Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ephesians 2:4 part three

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved) . . . (Ephesians 2:4).

Several lessons ago (see here) we examined what it means to have been dead in our transgressions. And in the most recent study we looked at the reason for God’s mercy. This time we will look at the recipients of God's mercy.

I think it is both important and illustrative that St. Paul uses the personal pronouns "we" and "our" in this passage. "We were dead in our transgressions."

Remember, the apostle's background as a Pharisee instructed his faith to believe only Jews -- to be specific, only Jews who obeyed the laws and rituals of Jewish faith -- were pleasing to God. Only they were -- in New Testament parlance --"saved."

But Paul's theology got a complete overhaul when he encountered his risen Messiah on that road to Damascus, and he was infused with the Holy Spirit. We see some evidence of that overhaul in his letter to the Church at Philippi:

If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . . and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.

That's why the Pharisee-turned-apostle used the personal pronouns we and our in this text to the Church at Ephesus. Paul recognized that although he thought he was "saved" because of his meticulous attention to the tenets of his Jewish faith -- he was, in reality, dead.

That's a hard place -- a humiliating place -- to be: to think you are pleasing God, only to discover your sins have made you a corpse.

But Paul also recognized -- and this is key to our study today -- Paul also recognized the reason he and those in the Church at Ephesus were "alive." They were alive because of -- and only because of -- God's grace. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church says what it does, for example, here, here, here and here.

Grace is what we call God's undeserved and unmerited mercy toward us. As St. Paul wrote to his disciple, Titus:

[God] saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:5-6).

And as St. Augustine would later write: It is not that we keep [God's] commandments first, and then He loves us; but that He loves us, and then we keep His commandments. This is that grace which is revealed to the humble, but hidden from the proud.

St. Paul's discussion of God's grace flows through the next few verses and culminates in his addendum in verse 8 and 9 to this parenthetical text in verse 4. We'll look more closely at that later.

Questions for Reflection:

1. Read this text from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. What does this passage mean to you in view of today's study about grace?

2. Former slave trader, John Newton, wrote the words to a hymn you might recognize: 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.

Have you ever considered yourself "a wretch" and "lost"? If so, reflect on the many times God's undeserved kindness and mercy flowed over your life, and sustained you even to this moment.

3. Re-read the the Catechism (para 2009): What does the last clause of this section mean to you: "Grace has gone before us . . . Our merits are God's gifts"?

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