This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2021.
Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-21
There are a handful of topics that I typically avoid in sermons: salvation, eschatology, divine judgement, and the New Testament epistles credited to Paul but not actually written by Paul.
It’s not that I avoid difficult passages, I actually love exploring misunderstood texts and finding meaning in them for us today. But these particular topics — I’ve dodged them for nearly 20 years of preaching. To be clear, I’m scared or intimidated by them; I’m still working through my own thoughts on them. What are my personal eschatological beliefs? What does salvation even mean? I still don’t have the answers, but today we are talking about all of them.
Let’s start with this letter to the Ephesians. I typically sidestep these pseudo-pauline epistles because I find them difficult to read and comprehend. The authentic letters of Paul are fairly easy to follow…his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians, and the book of Philemon for example. The letters get far more convoluted when we veer away from Paul and towards those who wrote in his name.
Ephesians is one of these books. This letter is jam-packed with clauses and prepositional phrases. One needs a map to find the subject in most of the book’s sentences. The original Greek text begins with a seven verse, 124-word sentence! It’s incredibly difficult to terse out the author’s meaning. Today’s text is no different. It’s full of repeated words and phrases all piled on top of each other – and yet, they drew me in. I was hooked after just reading those opening three words: You were dead.
What followed was almost lyrical – clauses like following the course of this world
– following the ruler of the power of the air following the desires of flesh and sense
and phrases such as rich in mercy, dead through our trespasses, made alive together with Christ and by grace you have been saved.
So rather than skipping over the epistle in my sermon prep, I decide to dive right in.
This text from Ephesians is all about God’s saving acts through Jesus Christ. I found it easier to understand what was happening once I broke it down into three sections.
First, we hear what we’re being saved from. There are three graphic images used to describe our hopeless state: we are dead because of our sins, we are enslaved to worldly powers, and we are imprisoned to wrath. These are three situations that we cannot get out of own our own. We are powerless and helpless. But there’s no blame here. The author isn’t shaming us or casting accusations – they’re just reminding the audience of our downward spiral history, so that we might better appreciate God’s saving act.
The second section announces this saving act: God taking the initiative to intervene with humanity. The language here is full of joy and love. Unlike the father in the parable of the prodigal son who stays home and awaits the return of his wayward child, God initiates the rescue of humanity. God is an aggressive liberator here, giving life to lifeless bodies. And the key word here is life. Life is what the author means by salvation – life is a vitality, a vibrancy. We were once dead, but now alive with Christ.
And finally, section three closes out our passage describing what we do after being saved. God saves us from our former selves out of love, grace and mercy. There’s nothing we can do or not do to earn it. It’s a gift – and life any gift we receive, the proper way to respond is by offering gratitude. The author suggests that we show thanks by doing what God created us to do: good works.
“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Before God saves us, we are dead to our life of trespasses and sins, but now we are alive with a purpose of living a life full of good works. The author uses a Greek word a couple times in this text that can be translated as walk. It appears first in the second verse and then again time in the final verse, Just as we had formerly walked in our trespasses and sins, now the purpose of God’s creation is that we will walk in good works. It’s all connected – our reality and our behavior.
This language might ring a bell for you –it’s where we get some of the words from our prayer of confession. “For the sake of your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways.”
The emphasis on walking in God’s ways is critical to understanding this text. Paul writes his first letters in the middle of the first century. In the book of Romans, he writes of a creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God when the world will be renewed (8.19). Paul and his audience believe that Christ’s second coming is imminent, so folks must reorder their lives and be ready.
But Ephesians is written about a century later, and people have stopped believing that Christ will come in their lifetime. Now, the church has embraced what’s known as ‘realized eschatology.’ Rather than reorder their lives and idly wait for Christ to come again, Christians understand their role now is to actively live as Jesus commands them.
The focus of the NT epistles and their understanding of discipleship and salvation change as time passes. While at first they passively await the second coming, they grow into actively walking in the way of God, doing the good works God created us to do out of gratitude for being saved.
This understanding ties directly into our gospel text today – particularly verse 16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Out of God’s love for the kosmos, not just our earthly planet, but the entire universe, God sends Jesus Christ….God sends Jesus not to condemn the kosmos, but to save it. Again, there’s no blame here – just a statement. The world needed saving, and God sends Jesus to make it happen.
And once it happens, we who trust in Christ will not perish, but have eternal life. This eternal life is what calls us back to Ephesians. We likely understand the words ‘eternal life’ as a life after death that lasts forever and ever. But that’s now how Jesus’ audience understood it – the Greek word translated as eternal comes from the root ‘aeon” or age or ‘eon’. It’s not a particular time that only happens after death, but a time that could happen now because it’s already within you. Eternal life is embodied life, and it’s available to us right now.
That’s why the verb here is present not future tense. “We who trust in Christ will not perish, but have eternal life”– this eternal life lived abundantly is something Jesus offers to his followers now. It’s not a future life after death – it’s a real, lived, communion with God now.
The entire kosmos is bound up together as part of God’s creation, and we are all created to do good works. We are all created to be in communion with God. This is what being saved means and it’s absolutely critical for the way we live our lives. Being saved means being given the gift of life for ourselves and for other people. Choosing life, means choosing to follow Jesus
At the risk of sounding a lot like Mary Oliver,1 “What will you do with this present-day eternal life?” How will you live? How will you carry out the good works God created you to do?
I think this question is especially important for us right now.
It’s important for all Christians as we begin gathering in person again as the church – what are the good works God is calling us to do? It seems appropriate to offer God gratitude for coming out on the other side of the pandemic. God saved us from our former selves, so that we could live eternally with Christ right now. What is it that God created you to do on the other side?
But also – it’s important to ask this question specifically as Episcopalians in North Central Texas. Many of us are saying goodbye to our church buildings in the coming weeks. Many of us will rethink what it means to be alive in Christ. For those of you in this situation – please know that you are not alone. So many people in this diocese have walked this road. Kevin and I both pastor churches who were displaced twelve years ago
– they did die to their former selves, and were resurrected to a new, fuller eternal life with Christ. It was a life marked with pain, anger, betrayal, and heartache, but a life that eventually became one of true discipleship. Not just worshipping Christ in a building on Sunday morning, but being like Christ out in the world the rest of the week.
It’s scary and exhausting and painful, and you are not alone. As you begin wondering what will you do with this present-day eternal life, you will be supported by fellow members of the Body of Christ, who walk the way with you.
1 “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver, The Summer Day