June 24, 2012

But God, Who is Rich in Mercy…

Passage: Ephesians 2:4-5

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—

Earlier this month, in a Chicago courthouse, a certain Mr. Arthur Rachel was sentenced to 8½ years in prison for plotting robberies and burglaries with a long-time colleague; both men were in their 70s.  “As Mr. Rachel briefly addressed the court during the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber interrupted him with a question. ‘What possessed you to get involved with this caper after you (already) spent half your life in prison?’ the judge asked. ‘Nobody takes it seriously, your honour,’ Mr. Rachel said with a shrug. ‘It’s the way we are. We got nothing better to do. We sit around talking.’”

What is wrong with us humans?  Is criminal behaviour a result of simply having nothing better to do?   Something is off with humanity—but what is it?  Every philosophy, religion, school of psychology, or account of life gives some answer to this question.  In the first verses of the second chapter of Ephesians the apostle Paul lays out the gospel answer to this question.  “But God, who is rich in mercy”; the “but” is crucial.  What precedes this “but” is a description of the universal human condition before God; “dead through trespasses and sins.”  The truth about the human condition before God is a frightful diagnosis.

Is God rich in mercy?  Some question God’s mercy because the diagnosis is so frightening; it is as if we think God’s bedside manner needs some work.  If only God were not so, well, blunt it would feel more merciful to me.  Some object to that way God seems to lump me in with everyone else.  As we read of humankind's predicament before God we must not think that the apostle is referring to "bad" people in the sense of people who are manifestly "worse-behaved" than we.  Tell me, would God be merciful if he withheld the truth of the diagnosis from us?

Consider the results of a new study by researchers at Oregon State University, “A person’s sense of right or wrong may change depending on what role they are playing at the time; they also found “that people may not even be aware of their shifting moral integrity.” Lead author Keith Leavitt, PhD, said: “People like to think they are inherently moral creatures—you either have character or you don’t. But our studies show that the same person may make a completely different decision” based on what they thought was expected of them at the time.

We humans do like to think that we are inherently moral creatures.  I think that many object to the gospel’s universal diagnosis of the human condition for that reason.  But the gospel exposes moralism as simply another instance of our rejection of God.  Many mistake “following Christ” with “conformity to a code”.  Perhaps you can remember your parents insisting that you clean your bedroom; were there not times when you did clean your room—conformity to the code—but your heart was anything but respectful or loving towards your parents.  In the same way we may well refrain from stealing—treating God’s law like a code—yet our hearts can be far from God.  The kind of obedience the gospel enjoins is not conformity to a moral code but rather eager, glad, grateful self-abandonment to the "character" God wills for me.

1. Never one to beat about the bush, Paul uses one pithy word to speak of humankind outside Christ: dead.  "Dead through trespasses and sins"; he reminds the Ephesian believers of their previous life.  When he says "dead", he is speaking literally, not metaphorically. To be sure, we use the word "dead" or “death” metaphorically in every day speech. A news headline on the day I wrote this sermon read: “The death of equities has been greatly exaggerated”. It was an article about investors abandoning the purchase of certain kinds of stocks. Death was used metaphorically.  But when the apostle insists that outside the One who is Resurrection and Life we are dead before God he is speaking literally.

Now the characteristic of anything dead is that it is unresponsive. To say that we are dead before God is simply to say that we are unresponsive to the Holy One himself. The most important part of the human’s personality—the spirit—is dead to the most important factor in life—God.

"Dead in trespasses and sins", says the apostle. "Trespass" is deviation from the right path, transgression of a known boundary. "Sin", according to the most frequent New Testament usage of the word, is falling short, falling short of what God has created us to be. The first word tells us we are rebels; the second, that we are deformed. Our spiritual rebellion and deformity are no small matter, however; they are lethal. Before God we are dead. We are spiritually inert, insensitive, unresponsive to the One who has made us and longs for us.

We must understand something crucial here. Paul is favouring us with our spiritual diagnosis; he is not commenting at all on our psychological condition. He hasn't said a word about psychology. We who are unresponsive to God may be "well-integrated", in today's psychological jargon, or we may be more fragmented than "together". All he has said so far is that we are spiritually inert: we have no acquaintance with God, no throb at the mention of Jesus Christ, no joyful recall of moments when the Spirit of God nudged us, no glad assurance that what Jesus Christ did for us centuries ago he has also done in us now.

It's important that we not confuse our psychological condition with our spiritual condition. No magnification of someone's psychological condition acquaints that person with his spiritual condition.  We may feel lonely, depressed, or anxious.  No magnification of how I feel can of itself give me the truth of where I am or what I am with respect to God.  To confuse the two matters is to suggest that the gospel is nothing more than a psychological fix-me-up which happens to employ a religious vocabulary. When Paul speaks, he speaks of our spiritual condition, our situation before God.

The apostle isn't finished speaking. There's more to the diagnosis. We who are spiritually inert "follow the course of this world". He means that the value-system we have bought into unthinkingly and internalized uncritically; this value-system which we think is the soul of truth and reality and commonsense is in fact nothing more than another aspect of the world's deadliness. We "follow the course of this world" insofar as we have been seduced by it; we have been seduced by it insofar as it never occurred to us to examine it; it never occurred to us to examine it insofar as we had no reason to think there might be another, a better.  We had no reason to think insofar as a corpse doesn't think at all.

The apostle still isn't finished. He insists that we "live in the passions of our flesh".  When Paul speaks of "the flesh" he means human life, including decent, moral human life, lived without reference to God; human life without any vertical dimension whatsoever; human existence turned in on itself, preoccupied with itself.  By "passion" the apostle means that we are driven by all of this. The driving force of our existence is our self-furthering selfism.  We are taken up with ourselves; and being taken up with ourselves we are "taken in" by ourselves.  Selfism is the driving force of our self. We live in the passions of the flesh.

The result of all of this will surprise no one. The result, says the apostle, is that we are children of wrath; children of God's wrath.  We are the recipients of God's anger.  God's wrath or anger is not ill-temper; not peevishness; not touchiness. God's wrath is God's personal, righteous opposition to sin in any form.  God's wrath is his righteous resolve never to wink at sin, and finally not to tolerate it.

Many bristle at the idea of God’s wrath; bristle but are double minded.  We certainly think that people like Luka Magnotta, the 29-year-old accused of killing and dismembering a Chinese student studying in Montreal, deserve God’s wrath.  We just don’t think it deserved when it comes to me.  We like it when God opposes sin we find distasteful; other things we are not so sure.  The bottom line of the gospel diagnosis is that God reacts by opposing us in our insensitivity to him.

2.  In a sermon I recently read, the author related a conversation he had with a farmer on P.E.I. who had been a sailor on convoy duty during World War II.  His corvette was torpedoed.  He and a handful of crew-members were huddled on a life-raft.  Soon they realized that while they had dodged death in the initial explosion they were not going to avoid death from the icy North Atlantic.  "All of a sudden", the farmer told me with brightened eyes and animated voice, forty-five years after the event, "all of a sudden we saw a Canadian destroyer racing toward us; we knew were going to be saved."  As the older man spoke with me I could hear the relief in his voice, the exultation, the lifted spirits as he recalled the turn from danger to deliverance.

You too may have experienced this kind of relief.  You are waiting as your loved one undergoes surgery; something is threatening their life and you are waiting for the news that they are out of danger.  The relief you feel is palpable as the surgeon gives you the news of success.

When Paul writes, “But God, who is rich in mercy” you can hear the relief in his voice, the exultation, the lifted spirits as he recalls the turn from danger to deliverance.  Again and again I hear him say, "Phew! Just in time!  Just when our situation seemed hopeless! What a relief!" This is what I hear every time I read “But God ... even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

Tim Keller pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York describes it this way. “Here's the gospel: you're more sinful than you ever dared believe; you're more loved than you ever dared hope.”  Keller gets to the heart of Paul’s exclamation of great relief: "But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us.”  What alone alters the human condition is the God who is rich in mercy, the God whose love is oceanic.

Then what about God's wrath?  God's wrath isn't the opposite of his love; God's wrath is his love, his love burning hot, his love shaking the sleeper awake.  Since God is love, his wrath has to be an aspect of his love. Then if you and I are possessed of any depth and discernment at all we should thank God for every time that God has been angry with us, for his anger is simply a sharpened touch of his love upon us.  What's more, were God devoid of wrath he would suffer from a character-deficiency so dreadful that we could never adore him. But he who is possessed of great love is deficient in nothing; his wrath, a necessary dimension of his character, is his love jolting us out of our complacency. Then we must thank him that he can get as angry with us as we need him to be

Our English word synergy means cooperation; speaks of a mutually advantageous conjunction of people’s efforts.  This word has its origins in the Greek language from a word that means to work together.  It is the combination of two words; “syn” which means “with” or “together” plus the word “ergon” which means “work”.  The three verbs Paul uses to describe what God has done for us in Christ are all combination words like “synergy” that have this word “syn” (with or together) as a prefix.  God made us alive with, raised us up with, and seated us with.

In some of the high school science classes I attended we were paired with another student at lab desks designed for two students ostensibly to work on experiments together.  Typically students would pair up with friends which did not always promote the optimum learning environment.  I quickly discovered that my marks improved when paired with one of the more academically accomplished students (typically a female).  So on the first day of class I would make sure that I was paired with such a student; looking back I realize it couldn’t have been easy for them.

It makes a difference with whom you are paired.  “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”.  I ever marvel that my Saviour would want me joined to him; that he does is a wonder of his grace.

Paul is expanding here an idea he has introduced earlier in his letter when he spoke of “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe—God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead.”  Our being raised to spiritual life is an instance of this resurrection power of Christ at work.  The fact that you own Jesus Christ in faith is evidence of spiritual life.

Faith is entrusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. This is how it begins. Regardless of how much we think we know of ourselves, we know very little. And if we are taking our first steps in faith, then of course we know very little of God. Still, we begin by exposing as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him – which is to say, faith begins as simple encounter with God.

We must never think that genuine faith in God means that someone is henceforth perfect, understands perfectly, behaves perfectly. God’s people are his people just because they have encountered him and are serious about him. Still, their engagement with him can and will contain elements of confusion, imperfection, moral deficiency and spiritual defectiveness. Everywhere in scripture Abraham is foreparent of all believers, the prototype of faith. Under terrible pressure Abraham lied twice, passing off his wife as his sister, aware that if men wanted to rape his wife they would kill him first; if they wanted to rape his sister they wouldn’t bother to kill him. “She’s my sister,” Abraham shouted. Cowardly? Yes. Self-serving? Yes. False? Yes. Deplorable? Yes. It all disqualifies him as person of faith and even model of faith? No. Perfection is never a condition for the reality and solidity of faith.

4.  One final point from our text.  Do you know that you are God’s billboard; God’s publicity plan?  The purpose of God making us spiritually alive in Christ is “so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.”  Like any craftsman God persuades onlookers to become "buyers" by displaying his craftsmanship. Paul insists that God intends to "show, (i.e., show forth) the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." Anyone whom God has raised from the dead and rendered alive; that is, any Christian at all is someone whom God can show, display, as evidence of the effectiveness of grace. We are commissioned to advertise the very truth and grace which rendered us responsive to God and useful in the world.

But God, who is rich in mercy ...