“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he 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 the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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 2:4-10
One of the classes I teach at Rochester University is called “Introduction to Christian Faith.” It is a course every student who attends RU is required to take. Several of us in the Department of Theology and Ministry teach this course, but we all use the same basic curriculum. I love that teaching this class is a continued reminder of the story of God; the story to which I have dedicated my whole self. As we move through the course, we remind each other frequently of the major plotlines in the Christian story: designed for good, damaged by evil, restoring for better, perfected for best. Keeping the trajectory of the story in mind is so important as we read the Bible. It keeps texts in context – not just the context of each individual book, but in the context of each genre, and the context of the whole story.
As I spent time with this text from Ephesians this week, one part immediately stood out: God in Christ is the protagonist in this text. According to Paul, Christ illuminates God’s purposes all along and invites us into this story which God has been forming since the beginning. God flings open the doors announcing good news for everyone through Christ – the one who gathers up all things in heaven and on earth (Eph 1:10).
Paul is writing to a Gentile church – those who have been grafted into the story of God first given flesh in the people of Israel. He reminds them of this in the passages just after our text today. In fact, this is the major emphasis in the New Testament letters written by Paul, sometimes quite explicitly but always in the background. The Holy Spirit continues to move out ahead of the church; in Acts, it’s all we can do to try and keep up with this very good news! And we need to remind ourselves of this extravagant good news: when God in flesh – Christ -enters the story it becomes clear that this is good news for all the nations. And remember, almost every time we encounter the word “you” in the Bible, it is plural – “ya’ll” or “you guys” or “all of you.” We don’t have the identifying tenses in English that we have in Greek to convey this. But, this emphasizes that this is not just a story for individuals (though, of course, it is personal, too), it is a story for communities – cities – nations.
This, finally, brings me back to this text in Ephesians – a text long cited in Christian circles as the pinnacle of “saved by faith alone” texts. Paul says, “by grace you have been saved.” Remember, also, the same Paul, in I Corinthians 15 says this, “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you, in turn, received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved…” Hum. Paul says that we “have been saved” in Ephesians and that we are “being saved” in I Corinthians.
This brings me full circle, reminding me of the tension we always have in the story of God. We live in the “restoring for better” stage of the story, the stage inaugurated by Christ, but the stage that comes before the “perfected for best” part of the story when all things will be made new – the final act of God’s story. In this tension, we sometimes use “already not yet” language. Yes, God, in Christ, has brought us from death to life. God, in Christ, inaugurated the kingdom of God in which even in this world, right now, we experience bursts of God-light shining through the shadows. And also, things are not yet right. We know this; we live this. God is making all things new. We are being saved.
So what, then, shall we say? Paul says this: “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” As God is making all things new, and as we are being saved, God is inviting us into this story – God has created us for this story. In Christ, we participate in God’s story of restoring for better – restoring for good. May we practice discerning the good.