Thursday, March 26, 2015

Truly Alive?

Truly Alive?
Ephesians 2:1-10[1]
When I look at the way we as a people live our lives today, I have to wonder what happened to the concept of “sin.” Now, I would be the first to insist that, contrary to what some may say, sin is not the basic truth of our existence. I firmly believe that our basic truth is that God loves us unconditionally and irrevocably.[2] And yet, if we take a good look at the way we live our lives, I think we’d have to say that there’s plenty of sin going around. I’m not much for some of the typical approaches to sin: the “devil made me do it” doesn’t hold much water for me.[3] And I don’t believe it’s some deep stain or flaw that defines us. I think that sin is what we do when we’re trying to avoid the real truth of our lives.[4]
I think most of us would have to admit that we really, really don’t want to have to face the facts of our lives. We’d much rather just let the television wash over us, or lose ourselves in busy work, or just simply escape with alcohol or food or shopping. Not all of those things are “evil” in and of themselves. But when we lose ourselves to them in an attempt to avoid having to deal with what’s going on with us and especially what’s going on inside us, these things can leave us feeling profoundly lost and empty. When we’ve done everything we can to avoid feeling the pain of life, we also lose the capacity to feel anything. It’s as if we’re dead inside. I have to ask the question I think we’ve all sensed at one time or another: when we live our lives that way, are we really living at all?
St. Paul addresses this question in our lesson for today. He faced this spiritual deadness head-on. He made it clear that, on our own, we are “dead through our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5).  In fact, he uses some language that may seem strange to us. He says that our deadness comes from “the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1-2). That’s not the way we tend to describe our lives these days. We might say that we have a weakness for something, or maybe we struggle with some bad habits, or perhaps we are dealing with certain issues. But we don’t tend to describe our lives in terms of “trespasses” or “disobedience.”[5]
But St. Paul won’t let us off the hook at this point.[6] When get lost in those pursuits that leave us feeling dead inside, he calls it following the “course of this world.” I like the way the Phillips translation puts it: our problem is that we’re drifting “along on the stream of this world’s ideas of living.” Paul is quite blunt about what that constitutes: sin. When try to ignore the real truth of our lives, the truth that is rooted in our very souls, we are living in disobedience. Paul makes it clear that living that way is the cause of the sense that our lives are empty. If it seems like we’re not truly alive at all, it’s because we’re trying to avoid the truth we’d rather not face.
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Paul makes such a strong point of emphasizing how dead we can be in order to point us to the fact that God is the one who makes us truly alive.[7] In fact, Paul insists that, just as Jesus was dead, but God made him alive again, so also God exerts the power of the resurrection to bring back to life all of us who are living in a kind of spiritual deadness.[8] In our lesson for today, Paul says that the basis for this amazing transformation that we can all experience is God’s grace.[9] It is because God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) that God steps in to do something about the emptiness of the way we live. Just as death didn’t keep God from raising Jesus from the dead, so the reality that we may be “dead through our trespasses” (Eph. 2:5) doesn’t prevent God from giving us new life. In fact, Paul’s whole point is to assure us that God has already “made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). By the power of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we have the chance to become truly alive.[10]
I realize that my approach to being “dead in sins” is probably a bit different from what St. Paul had in mind originally. I would imagine he was thinking of other kinds of behaviors, like pleasure seeking, immorality, promiscuity, and other vices we still have with us today. But I wonder if it isn’t the case that, then as now, those excessive behaviors aren’t just another way to escape from the emptiness and the pain we suffer in the depths of our soul. While we may use more acceptable ways of avoiding what’s really going on with us and inside us, the result is the same: we’re dead inside. By keeping ourselves from feeling the painful truth of life, we lose the capacity to feel anything. Unfortunately, all those things we work so hard at avoiding have a way of coming back to haunt us. I find this is especially true in when we’re sleeping—or trying to sleep. That’s when the truths we’ve been trying avoid come back to remind us that we’re not really living.
But this is where the power of the resurrection can make all the difference in the world for us. Think about it: if God’s power is great enough to overcome even death, then what part of your suffering can’t God overcome? I think the answer is obvious. The new life of Jesus’ resurrection is so powerful that it spills over into our lives. It gives us the courage to face the struggles we’d rather avoid. When we do that we can come alive in a way that we may never have thought possible. As we face the reality of our lives, the pain that can haunt us slowly loses its hold over us. Through God’s mercy and love, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we can come back from the emptiness of trying to escape from life and instead we can become truly alive!

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/15/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible IX:394: “Ephesians has placed its description of sin in subordinate clauses. The focus of the opening period is God’s grace and love experienced by the redeemed.”
[3] Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 117, where he recognizes that the text speaks of the spiritual power that influences humankind toward sin. Nevertheless, “This explanation of sin does not, however, do away with human responsibility, for in the next breath the writer can say that not only the readers, but all believers, were at one time those who chose not to obey.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:260, where he speaks of the human condition as a self-enclosed “imprisonment” where “we only fulfil [sic] our own possibilities and only believe in our own possibilities.”
[5] Thomas G. Long, “Just As I Am,” The Christian Century (Mar 21, 2006):18, where he says of Paul’s language that we are “dead in sin” and in need of salvation: “To see this statement as applicable to us, to swallow even one ounce of this claim, we must admit a cluster of truths about ourselves we would rather not face—that we are captive to cultural and spiritual forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or crawl our way free, and that we are in urgent need of a God who comes to rescue. In short, we need saving.”
[6] Fred Craddock, “From God to God,” The Christian Century (Mar 22, 2003): 18. He says, “The language is vivid: You were dead. This is to say, you were caught in a futile way of life obedient to desires of the flesh, seeking the approval of your culture, heeding every inclination that led away from God, aimless and helpless to extricate yourself.”
[7] Craddock, “From God to God,” 18: “For all their power to cripple, control and alienate, all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled. For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide as the forces of evil. And his liberating work has already begun in setting free the person caught in the passions of the senses and enamored of this worlds offerings.
[8] Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 116: “the parallel he draws between the supreme demonstration of God’s power in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ (1:19–21) and his activity on behalf of believers. He wants them to realize that just as Christ was physically dead but God raised and exalted him, so they were spiritually dead but God raised and exalted them with Christ.”
[9] Cf. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32, where he offers what I think is an excellent definition of grace: “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Cf. also Barth,Church Dogmatics 2.1:278: “God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved.”
[10] Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 118: “With grace as its ground and faith as its means, this salvation can have nothing to do with any notion of merit. That it is ‘by grace’ means that it has not originated from a human source but comes from God as a gift. That it is ‘by faith’ means the exclusion of human effort and, therefore, of any pride or boasting in the presence of God. The writer wants his readers to be absolutely clear that it is God, and not humans, who is to be given the credit for salvation, and that means the whole of salvation, including believers’ good works.”

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