Transforming Grace

The old Peanuts cartoon has Snoopy on top of his doghouse, anxiously waxing philosophical, asking:

“Where am I going?  What am I doing? What is the meaning of life?”

snoopy

Deep questions, certainly.  Trouble is, do we find ourselves asking that question enough?  What is the point of our life – of any life? What am I doing about it?  Does the direction I go make a difference?

For Paul, these were the big questions.  They were the questions he gave the rest of his life to understand and to give an answer for on behalf of everyone he encountered.  His own life was his biggest and best answer. He had been living the life of the upward and respected. He knew “what was what” and he worked hard to maintain his place in Jewish and Roman life.  But, one day, on the road to put those pesky Christians in their place, he met Jesus. And life as he knew it changed. What was up became down. And he understood love, mercy and grace for the first time.  For the first time, Paul didn’t and couldn’t earn his way. It was freely given. Which made him want to do a whole lot.  Not for himself but for everyone else. Because he now possessed a grateful heart.  Everything now was gift and the gift needed to be shared, not hoarded.

This is what led Paul to write all those letters, as difficult as they are to understand, sometimes.  Like Christ was transformed on the other side of the resurrection, so too was Paul on the other side of Damascus and so too are each of us every time the Spirit shows us just how out of control we really are, left on our own, yet how very blessed we have become to be called children of God.

So transformation is the heart of the matter of the lesson for this Sunday as it is also at the heart of the letter to the Ephesians.  God’s grace has transformed us to understand our whole existence, our direction, our whole purpose in a different light. We are fundamentally different creatures with a different purpose after our baptism.  The tension that remains is we live in a hostile world that either is looking in the dark while asking the same questions as snoopy or has completely ordered their lives around a purpose that amounts to little more than “me.”

For those of us who are new creations in Christ, Paul wants us to remember where, like himself, we have all come from.  And for those who haven’t yet discovered their potential newness, the household of God is to be a clear signpost for the hope they can have in a new life and purpose in Christ, and a firm direction for getting there.

The best I can do to help you guide your class in encountering Paul’s message is offer my own visual summation of Paul’s message in Ephesians 2 and to offer two perspectives from theologians much better versed in communicating just what transformation is.

First, I offer you Eugene Peterson’s overview of Ephesians.  To understand Paul’s overarching goals in his letter is to better understand his reasoning in chapter two.

What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives.  The moment the organic unity of belief and behavior is damaged in any way, we are incapable of living out the full humanity for which we were created.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians joins together what has been torn apart in our sin-wrecked world.  He begins with an exuberant exploration of what Christians believe about God, and then, like a surgeon skillfully setting a compound fracture, “sets” this belief in God into our behavior before God so that the bones – belief and behavior – knit together and heal.

Once our attention is called to it, we notice these fractures all over the place.  There is hardly a bone in our bodies that has escaped injury, hardly a relationship in city or job, school or church, family or country, that isn’t out of joint or limping in pain.  There is much work to be done.

And so Paul goes to work.  He ranges widely, from heaven to earth and back again, showing how Jesus, the Messiah, is eternally and tirelessly bringing everything and everyone together.  He also shows us that in addition to having this work done in and for us, we are participants in this most urgent work. Now that we know what is going on, that the energy of reconciliation is the dynamo at the heart of the universe, it is imperative that we join in vigorously and perserveringly, convinced that every detail in our lives contributes (or not) to what Paul describes as God’s plan worked out by Christ, “a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.  -Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Ephesians, The Message.

Our goal as teachers is much the same as Paul’s. To help Christ-followers understand that to celebrate the gift of God’s grace without any sign of real transformation is to miss the point entirely.  To be a new creation in Christ is just that – we are changed people; transformed, with a new way of seeing, understanding and relating to the world around us.  We have the answers Snoopy is looking for. Yet transformation most of the time isn’t the flash of blinding light Paul experienced. Rather, it is a gradual change that requires the prayers and the practice of a people, together.  It takes work. The church encourages this change in one another, but not for the sake of the church or ourselves. Instead, this transformation, though meaningful and deep, is for the sake of the world.

To better compare and contrast what Paul is describing in Ephesians 2, I’ve drawn a little diagram: image002

Lastly, one of the most creative storytellers and theologians in our recent history is Frederick Buechner.  Follow this link to read a moving description of Paul’s transformation and the different and purposeful work that came out of Paul’s conversion.  It is worth the read and paints a beautiful picture of the transformation found in embracing God’s grace. Good work doesn’t earn us a place in God’s good grace but God’s good grace motivates us to work to reflect a good and loving God.

Questions:

  • How do you know when someone has changed (transformed)?
  • Is all change good?
  • What makes for good change?
  • Is change easy?
  • In a system that elevates the individual above a community, what will be the sacred cows that stand in the way of transformation to Christ-likeness?

One New People – January 15, 2017

Our Formations lesson this week is a good one.  Its one that is especially timely and challenging for us at the outset of 2017.  Our focus has been on Christ Our Savior.  If we believe Christ is our savior, then our habits, actions, and words should reflect this fact.  Our lessons have been looking at different behaviors in which this truth should be clearly visible.  First, we have considered what we are willing to loose or give up so that we can fully follow Jesus.  Last week we considered what we have been saved from and for what we are being saved.
This Sunday we consider how, in Christ, we are a new, unified people.  The key question is:  Whom do I need to embrace as a brother or sister in Christ?  This is timely as we stand a week away from the inauguration of a new president and one day from MLK day observance.  On many fronts, 2016 was a year that our nation and even the whole world seemed divided.  This includes people of faith.  How are Paul’s words instructive to followers of Christ, who are to be a witness to God’s unified and coming kingdom?

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