Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Mar. 15 2009.
Ephesians 2: 1-10, 19-22
The movie entitled, The Sixth Sense features a little boy who has a very unusual ability. If you saw the movie you may recall that when this little boy first confesses his secret ability to a friend he expresses it this way−“I see people who are dead and they don’t know they are dead.”
It’s a very spooky movie. But the most haunting part of the movie to me is this line: “I see people who are dead but don’t know they are dead.” The reason that line has stuck with me is because I have wondered from time to time if I am dead inside and don’t know it.
We have all seen those posters that say “Wanted Die or Alive.” The posters imply only two choices: you’re either dead or you’re alive. Well, suppose there’s a third option? Suppose you’re dead and alive? Dead spiritually, alive physically.
I’ve come to realize it’s a lot harder to detect spiritual than physical death. I’ve been with a number of people during their last hours and have learned there are predictable signs that death is coming. But how do you ascertain spiritual death? Our hearts can be beating, our lungs can be breathing, our minds can be processing but our souls can be dead. And we don’t even know it.
One reason spiritual death is hard to detect is because there is so much around us. Paul addresses this in Ephesians 2 when he says to the young Ephesian Christians, “Remember what it was like before you became to know Christ? Let me remind you. You were dead in your transgressions, and because you were following the ways of the world, you didn’t know you were spirituality dead.”
The same thing can be true of us. We can follow Christ−that’s what it means to be a disciple of Christ−or we can follow the ways of the world, ordered by the “Prince of the Air.” Satan, the Father of Lies, has the uncanny ability to deceive us, deceiving us, so we don’t know what’s true any more. That’s why it’s quite possible to be spiritually dead and not even know it.
Today we put so much attention, as well we should, on the primary physical killers of people like cancer and heart disease. Yet the biggest killer of our day is the same as in Paul’s day, and that’s sin−an attitude and lifestyle of rebellion against God. And it’s this attitude that kills our souls, ultimately eliminating our eternity with God. In this respect we die before we are dead, dying spirituality long before we die physically.
Ephesians 2:1 gives us a harsh reality check. Paul says to the Ephesians, As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. What I notice here is that Paul did not tip-toe around the truth. Paul doesn’t say, “As I remember, you folks were a little bit off.” In a very impolitic way Paul says, “I remember what you were like. You were dead in your souls whether you knew it or not.”
Here’s the effect sin has on us. It shuts off the Spirit from our souls. Imagine gasping for air and not being able to get it−your body won’t last long. Chronic unconfessed sin has that same effect on our souls. We begin to shrivel and die inside. In Romans 6:23, Paul says it very well−The wages of sin is death.
Sometimes we sin and we know we’re dead. Have you ever had an experience of doing something that felt good at the time, but made you feel dead inside five minutes later?
On the other hand, life can be tricky at times. Sometimes we can be way off path from where we should be and still feel great. The Apostle Paul is a case in point. Paul was the golden boy of Judaism in his day. He received the equivalent of a Harvard education, and was on his way up the legal ladder. He became the chief prosecutor against Christians, putting them behind bars. More than likely if Paul had remained in Judaism stayed in the Jewish side of things he would have become Chief of the Sanhedrin Court, our equivalent to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And yet, he had no idea he was spirituality dead until he met the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road.
Lent is an excellent time for spiritual pondering. The liturgical color of Lent is purple is because it represents a time of soul-searching. And here is the Lenten question I want you to ponder along with me today. How alive are you−really?
Now for some good news. The good news is we worship somebody who was more alive than any other person who has ever lived. Have you ever thought about Jesus that way? More than any person who has ever walked on the face of earth, Jesus was alive.
Jesus, coming from God had every reason given the seriousness of our trespasses and transgressions, to condemn us. But that’s not what happened. Jesus came not to condemn us. And he didn’t even just come to tell us about having life after death.
Telling us about heaven is very important. But that’s not the only reason he came. He also came to tell us and to show us how to have life before death. In John 10:10 Jesus says, I’ve come so that you might have life abundant. I like the way Mike Warnke puts it. Warnke says Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to give dead people life.
I’ve done a lot of funerals in my years of ministry. I’ve buried babies, and I’ve done funerals for people who have lived more than 100 years. And I’ve come to realize that life is not about length, about the number of our days. Nor is life about our prominence. Look at Paul. Paul rose about as high as you can go and yet he was spiritually dead. Life has less to do with length and more to do with depth. Life has less to do with quantity and more to do with quality. Jesus says, “Look, I didn’t care to make you a slightly better person. I didn’t come to give you death warmed over. I came to give you a transformed life, a life abundant and eternal.
One of early church fathers named Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Have you ever thought about God that way? To the extent that you are fully alive, you are glorifying God.
The question today is, are you sure you are glorifying God with your life? Are you sure you are fully alive, or are you dead and you don’t even know it? How can we be sure we are fully alive?
For one thing we know we are made alive when we are saved by grace in Jesus Christ. Let me read these great verses again from Ephesians 2 verses 4 and 5, 8 and 9. Paul writes, Because of all his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy made us alive in Christ even when we are dead in his transgression. It is by grace that you have been saved.” For it is by grace you have been saved through faith−and this is not from yourselves it is the gift of God−not by works so that no one can boast.
Now you may be thinking, “I’m okay just the way I am. And besides, I’m always hearing that God loves me just the way I am.” Well that’s true, but I agree with the person who said “God does love you as you are but he loves you too much to let you stay the way you are.”
“Well, if I need to improve I can do it myself,” you may be thinking. I don’t know how often I’ve heard someone say, “Well I know so-and-so is going to heaven because they’ve lived a good life,” as though salvation is something we can do on our own.
Sometimes our ego gets all out of kilter and we don’t see reality for what it is. I love the story of Tom Watson. Tom Watson is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. One day Tom and his wife were on a car trip. It was time to get gas, so they pulled into a service station. Tom went into the station to buy a few things and noticed his wife was in deep conversation with the service station attendant as he put gas in the car.
As Tom got into the car to drive away, he asked his wife, “What was that all about?” She responded, “As it turns out I know that guy. We were in high school together and in fact we even dated each other for awhile.” The more Tom thought about this the better he felt. He was thinking, “I know what my wife must be thinking−I’m so lucky I didn’t married Tom rather than the gas station attendant.”
Finally he couldn’t stand the silence anymore so he said, “Honey, I bet I know what you’re thinking−‘Isn’t it great that I didn’t marry that guy? Instead I married Tom who turned out to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Isn’t that wonderful?’ That’s what you are thinking, isn’t it honey?” She replies, “Well, not exactly. I was thinking if I had married that guy he would be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and you would be managing a gas station!”
Our egos get way out of bounds and some of us may be thinking, “I can pull this off; I’m a pretty nice person. I do nice things for people.” Paul is saying, “Your ego is over inflated, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Think about it. You didn’t give yourself physical life. It was a gift given to you. And you don’t give yourself spiritual life anymore than you give yourself physical life.
Listen again to these wonderful words of scripture−But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in his love and mercy made us alive with Christ. In this season of the year we are called upon to meditate on the cross. Why is the cross so important? Because Jesus died on a cross so our transgressions can be forgiven. That’s important because it’s impossible to be close to God if our sins are not forgiven. And that’s important because−and here is the key−because the closer you are to God the more fully alive you are. The further you are from God, the deader you are in spirit. So Jesus dies on a cross to restore your relationship with God and only God can make that happen.
We take the first step in becoming fully alive when we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We take another step when we do the good works created by us by Jesus.
Years ago when I lived in another city I got into a conversation with a judge who occasionally attended our church. Once I asked this judge, “How do you like being a judge?” He replied, “I hate it.” I was stunned. This was a very prominent judge who appeared to live a great life. I asked him to explain. He said, “Every day I dread going to work.” And I asked, “Why do you do it?” “Because,” he said, “it gives me a standard of living I like.” And I thought, “How interesting that this man so wants a style of living that he is willing to be dead inside doing what we was not created to do.”
Listen again to Ephesians 2:10: We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advanced for us to do. You are most alive when you are doing what God planned for you to do.
Why were you created? Why were you saved? Was it to sit and soak in all the goodness of this world? Was it to make a good living? Was it to make a good name for yourself? No. You were created to do the works prepared for you before you were even born by the God who created you.
Another church father, Ignatius, is well-known for creating an effective approach to spiritual discernment. Ignatius observed that one way you know you are doing what you’ve been created to do is when you do it your soul is stirred. Your pulse starts racing and there’s passion and there is energy and there is pleasure.”
Maybe you remember the scene in the movie, Chariots of Fire, which features several Olympic athletes, one of whom was named Eric Little. Eric Little is a devout Christian. In fact, he has already committed to go to the mission field as soon as he has the opportunity.
But that’s not good enough for his sister. She wants Eric to go immediately. But Eric has some important business to do because he is an Olympic caliber runner from Scotland and he knows that God made him to run. So his sister asks, “Eric, why won’t you go to China with me now? You know that’s what you are supposed to do.” And Eric answers, “Sister, I will do that in time but let me tell you this−when I run I feel God’s pleasure.”
When you are doing what God made you to do you will know it because you feel God’s pleasure and you will feel alive, because you are.
One other point Paul makes is−we are made alive when we participate in and build community.
If you read in Ephesians 2:11-22 you’ll see that Paul addresses the historic antagonism between the Jews and the Gentiles. It’s always been there and it is symbolized by a physical barrier in the temple. Gentiles can only go as far as the Courtyard of Gentiles in the Temple and no further. Symbolically and physically they are hindered from getting closer to God.
When we think about the cross we tend to think about it in individualistic terms. Jesus came to die for me and my sins. That’s true, but there’s more to it than that. There is also a communal component to the crucifixion. “You know why else Jesus died,” asks Paul? “He died in order to restore a broken community.” He has not just died to restore broken individuals but to restore a community that’s fragmented and divided. God recreates us in Christ not just for us our own personal benefit. He recreates us in Christ so that we in turn can create and build community. You see, God is in the business of building community.
In Genesis we learn that God is trying to build community through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and eventually that community begins to worship in synagogues and temples. In the New Testament God is trying to build a church. In Ephesians 2:22, we read these great words about community. Paul says, In Jesus you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives in his spirit.
There is something unique that happens to us when we gather in community. It’s why we got up this morning and came here rather than staying in bed on this raining day. It’s why, by the way, the Devil is always working so hard to fragment and divide us. See, the Devil understands that while the Spirit inhabits us individually he also inhabits us uniquely while we are in community. And so the Evil One is always trying to keep us divided and apart because apart we don’t possess the spirit in quite the same way.
Jesus came to end division and to restore unity. And he did it, Paul says, by destroying the walls that divide us.
You know community comes in all shapes and sizes. The last couple of days I’ve been at the beach with friends I came to know 35 years ago in college. These are my closest friends in life and we watched the ACC tournament together. And even though the games didn’t turn out as we had hoped we still had a deep and wonderful time of community.
Lately I’ve been having community with a member of our church that is very unusual. Many of you know Melba Carlisle. Melba was diagnosed with having cancer and was told recently that she is about to die.
But let me tell you something, and those of you who know Melba will know what I mean. Melba Carlisle is more alive right now than many people I know. She is alive in Christ in her spirit. Her body may be withering but she is alive in the Spirit.
And I want to tell you something else−when I am with Melba Carlisle these days, I am more alive. I am more alive than I am when apart from her, because there is something stirring in her spirit and it’s contagious and it overflows to me. When I’m with someone like Melba I am more alive.
Melba also serves to remind us that this life is not a dress rehearsal. This is our only shot at life. And it is time to get on with the business of living fully for God. How close are you to doing that? How alive are you−really?