April 12, 2009

Brought Near to God by the Blood of Christ
Ephesians 1:3-8a, 1:20, 2:13-16

I’m currently enrolled in a two-year spiritual direction training program through the Kairos School for Spiritual Formation. Our group meets for three days every month—although there is plenty of reading and writing to do in between—and each month two of us share our personal stories. The stories are often remarkable. One of the men in the group, Mark, is a bishop in a mainline denomination who was raised in a Jewish home. One day back when he was in college, his roommate handed him a book by Thomas Merton, a Christian writer, and asked him to read it. The next thing Mark knew, he was on his knees asking Jesus to transform his heart!

What has been truly striking to me in listening to the stories of my friends and colleagues, however, is the number of people who were emotionally and even physically abused by their fathers during their childhood. Three of them could not get by the earliest scenes in their stories without weeping, and in each case it was because of painful memories of their fathers. Fathers who mistreated them. Fathers who ridiculed them. Fathers who abandoned them.

It is typically not overly difficult to pick out people who have such unhealthy relationships with their fathers—or mothers—even when they are not retelling their personal stories in great detail. You hear it in side comments they make. You see it in their facial expressions and mannerisms when the subject of their parents comes up. They are often fidgety. Sarcastic. Frightened. People who have been abused by a parent are often deeply scarred, and scars like these can be very, very difficult to overcome.

Is God an abusive father? Are you afraid of him? It sometimes seems so by the way we talk, think and act. We’ve read stories about a violent God who slaughters innocent women and children. We’ve listened to or heard about sermons describing the unbearable agony of an eternal hell. “It’s an awful thing,” Jonathan Edwards preached back in 1741, “for sinners to fall into the hands of an angry God.” And we’ve even heard tales about a blood-thirsty God who is so angry with us that he killed his own son to vent his frustration. So despicable are the sins of humanity that God just had to take it out on someone. And so he did—on Jesus.

But is that what really went down? Is that what God is actually like? Not according to Paul. And Paul, of all people, knew well the stories of divine violence and bloodshed that crop up on various pages of the Bible. Good grief, Paul earlier in his life even sensed a call himself from God to track down and kill Christians wherever he could find them. Surely Paul knew an angry and violent God. Not anymore. Something changed all of that.

A funny thing struck me as I worked my way through Ephesians in the last few months. All of Paul’s references to Christ’s death and resurrection in this letter appear within the context of God’s love, grace and goodness. We find here no depictions of a vengeful God who stubbornly bit his lip and, as a last resort, sent Jesus in order to calm his militant nerves. In fact, God didn’t kill Jesus at all. People did. People who were disturbed by what Jesus said. People who were threatened by what Jesus did. What Jesus did was live a life of total commitment to God, just as he was sent to do, and it cost him his life. What God did was accept this sacrificial death of Jesus and raise him from the dead. In dying, Jesus broke the strangle hold of sin, violence and evil. In raising Jesus from the dead, God broke the strangle hold of death. As a result, all of humanity, otherwise “hopeless and without God in the world (2:12),” is now invited to experience in new and life-transforming ways the boundless love of the eternal God.

In his excitement to explain the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the hope that it offers to all of us, Paul reaches down into his bag of sacred stories and pulls out a few. Paul, to begin with, reflects on what is surely among the most significant stories in all of the Old Testament. Like those of us who reminisce on the past in hope of learning how to live in the present, Paul drifts back in 1:7 to the time when the people of Israel were helplessly oppressed in the land of Egypt. As the weight of their captivity grew heavier and heavier, they cried out with increasingly more desperation that God would somehow free them. Finally, as their sacred story goes, God did come and free the Israelites from their prison-like conditions in Egypt. All those people who had smeared lamb’s blood on their doorposts were spared the judgment of God and eventually sent on their way.

The death of Jesus, Paul reasons in 1:7, works something like that. When even the worst people in the world acknowledge the death of Jesus and, in a sense, smear his blood upon the doorposts of their own hearts and minds, they walk away clean and forgiven. The past, as awful and oppressive as it might have been, loses its grip and new possibilities open up. Through the death of Jesus, Paul shouts, we can all start all over again.

Next, Paul wanders back to the story of the exile when many of his Jewish ancestors were herded off like cattle and taken 500 miles away from Jerusalem to yet another foreign land. As a result, the community was left divided, a large part far away in Babylon and a sizeable group of stragglers hanging back in Judah. The sense of loss associated with leaving their land can scarcely be experienced by those of us here who move freely from place to place without batting an eyelash. The pain was severe, worsened even more by the emerging realization that such hardship had fallen upon them primarily because of their own sinfulness and disobedience. There they are, mourning by the banks of the Euphrates River, wondering if they might ever have the opportunity to return home.

In this context, the prophet Isaiah joyfully announced to those in exile as well as to the stragglers back in and around Jerusalem, “’Peace, peace, to the far and the near,’ says the Lord; ‘and I will hear them (57:19).’” God is calling the homeless people—those seemingly forgotten and abandoned—back to their homeland. Remarkably, in 2:13 Paul seemingly borrows the very thoughts of Isaiah hundreds of years earlier and suggests that, through the blood of Christ, all of the homeless people scattered throughout the world are welcomed home to God. Through the blood of Christ, not only are different people groups reconciled with one another, but even more importantly, people are made right with God again.

And thirdly, Paul reaches back and grabs hold of the image of dead bodies coming back to life. I don’t know for sure if he has Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in mind, but it’s at least feasible to imagine that he does. In that vision, thoroughly dry and even parched bones lay scattered over a seemingly God-forsaken battlefield, void of any chance of resuscitation. As Ezekiel himself watches on, the Spirit of God moves and begins to do the impossible. Suddenly, ligaments and muscles reappear, the bones start to rattle, and the deadest of the dead rise to their feet.

In similar fashion, Paul reflects on the resurrection of Jesus and the enormous implications that surround it (2:4-7). For the typical Jew of Paul’s day, resurrection was not an unknown idea. They thought, however, in terms of a communal or national resurrection at the end of time. Now, Paul suggests that when God raised Jesus from the dead, he not only made possible the resurrection of the community at some point in the distant future, but similarly made possible an entirely new life for every last one of us. We who were dead can now live—today!—because God raised Jesus from the dead.

In total, Paul sees the magnificent plan of God, introduced through Israel in the Old Testament, reach its climactic point in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Like the Israelites leaving Egypt, we are through Christ freed from the past and the various chains that bind us. Like the homeless people living hundreds of miles away from their homeland, we are, through the blood of Christ, welcomed back into the very presence of God. And like the parched bones lying in the middle of an abandoned battle field, we are, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, raised ourselves into newness of life.

When you stop and think about it, are these not the three deepest longings of the human heart, longings that go far deeper than our thirst for possessions, success or earthly security? We long for forgiveness and freedom. We long for a sense of belonging. We long for meaning—to truly live. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul writes, not only does God’s magnificent plan find fulfillment and a sense of completion, but our own hunger and thirst are forever satisfied.

In the book of Ephesians, the death and resurrection of Jesus are in no way intended to appease an angry and blood-thirsty deity. “God is so amazingly in love with the world,” Paul reasons, “that he sent Jesus.” “God is so intent in welcoming the world back to himself,” Paul continues, that he sent Jesus. While the blood of Jesus no doubt covers a multitude of our sins, the death and resurrection of Jesus stand, not as last ditch resorts to spare us from the wrath of an angry God, but as the ultimate expression of grace from a loving God. In Jesus, we find forgiveness of our sins—our own inabilities and refusals to live as he did. In Jesus, we are invited home—to follow him through the door to God that he alone opened. And in Jesus, we come to life, stepping through death and arriving safely on the other side.