eight in ten Canadians say that you don't need to go to church to be a good Christian. Seventy percent of Christians say that their private beliefs are more important than the church. But that's not what Paul says. It's not private, and it's not even going to church. It's much more than that. It's that you become family, and together with other Christians, where God lives. You can't do that alone.

The Gospel is the good news that God reconciles us to himself, and also to one another. He's made us fellow citizens, family, and the dwelling place of God.

This all comes together as we come to the Lord's Supper this morning. What we're about to celebrate has different names. Eucharist means giving thanks; when we think of what Christ did at the cross for us, we have many reasons to give thanks. Communion refers to the communal nature of this meal.

In his sermon "The Sinner's Feast," Lee Eclov describes what this means:

This table is different. This table of the Lord isn't where sinners find Christ but where sinners celebrate being found ...

Maybe some morning, instead of solemnly passing these trays, we should dance for joy. Maybe we should sing every born-again song we know. Maybe we should tell our "homecoming" stories and laugh like people who no longer fear death. Maybe we should ask if anyone wants seconds and hold our little cups high to toast lost sisters found and dead brothers alive.

Let's celebrate communion this morning.

But God (Ephesians 2:1-10)

If you're like me, you've had a debate with yourself about when to go to the doctor and when not to go, because things will probably clear up on their own. I had something just the other week. I finally made an appointment after months of procrastination. Charlene said that it was great I finally made an appointment, but by the way things looked I'd probably be dead by Friday, the date of the appointment.

Not knowing when to go has terrible consequences. The Heart and Stroke Foundation says, "Thousands of Canadians die from heart attacks every year because they don't get medical treatment quickly enough. Learn to recognize the signals of a heart attack, so you can react quickly to save a life." People die because they think that they're only experiencing some other type of pain, when they're really experiencing something far more serious.

A similar thing happens spiritually. John Piper says that the passage we're looking at today contains a number of things that nobody really believes. If the passage before us is right, then a lot of us have misdiagnosed our condition, and the consequences can be fatal.

So let's look at what this passage says, first about our condition; then about the remedy; and then about the implications.

First, what is our condition?

Read verses 1 to 3 with me:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

In these first three verses, the apostle Paul gives us a true picture of the human condition. It's something that we're going to struggle with. This is a repugnant teaching, and for years people have objected to this. Ever since the Enlightenment, people have argued that children are born innocent, and we mess them up with our culture and education. Blaise Pascal, who is smarter than anyone I know, struggled with this doctrine but in the end had to say, "Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine, and yet, but for this mystery, the most incomprehensible of all, we remain incomprehensible to ourselves." Without understanding what Paul says here, we will remain incomprehensible to ourselves. We won't be able to make sense of our own lives, never mind the world around us.

So what is the human condition? Paul unpacks it in three ways. First, he says, humanity is dead. "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins." We are spiritually dead. We are not in danger of death; we are not half-dead; Paul says we are actually dead. To quote Piper again, we're in the morgue, not the doghouse. In the doghouse we can whimper, say sorry, and throw ourselves on God's mercy. But what can you do in the morgue? Nothing. This is the human condition. We are completely dead in our sins.

There are really three views of human nature out there. One is that humans are well, and there's nothing really wrong with us. They talk about the greatness of human potential. Some have believed this, but it's getting harder and harder with wars and guns and poverty and genocide. You can't really pick up the newspaper, or even look within our lives, and say that humanity is well, and there isn't anything wrong with us.

The second view of human nature is actually the most popular. It's the view that humanity isn't well; it's probably sick. We are capable of great evil, but with the right education, the right upbringing, we'll be okay. We're capable of choosing good or evil, and with the right effort and training we can choose to be good most of the time.

This is by far the most popular view, not just in the world but probably also in the church. If you believe that we're only sick, then what we need is someone to be our example or our teacher.

This leads to what is called Pelagianism, which is our default way of thinking, but it's also dead wrong. Pelagianism was originally taught by a man named Pelagian, who lived from 354 to about 420. He taught that Adam's sin set a bad example, but it didn't affect the rest of us. Human nature is fine, and we can choose good or evil ourselves. Some of you may remember being taught this in the Flintstones, if you used to watch it. Somebody would be whispering in one ear to do the right thing, someone else in the other ear to do something bad, and we get to choose.

There's another view, by the way, that's similar. It's called Semi-Pelagianism. It's the view that salvation is a joint effort between us and God, and that once we make the first move toward God, God does the rest. We don't have to remember the names Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism, but we have to remember that it's a serious mistake to think that we can contribute anything to our salvation, or even make the first move. It's far too serious for that.

But here Paul says that we're not well, and we're not even sick. There's nothing we can do. We can't make the first move; we can't do anything. We're dead. We're completely hopeless. Theologians call this total or pervasive depravity. Ever human has been affected in every area life, so that no part of the human person - mind, emotions, conscience, will - is unaffected by sin. Paul says that this is our condition. We're not well; we're not sick; we're actually dead in our sins.

It gets worse. You may be wondering how it could possibly get worse. Paul says that humanity is not only dead; humanity's enslaved. Verses 2 and 3 say:

...in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.

It's bad enough that we're spiritually dead, but the news gets worse. Humanity is enslaved to three forces over which we have no control:

  • One is the world - "the ways of the world," Paul says in verse 2. We're all influenced, far more than we think, by the society's attitudes, habits, and preferences. We're products of our culture - fashions, newspapers, and so on. But many of our culture's values are alien to God and his standards.
  • We're also sabotaged by the devil, "the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient." This is even more important for us to realize, because we often underestimate the power of the spirit world. Some overestimate Satan's influence; we probably ignore it too much. Satan has been defeated by Christ, but doesn't surrender without a struggle. He's a murderer and a liar, and he still continues his work.
  • Then there's our flesh - what Paul calls "the cravings of our sinful nature...following its desires and thoughts."

So humanity isn't sick, it's dead. And it's not just dead. It's in bondage to the world, the devil, and the flesh. But wait - it gets worse.

Paul also says that not only is humanity dead and enslaved; it's also condemned. Verse 3 says, "Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath." We read this and think, "You've got to be kidding. God's wrath?" Yes, wrath. Last weekend I got news that the daughter of a Fellowship pastor was murdered. I felt a lot of emotions, but one of them was wrath. Granted, it was not a completely just wrath. When you see the awfulness of sin, then it's completely just and reasonable that the holy wrath of God should be against it. God's wrath is consistent, just, controlled, and judicial. Paul says that by our very natures, we are all deserving the wrath of God.

This is very bad news. This isn't about a particularly bad segment about the population; this is about all of us.

As John Piper says, nobody really believes this:

The first thing I want to stress today is that these three things are not what you will find out about yourself in the newspaper or TIME or NEWSWEEK. They are not part of our cultural assumptions about mankind. Virtually no one, outside a fairly small group of evangelicals, seriously believes

  1. that without a Savior all people are dead in sin and incapable of any spiritual good; and
  2. that without a Savior all people are captured and blinded by an evil, supernatural person named Satan; and
  3. that without a Savior all people are under the wrath of God and sentenced to eternal torment in hell.

There are two fundamental reasons why these things are not believed:

  1. because they are unflattering to human nature, and
  2. because they have to be learned from God not man.

Because we don't believe this, we're open to superficial solutions that never really deal with how serious our condition is. If we misdiagnose our condition, then the results are disastrous.

The late Jack Miller, a pastor from Philadelphia, used to say, "Cheer up, you're worse than you think you are." The reason that Jack Miller could say this is because he knew what was coming next. What's coming next could be the two greatest words in the whole Bible. Paul has told us what our condition is. We need to ask:

Second, what is the remedy?

Verses 4 to 7 say:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

There are the two greatest words in all of the Bible: "But...God..." They're especially great when you realize that God didn't have to do anything. He could have left us in our natural state: dead, enslaved, and condemned. But then come these amazing two words. One of the best sermons that you could ever listen to comes from the Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He preached on these two words and said, "These two words ["But God"], in and of themselves, in a sense contain the whole of the gospel." They tell us what God has done, and how he has intervened in what would otherwise be a hopeless situation.

What has God done? He has "made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in transgressions." Notice when this happened: when we were dead. It's not like we were in the middle of getting our lives back together, or after we had made the first move. It's while we were still dead that God raised us into new spiritual life.

Verse 6 also says that we've been raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places. What Paul is saying is that we share in Christ's resurrection, ascension, and his reign. We were dead, enslaved, and condemned; now we're alive, free, and enthroned.

Why did God do it? Notice that it is not because of anything related to us. It wasn't prompted by our merits; it's entirely prompted by his own character. That's why we read about his love, mercy, grace, and kindness in this passage. We are saved entirely because of the undeserved favor of God, who has responded to us despite our desperate condition.

Remember what Jack Miller said? Let me give you the rest of what he said. "Cheer up: you're worse than you think you are, but God's grace is greater than you could ever imagine!"

I want to close with just two implications for us.

The implications come from verses 8 to 10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Just two things as we close. Paul says repeatedly in these last verses that all that we have in Christ is by grace. If we've been made right with God, it has nothing to do with us. Paul even says that the good works that we do as believers are a result of God's initiative. We can't take credit for them either. They are what God prepared in advance for us to do.

He applies this to us by saying that nobody can boast. Since we can take none of the credit, we can do none of the boasting. Those of us who trust Christ don't have to pretend we're better than we really are. We can face the truth about ourselves, because in our sin we have found God's grace, and that is more than enough. We can't take any credit.

One last thing. You see how we are saved: "by grace...through faith." Even our faith here is a gift from God; it's not anything we can take credit for. What is faith? I'll put it as simply as I can: belief and trust. If you believe what we've talked about today - that we're naturally dead, enslaved, and condemned, but that God has acted through Christ to save us because of his grace and mercy - then that's good. That's belief. But you also need trust. Trust is a heart response. It means responding to this message, casting yourself upon Christ, and accepting his work on your behalf.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says:

It is the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to understand, that confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; He does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work. He wants you alone...God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! The message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and your brothers, as if you were without sin; you can dare to be a sinner. (Life Together)

So come.