This is the sermon that I preached on Sunday morning, July 1, at the Upstate, New York District campgrounds in Brooktondale, New York, near Ithaca.The occasion was the first Sunday of the Family Camp. It’s a place 300 Nazarenes and friends gather annually, a quiet corner tucked away in the Catskills where cell phone signals are weak but God’s moving is strong. We all need Brooktondales in our lives, locations to get away from the daily noise and tune-in to His voice.
“Dead” – It’s a word nobody likes.
If I were a teacher of writing, I would have advised Paul against starting the second movement of his letter to the Ephesians in such a morbid way. Yet, there it is in Ephesians 2:1 –
And you were dead…
II. DESCRIPTION OF SPIRITUAL DEATH
What is Paul doing? In Ephesians 2:1-3, he holds up a mirror to the face of every individual who lives as if God is not. It’s not a pretty picture.
“You were dead.” How so? First, you and I walked in “trespasses and sins” (v.2). This is no exception to the rule; it is the rule. Note the word “walking.” These are patterns, habits; it’s a way of life without God.
According to recent surveys, 39% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, when asked about their religious affiliation, give themselves the label of “none.” With that figure comes consequences. The word “sin” is becoming an antiquated word in our language, and yet it is a necessary word, a word closely akin to “evil.” This week, a man walked into a newspaper office in Baltimore, Maryland and systematically targeted five employees, executing them on the spot. If we cannot talk about evil, if we cannot talk about sin, then what vocabularly shall we use to describe such heinous actions?
Sin takes many forms, but at its root, it is disobedience to the laws of God. It is doing what God forbids us to do or neglecting to do what God commands. Sin always operates both vertically and horizontally. It is rebellion against God but also a trespass in some way against others.
Paul continues. Spiritual death is the outcome of death-inducing habits. Verse 3 mentions the passions of our “flesh.” Passion can be like nuclear power. If contained, it can be positive, but as soon as the reaction escapes the boundary of the reactor, there’s negative fallout. Passion brings husband and wife together, and often, children are the good result. But when passion is misdirected outside the bounds of marriage prescribed by God – whether through adultery or even the viewing of pornography – damage occurs. What should bring life instead produces death.
And who is it that takes God’s good gifts and twists them into something selfish and destructive? Ultimately, each of us is responsible before God for our own sin, yet there is a malevolent force at-work in this world. Verse 2 speaks of the “prince of the power of the air.” The NIV says that this is the “spirit at work in those who are disobedient,” those who have rebelled against God.
The devil used to be denied, dismissed as the figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Now, in pop culture, the devil and all things dark are celebrated. As we traveled around New England on home assignment, it’s sobering to notice that where the church is weak, other spiritual counterfeits move in. It might be the Free Mason temple on main street in a small Maine town, or the palm reader shop just down the corner. Have you noticed how many books and movies also explore paranormal themes? The irony is that as the number of adults who claim no affiliation to religion increases, the occult becomes more mainstream. When God has been pushed to the margins, Satan takes center stage.
And so in vv. 1-3, Paul describes spiritual death. When we look around today, we see plenty of evidence of decay. It’s the stench of death for those who still have a sensitive nose. Notice in verse 3 that Paul shifts from “you” to “we.” Lest we start removing specks of sawdust from the eyes of others and forget the board in our own eye, we must admit: Each and every one of us are either there now or once were there. There’s no room for self-righteous, holier-than-thou proclamations. The apostle realizes that there was nothing he could have done to help himself. He, too, was dead in his trespasses and sins. If there was to be a solution, it would have to come from elsewhere.
III. BUT GOD…
Verse 4 is the hinge on which the two parts of this passage swing. You might say that verses 1-3 are the “before” and verses 4-10 are the “after.” And here are the two words that make all the difference. Are you ready? Verse 4, ESV –
We were dead. We were long gone, done for, kaput, fini, history. “But God”!
Hear me well. Pastor, the world doesn’t need another Oprah. It doesn’t need another Dr Phil, another solution that leaves God out. In a world of death, give them Christ, and you will give them life. Youth pastor, Bible study leader, VBS helper, our children and youth don’t need one more slick, Disney-like presentation to tell them to believe in themselves or to look for an answer within. No! Instead, they desperately need us to point them to One bigger than themselves, a good God in whom they can put their trust.
And why should we trust God?
Verse 4 (ESV) – “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…”
Did you catch that? God’s mercy is rich. God’s love is great. It’s a lavish love, not rationed out like a thimble-full of water in a parched land. No! His love and mercy rain down on us like a Brooktondale thunderstorm. It’s plentiful; it gushes and carries things along in its path.
And this God, the Father of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, never leaves us unchanged. We were dead. But that was then; this is now. Look at verses 5-6: God made us alive together with Christ. The same power that resurrected Jesus on the 3rd day makes us alive!
So, we raise ourselves, right? Find that power within, connect with your unlimited human potential right inside of you!
Wrong, double wrong. What corpse ever raised itself? Jesus raised Lazarus, and the Father raised Jesus, his son. We cannot raise ourselves; we cannot save ourselves. It is only God’s grace that can raise us from death to life.
It is only God’s favor, unmerited, undeserved, that can take us from where we are to where we need to be.
There’s a lot of teaching these days that is incomplete, and because it is incomplete, it is powerless. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid of the “Don’t judge me!” retort in a world that seemingly is offended by nothing except moral absolutes. But whatever the cause, this teaching reduces the Gospel to just the love and grace of God. In so doing, it refuses to name the problem, which is sin. Yet unless we are followers of Jesus Christ are willing to diagnose the sickness, there can be no divine cure.
Paul ruffles feathers. He tells it like it is: “You were dead in your sin.” Not injured, not mostly dead, just plain dead. And the rich mercy and the great love of God will not rest until what is lost has been found, until what is dead is raised to new life. Dan Boone puts it this way:
God seeks us just as we are, but he doesn’t leave us that way.
When Paul says that God raises us to life with Christ, God doesn’t do it halfway. Verse 6 says not only that God raises us but he seats us “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
We don’t often talk about the ascension. That’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful image of the Lordship of Jesus Christ not only over creation, but over every sinful idol that we are tempted to erect in our lives. Just before he returned to the Father, Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18a). And the amazing thing is that Ephesians 2:6-7 are saying that it’s the same power from God that is available to us.
There was a time in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, of which the Church of the Nazarene is a part, that we were in danger of overselling what the grace of God in Christ could do in the human heart. Sometimes, we were in danger of classifying human emotions (such as anger) as inherently sinful. Did we fall into the trap of legalism at times? Surely we did, such as when my brother was ordained and the General Superintendent required all ordinands to remove their wedding bands, since (according to him) being gold, they were an example of “prideful adornment.” I recall an earnest sermon from an old-timer in my home church who (on the same principle) preached against women wearing makeup.
I certainly am not arguing that we take up that heavy burden again. But I wonder if sometimes the pendulum has swung too far? When I read passages like Ephesians 2:6-7, where God sets us in heavenly places in Christ, I wonder:
Do we still believe that God gives us victory over sin, death, and the devil?
In our zeal to avoid wrongly classifying simple human emotions as sinful, do we now wrongly dismiss genuine sins with the catch-all excuse, “I’m only human”? ? If we set the bar too high in the past, are we now setting it far too low? I don’t know about you, but I want to be triumphantly seated in heavenly places with Christ. By his grace, and through the power of the Holy Spirit living inside us, let us together rise above the sins that bring death. Let us together live in newness of life.
IV. SAVED FOR A PURPOSE
And now we come to Ephesians 2:8-10, the three verses that cap-off the passage. Verses 8-9 are two of the best known in the New Testament, but they only make sense in the context of verses 1-7. Dead people don’t raise themselves. Only an outside force can do that. By grace you have been raised with Christ; so by grace you have been saved. It’s not a me thing; it’s a God thing. All the credit goes back to God. We are alive in Christ for one reason and one reason only: Our God, rich in mercy and great in love, raised us out of the stench of our sin. Thanks be to God!
Millenials come in for heavy criticism these days, in my opinion, far too much criticism. As a father of two sons who are Millenials, I realize that they look at life differently than those of us born decades earlier. One thing I’ve come to deeply appreciate is the de-emphasis on owning things and the strong emphasis on changing things. And if we can sit down long enough to really hear what they’ve been patiently trying to tell us, a lot of it boils to this: Less talk, more action.
Millenials are Ephesians 2:10 Christians. Here are the seven words that capture their outlook: “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
Good works will not save us, but because God in Christ has saved us, we will do good works.
Before, we walked in darkness, often stumbling along with others on the path of death. Now, raised to life, we lock arms with each other and we walk the walk of life.
We are saved for a purpose. No longer are we in verse 2, walking in sins and trespasses. We now camp out in verse 10. Saved by grace through faith, recipients of God’s great gift, we now gift the world. Filled with God’s love and the Holy Spirit’s power, transformed, we transform the world.
At the Pastors and Leaders Conference held at ENC last week, we had many excellent workshops and heard wonderful messages from gifted speakers. I was so pleased when we took 1 afternoon for community service projects. This is moving from Ephesians 2:8-9 to Ephesians 2:10. Paul says that good works were God’s plan all along. It is the church breathing out, the Holy Spirit sending us out together in mission.
Where are you today? Maybe you’re in verses 1-3. Sin has gripped you and won’t let go. You feel its power dragging you down, the power of death and the grave. I have good news for you today! There is a God who is rich in mercy and great in love. He raised Jesus from the dead, and He can raise you to a new life in Christ.
Maybe you are already a Christian. You remember when you were saved, when God raised you to life. But over time, your first love has grown cold. Perhaps you’ve let sins that at one time you never would have allowed in your life to become idols, secret altars to other gods. God is saying to us this morning: “Be seated with Christ in heavenly places.” Are you ready to admit your sin, to let God knock down the idols? Whatever your excuses might have been, are you ready to place all things under the authority of Jesus Christ?
— FINAL PRAYER AND INVITATION —
Skeletons: author unknown (no attribution URL); found at Wikmedia Commons
Cofrentes nuclear power towers: via Wikimedia Commons
Believe in yourself: We Are Truly Happy
Don’t Judge Me: Bing Images