“By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5).
“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound/ that saved a wretch like me! /I once was lost, but now am found, /was blind but now I see” (Hymnal, 617). You all know the hymn, an ever-popular American standard, even heard outside of churches. Not too many hymns can claim that. Old time Episcopalians have probably forgotten that it only came into our hymnal in 1982: before that, most likely considered too revivalist for our liturgy. John Newton wrote the words in the eighteenth century, turning from life as a slave trader to a new, converted life as an Anglican priest. There it is, a much-loved hymn, celebrating the amazing grace of God.
In our reading today from the Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul lays out the doctrine of grace on which Newton constructed his hymn. “By grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5), St. Paul writes, inviting us to consider the foundation of our salvation. He describes our situation: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived,” he writes (Eph. 2:1); “we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” (Eph. 2:3), St. Paul writes.
We were lost, in other words, as Newton puts it in the hymn; we were blind, again as he says, not able to see the truth about ourselves. Paul posits that we were in need of help, but in no fit state to admit it! Human beings have enormous powers of self-deception, and an unwillingness at the same time to admit how powerless they are in the face of sin and death. I speak as a fellow sufferer in the human condition. We’re all sinners here.
So that’s the situation, according to St. Paul, and according to Newton’s beloved hymn. God’s remedy is grace, as we know from the hymn, and our reading today speaks to the point. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us” (Eph. 2:4), as it says in the letter, saved us, raising us up with Christ to the heavenly places. Grace is God’s mercy, extended to us as a gift; as St. Paul says, it’s not our own doing, not the result of our own works (Eph. 2:8-9). If it were, we would have some ground for boasting, but we don’t. Salvation is gratuitous, graceful, a free gift: nothing to feel self-satisfied about. It’s something we are properly grateful for, because we didn’t make it, earn it, or construct it for ourselves.
There is a string of associations here, when St. Paul talks about grace. The first is the mercy of God, as we’ve already heard: grace extended to us out of mercy when we needed it. The second is the words “immeasurable riches” (Eph. 2:7) used by Paul to describe grace: something precious and hard to quantify or commodify. Another is the “kindness” of God (Eph. 2:7), giving us another take on mercy. And finally, there is the word “faith,” when we hear St. Paul’s great theme again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Faith: our trust in God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and who is able to save us as well.
You might say that grace is the wide margin on which we stand as human beings. God has cut us a great deal of slack. We are constantly dependent on things that we are not responsible for. Our whole lives are a gift from God, who made us and brought us into existence. God made all things, and human beings in his image. Look around you as you drive home today, with all the signs of spring: all of it a gift, springing out of the divine imagination. Absolutely a free gift, nothing we made or which we merited; yet a fitting gift, for which human beings are properly thankful.
On this ground of creation, God has given us an even greater gift, and that is Jesus Christ our Lord. Grace comes through Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection. As St. Paul says in our reading today, “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” (Eph. 2:10). God may have cut us a great deal of slack, but that doesn’t mean we can be slackers. Grace for living a transformed life is made available to us in the Holy Eucharist, as we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. Our re-creation in him makes us who we are: children of God and heirs of eternal life.
Lent has the power to remind us, every year, of the ground on which we stand, as human beings and as Christians. That ground is Jesus Christ himself. Lent takes us back to consider who we are in relation to God, and points us forward to the great hope of Easter.