You Were Dead: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 18 March 2012

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 18 March 2012 (Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B)

Numbers 21:4-9  • Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22  • Ephesians 2:1-10  • John 3:14-21

I don’t preach from Paul often, perhaps because it feels like cheating: because the epistles are the closest things, in terms of genre, to what I preach on a Sunday morning, I feel like there’s not much writing to it.  That said, this week’s passage from Ephesians is fascinating enough that it pulled me out of my synoptic-fix and my Old-Testament-wanderings for a week, and I’m glad for it.

I’ve heard so many riffs on Pauline sin-language that I don’t think very often on the primary wording of Paul’s own letter, and I think I lose out because of that assumed familiarity.  What fades with separation from the source text is the first pair of verses and their paradoxical verbs: you were dead, and you were dead because of the sin in which you lived.  The disjointed image is terribly compelling: masses of the walking dead, unaware of their own death, the sort of thing that immediately conjures the trains of the damned in the opening cantos of Dante’s Inferno and in turn the masses crossing the Thames in Eliot’s Waste Land.  (Please resist the urge to turn this into a zombie movie.)

The upshot of the passage, of course, is not that we are dead but that God has raised us, with Christ, to life.  And in light of that upshot, the traditional quarrels that deploy Paul, usually by those opposing some form of “works righteousness,” seem to miss the point.  Yes, Paul forbids boasting in one’s righteousness, but salvation is always for the sake of holy works.  The riches of Christ become visible to the world precisely in those works.  And the glory of God seems to be the point of the whole enterprise for Paul.  Boasting, therefore, is not the primary foe but one possible distortion among many, one way that mortals can fail to bear witness to the gospel.  Right alongside the possibility of the self-righteous boast is the unconcerned wandering-about that does not take seriously the here-and-now salvation that Christ gives.  And not far from those two temptations come along the threats of disunity, of malice, of destructive talk, and so on.  The point is that God, through Christ, has raised the dead for God’s own glory.  To muck that up, by whatever means, is the danger against which Paul warns.

Ever since I read N.T. Wright’s argument that Ephesians is as viable a candidate as Galatians or Romans to be the primer to Pauline theology, I’ve read such images in a different light.  No embellishment on a logically-prior polemic letters, Ephesians sets forth, as a primary document, a vision of salvation that encompasses all of reality, seen and unseen, personal and political.  A reader paying attention to the strong images of the body and the deliverance from death can find in Ephesians the stuff of a glorious picture of reality, one in which God, through Christ, is always saving the world, calling on the first fruits of that salvation (I know I’m pulling that image in from outside of Ephesians) to tell and to show the world that something different, something  better is possible.  And that’s good stuff.

May our lives, new because we no longer walk as the dead, proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

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