This has been a dark week. A seemingly God-forsaken week: the bombing at the Boston Marathon, the horrific explosion in West, Texas, the failure of the Senate to act meaningfully for gun control (despite the overwhelming will of the populace) and a 7.0 earthquake in Sichuan, China. A child is dead, a police officer is dead, a college student and a young woman are dead. Scores of others have died. The master of death has collected a mighty ransom this week, and from those of us left behind, he has exacted a tax on our faith, our sense of security and our trust in the goodness of this world.
This has been a week of Good Fridays, and inasmuch as Ephesians has something to say about death, it has something to say about Good Friday. But not just Good Friday. God won’t leave it there, Ephesians has something to say about Easter Sunday, too. “Evil,” writes Markus Barth, “is incidental, not essential. It is disorder, not order.” God has created the world good and God has created we humans very good. The evil that pervades the world is not God’s, but God, through Jesus Christ, has entered its very heart and is everywhere enlivening what sin has put to death.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today’s text comes from the letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 1-10:
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But 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—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For 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 works, so that no one may boast. 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.”
We Are What God Has Made Us
The following obituary appeared in the Vallejo Times-Herald. “Dolores had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. I speak for the majority of her family when I say her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing […] There will be no service, no prayers and no closure […] So I say here for all of us, GOOD BYE, MOM.”
The first verses of Ephesians 2 read like a postmortem. Time of death: unknown. Cause: sin, both hers and the world’s. Known associates: the ruler of the power of the world, whoever that is. And the obituary, our obituary, ignominious and callous reads thusly, “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” That’s it. That’s our postmortem and our obituary. And here you thought old Dolores had it bad.
Ephesians 1 proclaims unequivocally that we have been chosen. God, who is exuberant and overflowing with love, has destined us for adoption through Jesus Christ. There’s not a thing in this world that can stop up God’s love. That’s at the core of the church’s word. But our being chosen is not some antiseptic that leaves us “neutralized” (a word I heard all too often on Friday evening). We’ve got a past to rekon with. And that’s the content of the “despite all of this”. Despite our sin, we were chosen, adopted, called. Because if we’re honest, we have to admit that things aren’t good with the world and they aren’t good with us. In fact, we’re dead. Dead as a doornail. Dead as a coffin nail? If we’re going to take resurrection seriously, resurrection here and now in our own lives, and if we’re going to take the work of Jesus Christ seriously, then we have to come to terms with what we’ve done and with the consequences of our actions.“You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically,” like Marley the Ghost we find ourselves dead.
There’s a scene in King Lear where the old king, mad from grief and hubris, stands on an English heath in the middle of a wicked rainstorm. He’s stuttering and spitting and cursing the wind and finally, in a moment of inverted insight at the end of a nonsensical monologue, Lear shouts “I am a man / More sinn’d against than sinning.” The readers recognize a truth in it, but he’s proven himself a mighty sinful man. Yet still the world has prevailed against him. The powers, the internal structures of feudal life have sinned against him.
When the author of Ephesians talks about “the ruler of the air” we might be tempted to see a little red devil and his minions, but it’s far more pertinent that we see the sins of the structures in which we participate. We are bound up in systems that sin against us and our world. We participate in a cycle that perpetuates poverty and racial injustice. We participate in an economy that overwhelmingly benefits greed and self-interest. We participate in a society that legislates and restricts love and fosters hatred toward those we consider “other”. CNN, Fox News demand that we turn our attention anywhere but the human beings in front of us. The atmosphere, both literal and figural, is toxic. We are a people sinned against.
But we are also mired in our own sin and we can’t forget that. Certain groups have co-oped the term “flesh” as something inherently evil. There’s none of that here. God created us in the divine image as very good. Our enfleshed experiences are not sinful in themselves. “Flesh” here points to something deeper, to a truth about our profoundly self-centered lives. We follow what suits us and advances our position. We are sinned against, yes. But we are also sinners. And those two things have stripped us of the life for which we were created.
Now here’s where I start to get nervous, because there’s a tendency in fundamentalist circles to focus so heavily on this death that we forget the life that everywhere precedes and follows it. Fundamentalists forget that before there was death there was creation, which God proclaimed without reservation to be good. We should take joy in that proclamation, but we must also take stock of the world at our feet. That’s where fundamentalists got it right. “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” Where the fundamentalists go wrong is the unrelenting focus on death in order to guilt us into some realization about Jesus Christ. Where they have it wrong is the failure to recognize that we are not trapped in cycles of sin but everywhere freed from them, and everywhere expected to fight them.
Ephesians 2 isn’t about guilt. It carries within it that same hymnodic joy of Ephesians 1, the joy of having been chosen, the glory of offering praise and thanksgiving to the God who has given us life and bid us live. Indeed, right after we read of our death, we have this one great conjunction, a conjunction that changes everything: but. But God is rich in mercy. God, out of great, immeasurable love has resurrected us, has lifted us out of the domain of the “prince of the air” and into the world for which we were created.
But changes everything. Yes, we are dead. But God will not settle for our death. We have sinned, yes, but God, who in Jesus Christ experienced the unimaginable death of being, has made us alive. This isn’t about guilt, it’s about recognizing an incredible, impossible act of salvation. It’s about realizing the all-inclusive, everywhere-encompassing love of God that chooses, adopts and calls every one of us.
And here come some of the most recognizable verses in the canon: “For 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 works, so that no one may boast. 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.
“We are”, says the author, “what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” We are what God has made us. God has made us in the divine image to enjoy, to participate, to engage life. We are what God has made us, co-creators in the divine image that every Spring renews itself and the world with it. We are what God has made us, and God has made us in love for love. We don’t deserve it, we don’t even want it half the time, but it has been made ours, because God is a God of unrelenting mercy and overflowing love.
And we too (and we must hear this in light of the unimaginable events of Friday evening) are called to be a people of unrelenting mercy and overflowing love. We are called to bear witness to this great act of God’s by living into the life of good for which we have been created. We have been made for the good, for good acts, for good works, for good living.
If you read carefully that might seem contradictory: “For by grace you have been saved through faith […] not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” When I’m talking about the works for which we were created, I’m not talking salvation by works, I’m talking about the stuff of life. I’m talking about participating in the world’s redemption. Redemption from forces of evil, redemption from injustice, redemption from hatred. I’m talking about works of love emanating from a life resurrected by God.
What’s the difference between the “works” that parrot salvation and the “good works” that bespeak true living? Well, we’ve seen politicians stage photographs at soup kitchens and women’s shelters when they aren’t open, and we’ve seen anonymous men and women run toward a bomb to bind up the wounds strangers. What’s the difference between the “works” of v. 9 and the “good works” of v. 10? Well, I’ve seen folks standing on the corner yelling damnation in the name of an unfamiliar God and I’ve seen brothers and sisters of different faiths and tribes and ethnic groups offer comfort in times of trouble.
Evil is incidental; God is purposeful, overflowing, brimming with love. We needn’t be burdened under the yoke of sin because God has entered into history in the person of Jesus Christ. God suffers alongside the suffering, God rejoices with the rejoicing, God prays with the angry, God consoles the lost. God does not encroach our freedom, oppressing us with as rulers of the air, but transforms us from death to life by the sole power of the unfolding, unfurling, living Good.
Patton Oswalt, a hilarious comic who is not, to my knowledge, particularly religious, posted a moving response to Monday’s attacks. I won’t quote it in full, but it ends thusly:
“So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.'”
This has been a hell of a week. But it’s Sunday. And we’re here, together. God has created us for better things than bombs and guns and hatred. God has created us for life and love, and nothing, no power in the air, no society on the earth, can halt that very good creation. “The good outnumber [the evil], and,” and here I’ll amend Mr Oswalt, by the overflowing, resurrecting, transforming grace of God “we always will.”