Sermon Podcast: You Were Dead (Ephesians 2:1-10)
“She survived to within eleven days of her ninety-second birthday,” Frederick Buechner writes of his mother, “and [she] died in her own bed in the room that for the last year or so of her life when her arthritic knees made it virtually impossible for her to walk and became the only world that really interested her. She kept track more or less of the world outside. She had a rough idea what her children and grandchildren were up to. She read the papers and watched the evening news. But such things as that were dim and far away compared to the news that was breaking around her every day. Yvonne, who came days, had been trying to tell her something but God only knew what, her accent was so thick. Marge, who came nights, was an hour late because of delays on the subway, or so she said. My mother’s cane had fallen behind the radiator, and the super was going to have to come do something about it. Where was her fan? Where was the gold purse she kept her extra hearing aids in? Where was the little peach-colored pillow, which of all the pillows she had was the only one that kept her tray level when they brought in her meals? In the world where she lived, these were the things that made headlines.”
Sound familiar? Dying is difficult. No news there, right?
But one of the most difficult things to observe in someone you love is their world shrinking. It may be that as death nears, we’re more aware of the limits of our vision, the finite character of our experience.
It may be that dying just takes too much energy to keep up with everything else that’s going on in the world—you only have enough vigor to focus a few feet in front of your face.
Whatever the reason, whether contemplating eternity or conserving resources to make it through the next moment, the closer we move toward death, the smaller our world becomes. We need not hear death’s slow, steady footsteps outside our door, however, to begin the process of turning our focus inward.
Indeed, we all start out that way.
As infants, we come out of the womb believing that the world revolves around us. Growing up is that progression of events whereby we begin the painful process of coming to understand that there exist other misguided souls, who arrogantly believe the world revolves around them.
Temper tantrums and pouting are expected in toddlers; they become difficult to justify, however, in people capable of long-division and multi-syllabic utterances. As Fred Craddock once said, “There is finally no way to modulate the human voice in such a way as to make whining an acceptably adult response in any situation.”
I remember in a church where I was pastor, there was a woman who was extremely upset about something. Who knows what?
Ms. Ollie called me up and said that if I didn’t do something about what was upsetting her, she was sorry, but she was going to have to give up the Sunday School class she’d taught since the Hoover administration and go to another church where she’d be appreciated.
I told her that I was sorry to hear that she felt that way.
“I’ll do it,” she said.
“I have no doubt that you mean what you say. Again, I’m sorry you feel like you need to make that decision.”
Somebody in the church heard about my conversation with Ms. Ollie, and said, “You said that to her?”
“Weren’t you afraid she’d leave?”
What I wanted to say was, “What I was really afraid was that she wouldn’t.”
Actually, what I said was, “Listen, I’ve got two toddlers. I’m constitutionally immune to pouting. Ms. Ollie will be just fine.”
Selfishness, self-absorption, self-centeredness mean you’re still a child, or it could mean that you’re dying. Neither of which, it seems to me, are happy alternatives.
But most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, spend the bulk of our time dealing with the world relative to its relationship to us.
In fact, until we’re taught otherwise, that’s how most of us read the Bible—as if when the author was writing, there was within the author’s mind a suitably flattering picture of me.
Having been taught by popular Christianity to read the bible this way, the first question most American Christians are liable to ask of Scripture when they read it is, “What is this passage saying to me?” Which, if you stop to think about it, is a fairly presumptuous question with which to begin one’s inquiries into the good news of Jesus Christ:
“What about me? What’s in it for me?”
God created the world, and finally sent Jesus into it to redeem it by living, dying, and being raised on the third day.
Well, that’s a nice story. But what about me? What about my needs?
You see the problems inherent in that approach to reading Scripture?
Jesus is cool and all, but let’s talk about the real focus of the story—me. But Paul takes that most favored of hermeneutical options away from us here in the second chapter of Ephesians.
How do we know that?
For one thing, we’re tipped off that this movie isn’t starring us when we read the first verse of chapter 2 only to find that we’ve been killed off in the first three words. Paul writes, “You were dead.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d be willing to bet that Brad Pitt wouldn’t keep reading a script in which he got whacked in the first sentence. Even with his legendary charisma, Brad Pitt would find it difficult to compensate for a screenplay that left him with the theatrical disadvantage of being dead.
No. Try as we might. We can’t get this passage to be about us. Keep reading.
The second thing that clues us in to the fact that we’re not going to get any Academy Awards for our participation in this blockbuster: Notice how the verbs in this passage unfold. (It might help you to have your Bible open as we do this.)
Starting with verse four, who’s doing all the acting?
God is rich in mercy. God loved us with a great love. God made us alive together with Christ. God showed us the immeasurable riches of his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. God has saved us by grace through faith. God has made us what we are—created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Are you getting the picture here? Oh, we’re the primary actors in a few verbs: We lived once—apparently. Of course, what we lived in was our trespasses and sins, following the course of this world, following he ruler of the power of the air—which ultimately led to our death.
Sure, we lived once—in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of our flesh, and senses, making us children of wrath.
Not a very promising beginning from a cinematic perspective. Not even living strictly defined—at least according to Paul.
But this story isn’t about us—which winds up being the most merciful thing we could hear, isn’t it? In a world in which our reference point for all experiences, all calculations of worth are ourselves, it’s good news to hear that God has something bigger in mind than our private, shrinking worlds.
God has a a new reign in mind that’s big enough for each of our lives, but too small for even one of our egos.
According to God’s reckoning, the smaller our worlds, the more self-absorbed we are—the closer we are to death.
Even when the worlds we inhabit are filled with our own attempts at good works, they’re still focused on the wrong person. That’s what Paul’s getting at when he says that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of good works, so that no one may boast.”
On the other hand, death seems to be God’s favorite medium in which to work. If you read Scripture with God as the main character, you begin to see that God has a penchant for yanking the rug out from under death at every opportunity. God has a long and storied history of working with the dead.
Why do you think that is?
Why go to all that trouble with the lifeless?
I suppose it could have something to do with the fact that the only folks not likely to be overly preoccupied with themselves, with climbing the ladder, with winning the rat race under their own steam are . . . the dead. Successful, self-absorbed people—it would appear—are too busy for resurrection.
You were dead. That’s not a very promising beginning in Hollywood. But God can do a whole lot with very little.
“For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Life, on this reading of things, pushes us beyond the borders of our own small worlds, and out into the big new world that God is busy creating and sustaining through the in-breaking of God’s reign.
It’s not about me. It’s about God, and God’s love of those whom God has created . . . those whom we--in our hurry to fortify our own worlds--have often forgotten.
It’s about the last, the least, the lost, and the dead--which, Paul tells us, is what we were until God “made us alive with Christ.”
Being dead, according to Paul, is no way to go through life.