Fourth Sunday in Lent

You were dead

bird silhouette in twilight
"[P]eople loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:19). Photo by Benjamin Balázs on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 14, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 2:1-10



The second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians begins with the strange indicative phrase, “you were dead.” 

It’s worth sitting with this idea for a moment. Presumably, those who were once dead but are no longer dead would be aware of their previous death. Being dead is a reasonably significant experience (I presume. I have never died). The presumption of death is a bold statement from the author of Ephesians (likely not Paul, but someone Paul-ish). On the whole, people don’t like being called dead, even when suggesting that they were formerly dead. And yet, death in all of its iterations is necessary to understand the depth of the author’s point: any consideration of grace requires, as a prerequisite, a reflection on death. 

The New Testament has a complicated vision of death. Death is at once an enemy and, as Christ suggests, how we experience new life. By dying, we live. For the author of Ephesians, death is an inward reality of human existence. The ground of being is so salted by sin that nothing grows. Death is not just a biological event. In the author’s mind, death is the slow decomposition of what was once vital and full of possibility. According to this schema, death can be, and often is, a gradual process. Miracle Max is right in principle when he explains to Fezzik and Inigo Montoya that you can be “mostly dead.”1 Moreover, death is also alluded to as a place complete with a set of practices and a ruler. Death is not merely a process; it is a land through which we all walk.

The question assumed by the author is whether we would prefer to stay citizens of that land or find new life in a new realm. Pay attention to how salvation is described in this passage. The saved are “raised up and seated.” The image of salvation is one of retrieval. Christians are rescued from a land of death and afforded the opportunity to sit beside Christ in eschatological perpetuity. The contrast is striking, intentionally so. Convincing people that God’s promised future is preferable to the present tense of sin has always been difficult. This is why it is so essential that the author of Ephesians meet this talk of sin and death with a word about grace. 

It is grace that diverts us from the shame and sin of the land of death into the very presence of God. It is God’s grace that retrieved us from our wanderings and our trespasses. By considering the real consequence of sin and death, the reader is prepared to hear the most miraculous good news: God’s grace saves. Moreover, it is by receiving this grace (freely given, never out of obligation) that we come to realize the genuine peril of our deathly sojourn and our powerlessness to find a path to safety. That realization is, as the text says, immeasurably rich. Surrounded by these riches, the Christian realizes their true worth, not as one who is failing toward death, but as one basking in the light of God. 

Jesuit priest Greg Boyle tells a story about being a young priest sent to Bolivia’s mountains to lead the Mass. Boyle’s Spanish was poor, and his Quechua, the indigenous language, was worse than poor. As he starts climbing the mountain, he realizes he doesn’t have the words to the Mass and can’t say the Mass in Spanish, let alone Quechua. So he fanatically searches through his Spanish Bible to find the phrase “take and eat.” 

Everyone meets in a field with a little makeshift altar in the center. After the sermon, Boyle stands to lead the Mass. It’s a disaster. When he runs out of words, he just kind of puts the bread above his head. He is despondent. In the midst of his throes of self-pity, an aging woman approaches him with a health worker. The health care worker says that the woman hasn’t given a confession in ten years. Boyles nods, and suddenly, the woman unloads ten years of sins in a language he can’t understand. She speaks for thirty minutes. By the time he coughs up some words of absolution, he turns to see everyone is gone. His ride even left. And he is left with his failure at the top of a mountain, convinced that he is the worst priest that ever lived. 

Boyle picks up his backpack and starts to hoof it back down the mountain when he spies an old farmer walking toward him. The farmer is wearing tattered clothes, a rope for a belt, and his feet are caked in Bolivian mud. “Tatai,” he says, which is Quechua for “Father,” and motions Boyle to come close. As the young priest bends, the old campesino reaches into his coat pockets and retrieves a handful of rose petals. He then drops them all over Boyle’s head. He digs into his pocket and grabs more and then more. The petals fall and fall and fall. 

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, this is not your own doing, but is a gift from God.”


Notes

    1. The Princess Bride has surprising theological depth.