Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
I’d like to begin today with some questions about correct order. What came first… the chicken or the egg? Hmm. That’s not really so much a question as a riddle. There’s no satisfactory answer to that question. If you say “chicken” then one has to ask, “Then where did the chicken come from?” If you say “egg” then the question remains, “Where did the egg come from?”
Let me try another question. What comes first… marriage or pregnancy? Hmm. That one’s not so easy either. It’s not so much a riddle… but there’s a certain way that one is supposed to go, but we know it doesn’t always happen that way.
How about this? What comes first… the caterpillar or the butterfly? There. That one’s pretty clear. A butterfly is always a caterpillar before it becomes a butterfly. It’s a scientific fact. That order cannot be reversed. You can’t be a butterfly and then become a caterpillar.
So here’s one final sequence question. What comes first… my living years or my death? That seems clear too. It’s like the caterpillar and butterfly. It’s a scientific fact that I live my life… and then I die.
But wait a minute! Today’s lesson from Ephesians tells us that that is not the case. It begs us to look more deeply at the conditions of our existence so that we might see the truth of human life.
Today’s 2nd lesson begins with the phrase, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” We “were dead” it states; past tense.
It goes on to explain that we are all, by nature, “children of wrath.” In other words, it is our nature to follow the “passions of our flesh,” which means that we are selfish and short-sighted in our living. It is our nature to live in a way that creates casualties. The people around us… and, eventually, we ourselves become victims of our selfish and short-sighted living.
We think we know what would be fun. We think we know what will make us happy; but we don’t. We’re not that smart. We foolishly “follow the desires of flesh and senses,” and our lives become full of aching wounds, dead ends and lost chances.
We (and everyone around us) are stuck with our self-destructive inclinations and the consequences they bring about. On top of all that, we are all headed toward eventual physical deterioration and death. In that way, death has us from the very beginning.
And that is what the author of Ephesians means when he says, “You were dead.”
But there are also some absolutely beautiful phrases in today’s 2nd lesson. They speak of something else altogether. Listen to these…
Verses 4 and 5: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
And verses 6 and 7: [God] raised us up with [Christ]… so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.”
There is verse 8: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
And then there’s verse 10: “We are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
All of these verses are worth a considerable amount of reflection. They proclaim a number of incredible things. First… we are created by God… for good things… for good works. That is God’s purpose for us. That is why we exist… to know, to enjoy and to do good things.
Also, God loves us with a great love. Even when we cling to ways of death (as it is our nature to do), his love for us remains steadfast and great.
Furthermore, because he loves us, God makes us alive… he delivers us from death… like he did Jesus. We too are raised from the dead… not just in some distant future, but now… here… in this world. We are made alive.
God, through Christ, aims to fill our lives with immeasurable blessings. Having these gifts in our lives is what it means to be alive.
And finally, there’s this beautiful truth: God has given great thought to our lives even before we existed. And in order to help us become what he has made us to be, he has prepared for us the gift of faith. Through this gift of faith, God works in us to give us the good works and way of life he created us for.
These are profound and incredibly important messages. Today’s lesson from Ephesians makes clear and plain the great contrast between what becomes of our lives… what we make of our lives… when we follow our own nature… and what becomes of our lives when God is active in our lives, shaping and transforming who we are.
We think that the existence of human beings goes like this: We live… and then we die. The writer of Ephesians echoes a major theme of scripture (and Christ himself) when he tells us that the truth is just the opposite. Even though we draw breath, we are, in fact, dead… until God makes us alive. Once you were dead; now you have been made alive. That’s how the author of the letter to the Ephesians puts it.
This message is found also in the letter to the Colossians where we read: “When you were dead in trespasses… God made you alive together with him.” (Colossians 2:13)
The idea is repeated in 1st Corinthians: “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)
And again in Romans: “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead… so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
And when Jesus speaks of himself as the “living water” (John 4:7-15), or the “bread of life” (John 6:25-40), or the vine and branches (John 15:1-11), he is speaking about how the Spirit and power of God, through Christ, make us alive.
As we exist in this world, the paths of death and life lie before us. We human creatures are all “children of wrath” at our core. It’s not that we choose death so much as it is our basic condition… our natural inclination. But because God loves us, it isn’t our final destiny. God has something else in mind for us… namely life… and he beckons us to that path.
The doorway between death and life is the Spirit of God. The one who created us is the same one who pulls us from the grave and makes us alive… and who makes us what we were meant to be. Through the work of his Spirit, God creates in us all those things that give life… that are life: faith, joy, love, forgiveness, healing, growth, change, kindness, gentleness… hope.
Many people think that the main point of religious faith is to affect our distant future… the time when our breathing ceases and we die. The point of faith, many think, is to get us to heaven… or to avoid hell. But that way of thinking is wrong. Matters of heaven and hell are entirely the business of God.
We, on the other hand, are simple creatures of God. Our business is this life. For us, the point and purpose of faith is transformation which occurs now. We seek life here in this world. Our task is to let God into our hearts now so that we can be made truly alive, and so we can share that gift with others in our world.
God promises that life that begins here, by the Spirit of God, is so powerful that it carries us beyond the curtain of this world… beyond what we know and see… to our final home with God, taking away death’s power over us forever.
That is why we need the Spirit of God in our lives. We need it now and we need it always. It is, after all, a matter of death and life for us… and yes… it does come in that order. Once we were dead, but, through Christ, God has made us al