Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10
Once upon a time……
There’s a wealth of storied history and legend that follows those words, is there not?
Once upon a time, a man named Odysseus set out on a journey……
Once upon a time, Hansel & Gretel wandered into the woods……
Once upon a time, a mermaid named Ariel caught a glimpse of a human……
Once upon a time, a young Arthur discovers a sword in a stone in a churchyard……
Once upon a time, a small group of persecuted British Christians started a church that called itself “Baptist”……
Once upon a time, the American colonists grew weary of being treated as second-class citizens and said “Enough!”……
Once upon a time, a teenager named Claudette Colvin refused to get up from her seat on the bus, inspiring a woman named Rosa Parks to do the same, who in turn inspired a Baptist minister named Martin King……
Once upon a time, God created the heavens and the earth……
Once upon a time, a baby was born in Bethlehem……
Once upon a time, a cross was erected in Jerusalem……
Once upon a time……
Paul’s “Once up a Time……”
In today’s scripture lesson, Paul is telling a “once upon a time” story.
Once upon a time (he shows us), we were citizens of this world. Our allegiance was to this world—its ways, its laws; its behaviors, its promises; its hopes, its dreams. But in this once upon a time, our allegiance was also to the ruler of this world, though we did not even know we were forming this allegiance.
We didn’t realize it because this ruler taught us to live for ourselves, that nothing is wrong unless it hurts someone, that if it feels good it must be good, that external struggles are worse than internal struggles, and that my rights are more important than yours.
Even though this world and its ruler taught us that these things lead to a full and complete life, God has revealed it to be a lie. These things damage our health, our relationships, our communities, and our planet.
But they also damage the connection we have with God. They are modern manifestations of the same temptation that felled our first ancestors in the Garden of Eden. Then—as now—the temptation is to decide for yourself what is right and pleasing and good, instead of trusting the God who brought all things into being.
Paul says that “once upon a time” this was everyone’s story. Because once upon a time we didn’t know God. Once upon a time we did live for ourselves. Once upon a time we pledged allegiance to nation and flag and culture, and we believed that was the highest allegiance that was due to anyone beyond our own person. That is the way “in which you used to live,” as Paul says in the first verse.
But there’s a but. Or at least there’s supposed to be. “But God”……
Hereafter we discover an abbreviated telling of an incredible story—one fit for the ages, for sure! It has a hero and villains, comedy and tragedy, suspense and romance, and a plot twist more unexpected than that of The Sixth Sense. Paul says:
“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.” (Ephesians 2:4–7 NRSV)
As one of our old hymns tells it:
One day when Heaven was filled with His praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin,
Dwelt among men, my example is He!
One day they led Him up Calvary’s mountain,
One day they nailed Him to die on the tree;
Suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is He!
One day they left Him alone in the garden,
One day He rested, from suffering free;
Angels came down o’er His tomb to keep vigil;
Hope of the hopeless, my Savior is He!
One day the grave could conceal Him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door;
Then He arose, over death He had conquered;
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore!
This amazing thing has happened—and not just in the past, but in our lives today. God has made us alive through Christ, saving us by God’s grace and on account of God’s great love for us.
After such a dramatic change of circumstances, Paul expects our priorities are going to shift. We will respond to God’s liberating love with the recognition that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” as we read in v.10 (NIV). And as a result, we will spend our new, redeemed, transformed, liberated lives allowing Christ to live through us, as Paul says in Galatians 2:20.
Instead of pledging allegiance to this world, its powers, and its empty promises, we now pledge allegiance to God’s Kingdom. When we confess that Jesus is Lord, we confess that Caesar is not. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom overrides our citizenship in any worldly nation. If we have “by grace been saved” as Paul insists twice—twice!!—in these verses, then that “once upon a time” is not going to describe the way our present life is lived.
But my “once upon a time” (the description of my life before my commitment to follow Jesus) too often describes the current events of my life.
Too often my transgressions and sin bring death to my life—the death of relationships, the death of possibilities, the death of hopes, and even very real physical death.
Too often I still follow the ways of this world.
Too often my cravings for donuts and coffee and Thai food and books and buying and learning and indulging and consuming and possessing take precedence in my life over everything that is really important.
Too often, my allegiance is fractured at best, all while Jesus himself reminds us that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Matthew 12:25 NRSV).
This isn’t a guilt-trip sermon. You all know I don’t approve of those. Instead, this is a sermon about our honest confession that where we are doesn’t line up with where we are called to be. There are things that have become entangled with our faith that have more to do with politics than the bible. There are confessions we make religiously that are nothing more than our regional cultural identity.
And (of course) there’s nothing inherently wrong with these other parts of our identity. In fact, to deny that they shape us is both dishonest and it hinders the Cause of Christ (or so I believe). But they are not to be where our primary allegiance lies. And they should not be allowed to contradict the priorities, values, and purposes of our primary identity as the Beloved of God, citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Paul’s Conversion & Commitment
Sometimes I get frustrated with Paul. He has this amazing “Road to Damascus” conversion experience, filled with shining light, voices from the sky, and being changed inside and out forever. But Paul doesn’t seem to always understand that not everyone has encountered God in that kind of way. Maybe Paul can turn 180 degrees in a couple days, but most of us can’t go half that far in a lifetime.
But then again, I don’t think Paul’s transformation was quite as instant or complete as we often imagine. He left for Damascus that day with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. When he began laboring for Christ instead of against Christians, he did it with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. Maybe there was a subtler shift than we—or he—realized.
But regardless, no one can doubt that Paul knew what it meant to confess that Jesus is Lord.
It landed him in prison.
It got him beaten.
It led him to advocate against slavery and for women’s rights in ways that were radical then, but (admittedly) seem backwards today.
He went toe-to-toe with Jesus’s disciples and expanded their conception of Jesus’s liberating work.
He went toe-to-toe with pagan leaders, judges, soldiers, and even (according to John Chrysostom) with Caesar Nero himself before Paul was killed—beheaded, according to tradition—because his allegiance rested unequivocally with Jesus and God’s Kingdom.
Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t.
It’s a hard truth for us to live into. It’s a harder truth for this world and its powers to accept.
May God help us put to death our allegiance to this world, so our allegiance to the Kingdom of God might be completely undivided.