Their Deeds Are Done In God

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

We’ve had a couple of days of really nice weather this week, and that weather has been getting me thinking about bicycling. Some of you know how much I enjoy bicycling, so it will come as no surprise that going from snow to spring has been putting me in mind of getting my bike out on the back roads.

One day this week I happened to be driving along a road I often bicycle, but I was driving in the opposite direction from the way I usually ride. And in the car, in the opposite direction, I noticed I was actually going uphill slightly. Usually, on the bicycle, I don’t notice that it is a downgrade. I just notice that is a part of the road where I can go pretty fast. When I go fast down that road, I pedal really hard; I really turn those pedals over; I give my leg muscles a real workout; but the speed I achieve there is a combination of my work and the force of gravity, my effort and the gravitational field that pulls me down that downhill slope. My speed is a co-creation of my muscles and gravity.

Once, vacationing in northern Michigan, I spent about half an hour watching a bald eagle hunting. I’d climbed up to the top of a large hill – Mt Baldy was what all the local folks called it – and from there I could look out over miles and miles of forested valley and another ridge of hills just opposite my own. And out over the valley a bald eagle was soaring. It would glide back and forth across the valley, looking for prey. And when it would get low above the treetops, then it would swing back toward the cliff of the hill on which I stood. It would catch a thermal rising from the base of that cliff, and then ride it in a spiral, until it had climbed well above the elevation where I stood. And when it had risen to a suitable height, it left the thermal, it opened up its spiral, and went out soaring over the valley again.

As I watched the eagle repeat that process, as its climb up the thermal brought it pretty close to where I was standing on the hill, I noticed how the bird was working with the wind as it flew. The wind was doing most of the work: most of the time the eagle’s wings were simply held out wide to catch the currents of air: the eagle wasn’t flapping or laboring to stay aloft. But the eagle wasn’t merely passive, either. I could see the eagle shift its wings from time to time, adjust its balance on the wind, raise a wingtip to send it moving in a different direction on the breeze. The eagle wasn’t just carried along by the air currents, but was working with them, riding them, combining its intention with the air’s energy to move out over that valley. The eagle’s soaring was a complex and intricate dance of wing and wind, a co-creation of the bird’s effort and the movement of the air that surrounded it.

An aging priest riding downhill on a bicycle and a bald eagle soaring over the forests of northern Michigan may seem like a very unlikely combination. But both in their way illustrate an important point being made in our scriptures today. The Letter to the Ephesians says “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” And the Gospel of John says “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” We are created in Christ. We do our deeds in God. Both of these passages seem to think of the divine as the larger environment, the larger field of force in which we do our human deeds. Both of these passages seem to think of God not as some kind of Supreme Being high above and far transcendent over us, but God as a Presence who surrounds us, uplifts us, upholds us, and makes us able to do the things we need to do.

But the most important element in this image of God as a divine environment, a divine field of force, is that we are not simply objects in this field, we are not simply passive recipients of this force. We are created in Christ to do good deeds in God — but those good works are still our deeds, we still have to put our energy into the doing of them. We are not just dead weight rolling down the hill, but we have  to pedal for all we’re worth to get up to God’s speed; we are not just random fluff blowing in the breeze, but we have to spread our wings and balance and soar to go where the wind of God’s Spirit can take us. We are created in Christ to be co-creators, to give our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, so that our work and God’s work can work together to do God’s will in the world.

That is what is happening when you know you need to be reconciled to someone, when you have a relationship that has suffered some hurt or some wrong or some injury. You know you need to go to the other and try to make things right; but you know that you have done wrong, and that knowledge embarrasses and shames you; and you know that you have been wronged, and that knowledge makes you angry and defensive. And yet in spite of this you know you really do want to be reconciled. So you screw your courage to the sticking place and go to the other person, even though you have no idea how you will be strong enough to admit your guilt, and to ask and to offer forgiveness. You know you can’t do it, but you do it anyway; and much to your surprise it turns out to be easier than you’d thought, and you reach beyond your own hurt and anger and shame and defensiveness, and you connect in compassion, and the relationship is healed. You were empowered to do more than you could do; you were uplifted and soared on the Spirit of God; you were pulled up to speed in the gravity of God’s love. Your deed was done in God.

That is what is happening when we go out into our community in mission, to witness what God is doing to build up justice and peace and love in the world around us, and to join God in building it. Yesterday afternoon we held a concert here at Trinity: we hosted Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church and their “Freedom Songs” concert, part of their celebration of their 150th anniversary as one of the first black congregations to be formed in this area after the Civil War. Allen Chapel’s choir sang, and the Trinity choir sang, and Ernest Holley sang, and it was a glorious celebration of liberation and a people’s pride. I was so glad that Allen Chapel had approached Trinity to host that concert, and I was so glad that Trinity was able to host it — and I kept thinking, “Not bad, for a church that still has its slave pews in storage in the cellar.” We at Trinity have cause to bear witness to both the evil of slavery and the joy of racial reconciliation.

But the full job of unity and restoration goes far beyond one concert, far beyond two congregations. The full job of transforming our town into a genuine beloved community is something far beyond our abilities, something that will be difficult, something that will take a lot of soul-searching and public humility and reaching out beyond our own way of understanding to learn how others see our history, and our present, and our future. That full job looks pretty daunting, pretty overwhelming, pretty much more than we can do. But events like that concert, events like our shared Lenten program, show that we are not doing this on our own. This is not just up to us. Events like this show how our work and God’s work work together to work racial reconciliation. And in that we are empowered to do more than we can do; we are uplifted and soared on the Spirit of God; we are pulled up to speed in the gravity of God’s love. In work like that, our deeds are done in God.

The season of Lent can be a time for us to be specially aware of how we are co-creators with God. The disciplines of fasting and self-denial, self-examination and repentance, bring us face-to-face with our limitations, face-to-face with our failures. But they don’t do that just to rub our noses in it. They show us our limits in order to show us how God takes us beyond those limits; they show us our weakness in order to show us how God empowers us beyond our weakness. The disciplines of Lent give us occasion to be aware of how God works with us, how God uplifts and supports us, how we are borne like eagles on the winds of the Spirit, how we are pulled onward in the gravity of God’s love. That’s true for us together as Trinity; that’s true for each of us in ourselves.

May your Lent be for you a time to come to the light, so that you may see how your deeds are done in God. Amen.