You were dead. That’s how the Apostle Paul opened this section of his letter to the Ephesians. You were dead. It’s a startling thing to hear, when you think about it. It also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the face of it. Oh, sure, now and then you may run across someone who had one of those so-called “near death experiences.” These are people whose hearts stopped on the operating room table or in the E.R. after a car accident. Some such people report that during the time when the doctors were trying to revive them it was as though they were at the top of the room looking down, able to see their own bodies lying there. But then the doctors got their hearts going again and so these folks were yanked back to life.
So if you met up with someone like this, then if you said to this person, “You were dead,” they would be able to relate to what you’re saying. Ordinarily, though, this just sounds a little nutty. If you said to your friend, “You were dead, Jill,” Jill is going to going to steer you in the direction of some professional counseling. Or just steer well clear of you altogether for a while.
Yet Paul comes to the Ephesians at the beginning of this second chapter to give them a piece of news they surely did not see coming: You were dead. Paul, of course, is referring to the pre-Christian life. But even there, what may have been striking to the Ephesians is that during the time of their lives when Paul said they had been dead, they had certainly not looked dead. They certainly had not felt dead.
As a matter of fact, Phil might be able to remember the time before he became a Christian when people used to refer to him as “the life of the party.” And Heather could maybe remember the times before she became a Christian when she and her friends would go to the beach, spread out a picnic lunch, and have a grand time. They surely didn’t feel dead then—in fact, they never felt more alive than when they were together. When the Ephesians looked back in time, they didn’t see deadness. They remembered bright lights and good times.
But Paul’s words hang in there: You were dead.
The writer Thomas Lynch is not only an award-winning author but he is also the undertaker in the town of Milford, Michigan. Mr. Lynch knows a thing or two about dead people but most of what he knows comes down to one very simple fact: the dead can’t do much for themselves. If you want a corpse to move from one room to another, you’ll have to do it yourself. Calling to the dead body is consistently ineffective. The dead, Mr. Lynch reminds us, don’t listen worth a toot. You really just have to do everything for them.
Spiritually speaking, that’s Paul’s assessment of anyone’s life outside of Christ. You were dead. And the dead can’t do anything for themselves. That’s why there is only one piece of good news the Bible has to offer. It’s the good news that sparked the entire Reformation. It’s the good news that has transformed millions of lives these last two millennia or so. And the news is this: it is by grace you were saved.
This is not your own doing, Paul says in verse 8, because you had nothing to offer. You were dead, and the dead can’t do for themselves. Only grace can raise the dead. Only grace can give us access to the work of Jesus. Jesus’ work is the only accomplishment in cosmic history that can fix what is broken between God and us. When by grace God gives you credit for that work of Jesus, you become alive again. Only grace can do that.
That’s why Paul did not say, “It is by your resume you were saved.” Paul did not say, “It is by your bank account you were saved.” Paul did not say, “It is by your being a good little moral person you were saved.” Paul did not say, “It is by your nice investment portfolio you were saved.” No, he said it is by grace you were saved, and this has nothing to do with you at all. Nothing. Nada. Nichts. You were dead. All you could do was receive what God had to give to you. It’s not about doing, but only about receiving.
And that’s all well and good but before Ephesians 2 is finished, Paul talks about good works after all. Apparently after you get up off your knees in receiving what only God in Christ can give, after grace has arrived, there is some stuff to do. But how does that fit with grace? Why is that not like hopping back onto some moral treadmill trying to please God with what we do? Because we need to distinguish between saying “Please” and saying “Thank You.” The Christian life, it turns out, is how we say “Thank You,” how we show that we understand that it’s all a gift.
The Reformed tradition has always made a big deal of the role gratitude plays in the Christian life. Gratitude is a big deal because when you realize that you were raised back to life by the grace of God in Christ, then you also realize that the entirety of your life from that point forward is one big hunk of gratitude, one big ongoing way of saying “Thank You!” to God. That’s why in many languages the word for grace is usually related to the word for gratitude.
In Greek charis is “grace” and eucharis means “thanksgiving.” In English the word “grace” is related to the word “gratis,” which means something that is free, and from that it’s a quick jump from “gratis” to “gratitude.” Our lives are one big overflow of grace-i-tude, of God’s grace spilling out over the edges and enabling us to accomplish everything we do in our studies, our work, our families, our churches, our careers. What we do, how we live, what we accomplish matter but only because they flow out of God’s grace. Take away grace, and we’re still dead no matter how busy and alive we seem to be from the outside looking in. Throw grace into the mix, however, and we are alive in a way that means we can never be dead again.
Paul saw no inconsistency whatsoever between saying in one verse “Forget about your works” and saying in the very next verse, “In Christ you have been created to do good works!” All through history a lot of people have wanted to talk back to Paul to say, “Come on, Paul, make up your mind! Which is it: do we try to lead good lives or don’t we?” Paul thought the question was a non-starter because he knew how powerful God’s grace is. When a grace powerful enough to raise the dead gets deep down inside you, it is going to bubble up in the rest of your life! You can’t hold it in. It’s like shaking up a bottle of Pepsi—once you take the cap off, it’s going to explode with energy because the fizz was already in the bottle to begin with.
You were dead. That’s a piece of bad news no matter how you slice it. But now you have been saved by grace and are alive in Christ. That’s a piece of good news so grand, it defies description. And the gospel is here to tell you that this good news is and can be your good news. Alive in Christ. Alive to the goodness of God in all of life. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page.]
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 11, 2018
Ephesians 2:1-10 Commentary