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As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Intro: Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent. During this season we have been doing a lot of self-reflection. I am sure that at times, this self-reflection has uncomfortable. For whenever we look deeply into our hearts, we realize that we miss the mark that God has set in place for us. And so today, I want to back up a bit and look at what God thinks of us in our failures.
The Scripture less on this morning came from the Letter to the Christians of the city of Ephesus. And so we need a bit of understanding of this city and it’s practices if we are going to understand what Paul wrote.
Ephesus was one of the 4 largest cities in the Ancient World. It was a center for trade and for philosophy and for travel and for worship. The Temple to Artemis was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The worship of Artemis was one of the greater industries in the city. The temple, on the inland side of the city, sitting on a hill was larger than a football field and in addition to a place of worship, it functioned as one of the largest banks in the world. The Marketplace, the Agora was 110 meters square and surrounded by pillars. It was in the center of town and the focus of almost everything that happened. Because Ephesus was a center of trade, when you went to the Agora you could purchase anything you could imagine, spices from China, fabric from Egypt, even slaves from around the world. Ephesus was a power center.
When Paul came to Ephesus he found many who were receptive to the message of the gospel. A church quickly grew. In fact, he spent 2 years in Ephesus training leaders and building house churches in the city and region.
However, as is often the case, after Paul left, problems arose. As we look at the Letter the Ephesians, we find that there was division, there was falsehood, there was false teaching, there were people taking advantage of one another, there was immorality and idolatry. The place had become a real mess. So Paul wrote to address the problems in the church.
If you were addressing a class of students who reflected the behavior of the Ephesians, how would you do it? I would begin by letting people know that their behavior was an embarrassment to the school and to the administration. I would tell them to shape up or there would be consequences.
Paul took a different approach, though. As he addressed the Ephesians, he did not begin by putting them in their place. He did not yell, or scold or discipline. Rather, he reminded them who they are in Christ. He reminded them of their identity.
Now when we read, as we did this morning, that God has made alive in Christ we who were dead, we need to ask, “What did that meant for the Ephesians?”
You see, the balance between life and death was fragile for much of the Roman world, even from the day they were born. At birth, a newborn child would be laid at the feet of the father. The father would look at the child and then do one of two things, he would pick the child up as his own, or he would turn his back on the child, declaring the child dead to him. This could be for any reason whatsoever. If he had desired a girl and it was a boy, he could reject him. If there was a birthmark he did not life, he would reject her. If there were twins, he may accept one and reject the other. It was just the way of life. But, if he turned his back, the child would be taken from the mother and exposed to the elements. This sounds horrible to our modern ears, but it was the common practice. In fact, in later years, one reason the church grew, was because it became known as compassionate and a place of refuge. Christians would take in the children who were exposed and left for dead.
Now in Ephesus, this practice had evolved a bit and rather than placing the child in a field to be consumed by beasts and the elements, the child would be taken to the Agora, the main marketplace, and there he or she would be left. Some died, but many others were “adopted” by people who passed by. But it was not the kind of adoption we think of, when adopted, these abandoned, left for dead children were raised as household slaves. So the child would have a second chance at life, but as a slave. Those children who were adopted in this way were considered the lucky ones.
We are shocked that people would treat children this way, but for the Ephesians, this was not shocking, it was everyday living. But there was something that shocked the Ephesians in Paul’s letter. Listen to this, Paul wrote, in Chapter 1, “In love he chose us for adoption as sons.” This was unheard of. Adoption was not about love, it was about convenience, it was about increasing your slave holdings, it was about demonstrating your wealth. And Paul is declaring that “In Love” God planned to adopt us, not as slaves but as sons. This shocked Paul’s readers. Yet, this is who we are in Christ, we are God’s sons and daughters, people who were abandoned and left for dead, but have now been chosen by the God of the universe to be God’s beloved children. Later in the letter Paul says, because this is who you are, be done with deceit and anger and immorality and hatred, you are the sons and daughters of God’s own self. Our identity as beloved of God, when we embrace that, becomes our strongest motivation to live as God’s children.
So in the adoption process, God has brought us from death to life. We were dead in our sins. We had been abandoned by the spirit of this world. We were used and then discarded. Humans are exposed to the wilds of the world because we have been rejected by the powers of this world and left for dead. Paul’s uses the expression, “the principalities and powers” of this world; those powers and authorities that hold power for their own benefit. These principalities and powers do not care what happens to the individual provided they retain their power. Jesus refused to answer the rulers of his day, and he was executed. Even today, when we no longer serve the purpose of the principalities and powers of this world we are discarded, just as Ephesian babies were discarded.
Now here is the good news: But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love for us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in sin.
That is the good news, that is the Gospel!
God wants to show off this gracious love, and God is doing that by pouring that grace out on people who were dead in sin. Death is not normally a temporary state for huans. Dead is dead, and always has been, until Jesus breaks into the scene.
Because Jesus defeated death, we can know have confidence that God can give life where there is death. People may revive a body, but God can give life. As we read, “It is by grace you have been saved from death. That grace comes through faith—and not even the faith is of your own doing, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Today, Jesus as is walking through the Agora, the Marketplace of this world, and his eyes have fallen upon you. You who have been rejected, used, abused and discarded, are today the object of Jesus’ love. As he looks at you, a helpless rejected infant, he does not see a potential slave, rather, in love he has redeemed you from the slave master and will raise you to maturity that one day you will sit with Jesus in the places of splendor in order that in the coming ages and throughout eternity he might show off in you the incomparable riches of his grace.
My prayer for you is that you might realize and experience the glory of the incomparable riches of God’s grace. And that the discovery of all God has done for you will be used by God to form you into the image of Jesus.