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By Grace You Have Been Saved – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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Ephesians 2:1-10

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, not the result of works; it is the gift of God.”(Eph 2:8-9)

You are on an elevator with a stranger.  He turns to you and asks, “Are you a Christian?”  You say “yes.”  He says, “Why are you Christian?”  What would you say?  You’ve only got the length of an elevator ride.  What would you say?

You could do worse than quote these words from today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians.  For me, they sum up the very essence of the Gospel: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, not the result of works; it is the gift of God.”

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s a special day for me because I arrived at Lorgan Airport from London on St. Patrick’s Day 1999 to begin my life as a postulant here at the Monastery.  I remember feeling very, very anxious.  It was a bit like starting a new school.  The sinking feeling – how will I get on?  How will I perform?  Will I fit in?  Will I be able to do the work?  Will I make any friends?  Will they understand my accent?  Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences: starting a new school, college or a new job.  How well will I perform?

But we’re not the only ones who worry in this way.  Our whole society is like it.  The German/American philosopher Herbert Marcuse described 20th century western society as dominated by what he called the performance principle.  We are a society, he says, which is anxiety-ridden because we are constantly evaluating ourselves and our performance in relation to the set values of our community.  And the most awful aspect of this is that we tend to regard our own value as human beings in direct proportion to how well we perform, or how much we produce.  So, for example, an unemployed person can be made to feel pretty worthless.  I remember at a private school where I used to teach, the pressure on some children to perform by their over-achieving parents.  There was the unspoken belief by some of the children that their parents’ love for them was conditional upon their exam results.  It had an emotionally crippling effect on them.  Marcuse identifies the performance principle as the chief source of our anxiety, and our inability to feel loved and accepted.

Well, the performance principle was described very accurately 2,000 years ago by the apostle Paul.  He called it “life lived under the Law,” and it was killing him, even though he performed very well.  In Philippians he says, “As to righteousness under the Law I was blameless.”(Phil 3:6)  He was a high-flyer – an achiever.  And yet however hard he worked, however well he performed, however scrupulously he kept the law – it was never enough.  And he cried out in frustration – longing to be accepted and loved.  “I don’t understand my own actions,” he says in Romans.  “I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”(Rom 7:19-24)  However hard he worked, he could not save himself.  He cried out for a savior.

And so it was that Paul encountered Jesus Christ, and his life was shattered and changed beyond all recognition.  “Whatever gains I had,” he says in Philippians, “I count as loss for the sake of Christ.”(Phil 3:7)  What he had discovered through his encounter with Jesus Christ can be best summed up in the word “gift.”  He expresses this beautifully in those words from the Letter to the Ephesians which I quoted at the beginning of the sermon: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing, not the result of works: it is the gift of God.”  That’s the Good News!

And it is good news for us, too!  Life lived under the performance principle, under the “Law,” makes us slaves to insecurity and anxiety, constantly comparing ourselves to others, struggling to reach a level of achievement which always eludes us.  Life seen as “gift,” as grace, can set us free.  Once you know you are loved unconditionally by God, there is such freedom.

The Christian’s struggle is not a bitter competitive struggle to outperform the other, but rather a struggle to become who we really are, by the grace of God, beloved children of our heavenly Father.  To know that God loves us, and in Jesus Christ, forgives us, and cherishes and delights in us – that is life-changing, and it can set us free – free from slavery to the Law, free from anxiety to achieve in our own strength, free to live the abundant life Jesus promises us.

But what about tomorrow, when we go back to work, back to a world with very different values?  How can we keep this glorious, life-giving reality, that life is a gift, in our hearts and minds, when we have to live and perform in a society which tells us that everything has to be earned?

I would say that most important of all is, every morning, to spend some time in prayer.  Time to center our imaginations, to focus on Gospel images – images through which God speaks to us.  Time to allow the images of what God has done for us to work on our imagination.  Just a few minutes each morning, at the start of the day, to let the life-giving stories of the Gospels slowly permeate our souls, and gradually transform our consciousness and our values.  So that during the day, at work, when we feel the pressures of the world’s values getting at us – the drip, drip of anxiety about our performance, when we start comparing ourselves unfavorably with our colleagues, when we being complaining about them inwardly, and feel lack of self-esteem – we can at once counter the cold dripping tap of anxiety with the warm, faithful images we meditated on in our time of prayer and quiet at the beginning of the day.

We can perhaps hear God saying, rather like Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say, “Don’t be silly.  Don’t you know how much I love you?”  In the midst of the stresses and pressures of the day, we can bathe in God’s love and give thanks for the very gift of life itself.

But perhaps the supreme way of keeping before us the “giftedness” of life – is by doing what we are doing here today, at the start of a new week.  Celebrating together joyously all that God has done for us, revealed and articulated above all in the Eucharist.  For here, our attention to our performance as humans fades away, and what we celebrate is God’s performance!

Here, supremely, we encounter gift.

Amen.

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24 Comments

  1. Tracy Baron on October 8, 2017 at 07:31

    Speechless as it’s so true-much, much, much needed wisdom, thank you

  2. Barbara Willis on September 20, 2016 at 17:06

    Thank you for these words, I am very thank for what the Lord as done for us….and the reminder of the power of prayer

  3. Elizabeth Hardy on September 20, 2016 at 10:15

    I heard someone preach the line “God demands faithfulness, not success” and I have quoted it frequently to parishioners, folks in counseling – and not to so much to myself – time to change that – thanx Br.

  4. Mary Naumann on September 20, 2016 at 08:40

    Br. Geoffrey, what a lovely way to start my birth day. M

  5. Paul on June 13, 2016 at 18:33

    Two observations. First, if I had 30 seconds to describe why am I a Christian, I would paraphrase the words of Peter to Jesus: “Where else would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. Truly he is the Son of God.” Secondly, I know I have been told that I see life as a glass half empty, but every time I hear about God’s unconditional love, I think of the many, many times in the Gospels where Jesus says, in effect, “You shall not enter the kingdom of heaven unless … unless … unless … unless … .” Sadly, I see God’s love as very conditional.

  6. Rhode on June 13, 2016 at 07:59

    For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes…by grace we are saved not by works… my grace is sufficient..God’s great gift is we are loved and called to live in love. This message arrived the morning after the Orlando shootings at Pulse. I need to remember Christs gift of love is offered freely to everyone including the murderer. Pray for the families of all the involved. May Gods’ grace be sufficient indeed.

  7. Elizabeth Hoffman on July 19, 2015 at 20:27

    Dear Br Geoffrey, This sermon was so beautiful. I wish I could play it for everyone I come in contact with. If so, the world would be a much less stressful and forgiving place. yours in Christ, e

  8. Dee Dee on July 19, 2015 at 11:34

    “Don’t be silly. Don’t you know how much I love you?” — made me smile. Thank you.

  9. Maureen on July 19, 2015 at 10:49

    How hard it is to believe, deep down, that God loves an old lady who can’t even hold a baby without the worry she wil drop her precious bundle, who needs others to bring her food, to drive her to appointments–in other words, good for nothing visible–God loves her. This love transforms her into an active participant in life.

  10. Michael on July 19, 2015 at 10:47

    Accepting we are enough already, comes with practice and patience. Having something to fall back on during a busy day when the “Anxiety Drip” often develops into a torrent is a wise and wonderful suggestion. Thank you for your encoragement and reflections

  11. Christopher Engle Barnhart on July 19, 2015 at 09:54

    Thank you for “nailing it on the head.” I had been looking for the answer for the last three years, since 2012. I retired after 17 years with a company that was performance driven. I was 70 years old when I retired. I found it more and more difficult to perform the work I had to do. I made msitakes, I lack a a desire to perform any more. Retiriing was the best thing I did. I now set my own performance standards. But it is with God’s Grace that I do so. My morning start with morning lectionary readings. Followed with Richard Rohr’s meditations and SSJE readings. These and a period of morning prayers start my days. I now understand God does not have a set of performance standards. What I have is his grace to be saved through faith, which is not through my own doing, or not the result of works; but is the gift of God Love.

    • Christina on July 20, 2015 at 11:36

      Thank you, Christopher. I so much appreciate my SSJE morning sermons. I also appreciate reading the responses that follow. C

  12. Ginger on July 19, 2015 at 09:33

    I so appreciate Geoffrey’s direction again toward what so many working struggle with today. It’s a great spiritual struggle as surviving in the workplace with job expectations feels like it zaps or drains me from spiritual connection and growth that Zi yearn for.
    The Lenton series on “Time” was so valuable to my life and in discussion my pain for younger people was clarified when I heard them speaking of 24-7 supervisor expectations and wondering what to do about that drain. Now today, Geoffrey brings it to us again, so valuable this current dilemma spoken… and valuable current spiritual direction given in love for us all!

  13. Ruth West on July 19, 2015 at 08:30

    Thank you, Br.Geoffrey. This is the Gospel!
    Saved by grace through faith, not of our own doing, but accepting our salvation as a gift from God.
    Your words were helpful to me three years ago and are just as fresh and relevant today.

  14. Pam on December 3, 2014 at 20:03

    I suspect many of us need to hear this message over and over. Once is not enough for me to counter feelings of worthlessness with which I grew up. I need to hear this again and again. I’ve begun to heal; it’s getting better. Thank you, God.

  15. Lynn Gaines on December 3, 2014 at 06:19

    Thanks for these words and the reminder that I am already enough.

  16. Tinka Dawson on December 2, 2014 at 19:15

    Thank you. As a younger person, in retrospect, I tutored kids on the “performance principal” which in today’s world is, perhaps, necessary, but I regret doing so.

  17. anders on December 2, 2014 at 16:26

    Thank you. The elevator speech you refer to was a focal point in my evangelical upbringing. It was piety performance with ensuing shame and anxiety. It´s easy for me to read Paul´s lament of “Wretched man that I am!” with suspicion of disingenuity. So I pray. I meditate. I see that you are the gift, others are the gift, and yes even I am gift, already loved, and it is good.

  18. Margaret Dungan on December 2, 2014 at 15:52

    As. the psalm puts it “Your words are a light onto my feet”

    Margaret

  19. Judith on December 2, 2014 at 13:26

    Thank you – so helpful on a stressful work day, to think of things more important.

  20. James Phillips, TSSF on December 2, 2014 at 10:25

    …your timing of today’s reflection couldn’t be more appropriate. It reminds me of God’s quiet messages in scripture and to be grateful for our wonderful, loving relationship.

  21. Frank c/o St Paul's on the Hill, St Paul, MN on December 2, 2014 at 10:15

    Leave it to us “Episcopalians”
    “Advent Season”
    St Andrews Transfer Nov. 30th
    Permitted 79 BCP; RTE 2
    Exactly “3 Weeks-Christmas”

  22. Erin Stuarts on December 2, 2014 at 09:31

    Thank you, again, for putting into words a very healing and centering Truth! Indeed, the antidote to the despair that daily leaks into my subconsciousness (and consciousness) is when ” attention to our performance as humans fades away, and what we celebrate is God’s performance”…

  23. Carol on December 2, 2014 at 08:30

    Thank you so much. Just what I needed today (and most days).

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