Oftentimes, in the Scriptures, the normal definitions of being dead and being alive don’t really apply. And this can be confusing because most of us, being the practical sorts that we are, tend to believe that we know the difference between being dead and being alive. Being alive, for instance, generally implies that a person’s heart is beating, or that they are breathing, or that they are capable of pondering the mysteries of life. Being dead, on the other hand, usually does not include any of the things that I’ve just listed. If a person is not breathing or if their heart is not beating, or if they have given up thinking altogether, and the E.M.T.S. have worked all of their magic, and have administered all of their curative potions, and the person still fails to breathe, have a heartbeat or an opinion, we would conclude that they were, in fact, dead.
In the Scriptures, however, a person can be perfectly healthy, with a strong, beating heart, an exemplary dissolved oxygen count, and opinions galore, and be deader than the proverbial door nail. And so when we read the Bible, we have to keep in mind that the normal, practical definitions of what it means to be dead and what it means to be alive do not always apply.
And in verse one of our passage this morning we run head on into that reality. The Apostle Paul is writing to living, breathing, thinking people, but the first thing that he tells them is that once, and probably not that long ago, they were dead. But they were alive, because, as he says in verse two, they once lived, but they were dead, even though they were alive while they were dead, and now they are no longer dead, but rather, they are alive, and none of this has one whit to do with zombies.
The Apostle Paul is writing to Christians, who are in the process of having their lives transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And when a person makes the decision to become a follower or a disciple of Jesus Christ, their eternal status changes so radically, that the writers of the Bible feel fully confident in describing a person’s pre-disciple status as being dead, and their Christian, or follower of Jesus status as being alive. And so the Apostle Paul can say to his readers, you were dead, because of your sins and trespasses, “in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air…”
It is extraordinarily profound to me that Paul says to us that while we were living and breathing and dead, we were still following something. It is, apparently, human nature to be followers of something even if we reject or outright deny the notion that we are followers of anything. The human spirit of independence is strong, and it has been active on this planet since the days of Adam and Eve. It was their chief sin, after all, and it continues to be a very significant sin of our own. But for our pondering, the Apostle Paul offers up two possibilities of something that we might have been following while we were living, breathing and dead. The first is the “course of this world”. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that this world is improving, getting better, or on an upward slope to glory. I’m pretty sure that everyone agrees that morally, spiritually and ecologically, this terrestrial ball is pretty much doomed. Following the course of this world, then, would be a really bad move. It is a dead end ride and the ticket is free, but it ultimately demands everything that we have. It starts out free, but it has expensive and deadly consequences. But, Paul says, some of us did that; we followed the course of this world, and it didn’t work out well for us at all. It kept us dead, no matter how much life we pursued. The other option that Paul offers up for our pondering is that we were followers of “the ruler of the power of the air.” It is fairly obvious that Paul is making reference here to the devil. It is also fairly obvious to most people that intentionally following the devil is also a pretty ill-advised course. Only a few in this world would actually admit that they are disciples or followers of the devil. But if we were followers of the devil, that still left us quite dead.
So, for those of us who refuse to admit that we were followers of the course of this world, and who would deny that we were disciples of the devil, only one option remains, and that is that we were followers of ourselves. Most of us, I’m pretty sure, if we were honest, would find it very difficult to deny that we were followers of ourselves. For most people, being their own person, making their own decisions and being swayed by no one, is not a failing, but rather an attribute. It is an idolatrous attribute, but an attribute nonetheless. Self reliance is something in which most people have a tremendous amount of pride. It is that strong sense of independence that we humans have that I mentioned earlier. Paul says this about those of us who were followers of ourselves: “All of us once lived among [the disobedient] in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. So, whether we were followers of the clunky and damaged course of this world, or followers of the devil, or followers of ourselves, none of this seems to matter very much at all. In all three cases, even though we were living and breathing and thinking, what we really were was dead.
But when we became followers of Jesus Christ, and when we stopped following the course of this world, and stopped following the devil, and most importantly, stopped following ourselves, we stopped being dead. Verses 4 & 5 say it all: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” The wonder and the glory of the human experience is that God loves dead people. Let us never forget this. If God loved us when we were dead, God loves all other dead people. Our Call to Worship has made this perfectly clear already, and in this passage, the Apostle Paul confirms it. God’s abundant, overflowing mercy, combined with his amazing love for the dead has reached out to us and made us alive. And God is always willing to do the same for any other dead person.
So, once we were dead, and now we are alive. But to say that we are only living, breathing and thinking alive, is to demean the work of God that has taken place within us. We aren’t just alive, alive, we are resurrected alive. Paul says that we have been raised with Christ, and that can only mean that we are co-participants in his resurrection. It is hard enough for us to grasp the concept of living and breathing and thinking and being dead all at the same time, but it is even more difficult, I think, to imagine that we have been resurrected from the dead in the same way that Christ was resurrected from the dead. Most of us are pretty sure that Christ was raised from the dead by the power of God. But if we are willing, we might just ponder the possibility that God’s mercy and grace are also exhibitions of the power of God, and so it is quite possible that we, too, have been resurrected by the power of God. I know, lots to think about. But it gets worse. Paul goes on to boldly assert that in addition to experiencing the power of resurrection, that we have also ascended with Christ into the heavenly places, and that we are seated there with him. When the Scriptures speak of being seated with Christ, it has the same implication as seeking the mayor’s seat in an election. It’s not the actual chair that we would like to have, but rather it is the position of power and authority. If we are seated then, with Jesus Christ in the heavenly places, we share, somehow, in the very power and authority of God.
I hope that by now, that I have thoroughly boggled up your minds. It has been a very wild ride so far this morning. We started out quite dead, even though we were living and breathing. And then because of the grace and mercy of God, we were made alive, but not just alive in any old ordinary sense of being alive, but we were resurrected by the power of God along with Jesus Christ, becoming co-participants with him in his own resurrection. And then, to top it off, the Apostle Paul says that we are also participants in our Lord’s ascension into heaven, and we are now seated there with him.
Now. Is it even remotely possible that any of this is real or true? And if it is, why did I wake up in St. George this morning, instead of some other, heavenly place, and why did I even bother to come here and talk to all of you about this stuff? If it was real, and true, then everybody would already know it, because we’d all be in some heavenly place, maybe even together. Some scholars would say that this stuff is for real, but that it just hasn’t happened yet; that it will happen someday in the near or distant future. But where does one draw the line? I don’t have any trouble acknowledging that before I encountered the grace and mercy of God that I was living, breathing and quite dead. So that works for me. And resurrection: I’m good with that too. God has made me alive. Good thing, too, because that living, breathing and dead thing isn’t gonna work out for any of us. And if God has made me alive with Jesus Christ, I’m OK with the Apostle Paul when he calls that resurrection. But ascension? I’m not sure. There are days when I feel like I’m more in the church office than I am seated in the heavenly places with Christ. But there are also days when that office chair isn’t even remotely close to this building, let alone this planet. And so, in some glorious, mysterious, wonderful, amazing, and not yet fully understood way, everything that the Apostle Paul says in this passage is true. Very true, right this minute. And I’m convinced that he believed this with all of his heart, or he wouldn’t have written it in the way that he did. The Scriptures aren’t always rational, reasonable and practical, even though we wish that they were. So the question: Where in the universe are these pews this morning? Are they inside this building or are they off somewhere in the heavenly places? Paul makes it clear that we didn’t do a thing to earn or merit these pews. He says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing it is the gift of God.” But he also says, in a very practical, rational and reasonable way, that because we are seated in these pews, that we have plenty of work to do. Work prepared ahead of time to be our way of life. So, we’ve got to get busy.