The Riches of Grace

The Riches of Grace

Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Amos 7. 7-15; Psalm 85. 8-13; Ephesians 1. 3-14; Mark 6. 14-29 (view all)

I’m afraid this morning I need to get off my chest that I’ve failed as your priest this week. I confess before you and before God that I did sneak away early from the Ladies’ Forum Eucharist on Wednesday night so I could watch the end of the England match!

It was a dramatic night, and a real mix of emotions. Ultimately sadness that we lost the game and were knocked out of the world cup, but also some joy and pride that a young England team, who weren’t expected to perform, had done so well in the competition.

It isn’t quite on the same level, but today there is also a strange contrast between readings. Our gospel reading portrays the graphic death of John the Baptist, meanwhile our New Testament reading, an equally graphic, but emphatic description of the incredible ‘riches of [God’s] grace’. 

But what makes it all the more surprising is when we realise that these words in our epistle were written by Paul, while he was imprisoned awaiting his own death. How can Paul be so emphatic and optimistic even in such difficult circumstances? 

And as we reflect on them this morning, what can we learn from his words about our own faith, even when we go through the most difficult trials and tribulations? 

This week is the first of seven Sundays, in which the lectionary will guide us through the book of Ephesians — one of the so-called prison letters written by Paul. Just as John the Baptist receives the sentence of death by beheading at the hand of Herod Antipas, so Paul is also to be sentenced to death by beheading at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero. 

And yet his introduction to this letter is some of the most sublime and passionate writing in all of the Christian scriptures, giving thanks for ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…’  

And it goes on and on, with metaphor after metaphor and image after image, one after another. In fact, the whole of today’s NT reading in it’s original language is one long sentence of praise, worship and thanksgiving. 

But how can Paul be so positive, given the hardship he has faced for the gospel, and the violent death to which he is moving? Well, the clues are in the way that his writing lifts up beyond his, and our, present circumstances into the great story of God and his world. 

Before even the foundation of the world, we’re told, God has chosen us in Christ to be adopted as his children. And in him, we find redemption, the forgiveness of all our wrongdoing, and instead of punishment, we find ‘the riches of his grace lavished on us’.

Whatever may happen to us in life, Paul tells us we have found the greatest inheritance of all, the down payment of which is the Holy Spirit to live within us, guide us and strengthen us no matter what struggles we might face. In the Holy Spirit, God’s glorious future comes to meet us in the present. 

The New Testament scholar, Tom Wright, puts it like this in his commentary: ‘Look back over the story which Paul has told as an act of worship. God has taken the initiative; God has done what was necessary, at great cost to himself, to buy us back from the slavery of sin; God has given us the Spirit as a sign and foretaste of the whole renewed cosmos which awaits us as our inheritance. Discovering that you are to receive an inheritance like that should change your whole life. How can you not join in the hymn of praise?’

So I wonder, as we gather this morning: Will we lift our eyes with Paul, rejoicing in the incredible riches of God’s grace poured out upon us? Will we acknowledge his gift of the Holy Spirit to live within us, providing unrivalled comfort, unshakable peace and unquenchable joy? 

How can we, like Paul and John the Baptist, offer our whole lives to play our part in God’s great story? 

In another great story, The Lord of the Rings, there is an incredible moment of dialogue between Frodo the Hobbit, and Gandalf, the great wizard, as they are sat together deep in the dark mines of Moria:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

God has invited us into the incredible story of his grace, that we might face all trials and tribulations confident of our inheritance in his kingdom. As we come to his table this morning, may we know the Spirit’s presence bringing comfort, peace and unending joy.

Lord of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things:
graft in our hearts the love of your name,
increase in us true religion,
nourish us with all goodness,
and of your great mercy keep us in the same;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.