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“Before and After”
Sermon on Ephesians 2: 1-10
4th Sunday of Lent, Year B
[The letter to the Ephesians, traditionally attributed to Paul, was in all probability written by a student of Paul’s after the apostle’s death. That writer’s own distinctive voice is heard in this letter, but the letter presents Paul’s core theological concepts, and much of the language is also distinctively Pauline.]
Sometimes when I am waiting to get my hair cut I like to flip through the fashion and beauty magazines that are in the waiting area. Fashions come and go, but one constant of these magazines is the makeover, with its before and after images: in the first photo is a drab, tired-looking woman with limp or frizzy hair; in the second, a radiant, smiling woman, professionally made up and accessorized, shows all women what is possible with products and a little know-how. An old self is replaced by a new, more beautiful self.
“Before and after” is a common trope of the advertising industry. “Once I had bad breath, but I used this mouthwash, and now I have dates and relationships.” “Once I was depressed and lonely, but I used this pharmaceutical, and now I’m cheerful and surrounded by friends.” “Once I could barely move because of muscle pain, but I used this medicated patch, and now I can run a 10K race.” Once I was miserable, but now I am happy.
The Christian story is preeminently a before and after story. The Bible and Christian hymnody are full of this language.
“Once I was lost, but now I’m found.”
“Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people.”
“Once you were far off from God, but now you have been brought near.”
That last one comes from the letter to the Ephesians, from a part of chapter 2 we didn’t read. And here is still another one, from the part we did read:
“Once you were dead, but now you are alive.”
The contrast Paul is drawing is between life before Christ and life after him. All of humanity was in dire straits before Christ, Paul says. People were alienated from God and from each other. They were captive to hostile forces that kept them enmeshed in a net of sin, kept them from living the kind of life they were meant to live. We have to enter imaginatively into the cosmology of the ancient Mediterranean world to understand what the letter is saying here. Human life was thought to be under the sway of celestial powers that exercised a malign influence on the inhabitants of earth; interstellar space was believed to be a “place of constant demonic activity.” The sphere of influence of these “powers of the air” might be called the domain of sin and death, a force field humans are held in that they are powerless to escape. But the good news is that Christ has come to spring humanity from this trap. As Paul sees it, the intervention of God in Christ has transferred human beings from the domain of these hostile powers to the domain of life, peace and righteousness, where they are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places.” Something has happened to change human life, and only God could make it happen. In other words, what Ephesians, and the New Testament in general, describes is a cosmic rescue operation. Once we were in the domain of sin, trapped by our warped and disordered desires, living lives of futility; but now we are in the domain of Jesus Christ. Once we were dead, but now we are alive. Before and after. That is the story of our makeover.
I would be curious to know how many of you would describe your Christian experience in these terms. Baptized as (I think) most of you were as babies or children, brought up in the church to one degree or another, do you live your life with consciousness that you have been rescued from bondage to antagonistic forces you could not overcome? Do you have that sense of before and after, the feeling of having been made over into a new self? Anyone who has ever struggled with an addiction and then found release from it must know something of this dynamic. But I wonder how many of us have this sense of having been rescued.
Paul is famous for his Damascus Road experience – even people who know nothing else about Paul allude to this as a kind of shorthand for any kind of conversion experience. Interestingly, Paul himself says practically nothing about it; what we know is from the book of Acts. Not only that, there is no evidence that Paul turned to Christ as a tortured soul seeking relief for his guilty conscience. Paul had a robust self-confidence; he didn’t feel sinful, nor was he a substance abuser or a gambler or a wife-beater or any of the things that might be helped by a 12-step program today. In Philippians Paul describes himself as “advanced in Judaism”; he was a law-observant Pharisee whom others looked up to. In fact, he believed he was commissioned to stamp out the new Jesus movement, and was on his way to Damascus to deal with a Christian eruption there when he met the risen Christ on the road and was never the same again.
It has been a fascinating enterprise for biblical scholars to try to unravel how Paul made sense of his experience. He knew that he had been rescued, but from what? He had discovered that life in Christ was dramatically and decisively different from life before Christ, but how? Paul was not at all like the person who talks about what a mess his life was before he met Christ. He offers no catalog of addictions, bad relationships, tawdry ambitions, and so forth – in fact, as he says in Philippians, “I had it all!” But Paul was overwhelmed by God’s grace in Christ. He had to abandon everything he had put his confidence in and put his trust solely in God. God in Christ had changed Paul’s reality, and Paul was left to make sense of it, to describe the “before and after.” His description rang true for the first generation of his own followers and has continued to ring true for hundreds of generations of Christians ever since. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he has loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Once we were dead, now we are alive. Before and after.
Does this description apply to us? Can we point to a dramatic “before and after” the way Paul does? Can we point to a time when we knew Christ had come to rescue us?
I’ve met very few Presbyterians who speak of having once been dead through their sins, or trespasses, and then being made alive through Christ. In mainline circles, I hear surprisingly few stories of finding Christ from the bottom of a pit of despair. Even so, many Christians, including me, have a strong sense of “before and after” when they talk about their Christian experience.
I’ve talked with people who left the church when they moved out of their parents’ house and didn’t go anywhere near a church until they had children of their own – and then found welcome and acceptance, new life and a new kind of family, in a local congregation like this one. Others have reported seeing God’s grace made real and tangible through a mission experience in another country that changed their lives. Still others have described a surprising deepening of faith and passion for the gospel as the church of long habit became the church as a place of encounter with Christ. I was deeply changed by my own awakening to faith after a childhood and early adulthood largely outside the church, but in which the name and person of Jesus seemed to keep cropping up to make me ask questions and finally look at what was in front of me. All of these are before and after stories, makeovers into a new form of life.
Jesus Christ does not come to us in a vacuum. Whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not, all of us are captive to forces within us and outside of us. These forces – be they social and economic, cultural, familial, psychological, or spiritual – can have a way of draining the life out of us, keeping us chained to habits of thought and behavior that keep us from living the life God intends for us. We are trapped by selfish desires, disproportionate needs for approval, irrational thoughts, fears and resentments. All of us have things going on around us and inside us that can keep us from seeing and receiving the grace of God.
But Christ comes as our rescuer, to spring us from the trap that would drag us down to apathy and hopelessness. Let’s hear the message of Ephesians again: “By grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing. We are what God has made us, created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God has prepared us for, to be our way of life.” Before and after. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
March 18, 2018