Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10
I do not know if you remember it, but there was a news story from the end of 2019 that made the rounds through every major news outlet. An Italian modern conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan duct taped a banana to a wall, called it “The Comedian” and insisted it was art. The reason why this made the news is because the piece reportedly sold for $120,000. A lot of talk shows and news outlets ridiculed the whole idea. A couple of days later it resurfaced in the news, because a guy walked into the gallery, pulled the banana off the wall and ate it. This story got a lot of coverage, often for laughs, because it confirmed a bias that a lot of people have which is modern art is absurd and not really art. It just turns out that we were not in on the joke, because it came to light that the artist, the buyer, and the guy who ate the banana were all working together. The point was to prove the silliness of modern art and they did so in a way that was absurd and not really art.
The whole banana on the wall debacle was silly, but it brings up a question that people can lost in arguing really fast: “What constitutes art and who gets to decide if it is art?” If you walk into a convenience store, buy something and tape it to a wall it probably is not art, but maybe it can be. As a counterpoint to the Comedian consider “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and first staged in 1991. This piece of art is a pile of candy in the corner of a room, with instructions to people that the candy is free and they should take some. Gonzalez-Torres made his work open so that any gallery could stage it, but they had to follow and important rule. The pile of candy had to start at exactly 175 pounds, because this was the healthy weight of Ross before he started losing weight and fading because of AIDS, which eventually claimed his life. Candy was chosen as the medium because it is sweet, brings people joy, and just about everyone likes it. The artist thought these were qualities that Ross had, so candy was the best medium to represent him in. As people took candy they symbolically got to experience the sweetness of a friend who had passed, while the physical representation of Ross diminished just like he physically did while fighting AIDs. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is technically just a pile of candy, but I would argue that it is very much art. It may be unconventional but this pile of candy tells a story, it conveys emotion, and it connects the audience with the artist.
Again, the argument “what is art?” is a heated one that a lot of people a lot smarter than me have weighed in on. Perhaps one of the factors that make art into art, is the intention of the artist. Perhaps what makes art into art is the fact that the creator of a piece intended it to be art. I think this is a viewpoint that is especially important when considering this morning’s scripture. Verse ten states, “We are God’s workmanship.” The Greek phrase rendered workmanship or handiwork depending on the translation specifically refers to made works. In other contexts of ancient Greek it is a word used to describe the finished products of master craftsman or works of art. The New Living Translation of the bible is one that tries to communicate the meaning of the scripture in contemporary language, and I think it gets the meaning of this scripture right. It translated Ephesians 2:10 to read “For we are God’s masterpiece.” This morning’s scripture reveals to us, why God would consider us a masterpiece and how viewing ourselves in that way can make a huge difference.
The book of Ephesians is a letter that Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, and it is different than a lot of the letters Paul wrote to different churches. In the majority of Paul’s biblical letters he is writing to address a specific question that was troubling the congregation or he was writing to dispute a troubling belief or practice within the congregation. That is not the case with Ephesians. Ephesians is a positive, encouraging letter that is meant to build up the Ephesians, give the believers new ways to think about their relationship with God, and encourage them in faithful living. This morning’s scripture is part of this because Paul explains to the congregation what makes them God’s masterpiece. It is more than the fact that they are created by God, because all things that exist have been created by God. What the made Ephesians God’s masterpiece, and by extension us, is that we are God’s handiwork created in Christ Jesus. This morning’s scripture is the basis for a fundamental understanding in Christian theology.
This fundamental theological point can be understood as such, all people are create by God, but all of God’s creation has been corrupted by sin. This is what Paul writes in verse 1 of this morning’s scripture: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you used to live.” Out of God’s great love though, we have been given the opportunity to be released from this sin and death, and again Paul writes about this in this morning’s scripture in verses 4 and 5: “But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions- it is by grace you have been saved.”
We are saved, our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled by God, not because of anything we have done but because God did it for us through the mighty acts of Jesus Christ. It is this saving grace that connects us with God and it is this saving grace at work in our lives that makes us God’s masterpiece. Grace in our lives is not a one and done decision, it is a holy power that is work at work in our lives. It molds us and shapes us, and it transforms us into new creations that are masterfully made. There is a specific theological term for this work of grace in our lives and it is called regeneration. The doctrinal standards of The United Methodist church states this about the concept: “We believe regeneration is the renewal of man in righteousness through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, whereby we are made partakers of the divine nature and experience newness of life. By this new birth the believer becomes reconciled to God and is enabled to serve him.” In other words, regeneration is the work of grace in our lives to shape us into masterpieces.
The story of the banana taped to a wall came from Italy, but there is another art story from Italy that I think illustrates this point well. In 1436 the Cathedral in Florence, Italy was completed. While the structure was done work continued on the decorations. One of these planned decorative elements was a series of twelve statues of figures from the Old Testament. Famed sculptor Donatello completed the first of these, a sculpture of Joshua. In 1464 a student of Donatello’s was commissioned to do the next sculpture, and he was to do in marble. At great expense a large slab of marble was brought in. For two years the sculptor struggled and barely got a rough outline of the legs completed. A different sculptor was brought into finish the project but he also did not make much progress and left. Too heavy to be worth the expense of moving the marble sat in the courtyard of the cathedral for almost half a century. For decades the marble giant sat as a monument to a colossal failure. However, in 1501 a young artist managed to get the commission to finish the piece. He got the commission because he pursued it, he wanted it. Where others saw an unworkable mess, this sculptor looked on the marble and he saw a work of beauty that was still trapped inside it. For over two years he chiseled away the imperfections and worked with a piece of rock that was considered unusable. In 1504, the young artist named Michelangelo, had completely revealed the beauty inside the marble. To this day, Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is one of the most well-known, widely recognized and beloved works of art. It was from this ruined, abandoned marble that Michelangelo was able to make one of his greatest masterpieces.
To make the David, Michelangelo did not a perfect piece of marble. Instead he used something that was imperfect. More importantly Michelangelo looked past the imperfections, the flaws, and the negatives. He looked at what the marble slab could be, and not at what it was. I think from the beginning Michelangelo did not see the marble as a waste but he saw it as a masterpiece. In the very same way, we are God’s masterpiece created anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do good things. God is able to look past our flaws, our shortcomings, our failures, our regrets, and our shame to see the work of art that God knows we can be. What makes us masterpieces is the power of Christ in us, we are saved by grace, and that grace can and should transform us into something new, into the best possible versions of ourselves. The David came about because Michelangelo took what was thought to be a ruined piece of marble and made into something beautiful. In the same way, God makes something beautiful out of us.
As we think about how through grace we are God’s handiwork, there are two things we should keep in mind. First, we need to remember it took Michelangelo over two years to finish the sculpture. There are days when a chisel had to be used to force large sections of the marble to fall away, and there were days where the rough surfaces had to be sanded again and again so that the sculpture could truly take shape. The same is true for God’s working in our life. When we submit to the truth of God’s grace and forgiveness in all areas of our lives it will feel a bit like chiseling and sanding. It may even hurt as we let go of bad choices, habits, and shame that has held us back from being who God wants us to be, sometimes for years. Just like sanding marble is a slow and deliberate process, our regeneration into God’s masterpieces is not instant. It is a process where progress is often slower than we like. The results though are worth it. As we allow God’s grace to inform and transform all areas of our lives we become God’s handiwork that bears the indelible image of our creator and we are equipped to do the good works that God is designing us to do.
The second thing we have to keep in mind is that the truth of this scripture only has one condition. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus. It is the grace of Christ in our lives that sets us apart as God’s handiwork. That means that if you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, if you believe in your heart in the forgiveness of sins, and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord then you are God’s masterpiece and you are being made new to do the good works God has planned for you to do. Too many Christians refuse to believe this. They allow their past failures to define them. They believe lies told about them and that they have told themselves. Too many Christians look in the mirror, and they do not see the potential that God sees. Too many Christians think they are more like a ruined slab of marble left to the elements and not a beautiful work of art. Too many Christians have allowed someone other than God to define them. So friends, please know and believe that you are God’s masterpiece. Of all the works in the universe made by God’s hands, you are the ones that God has declared through the scripture to be a masterpiece. You are the works of God’s hands that God continues to mold and shape to perfection.
Yes, we all have rough edges. We are still works in progress, we still have areas of our lives that perhaps we could more readily surrender to God’s grace, but that does not change the reality that you, yes you, are a work of art created by the greatest artist in existence. May you claim that truth in your life, may you be willing to allow God’s grace to mold you and shape you. May you submit to God chiseling away the parts that need to go and sanding the areas of your life that be more Christ like. May we stop condemning ourselves and may we be the masterpieces that God is making us to be, beautiful new creations that can bring about true good in the world.