September 11, 2005

Transformed Into Christ’s Likeness: Rebirth
Ephesians 2:1-10

Jared Fogle has gained a great deal of notoriety in recent years. Jared is the “Subway Weight-Loss Man.” When he tipped the scales at 425 pounds a few years ago, he decided to begin exercising, cut out fatty fast foods, and eat only Subway subs for lunch and dinner. Today, 245 pounds later, Jared weighs in at 180 pounds. Most of you have seen his picture on T.V., billboards, or in magazines. There he is: Jared “before” and Jared—holding an astonishingly large pair of pants from his former life—“after.”

Before and after stories. Before and after pictures. A body before and after weight loss. A head before and after baldness. A foot before and after toenail fungus. Some of the pictures are laughable, some inspiring, and some even disgusting. None, however, are more dramatic than the before-after picture that the Apostle Paul provides here in Ephesians 2:1-10: a person before and after experiencing the mercy of God through Jesus Christ.

First we see a picture of a person before Christ—the “old life”—and the picture is not a pretty one, to say the least (vv. 1-3). A person before or without Christ takes his cues from the world and is controlled by the evil forces that rule the world. A person without Christ is a slave to his own passions, driven relentlessly in his attempts to satisfy his own desires. A person without Christ, though created in the image of God, sets his own course, makes his own decisions, and helplessly chases after the things of the world like a dog scurrying for a lost piece of meat. A person without Christ, as Paul describes him, totally misses the mark, for that is what sin is all about. Although God has created every human being with a purpose, the person without Christ fires his arrows at the wrong target, sets his sights on the wrong goals, and plots his travels on the wrong map. And where does it all leave him? Dead.

I have, frankly, always appreciated the Bible’s honesty, even when I don’t like it. The Bible is not so much a casual acquaintance who says only what you like to hear as it is a true friend who gets right up in your face and says it like it is. The Bible, as I’ve discovered over and over and over again, refuses to conceal the shadowy areas of the human condition, even when describing the adventures of its leading characters. The Bible, to put it simply, tells the truth.

We read, for example, only two short chapters into the biblical story before learning about human rebellion and self-centeredness. The man and the woman, created in the image of God, disregard God’s instructions and do their own thing. In the closing chapters of the Bible, we read about lukewarm people and churches that have lost their first love. In between, we come face to face with people—even and most alarmingly people in God’s community—who think, talk, and act in ways that force us to recognize that there is no new evil under the sun. Cain kills Abel. David uses his royal influence to commit adultery with Bathsheba. Judas betrays Jesus. And endless others sit around and watch. Why include all of this mischief in the story? Why not quietly leave out such unpleasant episodes like the other writers throughout the ancient world? “Recount the victories,” the Assyrian kings instruct their scribes, “but leave out the defeats!” Why does the Bible insist on telling the truth? Perhaps, as Jesus himself phrased it, it is because “knowing the truth sets you free.”

Nowhere is the Bible more brutally honest—more blunt—than here in Ephesians 2. A person without Christ is dead. Paul, in a sense, takes us back to the scene in Genesis 3 that we looked at last week. When the man and the woman pulled out the single railroad tie from the tower of creation and the entire tower collapsed, you will recall that relationships at all levels—between people and God, people and creation, and people and other people—fell into chaos. In effect, humanity died that day, as God had promised. “If you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—if you reach for independence and self-sufficiency—you will at the same time abandon the tree of life and will surely die.” If we correctly understand that life in the Bible involves far more than a beating heart and expanding lungs—life involves a profound and intimate connection with God and with each other—then we can begin to see how people can breath, move, and work, and be “dead” at the same time. Regardless of whatever else may or may not be going on in a person’s life. Regardless of accomplishments, acquaintances, and acquisitions, a person outside of Christ is, biblically speaking, totally and utterly dead.

What makes Paul’s picture of a person “before” Christ particularly alarming, however, is his insistence—shared by Jesus and other biblical writers—on adding to the characters depicted in the picture. This first picture is not a portrait of an individual, but a group shot. When Paul first announces that “you were dead,” we might rest easy, knowing full-well that he is writing to various Gentiles living in and around Ephesus. At the very least, we might catch our breath and relax, assuming that our generally virtuous and upright lives free us from standing before the camera. The Jeffrey Dahmers and Saddam Husseins of the world we would expect to find in the picture—thieves, cheats and murderers—but not “upstanding” people like you and, dare I say, me. Yet Paul simply cannot leave it at that. Oh no. Instead, he widens the audience and points his finger at each and every one of us. It is as though the new, slimmed down version of Jared Fogle stares at us from his lofty spot on a billboard or television and whispers in our ears—“you have some weight to lose too, don’t you? There are some pounds to take off, aren’t there?” When we look at this picture—really look at it—we can’t help but know that all of us are either currently dead to sin or once were. Those are the only two alternatives. We are all either dead to sin or we once were.

Or we once were. There is, after all, a second picture here (vv. 4-10). A picture, not of despair, but of everlasting hope. A picture, not of death, but of rebirth. In verses 4-10, Paul describes a person “after” Christ or “with” Christ, and the very fabric of such a person’s life has not simply been altered, but totally transformed. This person, rather than losing weight or undergoing a hair transplant, has been “saved,” to use Paul’s word (v. 5). But saved from what? While people today sometimes trivialize this rich biblical idea, reducing it to either a sort of spiritual escape mechanism or gimmick, Jesus did not. He came “to save people from their sins.” He came, according to this second picture, to make us alive again, raise us up in the heavenly places, and to shower God’s goodness upon us forever and ever! He came to rebuild the tower of creation, put us back on course, and, importantly, to do the work that God has privileged us to do (v. 10). To be saved is to be completely reborn—nothing less.

The final issue in this display of “before” and “after” pictures, however, centers squarely on this simple question. How do we move from “before” to “after”? In Jared Fogle’s case, we exercise more and eat at Subway’s twice every day—and hold the mayo. What do we do in Paul’s case? Here it is in a nutshell. The Bible, again in its brutal honesty, informs us that there is absolutely nothing that we can do about our sinful condition—nothing! Sin, after all, is more than an evil thought that we might think, more than an evil word that we might say, more than an evil deed that we might commit. Sin is a condition—a disease—that rips away at the very soul of humanity. Therefore, neither the Bible in general nor Paul in particular offer simple, corrective procedures. What is needed is more than a change in our thinking, as important as careful thinking is. The Bible is no mere philosophy book. What is needed is more than an overhaul of our behaviors, as important as virtuous living is. The Bible is no mere ethics book. What is needed is more than increased inspiration, as important as discipline and dedication are. The Bible is no mere self-help book. What is needed is something outside of myself—someone must do for me what I am clearly incapable of doing for myself.

Last July, soon after my father died, Ron and Lenora Stern invited my family and a few of my children’s friends to come to Baltimore and enjoy a restful day on their boat. It came, I might add, at just the right time. Anyway, at one point during the afternoon, Ron took us to a place out in the harbor where everyone could swim. Without hesitation—and without a life jacket—I dove in with the kids. Before long, I felt a significant undercurrent pulling me away from the boat, and the harder and harder I swam, the greater the distance between the boat and me. I was getting tired and a bit nervous, and I finally yelled for help. Neither Deb, nor any of the others, for that matter, took me seriously at first. I don’t know why—I never tease! But soon, they realized that I was not kidding, and one of Jordan’s friends threw me a life preserver and they pulled me in. I can’t begin to describe the sense of relief that came over me when I finally sat on the boat again.

Paul uses two words here to describe this same movement of deliverance in our spiritual lives. We are saved from sin and death—from the undercurrents in Baltimore Harbor—by “grace” through “faith.” Grace is entirely of God. Grace is the outpouring of his love and mercy to us, totally unearned and unmerited, even when we are dead and sinking in the water. Grace is God reaching out to us, regardless of who we are or what we have done. Grace, according to John Stott, “is love that cares and stoops and rescues.” Nothing we say or do can move us from “before” to “after.” We are as powerless as I was that day last summer at the harbor.

I well remember a story in Philip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace. The young woman in the story had done just about everything you can think of to destroy her life. Finally, in sheer desperation, she phoned her mom and dad from Detroit to find out if she could come home. When no one answered the phone, she left a message on the answering system, leaving the date and time of her arrival at the local bus station. “If I am not welcome, just don’t come to the station,” she told them. “I’ll then get back on the bus and go on my way.”

When the bus pulled into the terminal, the young woman got out to check if her mom and dad were there. To her amazement, the entire lobby was covered with banners and filled with balloons! Not only were her mom and dad there, but all of her relatives and friends. “Welcome home,” they shouted as they embraced the young woman. “Oh, how we missed you.” So it is with God, welcoming us home—regardless of where we have been and what we have done. We are, Paul assures us, saved by grace.

But we are also saved through faith. Faith, please be careful to understand, is not an act that we perform in order to earn God’s grace—how easily we distort theology and resort once again to placing the burden of our salvation on our own shoulders! Rather, faith is a posture that we assume in order to receive freely the grace that God is so eager to extend to us. Faith is an open channel, arms outstretched, through which God pours his love and mercy. Faith is not in conflict with grace. Faith is our openness to receive grace. We are saved through faith.

“Before” and “after.” Overcoming obesity. Baldness. Fungus. Much more than that. Sin. And how do we do it? How do we move from death into life? Altering our diets? Modifying our appearances? Working harder and harder and harder to succeed? How long will we thrash around in the water, struggling to get back to the boat? We are saved—rescued—by the grace of God alone. And how do we receive that grace? Through faith. Through opening our hearts, souls and minds to Christ’s transforming presence.