By Peter Robinson
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
I hope that you will allow me to be deliberately provocative this morning: I want to suggest that there is a dangerous myth which often confuses us about the Christian life. That myth is that being a Christian is about doing the right thing, living in the right way, or becoming a ‘good’ person. It is dangerous because it is close to the truth and yet by its slight deviation it sets us on a track toward understanding the Christian life which is hopelessly misleading.
The prayer in the second half of chapter 1 is a prayer for the Church as much as it is a prayer for individuals. That should change the way that we read it: that God may give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, that we might know the sure and certain hope we have in Jesus and that the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead is at work in our life together.
Extraordinary language full of hope but then we come to chapter 2, where the change is abrupt, direct, and deeply unsettling … and, Paul says, “you were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, living according to the desires of the flesh, by nature children of wrath.” Paul takes a wrecking ball to our ideals and aspirations: We weren’t slightly off course, in need of a little direction or encouragement. Without Christ we are dead – no hope, no future, no life. That is strong language – is Paul getting a little carried away?
It sure seems like it – when we hear that people without Christ are by nature children of wrath, sons of disobedience it is more than a little confusing, it is offensive. There are of course people in the world who think that many if not the majority of human beings are evil. But most of us want to see and to believe that human beings are basically good – we are Canadians after all. And we believe that we should treat other people with dignity and respect. Yet, Paul almost seems to be saying that if you are not a Christian then you are not a good person. But we all know that there are Christians who are nowhere near as good as some people who aren’t Christians. So what does Paul mean?
In 2013 a new book by Nina Munk came out: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. Jeffrey Sachs is a brilliant, high energy, world changing economist. He believed that poverty could be eradicated by 2025. He set up the millennial development program with projects in different places in the majority world, which were intended to turn around the living situations of the poorest of the poor. The projects addressed issues such as food, water, employment. Sachs was very good at fundraising – he raised billions of dollars, so the projects got off to a good start with significant, immediate change in local situations and lives.
I don’t think Jeffrey Sachs is a Christian, but he could certainly claim to be doing good works, making a difference in the world, to making a difference in people’s lives. Nina Munk travelled with Sachs to observe and learn from him. But her enthusiasm for his plans began to wane when she noticed that the projects weren’t effecting the long-term change that was intended. Indeed, many of the communities where these projects took place ended up in worse conditions than before the projects began. And when they failed Sachs just walked away.
Did Sachs intend to do good things – absolutely – he wanted to help the poorest of the poor but in the end their situations were made worse, not better. It became clear to Nina Munk that Sachs didn’t really understand what was going on, he didn’t see the full picture; so, his ‘good’ intentions made a mess of other people’s lives.
Before he became a follower of Jesus Paul was a lot like Jeffrey Sachs. He was enthusiastic, passionate, disciplined, focused and hard working. He was committed to doing what was right, to make a difference. But he didn’t understand what was going on and as a result he caused a lot of damage.
We see exactly the same thing in the events leading to the cross. The Jewish leaders who demanded the death of Jesus were, as far as they understood, doing the right thing. They were doing what needed to be done to protect people from following a leader who was only going to disappoint and would likely make everyone’s life more difficult. The Jewish leaders were good people. If we were to put them on a typical scale from good to evil they would be right at the top of the good end. And they believed that putting Jesus to death was the right thing to do. But they didn’t understand what was going on. One of the great luxuries which we afford ourselves is the belief that the Jewish leaders were evil and corrupt and if only we had been there we would have done the right thing.
For Paul, the cross confronts and exposes human sinfulness which isn’t just moral corruption. It is our tendency to believe that what matters is that we do the right thing. The problem is exactly that – we do what we think is the right thing to do. While ‘sin’ includes actions that are destructive to us and others the problem of sin or better the root of sin is not our actions it is that we trust ourselves rather than God.
When Paul says ‘you once lived in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind’ he doesn’t simply mean that we are all sexually immoral, greedy, and selfish although that may be the case.
No, his point is that we are operating solely at the level of physical desires when in fact God has made us as creatures who are to be both physical and spiritual; to know, love and obey God. The word Paul uses for dis-obedient corresponds with the word used for dis-believing. We disobey because we disbelieve. We do what we think is right because we do not know God and God’s desires for us. And here is the thing that is really hard for us to accept – we may think that we are committed to doing what is good and wonderful and helpful but if we aren’t operating in the context of who God is and what God desires then our best efforts are worthless, if not dangerous.
Which brings us to grace – because for Paul this is all about grace. This passage is overflowing with the grace of God. Paul is not out to condemn, judge or denigrate anyone and particularly not people outside of the Church. And Paul isn’t one of those cranky people who likes nothing better than to point out everyone else’s faults. On the contrary, Paul is speaking to the Church, to Christians and his desire is that they, that we, should understand how God’s grace towards us in Jesus Christ changes absolutely everything: by grace we have been saved so that we might live and work for God.
Now we might begin to understand the last sentence from our reading: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
We are God’s workmanship, created or recreated in Christ for God’s purposes. When Jesus confronted Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul suddenly came face to face with the truth. Standing in the presence of Jesus all his arguments, all his rationalizations, all his self-justification was exposed as empty and false. His encounter with Jesus reframed Paul’s understanding. He saw himself, the world and God with completely different eyes; as he prays in chapter 1, the eyes of his heart have been enlightened. He realized that what he believed to be good and right and true was in fact in direct opposition to God—his understanding of the situation proved to be completely wrong. From that point on he started moving in a completely different direction; he started walking a different path.
There are two very different approaches we tend to take to the Christian life. The first is very much the religion of our era which suggests that God or the gods want us to be all that we can be and if we work hard they will come alongside of us and help us to realize our dreams and live full and fulfilling lives. God is just a phone call away, waiting to offer us the help, the resources, the guidance, that we need – all we need to do is to ask. But when we understand that God is there for us, to help us live a better life or to become better people that allows us to see God as just another self-help program, a valuable resource which can help us as we sort out our lives.
The second approach, the one which Paul is putting forward involves a new way of walking; God is not standing in the wings, just waiting for us to invite him into our lives. No, he is continuing to work out his purposes in this world while giving us time to respond to his invitation to walk with him. God has already come to us not in the hope that he might become a part of our lives but so that we can become a part of his world. Jesus has not come to simply give our lives significance he has come to reorder the whole of our lives according to his plans and his purposes.
Flannery O’Conner once said “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
In an appropriate desire to emphasize the personal and intimate nature of our relationship with God we sometimes say that being a Christian means that Jesus lives within our hearts. And there are ways in which that understanding is helpful. But the language which Paul prefers is to suggest that to be a Christian means that we are ‘in’ Christ. We are the ones who have been reoriented or relocated.
In our passage today Paul uses that language over and over again – we are created or recreated in Christ; he speaks of God’s kindness towards us in Christ; he says we have been made alive in or with Christ. And he tells us that we have been seated in the heavenly places in Christ.
That last line echoes the prayer from chapter 1 where God raised Christ Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand. In Christ we are seated in the heavenly places. Heaven is not somewhere in the sky where we will go by and by. Heaven is to be in the presence of God. When Paul says you have been seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus he means that we have been brought into the very presence of the living God in Jesus.
In the same way that Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus we encounter God in and through Jesus Christ. This isn’t a future promise or hope – that one day we will get to heaven when we die and then we will see Jesus face to face. No for Paul, this is a present reality. This has already happened, and it continues to happen. Indeed, to be a Christian is to enter into a life in which we encounter Jesus over and over again in many ways but most particularly in our worship.
When we celebrate communion together we begin with the line ‘Lift up your hearts’, and the response: ‘we lift them up unto the Lord’. In some ways it might be better if we said, ‘let your hearts be lifted up’. Because the point is that we have already been lifted up into the presence of God in and through Jesus Christ. Sunday after Sunday when we celebrate communion, when we worship together, we are coming back into the presence of God, to stand before Jesus so that the eyes of our hearts might be enlightened. So that we might see the way things really are. It is that which allows us to go out into the world, in our Monday to Saturday lives, to live and work for God.
God is not calling us to do good deeds from time to time or to practice random acts of kindness. He is calling us to do his work, to learn to live in the way he has prepared for us. Recreated in Christ we are ready to start learning the life which God has designed for us all along. We can’t do God’s work unless we know who God is and what God is about, unless we are living and walking in Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Peter Robinson is academic dean and professor of proclamation, worship, and ministry at Wycliffe College, Toronto.