Free at Last!
(Ephesians 2: 1-10)
If thirty-five years in the Criminal Justice System taught me anything, it showed me that there are no depths a person will not sink to in order to satisfy their need for sinful pleasures. My first real exposure was as a young police officer for the City of Houston in the late 70s and early 80s. In uniform, I patrolled an area of Houston that was known for its many guilty pleasures. Drugs and vice activities were literally on every corner. Male and female street prostitutes and hustlers lined the streets. There were bars and nightclubs of every sort that catered to just about every kind of fantasy. There were more adult bookstores than convenience stores. When the sun went down out came what we called “the nightcrawlers”. Men and women came in from miles around seeking their temporary thrill. It was a freak show to say the least. As uniformed officers, our job was to keep a lid on the festivities. When I went undercover, my partners and I got to mix and mingle with these obsessed pleasure-seekers. One of the things that really struck me was that I began to recognize faces as we would see the same people several nights a week out on the prowl desperately searching to satisfy their illicit cravings. I often wondered what they thought when they would see me night after night. Did they think I had a problem and really needed to get help? Did they acknowledge that they had a problem but, at least, they weren’t as sick as I was? I came to realize they were trapped in sin, held hostage to their carnal and worldly desires. When caught and confronted their common rationalization was, “I’m not hurting anyone but myself. This is a victimless crime.” I don’t recall if I ever got into any detailed conversations with those I arrested, who were mostly men, but I often wondered if their spouses and families knew about their illicit activities or if they ever thought about the amount of money they were spending to satisfy their cravings that could have been better spent on their children. They were under arrest and their freedom was at stake. They wanted to be free from the judicial system but the freedom they really longed for was to be free from their self-imposed bondage to sin. They wanted a way out. They wanted to be free, free at last, to live again, like a human being.
In Paul’s letter to the church in the city of Ephesus, he writes to them about being saved from sin to a life of freedom in Jesus Christ. Paul had spent three years helping to build this church so he knew them pretty well and they held a special place in his heart. In our scripture for today, he starts out by reminding them that at one time they were like a dead person because of the things they did wrong and their offenses against God. He points out that they used to live like the people of this world, following the rule of a destructive spiritual power. He says that this is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. He reminds them that all of them used to do whatever felt good and whatever they thought they wanted so that they were children headed for punishment just like everyone else. However, Paul says, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. Paul explains that God did this for us because of the great love that he has for us and that we, like the Ephesians, are saved by God’s grace. Paul assures his readers that God has raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus. He tells them that they have been saved by God’s grace because of their faith and that this salvation is God’s gift. He tells them that it is not something they already possessed or something they did that they can be proud of. Instead, he says, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. A powerful message for anybody mired in sin and degradation who wonders if this is all there is to life and asks if there is any meaning or purpose to even being born. Such a life was never part of God’s plan.
I am reminded of Paul’s statement in Romans 3: 23, 24, where he says, All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. This is not a very exclusive club. Anybody can be a member. What Paul is talking about is those people who have succumbed to the power of their sin and are manipulated by it. They are fallen beings indulging their sinful desires who, as John Wesley once observed, “are dead; absolutely void of all spiritual life.” They are dead, lifeless, living in misery. But the good news is that God’s mercy removes misery and his love confers salvation. Now, this salvation of which we so often speak, is not some sort of self-help program in which you can enroll. It’s not a 12-step program. All that is required is that you take one step. It is not something merited or that you can earn, but it is rather God’s gift of grace that transforms the spiritually dead into a living condition. As Christians are God’s handiwork; God’s extreme makeover of spiritually dead persons enables them to do the good works God prepared beforehand. God is a master at taking a damaged human being and setting them on the right path, empowering them to do the ministry set before them by God as he had planned.
Only we can set this transformation in motion by repenting of our sins and seeking God’s forgiveness. When we awaken to our sin, we tire of the anguish of our bondage to it, we ask for God’s help. God does not force the transformation on us; we must seek adoption into his family. Adopted as a brother or sister to Jesus Christ. God completes the transformation. It is God who, hearing our cries and caring for us like a loving parent, now infuses our lives with heavenly healing light. When this transformation takes place, our consciousness is dominated no longer by sin and law but by God’s capacity to love, reconcile, and make new. We have that experience of adopted children where once we felt abandoned to the power and principalities, but now rely on the warmth and help of a loving parent. Once we were bound by fear, but now we are marked with the holiness and happiness that characterizes the family of God.
At this point, we have to remind ourselves that it is not just Christians that can do good things and be good people. On the contrary, many people do good to others and are not Christians or even believe in God. They are moral, kind and law-abiding. They make wonderful neighbors and they have many of the same issues we have. We’re happy to have them working right alongside us as we endeavor to fix society’s problems. But on God’s absolute scale, no one is good enough to earn salvation. Only through being united with Christ’s perfect life can we become good in God’s sight. We’ve been given a gift and the proper response is to be thankful and reflect it in our daily lives.
If you have ever begged God’s forgiveness for those events in your life for which you are not proud, for which you are ashamed, then you remember the great relief you experienced when the guilt and shame left your troubled mind. You remember the great weight that was lifted from your shoulders and, how at that point in time, you experienced freedom, true freedom from the bondage of sin and oppression. The future suddenly seemed brighter and promising. You began looking ahead of yourself and not backwards to what was pulling you down. We must never forget our past, the condition from which Jesus saved us. Those memories are the best fuel for our gratitude to Christ for all he has done on our behalf.
We become Christians through God’s unmerited grace, not as a result of any effort, ability, intelligent choice, or act of service on our part. However, out of gratitude for the free gift, we will seek to help and serve others with kindness, love and gentleness, and not merely to please ourselves. While no action or work we do can help us obtain salvation, God’s intention is that our salvation will result in acts of service. We are not saved merely for our own benefit, but to serve Christ and build up the church. We are free, free at last, to live as God intended, enjoying our lives in him and through him as we daily seek to do his will and his work.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and loving God, how grateful we are for the free gift of salvation we have through the sacrifice of your son, Jesus Christ. We know that we have fallen short of your glory and there are times to come when we might fail you again. We take comfort in the knowledge that you love us unconditionally, as a loving parent who always has our best interest at heart. Merciful God, hear our prayers and confessions for the wrongs we have committed. Free us of our guilt and shame and restore our souls so that we may live a life that brings you honor and glory and serves as an example to others who have fallen that there is forgiveness and a better life to be lived in your service. In the name of your loving son, Jesus Christ, we pray, Amen