“I Am A Saint”
There’s a true story about a little girl who experienced two adoptions. She never integrated well with the biological children of her first family, and so after a rough couple of years the family dissolved the adoption. As an eight-year-old she was adopted again.
For one reason or another whenever her first adoptive family vacationed at Disney World they took their biological children, but left her home with a family friend. She was left thinking that it was something she did wrong that barred her from the trip.
By the time she was with her second family, she’d seen many pictures of Disney World, heard a lot about the rides, the characters, and the parades, but never passed through the magical gates. When her new father learned of this, he made plans to take the family to Disney World.
From past experience he knew that the prospect of seeing the oversized Disney characters somehow turns children into squirming bundles of emotional instability. What he didn’t expect was that it would also produce a stream of downright devilish behavior and his newest daughter.
In the month before the trip, she stole food when a simple request would’ve gained her a snack. She lied when it would have been easier to tell the truth. She whispered insults carefully crafted to hurt her older sister as deeply as possible. And as time for the trip got closer, her mutinies multiplied.
A couple of days before the family trip, the father pulled his newest daughter into his lap and talked through her shenanigans. “I know what you’re going to do,” she started. “You’re not going to take me to Disney World, are you?” The thought hadn’t actually crossed his mind, but her downward spiral suddenly started to make some sense. She knew she couldn’t earn her way into the Magic Kingdom—she had tried and failed several times before—so she was living in a way that placed her as far as possible from the dream.
The father was tempted for a moment to turn her fear to his advantage and say, “If you don’t start behaving better, you’re right, we won’t take you!”—but he didn’t. Instead he asked her, “Is this trip something we’re doing as a family?”
She nodded, brown eyes wide and tear-rimmed.
“Are you part of this family?”
She nodded again.
“Then you’re going with us. Sure, there may be some consequences to help you remember what’s right and what’s wrong—but you’re part of our family, and we’re not leaving you behind.”
Even after that exchange her choices didn’t get better. They pretty much spiraled out of control at every hotel and rest stop along the way to Disney World. Still, the family went to the Magic Kingdom on the promise day.
In their hotel room that evening, a very different child emerged. She was exhausted, dreamy, and a little weepy at times, but her month-long rebellion had faded. When bedtime rolled around, the father prayed with her, held her, and asked, “So how was your first day at Disney World?”
She closed her eyes and snuggled her stuffed unicorn. After a few moments, she opened her eyes ever so slightly. “Daddy,” she said, “I finally got to go to Disney World. But it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I am yours.” (Montgomery and Jones, Proof)
That’s the message of scandalous grace. Grace is God’s goodness that comes looking for you when you’ve got nothing but a middle finger flipped in his face as a return offering. It’s one-way love that calls you into the kingdom not because you’ve been good, but because God has made you his.
The book of Ephesians will bring this truth home to us. The apostle Paul is going to spend the first three chapters telling us that the root of our identity is in the scandalous grace of God. Then he’s going to spend the last three chapters explaining the fruit that grows from the root. This structure of “root then fruit,” supports what I told you last week: Our identity comes first, and drives what we do.
And Paul doesn’t shilly-shally. He can’t even write two verses without making my point. Our passage this morning is the opening greeting. Let’s take a look:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-2).
Before I unpack this, let us pray.
The Scandalous Apostle
1. The Background
I don’t want to spend much time on background, but we’ve got to get our bearings. The apostle Paul wrote this book at the end of his life when he was under house arrest in Rome. He had planted the church in Ephesus, which is on the eastern coast of modern day Turkey, and pastored it for two years. From Ephesus the gospel spread out to the region and other churches got planted. This book likely was intended to be circulated among those churches, since the words “in Ephesus” don’t appear in the earliest manuscripts.
Nevertheless, Ephesus was the region’s chief city. 300,000 people called it home. It was located on a key river close to large port on the Aegean coast. It was a center for communication and commercial trade. It had an amphitheater that sat 25,000, a stadium for chariot races, and was home to one of the seven wonders of the world: the Temple of Diana, the goddess of fertility.
That last detail tells us the city was filled with hundreds of priestesses, who doubled as temple prostitutes. The temple festivals brought many into the city. And silver shines and idols were big money makers. But as the gospel was preached, people converted. They stoped buy the idols and in the book of Acts we’re told about a riot that took place in which new believers burned their occult books, a value totaling of 50,000 pieces of silver.
2. The Problem
Christians were a drag on the economy. So, they were ostracized and persecuted. That kind of treatment makes one second-guess faith in Jesus. Many think, “Oh, if I get some Jesus in my life things are gonna be easier.” When they discover that the opposite is true, they’re stupefied.
I grew up in the church. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I got serious about God. In my senior year I went to multiple churches and Bible studies with friends. My mother thought I was nuts. She said, “You’re taking this too far. Are you in a cult?” I told her, “No,” but she didn’t believe me. As a family we’d always gone to church, but it was just a religious thing we did once a week. It didn’t really penetrated our home. Don’t tell my mother, but we were “religious” not Christian. But there I was getting serious about the thing that my parents took me to, the church and the message of Jesus, and I was getting the screws put to me.
Faith will bring difficulties, and when it does, when Jesus asks you to follow him down a lonely and rocky path that few others seem to be on it can get discouraging and depressing. It becomes easy to focus on your difficulties, your pains, your problems. It becomes easy to loose sight of God. In fact, misery comes when we loose sight of the big picture.
Paul wants to put that picture in our front widow. He wants to tell us who God is and thereby who we are.
3. The Apostle
And it is interesting that God appointed Paul to do this. Paul, who was originally known as Saul, was a brilliant Pharisee. He was trained by the best theological teacher. He was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. He was so zealous for Judaism that he persecuted the church. He assisted in Steven’s stoning. He entered the home of Christians and dragged them to prison. He got letter to got to the city of Damascus to arrest Christians and bring them in chains back to Jerusalem.
But on his way to Damascus he got arrested. The Lord Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light and asked, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). That confrontation changed everything.
He hadn’t been unhappy with Judaism. He wasn’t exploring other religions. He was adamantly opposed to Jesus right up to the moment that Jesus confronted him and told him to go and preach the gospel with the same passion that he had persecuted Christians— that’s scandalous!
But don’t miss this … Paul didn’t appoint himself. Jesus did. And, by the way, the church wasn’t thrilled about it. Paul didn’t become an apostle by his own making. He didn’t take a vocational test to figure out if he would like to go into ministry. And so the message he preached wasn’t his.
A significant problem we have today is that folks think that they have the right to decide for themselves what Christianity is, what the church is, and what the good news is. But the apostle Paul says, “No!” he’s having none of that.
He tells us he’s an apostle for a reason. It means that he’s been appointed by another to carry a message like an ambassador. It’s Jesus’ message. Nobody gets to alter it. “I speak with the authority of Christ, by the decree of God,” says Paul. “Not by the will or insight of man. I carry this message because I got arrested, not because I got creative.”
The Scandalous Saints
1. Christians Are Sinners
If you think about this it’s really scandalous. The Lord appointed a bad man who was persecuting the church and told him to start planting churches. You wouldn’t do that; I wouldn’t do that. We’d make someone do probation first. We’d say prove yourself, prove your purity. But that wouldn’t be grace.
But this is a story of scandalous grace: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). That’s description of us all. God can’t wait around for perfect people to come waltzing by, because there are no perfect people. Moreover, none of us awoke one morning and said, “I am pretty darn good. I think I’ll be a Jesus follower today.” “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God,” says in Romans (Rom 3:10–11).
Our coming to Jesus is just as scandalous as Paul’s. “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own” (Isa 53:6). This is a difficult diagnosis to welcome. Each of us has to be stopped in our tracks by the scandalous grace of God.
2. Christians Are Chosen
Paul will say in the second chapter of Ephesians that we were dead in our trespasses and sin, but God made us alive (2:1). Think about that … dead people don’t make many choices.
Picture Jesus standing on your doorstep knocking (Rev 3:20)—metaphorically, of course. But we are dead in our sins and don’t want anything to do with him. So we rise off the couch and go and stick a chair in front of the door. But he keeps knocking, so we push the couch in front of the door too. But this bloke won’t go away, so we get the refrigerator and roll that in front of the door too, then we close the blinds, and lock the garage door. We’re hoping that this rob-clad salesman will get the hint: There is nobody home, so go away!
But Jesus is sneaky … He sends the Holy Spirit through a basement window. And the Spirit starts impersonating a Boy Scout. He builds a fire in the basement and starts sending smoke signals up through the vents. Before we know it we’re coughing on the smoke, scrambling to remove the refrigerator, the couch, and the chair. Then we open the door and say, “Hey Jesus. I choose you. Will you come in and get rid of this smoke.” And he says, “You bet I will; I love you—let’s go roast some hot dogs.”
What’s happened here? Did you choose Jesus? Sure you did … from the human perspective. You didn’t do anything that you wholeheartedly didn’t want to do. But, and it’s an important ‘but’, that choice came after a close encounter of the third kind.
Paul followed Jesus with all of his strength, after the reality of Jesus invaded his life like an alien. Paul couldn’t deny him. When you look at things from the perspective of God, you see God was moving, God was pursuing, God was knocking, God was starting a fire in the soul, God was orchestrating a new conviction: “I can’t remain in this smoky house. I need Jesus.” Divine sovereignty doing the tango with free will.
Recall what the apostle John said: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And Paul is going to say later in Ephesians, “For it is by grace — scandalous grace — you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). But check out what Jesus said: “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not marvel that I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear it’s sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:6-8).
Scandalous grace is the alarm that wakes up the dead.
Have you heard about the man who decided that life was too hard for him to bear? He didn’t commit suicide. Instead he bought a large corrugated iron tank, and furnished it simply with the necessities of life—a bed to sleep on, books to read, food to eat, electric light and heating, and even a large crucifix hung on the wall to remind him of God and help him to pray. There he lived a blameless life without interruption from the world. But there was one great hardship.
Morning and evening, without fail, volleys of bullets would rip through the walls of his tank. He learned to lie on the floor to avoid being shot. Nevertheless, he did at times sustain wounds, and the iron walls were pierced with many holes that let in the wind and the daylight in good weather and water when the weather was bad. He plugged up the holes. He cursed the unknown marksman. But the police, when he appealed to them, were unhelpful, and there was little he could do about it on his own.
Slowly he began to use the bullet holes for a positive purpose. He would gaze out through one hole or another, and watch the people passing, the children flying kites, the clouds in the sky, the wind in the trees, and the birds that came to feed on heads of grass. He would forget himself in observing these things.
The day came when the tank rusted and finally fell to pieces. He walked out of it with little regret. There was a man with a gun standing outside.
“I suppose you will kill me now,” said the man who had come out of the tank. “But before you do it, I would like to know one thing. Why have you been persecuting me? Why are you my enemy, when I have never done you any harm?”
The other man laid the gun down and smiled at him. “I am not your enemy,” he said. And the man who had come out of the tank saw that there were scars on the other man’s hands and feet, and these scars were shining like the sun.
Is Jesus trying to get your attention?
3. Christians Are Saints
I want you to know this: Christians aren’t saints because they’re good—they aren’t. Christians aren’t saints because they’ve been voted on—they haven’t. Christians are saints because the Lord has confronted them, convicted them, called them, and cleansed them by the scandal of his shining scars (Hebrews 10:10, 14).
In India there’s a famous sacred river called the Ganges. Hindus believe it is the personification of the goddess Ganga. They bathe in the river as an act of worship and for the forgiveness of their sins. That river is considered to be very pure. Yet 3,000 million liters of raw untreated sewage is pumped into it every day—is the sixth most polluted river in the world.
Saints are “holy ones” or “set apart ones”. Yet you don’t get holy by scrubbing hard. The only rive that purifies is the river of Jesus’ blood, his sacrifice. He did all that needs doing. For our part we need only to awaken to our need for Jesus and trust him.
The Scandalous Faith
Our two little verses contain so much. They even tell us that saints are saints because they’re faithful. In other words, God considers you as being in a right relationship with himself when you simply trust what he’s done for you in Jesus. The faithful live by faith.
In the 17th century there was an English pastor by the name of Walter Marshall. The people in his congregation wanted to be holy so much they practiced self-mutilation, deprivation, and inflicted all kinds of pains on themselves in efforts to please God and be pure. Some people do that stuff today, but not many—television, movies, and parties are sufficient to divert most of us from our guilt. But Marshall said, “May God bless my discovery of the powerful means of holiness so far as to save some from killing themselves.”
What do you think he discovered? That Christ’s righteousness was received by faith alone.
My friend, Steve Brown, has said, “The greatest cause for our not getting better is our obsession with not getting better. Holiness hardly ever becomes a reality until we care more about Jesus than about holiness” (Scandalous Freedom, 53). Think about that …
When you’re obsessed with your holiness, you become prideful and self-righteous if you can pull it off; and when you can’t, you become full of self-pity. Pride and self-pity leave you stuck gazing at yourself. But when you’re consumed with gazing at how Jesus keeps coming after you with scandalous grace, you see things differently. You even begin to say crazy things like the apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).
The one who is trying to save themselves doesn’t say that. The one who is trying to save themselves turns Christianity from a joyous dance into a forced march.
Years ago when I was living and studying in Scotland I carpooled with another student who told me about a church that didn’t know how to dance in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. They knew how to march, but they wouldn’t do it on Sundays.
A guest preacher was invited to fill the pulpit on Sunday. They had two services and a spacious gap between them. So this preacher went for a walk. He left the church, crossed over a small stone bridge, and headed off into the surrounding woods. As he was making his way back to the church he was met on the bridge by the church leaders who asked him what he was doing.
“I’m walking … I’m resting. Breathing God’s air … taking in God’s beauty,” he replied.
“It’s the Sunday sabbath,” they retorted. “You’re not allowed to do that.”
The preacher inquired, “Have you heard about what Jesus did on the Sabbath, and how he said the Sabbath was made for man.”
“Well, Jesus might have done that in his own town, but he wouldn’t have done it here!”
Sometimes we obsesses so much over our need to be right, to be obedient, to be committed, to be righteous, that we forget how to dance.
Allow me to let you in on a little secret: None of us do it right. And when we think we’re doing it right, self-righteousness pops up and declares us wrong. None of us do it right. None of us are obedient enough. None of us are committed enough. None of us are righteous enough.
But that’s okay. And do you know why? Because you don’t get to go to Disney World because you’re good. You get to go because you’re loved by the Father.
Have you ever seen a little girl dance with her daddy? She holds on tight while she rides on his shoes, and away they spin. It’s cute. And it’s a picture of the scandal of grace.
You’re a saint because of Jesus. Faith is dancing by riding on Jesus’ shoes.