Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“By Grace You Have Been Saved” (Ephesians 2:4-8)
March 11, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia I played on a soccer team for several years.  It was so much fun, and I made some great friends and ended up performing weddings and baptisms for several of my teammates.  I finally hung up my cleats in my mid-forties when I grew weary of the nagging injuries that were not healing nearly as fast as they had when I was younger.  In one of my last games our team of middle aged adults in denial was playing a team of intense law students from the University of Virginia, or to be more accurate, our team was being destroyed.

I was playing forward and noticed that the defender guarding me was wearing a shirt from the same high school from which I had graduated.  During a break in play I asked him, “Did you go to West Springfield High School?”  “Yeah.”  “Me too,” I continued, “When did you graduate?”  “2007,” he said.  Then there was an awkward pause because he was trying to be polite to his elders.  “Um…when did you graduate?”  I grinned, “1987.”  “Whoa!” he said, “that’s a long time ago!”  I was annoyed, “Yeah, but at least I’m still out here.”  He smirked, “For now.”

As a forward my job was very simple: to score goals or assist goals.  I scored plenty of goals and had plenty of assists but there were some wide open shots—some “sure thing” goals—that I missed.  One time I juked the goalie and was literally in front of an empty net and shanked the ball right over the crossbar.  The referee was more stunned than me, as he shook his head, “How could you miss that?”  I was not in the mood for conversation.  As I later obsessed about it, I watched Youtube videos of missed “sure thing” goals by some of the best soccer players in the world, prolific scorers like David Beckham and Lionel Messi—and was reminded that all of us are vulnerable to missing what it right in front of us.

When it comes to the heart of the gospel, today’s scriptures are like a wide open goal, an empty net, right in front of you.  They are passages you may have heard or read many times but you still may have missed it.  In today’s passage from his Letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul emphasizes the love of God:

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 (Ephesians 2:4-8).

There is a phrase Paul repeats in this passage, a phrase that sums up the heart of the gospel.  Did you catch it?  “By grace you have been saved,” Paul wrote, “by grace you have been saved.”  That is the heart of the gospel, the wide open goal, the empty net.  It is right in front of you: “by grace you have been saved.”

The grace of God Paul writes about refers to the unconditional love of God for you—love that depends on God, not you; love that has no ulterior motives, love that has no strings attached, love that has no catch.  Some people spend their whole lives looking for love like that, looking for grace from someone, grace from somewhere, as the late Tom Petty put in his song “Saving Grace,” the lead single from his 2006 album Highway Companion:

It’s hard to say who you are these days
But you run on anyway, don’t you, baby?
You keep running for another place
To find that saving grace

In today’s gospel passage John records Jesus’ words to a Pharisee named Nicodemus during a nighttime conversation on a rooftop, words that reveal the means by which we have been saved by the grace of God:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

John 3:16 (“God so loved the world…”) may be the most famous verse in the Bible but the following verse is often ignored—“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In the summer of 1977 my family spent a week at Virginia Beach.  I was eight years old and my dad rented me a raft—navy blue in the middle, yellow on the ends, with a small cord with which to hold on.  If you remember the movie Jaws, it was a raft exactly like the one used by the unfortunate boy in that film.  I spent the whole first day riding in wave after wave, all day long, so much fun.  The second day I thought I would try to go out a little further and a riptide unexpectedly whooshed me far away from shore.  It happened so fast.  All of a sudden the shore was far away.

There was a lifeguard standing atop his white wooden lifeguard chair blowing his whistle, waving with both arms at me to come back to shore.  I paddled as hard as I could, but to no avail.  I slid off the raft and tried doggy paddling and pulling the raft by the chord but when I remembered what happened to the boy in Jaws I immediately scrambled back onto the raft, and as I drifted farther and farther away from shore, my fear grew worse and worse.  I can count on one hand the number of times in my life I have been that scared.

Finally another lifeguard swam all the way out to me.  As he drew near my fear disappeared, and I slid off the raft and thought I would “help” him save me.  Ridiculous, right?  When he swam up to me he said something I will never forget, “I’ve got you, friend.”  He helped me get back on the raft he got me safely back to shore.  I could not save myself that day.  I did not need someone to blow their whistle and wave at me to come back to the shore—I was fully aware of that.  I needed someone to come save me, and the lifeguard did.

By grace you have been saved by Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Jesus did not come to condemn you.  Do you know why?  Because without the grace of God you would already be condemned.  If Jesus had come to condemn you instead of coming to save you, it would be like the lifeguard swimming out to me and rather than saving me, he would have treaded water while keeping his distance and perhaps said something like this, “Hey kid, you’re really far from shore.  Did you know that?  You should not be this far from shore.  It’s dangerous.  Didn’t you see the movie Jaws?  Remember what happened to that kid on the raft just like the raft you’re on?  Aren’t you afraid of sharks?  There might be sharks nearby, who knows?  I just wanted to tell you that, so good luck.  I’m swimming back to shore before the sharks get me.  Well, see you later…maybe.”

That may sound crazy but unfortunately that is the kind of message that the church sometimes offers helpless people who are far away from shore, helpless people who cannot get themselves back safely no matter how hard the church blows its whistle and waves its arms, helpless people who are in danger, helpless people who are really, really scared.  Scripture tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” that “he had compassion on them” (Matthew 9:36).  In other words, Jesus did not blow his whistle and wave for you to come back to shore; he swam out to you personally to bring you back to shore.  Jesus did not come to condemn you; he came to save you…“by grace you have been saved.”

I have been slowly rereading one of my favorite novels, Victor Hugo’s epic nineteenth century masterpiece, Les Miserables (yes, the unabridged edition).  No other novel I have ever read is as saturated with grace as this one.  Grace is the recurring theme of Les Miserables from start to finish.  You are likely familiar with the story.  One of the main characters, Jean Valjean, is released from prison after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and multiple escape attempts.  A kind bishop gives him shelter and in return he steals his silverware and flees.  When captured by gendarmes and taken back to the bishop’s residence the bishop shocked Jean Valjean with grace, telling the gendarmes that he had given the stolen items to him, and then giving him his two silver candlesticks on top of it—“Ah, there you are!…I’m glad to see you.  But I gave you the candlesticks too, which are silver like the rest…Why didn’t you take them along with your cutlery?” (Signet classics edition 103).  That grace changed the course of Jean Valjean’s life.

Many years later Jean Valjean, who had changed his name and gone on to become a wealthy businessman and mayor, learned that a man named Champmathieu had been misidentified as Jean Valjean and was on trial.  Champmathieu was the same age and build as Jean Valjean, but was very simple minded, and confused by the whole situation.  Jean Valjean is consumed with stress and stays up into the night, pacing the floor, caught on the horns of a true dilemma—either letting Champmathieu go to prison while he continues his charitable life that is helping so many people, or turning himself in and returning to the awful prison in order to set Champmathieu free.  You know what Jean Valjean did.  He entered the court and revealed his identity as the true Jean Valjean, demonstrating that fact beyond the shadow of a doubt, which stunned everyone present, as Hugo wrote:

It was clear that Jean Valjean was standing there before them.  That fact was beyond dispute.  The arrival of this man had been enough to clear up the case, so obscure a moment before.  Without need for any further explanation, the whole crowd, as if by a sort of electric revelation, instantly understood, and at one glance, this simple and marvelous story of a man giving himself up so that another man would not be condemned in his place (278).

What happened to Champmathieu?  Hugo concludes the episode this way:

Less than hour later, the verdict of the jury discharged from all accusation the said Champmathieu; and Champmathieu, immediately set free, went on his way, stupefied, thinking all men mad and understanding nothing of this whole fantastic vision (279).

Before dying on the cross, Jesus stayed up into the night pacing and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and you know what he did.  He was condemned in your place, and died on the cross in order to save you.  The gospel is indeed, as Victor Hugo wrote, the “simple and marvelous story of a man giving himself up so that another man would not be condemned in his place.”

And after Jesus died, guess who was there to help take Jesus’ body down from the cross?  Nicodemus the Pharisee, the same one Jesus had told:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

Jesus had not come to condemn Nicodemus, but to save him.  Nicodemus had been saved by grace, grace that was right in front of him.

And this same grace of God is right in front of you.  You do not need to “keep running for another place to find that saving grace” because “by grace you have been saved,” saved by the One who even now swims out to you in the places where you are helpless and far away from shore and gently says, “I’ve got you, friend.”