"And You He Made Alive...Together with Christ"
“And You He Made Alive … Together with Christ”
(a sermon based on Ephesians 2:1-9)
Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ
201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
September 6, 2020
The Revised Standard Version of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 2 (which Marilyn Kettler read for us) begins with these words: “And you he made alive!” I love that phrase: “And you he made alive!” Every one of us here today has been made alive! (Praise God … otherwise we would not be here!)
Exactly who has made us alive? Your mother & father, of course, brought you into being. But in this letter, St. Paul is referring to “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3) So it’s more than just being physically alive, for St. Paul. It’s your spirit -- the essential soul of who you are -- that he speaks of in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus.
The Apostle draws a strong contrast to that “aliveness” when he looks back to how they were living before they became Christian…
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of dis-obedience. … Among these, we all once lived. … living in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind … We were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (vss. 1-3)
That’s some heavy-duty condemnation of how the apostle’s church members used to be.
But you’ll notice that Paul includes himself among them!
“Following the course of this world,” like those “sons of disobedience”, living “in the passions of our flesh”, following “the desires of body and mind”, we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase Bible called “The Message” (NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO, © 2002, page 1613) puts it like this: “It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted [ideas] and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it. All of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it. All of us in the same boat.”
It makes me think of what Isaiah felt when he encountered that vision of God, high and holy and lifted up there in the Temple: “Woe is me, for I am undone. For I am a man of unclean lips who dwells among a people of unclean lips.” We’re all in the same boat, sinking!
“But God, who is rich in mercy” (writes the Apostle Paul) “out of the great love with which he loves us (even when we were dead in our trespasses!) made us alive together with Christ! By grace you have been saved! [God] raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus … For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God! Not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (vss 4-9)
You hear very clearly in those sentences the Apostle Paul’s emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, not by works, lest people become boasting braggarts thinking they did it on their own. God did not give up on us, even when we were deadened by sin and disobedience! Out of God’s immense mercy and incredible love -- having done nothing to earn or deserve it -- God picked us up and put us together with Jesus Christ in all his glory and grace. God made us alive together with Christ. Raised us up with him; made us sit with him! Now God has us where God wants us. Praise God! Hallelujah!
St. Paul’s vision of us “seated with Christ in heaven” removes all spatial and temporal separation. We’re in this “God thing” together! Now, instead of living lives of disobedience (like everyone else) -- following passions of the body, doing whatever we feel like doing regardless of who gets hurt -- we are joined to Jesus, making us able to do the good work we were meant to do, and taking no credit for it for ourselves. We’re just doing what Jesus was doing, in service to God, who loves us & saves us, guides us & empowers us.
Those of you who have listened to my sermons for seven years now may have noticed that I am preaching the Apostle Paul. That’s about as rare for me to do as to preach from the Old Testament. And yet, here it is, Sept. 6 -- with only three more sermons to go before I retire -- and I’m quoting Saint Paul! Of course, during the pandemic, I have also been preaching from the prophets: Micah (July 26) and Isaiah (May 10, July 12, July 19, Aug. 23, and last Sunday, Aug. 30).
Last Sunday, when I spoke about “vocation” – in particular the calling of the Prophet Isaiah, when God asked: “Whom shall I send?” and “Who will go for us?” to which Isaiah said, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” – I promised to tell you this week a bit about my own sense of “calling” by God into ministry.
I mentioned last week that I felt God’s call already in junior high school. Rev. Barksdale taught our eighth-grade Confirmation class, and I took it to heart. I had been baptized as a baby at the Congregational Church in Orange, California – a building that now houses a Samoan UCC church. My parents moved our family to Cadillac when I was about to enter kindergarten. My Mom’s mother was the church organist at the First Congregational Church in Cadillac; my Grandpa sang bass in the church choir, my Dad (Les Lance) was the Sunday School Superintendent who gave me my 4th-grade Bible (his signature is in the front cover, along with Clayton Stowe, the minister, who had formerly been the minister right here in Alpena!). You could say I’m “congregational” right down to my roots!
Rev. Barksdale encouraged us to “confirm” our baptismal vows personally – in other words, to affirm the faith into which we had been baptized. Here’s how I put it in my ordination paper years later:
“It seems that Life only can be understood looking backward over time; while the difficult fact is, Life must be lived forward.
Recalling the contours of my own lifespan, from the waters of the womb to the waters of baptism was but a short space. Born into a family with UCC parents, I scarcely had the opportunity to experience my own “fallenness” before I was sealed with the Covenant of Grace, and embraced by a Christian community. I’m not sure I even troubled the congregational repose with so much as a scream. (!)
Those days we didn’t call it a “christening”, even less and “infant dedication”. No, I was baptized, pure and simple. Then the Church went about its true business of nurturing and educating me into the faith.
My parents and grandparents vowed, as they had with my brother before, and they would with my sister and brothers yet to come, to provide a Christian home. And the congregation vowed to assist them in our Christian upbringing.
These were more than just veiled reminders to get us to Sunday School. These baptismal vows, said on my behalf, established a covenantal relation: my family expanded on that Sunday morning, though I was too young to appreciate it. I was welcomed into the Church, and made a part of that greater Family of God, though I had done nothing to deserve it. Like Life itself, my baptism was a gift of Grace. Every subsequent person’s baptism has expanded and enriched that Church Family to which I have belonged nearly 30 years. (I wrote this 37 years ago.)
Baptism continues, in my mind, to be the most joyful Church sacrament; for it establishes the ground, the primary covenant, between each person and all the members (Christ, of course, being the head) of God’s Church community, family, Body of Christ, both here and abroad, forever and now. And it speaks entirely of God’s Grace.
For others like me, whose calling came young; who have had little time to gather bittersweet experiences; to thoughtfully plumb the dregs and depths of Life; I guess our God-given imagination, coupled with listening skills, will have to suffice for thinking and empathy.”
That sense of “call” was reiterated in experiences I had in PF (Pilgrim Fellowship, our church youth group) as I served as Faith Commissioner, leading group devotions and various Bible Studies.
My sense of call by God was deepened in my year as an Exchange Student in Germany, where I met wonderful German people… all of whom had intentionally stepped away from anything having to do with “church”, setting aside all “God Talk” (theology) as superstitious “Kinder-glaube” (childish belief).
When I returned to Michigan and went to ACC, I became a youth adviser for PF as well as a member of the Music Committee and the Worship Committee here at First Congregational. Our Minister, Rev. Jack Fitzgerald, knew I intended to go into the ministry once I got through college, so he graciously (occasionally) invited me to preach a sermon when he was away on vacation or downstate at a Michigan Conference Annual Meeting. As I’ve been packing up my office files, I happened to come across a sermon I preached on May 20, 1973, entitled “The Reality of God”. In it I said:
“In the enthusiastic, emotional church youth scene in America, it is relatively easy, I have found, to become convinced of the reality of God – because the standpoint is so popular among our peers. We’re surrounded by singing, swinging friends, bubbling over with the Spirit. We see walls plastered by posters, stick-on slogans, and colorful pins that acclaim: “Jesus Saves”, “One Way”, or “Jesus Christ: He’s the real thing!” One could almost say it has become a “fad”.
Among us “Jesus People”, the atmosphere is truly super-charged. Solid Rock Jesus festivals, where the rhythm of the bass guitar gives you “good vibrations” and the testimonials by drug addicts who, overnight, have turned to God and found true fulfillment, drive even the most agnostic to serious reconsideration.
Praise the Lord, I, too, have had the chance to spend a lot of time in this spiritually-charged life. I have felt the peace, the commitment, the joy, the enthusiasm. Sometimes for weeks on end I felt God’s presence. I felt the love flowing all around us. But inevitably, when a couple too many dates or a couple too many college tests or something happened, I would temporarily lose that “turned on” feeling. I then found it hard to pray; people became merely people again instead of “souls” or “brothers”; and in all, it didn’t feel like God was within a hundred miles of me.
Yet, as low a period as that may seem, it was precisely during one such “low” period that I first realized that in so much of my life I had just been a spiritual “sensualist” – always wanting to “FEEL” God’s presence in my prayers and being depressed when I didn’t feel it. I saw that until I could believe without the spiritual “goose pimples” I would always be on that roller-coaster of high’s and low’s, of up’s and down’s – that my faith would always be at the mercy of my emotional feelings.
Of course, as long as we have the FEELING – indisputable, joyful, popular – we do not need FAITH. An we Americans are so efficient at creating sensory atmospheres with colorful posters, catchy slogans, bring or emotional music, that we rarely have to look at things in depth.” (unquote – that was me in 1973, 47 years ago)
I was part of a Gospel Band here in Alpena that year. I was a singer-songwriter along with Steve Black (guitar), Pete Larson (bass) & Eric Larson (drums). We called ourselves “The Second Coming” and I got accustomed to going out into the community -- performing for service clubs, women’s groups, other church youth groups, and camps -- giving “testimony” about how meaningful a relationship with God could be, through repentance and forgiveness, and the grace and gift of Jesus Christ to the world. (I probably sounded a lot more like the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.)
You could say, (then as now) that I had a typical “mainline church” sense of “vocation” – of God’s call and claim on my life; and my subsequent commitment (ever since 8th grade) to live the Jesus Gospel in a public setting: namely, growing up to be a minister of a local church (like this one, my home congregation). It took 20 years of education, from elementary school through my Master of Divinity degree, financed in part by the G.I. Bill, and partly because my wife Patty went to work. (Thank you, Patty Lance!)
As I pointed out in last Sunday’s sermon, the word “call” (or “calling”) – “voce” in Latin, from which we get the word “voice” – refers to any vocation, not just church professions or missionaries. You may feel a call to be a truck driver, or a teacher, dentist, author… Whatever it is that evokes, or provokes, or gives voice to our deepest calling. Voce… vocation.
I believe that any person who resolves the question: “what should I do with my life?” – especially in the productive years (those 45 years of adult responsibility between adolescence and retirement) should be able to say that their “vocation” – their chosen work, into which they have dedicated years of training and a passion for excellence – is how they have “answered God’s call” to them.
There may be no dramatic “vision” like Isaiah’s experience we discussed last week – no burning bush like Moses, no angel visitor like Mary & Joseph, no supernatural dream like Jacob’s Ladder, no mid-life correction of course like the Apostle Paul (who I’ll speak about again next Sunday) – but in whatever manner it comes to you, it’s a “vocation” (a responding to God’s call in your life) that helps bring “focus” to a decision… a growing awareness of what gives you “pleasure” in life, what seems to draw your attention (what draws your interest) and brings out your best efforts.
“Vocation” is a sense of what one may be able to do, and what one ought to do with one’s life, for the good of oneself and of society.
That’s responding to God’s call. Joseph Campbell called it “following your bliss”.
My prayer for you is that you find that occupation (that calling, that vocation) which brings out the best in you because it is rooted in your deepest longing. Whatever holds you back, offer it to God for cleansing and correction, and then get ready for the adventure of your life… as you respond “Yes” to God’s call.