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"Life Within Death"

God offers salvation through simple belief. Salvation is God’s initiative, not ours. We do nothing to cause it or earn it. It was already there before we knew we needed it. Jesus Christ in his ministry is living proof of this. This is our message to the world.


            Yes, this is a passage about life after death after life. This letter from Paul explores the possibility, the inevitability, of a death-within-life, a spiritual death that can leave one as nothing more than an animated corpse, going through the motions of life until physical life inevitably ceases and one is returned to the earth only to become earth. If this sounds grim, it is; more so than we realize as we drift through life, often dead to our true life. According to Paul, this death-in-life leading only to permanent death sums up exactly what is at stake when we are confronted by and consider the reality of Christ, God’s presence in this world.


            Paul’s argument progresses from a “dead through our trespasses” section — or, to use the Common English Bible’s rendition, “dead as a result of those things that we did wrong” — to a “saved by God’s grace” section.


            What does it mean to be dead as a result of the things we did wrong? How do the things we do wrong “kill” us? Paul writes from the perspective of the early church, at a time in history when the church of Jesus Christ was just starting to gather and take its baby steps out into the wider world, to make Christ and the possibility for new life that he offers known to the rest of the world. Thus, Paul refers primarily here to life before faith in Christ, life before the physical, visceral experience of God’s saving help in Jesus Christ that would fall upon so many in those early years, as it still does to many today.


            In his teachings about the true implications of the Mosaic Law and Word of God, in the example he set for a life lived in harmony with God’s will and, finally, through his resurrection, Jesus brought true life into the world. That true life carries his followers beyond time, beyond physical reality — into a true life with God, a life absorbed into the reality of God, beginning right now and extending into eternity. Paul’s phrase, “Dead as a result of those things that we did wrong” describes life before the experience of God’s saving help, life before we were “saved.”


            Okay.


            Being “saved.”


            That is something we hear about all the time. Many there are who claim the name of Christ who speak in such terms, and they are not wrong. But we often speak so glibly of “being saved” nowadays. What has this to offer today’s world, how does this discourse of being “dead through our trespasses ... seated with [Christ] in the heavenly places” ring in 21st century ears?


            Paul writes, “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 ....” What is being offered here? What is the promise for today’s listener in these verses? How can we make this offer in a world as committed to “trespassing” as it ever was?


            Perhaps the best place to begin answering that question is, how did this play out for you? There are many even today for whom salvation came in a literal experience of being “saved” — being born again, justified, whichever traditional terminology makes the most sense. They may have been caught up in “trespasses” that they didn’t even know were trespasses — it did not occur to them to define them as such, anyway. And then ... after a real encounter with God, they literally could not do the things they did before. The Spirit convicted them, “No, this is not good; you have to give this up.”


Perhaps that “this” included things they did not even recognize as “trespasses,” in any sense of the word, before this experience of conversion. Did they become perfect human beings in that moment? No ... they still are not, not even close. But they started down a path ....


            What stands out about all this is that it was God’s initiative. It was not something they caused or brought about. God, out of a clear blue sky, touched them.


            There are others who were raised from birth in a Christian tradition who just knew the truth contained in the gospel from the moment they were old enough to seriously consider any other options. They needed no conversion experience; they just knew. Here again, the initiative was completely God’s, working through a tradition begun centuries before even their great-to-the-tenth-power grandparents were born: the gracious offer made and accepted through faith.


            This final observation brings us to the second section, the “saved by God’s grace” section of today’s passage. “Dead through our trespasses/the things we did wrong” amounts to a deadness to the work of God in Christ, an unconsciousness to the purposes for which God created us, an unconsciousness to God’s work in the world — work that is already going on. Religion doesn’t package God and present it to those in the world who want God. God is already in the world. Religion at its best gestures toward a God who is already present, here and now, and calling to us. Religion — ours included — is a human-made thing that gestures toward God, already at work in the world.


            Our religion offers Jesus as a living representation of that work of God in the world. Our witness is that belief in Jesus (or call it trust in Jesus, if you prefer) “saves.” Belief in Jesus pulls us into the presence of God in the world.


            There is no need to go further than this, with speculation on the eternal fate of those who don’t profess such belief. Belief in Jesus saves — simple belief pulls us out of our trespasses both intentional and unintentional and puts us in a right relationship with the only God there is, was, or ever will be, the God who created and who continually rescues the world. If you believe in Jesus, you become an agent of God’s saving help in the world. God will work through you in ways you don’t know.


            And if you truly believe, you will act. There is no need to agonize over whether you are taking sufficient or acceptable action. You will be “saved.” Simple belief indicates that you are, already, “saved.” You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to follow a certain course of action to earn that salvation. If you truly believe, you will be moved to act, soon enough. If you have faith, if you simply believe, you will “act.” It may not be “action” that passes muster with this activist or that zealot, but that is not your problem. You are not required to please the activist or the zealot; you are required simply to believe, to trust and follow where that belief leads you.


            Our faith, our religion, is first and foremost about grace, God’s gracious acceptance of us as we are right now. All we have to do is turn to God and receive that acceptance. And then we will know what we have to do next. Faith saves — and “faith” is not an action or an activity or a set of exercises; it is a noun, descriptive of something synonymous with belief or trust, describing a commitment of the heart. It is not something that you “do,” or an action that you take; it is something you decide, a decision that you make.


            That is our salvation. That is what we offer — or what God offers through us. Our salvation lies in belief and trust, not in “action.”


            This is our message to the world that others cannot or will not impart. This is what we can share with the world that no one else is sharing. This is what our religion offers the world: the simple truth that, in Jesus Christ — in who he was and is, and what he stood and stands for — God loves us because God loves us. Jesus was, and is, a living witness to that. “What must I do to be saved,” someone — a number of “someones,” actually — ask Jesus, though not always in those exact words. And his reply? “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. In this lies all the Law and all the prophets.”1


            This is not to say that you can’t “take action,” or, worse, that to do so somehow demonstrates a lack of trust in God. Again, if you put your trust completely in Christ, you will inevitably be led to act on that faith. But faith comes first. Faith saves us, not “action.” Faith is what grounds us in the absolute, eternal, unstoppable love of God.


            “Salvation” consists in being “created in Christ Jesus for good works” — works established beforehand, by God. “Salvation” is a new creation, a rebirth, a new way of being that seeks out good work that needs doing. Hence salvation truly results in being born afresh — however that plays out for you — born afresh to work as God calls us. May we offer that faith to the world. Amen.

1 Matthew 22:37-40, paraphrased.



 

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