Updated: Jul 6, 2021
In the book Made for Goodness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells us about the birth of his first child. Like most men around the world in the 1950s, he was not able to be present during the birth. In his case, as a Black man in apartheid South Africa, he also was not able to stay in the hospital. He didn’t have a car or the time and money to take public transportation for so much as a short visit. It wasn’t even easy for him to get to a telephone. The day after his wife went to the hospital, he managed to make a call from the home of a local nurse. Soon he was racing the two miles to his parents’ house, exclaiming to all along the way about their son. Looking back on that experience, Archbishop Tutu writes:
Without as much as a glimpse of his face or a whiff of his milky breath I was in love. In the birth of this child I experienced something of the life of God. I experienced what it was to love without measure or merit. There was nothing for this child to do to earn my love. With his first breath he had captured my heart. I loved him because he was. I loved him for being. . . . Whether our birth parents greeted our arrival with joyful anticipation or with fearful anxiety and regret is of no account. From the time before eternity our God has awaited each birth with love and delight.
What a lovely illustration of God’s great love! Let’s keep that in mind as we examine today’s reading from the second chapter of Ephesians.
None of us earn the great love of God. We can’t. Ephesians describes our life apart from God’s immeasurable love. It’s not really life. It’s more like being dead. It’s self-centered and filled with sin. It’s controlled by “the course of this world” and “the ruler of the power of the air.” The exact meaning of those two phrases in Ephesians is obscured by the differences between the worldview of the early Church and our own, but we get the idea. We may see those phrases as referring to a personal evil force called the Devil. Or perhaps to the influence of addictions, mob mentality, psychological trauma, social injustices, or anything else that draws us away from life in the light of God’s love.
However we define those phrases, we know this truth: The world is broken, and we are broken. We are especially aware of this during Lent. Our Lenten services put the Confession of Sin in our faces at the start: “We confess that we have sinned. . . . We have not loved [thee/you] with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
The broken places of sin are precisely where God’s great love enters. It is God’s love that has brought grace to the losers and resurrection to the dead. It is God’s love that has “made us alive together with Christ . . . 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.”
Wow! That sounds great, doesn’t it? So how do we get in on this great love of God? Are there rules to follow? Are a certain number of good deeds required? Do we have to believe certain things? Do we have to have “enough” faith? Do we have to belong to a certain religion? Do we have to be part of God’s favored group? The answer to all these questions is a resounding “NO!”
It’s all grace, God’s unmerited favor. It’s not the result of works. Even our ability to trust God and thus live into resurrected life is a gift from God. And if we were to continue reading in Ephesians, we would see that belonging to a certain religion or group isn’t the answer. We’re told of the Jews and the Gentiles later in this chapter. The Jews are God’s chosen people. But they aren’t chosen so that others can be left out, they’re chosen to show God’s love to others, to bless all nations. God’s love includes the Jews and the Gentiles.
And the same principle is true of the Christian Church. The resurrection life Christ lovingly bestows on us is not meant to be hoarded for ourselves. It’s meant to be a beacon to draw others to God’s love. Any time the Church has an impulse to draw a line, to see “us” as the ones loved by God and “them” as outside God’s love, the Church has died to the love of God and needs to be resurrected.
So, how do we reach this resurrected life abounding in God’s great love? The world is broken. We are broken. We need to sense God’s love in the midst of this brokenness so that we can learn to trust God’s love. But how do we do that? We can unwrap God’s gift by cultivating gratitude for expressions of God’s love. Here are a few examples that might help us pay attention to God’s love.
We can sense God’s love in the human capacity to heal and find joy in the midst of life’s brokenness—in the midst of pain and sickness, in the midst of trauma and grief. We can sense God’s love in human acts of selfless love—large and small. Whether we realize it or not, these are rooted and grounded in God’s boundless love. And we can sense God’s love, as Archbishop Tutu reminds us, “in the hundreds of graces that fill our days, though we have not earned them and do not deserve them.” Graces such as . . .
The multihued sunset stretching across the unending Panhandle sky
The brilliance of a Georgia O’Keeffe flower pulsing with life
The sweet, juicy taste of a fresh strawberry
The mellow tones of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello
The soft, warm vibration of a purring cat
The aroma of freshly baked bread just before that first savory bite
The blooms of the redbud trees in April
The laughter of children at play
The exuberant splashes of wild color of a painted bunting resting in a tree
The delighted voices of friends who see each other after long separation
God’s great love surrounds us. And it’s all by God’s grace.
But good works does enter into the picture. As Ephesians puts it, “We are what [God] made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” How does this statement about good works relate to the love God’s grace bestows on us? Again, Archbishop Tutu offers us wisdom: “Goodness is not the coin with which we anxiously pay for God’s love. Our goodness is, rather, the recognition we offer and the thanks we return for the gifts and the love already given us.”
Thanks be to God.