Alive with Christ

“You were dead,” the apostle writes to the Ephesians. What an odd thing to say. I don’t think I would ever have spoken these words had the apostle not made me say them. You were dead. People may say these words in the third person, “He is dead” or in the past tense, “She was already dead.” But to say, “You were dead” is rather odd, because generally we only speak to the living, to those we expect to hear our words and for whom has death ever been a past reality? We are used to thinking of death as what awaits us all, but not as a situation in the past which a person might recall when somebody tells them, “You were dead.”

The apostle wrote to Christians in Ephesus, reminding them of their life before they knew Christ, before they were baptized and became members in the body of Christ. You were dead, he writes. You were following a way of life so far removed from life, it can only be called death. You were following the course of the world. You were captive to cultural and spiritual forces that were beyond your control, powers that drained the life out of you. You were pushed and pulled by relentless currents, obedient to desires of the flesh, heeding every inclination that led away from God, aimless and helpless to extricate yourselves. You were dead.

All of us once lived like that, children of disobedience, strangers to the covenants of promise, playthings tossed around by systems, forces, trends, and fads. We were dead, and the dead can’t do anything for themselves. They are done doing anything.

Then, in v. 4, the apostle writes two words that signal the great reversal in the history of humankind, “But God.” We were dead, but God, rich in mercy and with love beyond our imagining, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of, but rather something you can only receive like life itself. We are God’s accomplishment. We have been created anew to show what God can do through Jesus Christ, and to do the good things which reflect the gracious love of God. We have been created anew to live the life of Christ as members of his body.

As a season of the church year, Lent has its beginnings in the ancient tradition of preparing candidates for baptism. For forty days, they fasted, prayed, and studied, seeking to ready themselves for entering the Christian life in the darkness before Easter morning. The opening chapters of Ephesians are widely regarded as a portion of an early baptismal liturgy, and what is being impressed on the candidates is not what they need to do, but what God has done. To enter the Christian life, we are told along with them and all who came after them, to enter the Christian life is to entrust oneself to the current of God’s grace, both as a recipient of its healing and redemptive movement and as a participant in channeling its unceasing flow to the parched places where life is distorted, fragmented and broken. To enter the Christian life is to step into the history of God’s people, to join the great cloud of witnesses who proclaim the mighty acts of God; it is to say we were in Egypt, we were in the wilderness, we were in exile, we were in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in Antioch and Ephesus and Rome, in Wittenberg and Cane Ridge. The story of God’s people becomes our story because Jesus Christ has embraced every last one of us with compassion and forgiveness, because no one is excluded from the solidarity of his love.

In him, the reign of sin comes to an end in what at first looked like sin’s ultimate triumph yet was revealed as its demise: Christ was crucified, he died, he was buried, and he was raised and enthroned at the right hand of God.

To be a Christian, according to the testimony of our text, is to be made alive together with him. It is to be crucified with Jesus, to die with him, to be buried with him, to be raised with him and be enthroned with him. To be a Christian is to let him make his life ours just as he made our death his.

Baptism into Christ is deeply personal, but the ultimate horizon of the resurrection is cosmic in scale. In ancient mediterranean cosmologies, the universe consisted of a subterranean region, the earth and the heavens, and several layers between earth and heaven; this is what the apostle is referring to when he writes about this world and the heavenly places. Every layer of this multi-tiered universe, according to Ephesians, is inhabited and ruled by powers hostile to the purposes of God. The letter’s first audience had no trouble imagining a demonic ruler of the power of the air. We do not commonly describe that which drives us to destructive behavior against each other and ourselves as an independent power; but we know well how people can be trapped in ideologies and structures and not know it. We can be caught in deadly systems and we are and be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that. We may not need saving from the ruler of the power of the air, but we do need saving because we live in a world estranged from its maker, with myths and idols that have arrogated to themselves the place of our story and our God. And without God, without God’s story of life, we become confused about who we are and how we are to participate in the miracle of life.

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 … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.

In the cosmology of Ephesians, the powers that confuse us about who we are and what life is, inhabit the air between earth and the moon, hence the name, ruler of the power of the air. But Christ has been raised and seated beyond them – and we with him. This doesn’t mean we’ve been taken out of the world – obviously we haven’t. But with Christ we know who we are as God’s own, and with Christ we discover how to live as free servants of God rather than in bondage to the powers that oppress us.

For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide, as high and deep as the forces of evil. That it does indeed do so is the great promise of God’s vindication of the Crucified One. For all their power to cripple, control and alienate, all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled.[1]

Every baptism is an act of faith, a testimony to the liberating power of the resurrection and to Christ as the revelation of what it means to be a human being. Few of us see the world the way people in antiquity did, but the image of being seated with Christ, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, still speaks to us: All that robs us of life, all that could ever get between us and the life God has intended for us and the whole creation, has been overcome by the love of God in Christ. Christ has made us his own, and through him we live in communion with God.

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.

When all is ended, by the grace of God, we are not what we have made of ourselves and of each other, but what God has made us. When all is ended, by the grace of God, life is not what we have made of it, but what God created it to be. So our being seated with Christ in the heavenly places doesn’t mean we have been removed from he world, spiritually or otherwise. We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. The redeemed life is not about being rescued out of the world, but about being in the world and walking the path that has been prepared for us. Every human life has good works as its purpose, which means every person has a divine calling: to follow a way of life that reflects the mercy of God, that is to walk with Christ, to work with Christ, to be alive with Christ.

We read portions of Psalm 107 this morning; it is a song with a recurring refrain, calling on the redeemed to thank the Lord for his steadfast love. The psalm sings of people wandering in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, their souls fainting within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way until they reached an inhabited town.

At first glance, that straight way is simply the shortest way out of the desert. But at second glance, we recognize that straight way as the way of life God has prepared for us to lead us from the desert wastes to the community where life flourishes.

The psalm goes on to sing of some that sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons; they fell down, with no one to help.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.

At first glance, that verse is about getting out of prison. But at second glance, it is about all of us who are trapped in lives that are neither our own, nor God’s—until God breaks our bonds. Yes, we were dead through the trespasses and sins in which we once lived, but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ. Thanks be to God.


[1] With thanks to Fred Craddock

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