Strengthening the Core

Ephesians 2:1-22
David A. Davis
September 18, 2016

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” It’s a difficult piece of scripture to read out loud. It’s a long sentence. The sentence actually continues one more verse: “so that in in the ages to come God might show the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in in the ages to come God might show the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” The length isn’t the tough part; it’s that abrupt insertion, that phrase that interrupts the grammar, that affirmation that Paul seems to blurt out in the text. How are you supposed to vocalize that?

By grace you have been saved. Stuck right in there in the middle of that long sentence. It’s not just awkward to read out lout, it’s kind of awkward period. Clunky, jarring. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The New Revised Standard Version that I read to you uses punctuation marks for assistance to the reader. A dash before and after to set the phrase apart. Other translations use parentheses. One breaks up the long sentence, uses an exclamation point, and makes it an imperative: You have been saved by God’s grace! One of my living, breathing sources down the street assures me that that grammar in Greek doesn’t make it any easier. While it doesn’t seem to be the case that some later author or scribe came along and inserted the phrase or transcribed it in the wrong place, it is nonetheless abrupt in the Greek text as well. In fact the Greek has the dashes as well. By grace you have been saved (with a yell). By grace you have been saved (with a whisper). By grace you have been saved (slowly).

Think how a composer, a playwright, a novelist, a poet may tag or foreshadow something important early in a piece of work. An image is casually introduced only to become fraught with meaning as the play moves on, the narrative develops, the poem peaks. The cellos play just a few bars that stand out early but that tune comes back to dominate the melody and moves through the orchestra the rest of the way. Perhaps what we have here in Ephesians is Paul’s offering of a theological foreshadowing. It’s a tag, a teaser for what comes more beautifully, and a whole lot smoother, a verse later: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God… It’s just that there’s nothing all that subtle or artful about how Paul introduces it here in Ephesians 2. By grace you have been saved.

Imagine the father who takes his child along on a shopping trip to prepare for mom’s birthday. Cards, a cake, some presents from both husband and daughter. On the way home they talk about keeping the secret until the birthday dinner the next day when Grandma was coming over. That excited four-year-old doesn’t get two steps into the house before she shouts out, “Mommy, mommy we got you a watch for your birthday!” Excitement can be better than surprise. Maybe the Apostle Paul just couldn’t hold back when it came to that theological exclamation that rests at the core of the gospel. By grace you have been saved.

Or think of two falling in love. It’s one of those “O.R. conversations,” as in “our relationship.” Amid the back and forth and circling around and attempts to clarify feelings and stomach knots and butterflies in the heart, one of the two says it, kinds of sneaks it in, less like a blurting out, more like air squeaking out of a balloon: “I, I love you.” Maybe Paul was searching for the right phrase, stumbling for the right way to say it, trying to describe all that God has done for us in Christ. By grace you have been saved. Yes, yes, I said. That’s right. So he comes back to it with confidence. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

Paul drops it in here in the middle of that thought, that long sentence about the great love with which God loved us. But he could have interrupted a whole lot of other places too. God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made Christ the head of over all things for the church — by grace you have been saved — which is body, the fullness of him who fills all in all… But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ — by grace you have been saved… For Christ is our peace… In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord — by grace you have been saved — in whom you also were built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. Maybe Paul was introducing the memorable phrase as a refrain of the faith, a rallying cry, a chant to pass on to your children. Like “USA, USA” or “JETS” or “Bruuuuce,” as in Bruce Springsteen. Passing that kind of stuff on to your kids. It’s just good parenting. “Saved by grace. Saved by grace. Saved by grace.” Of if your texting, “SBG”!

You remember that the Apostle Paul is the one who crafted the most complex and coherent of theological arguments in Romans. And the Apostle Paul is the one who created the beautiful ode to love in I Corinthians (though it had nothing to do with marriage). Paul made those list of spiritual gifts and the sins of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. And he so artfully describes his own struggle, and his own faith, and his own conversion. In the annals of New Testament criticism, scholars have debated whether Paul wrote Ephesians or whether it was one his followers. Here this morning the intrigue is much simpler. It’s about these awkward, dropped in, abrupt, urgent, parenthetical few words that ought to at least give us pause. By grace you have been saved.

Presbyterians have forever run their meetings and process discussions and decision-making by Robert’s Rules. When calling for the vote, the moderator says, “All in favor, please say, ‘Aye.’” It’s a simple way to offer an affirmation, to say yes. “Aye.” It’s a common answer in a crossword puzzle that links saying yes with Scottish, Celtic heritage. There’s nothing like several weeks on the Island of Islay in Scotland to change forever how you think, how you hear, how you experience a simple “aye.” To say that it is a common expression among those we talked to on Islay would be an understatement. To conclude that it is a synonym for “yes” is just not enough. It is “yes” and “excuse me” and “you bet” and “of course” and “what” and “awesome” and “dude” and “mate” and “I can help you” and “over here” and “please” and “thank you” all rolled into one. Whenever I was struggling to understand in a conversation after church or at the pub or in the checkout line, I always knew what someone meant when they said “aye”… even though it means so much and so many things. Maybe I’m all wrong but it seems like an expression that comes from a deeper place, deeper within, deeper in culture, deeper in context.

I was standing with the funeral director next to the open grave as the bap piper started to play. He had led us from the church up the hill to the cemetery as we followed the casket. Now the committal was finished and he was playing again as folks shared hugs and tears all around. He was a very young piper and close to the family. I learned later it was his first time playing at a funeral. As I watched and listened, I realized he was crying. He was playing the bagpipes through tears. I said to the funeral director in a soft voice, “Have you ever seen a piper cry like that?” He shook his head no, never took his eyes off the young man, never looked at me, and said, “Aye.” It was like he was saying “my, my, my” or “Lord have mercy.” Aye.

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. An affirmation for Paul that wells up inside, comes from deeper, ignores the rules of grammar. Rather than blurting it out, or sneaking it in or dropping the mic, what if it’s more like a surprising groan, a kind of guttural affirmation about God’s love and mercy that comes from deep within, one of those expressions that leaves the lips and someone says, “You know I can hear you, right?” By grace you have been saved. Kind of prayer-like. Aye.

Princeton, West Windsor, Montgomery, Bucks County, the University, the Seminary. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but you and I live in communities where there is no shortage of opinion about pretty much everything. When we first moved to Princeton, I coached Little League with a guy who told me “Princeton is a town where people have lots of opinions and the time and inclination to express them.” Most of us, if we’re honest, fit right in. And we could all benefit from a rule-breaking, grammar-shaking reminder that it is only by God’s grace, that it is nothing other than God’s grace, that without God’s grace… by grace you have been saved. Aye.

It’s not only the new students around here that bask in the glow of an admissions office stamp of approval. Every one of us walks the campus of our lives trying to be smart enough, rich enough, connected enough, fit enough, hip enough, liberal enough, conservative enough, organic enough. We could all benefit from an abrupt, guttural reminder that it is only by God’s grace, that it is nothing other than God’s grace, that without God’s grace… by grace you have been saved. Aye.

An urgent, interrupting, intrusive, disturbing, awkward groan that attests to God’s mercy and love for you. You don’t have to understand it, or figure it out, or explain it. You don’t have to be right, or particularly pious, or sign on the dotted line of beliefs A to Z. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. You and I, living to God’ glory. And it is only by God’s grace, it is nothing other than God’s grace, without God’s grace… by grace you have been saved. Aye.

© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.