"Are We Really New Creatures?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 30, 2003
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10
In the second chapter of
Paul's letter to the Christians in Ephesus, he reminds his readers
of their past. He told them how they were living when they did not
know about the teachings of Jesus. When modern readers first
consider Paul's words, they may appear frightening, suggesting that
the Ephesians were caught in a cosmic struggle for the salvation of
their souls. Was this the case, or was Paul only using language
with which they were comfortable and familiar?
Here is what he wrote, "In
the past you were spiritually dead because of your disobedience and
sins. At that time you followed the world's evil way; you obeyed
the ruler of the spiritual powers in space, the spirit who now
controls the people who disobey God."
Let us engage in a little
experiment to see if we can distill what Paul was saying by
adjusting his image-creating theological language. Further, let us
put Paul's concepts into the mouth of a mother who is communicating
a similar message to her four-year old about what her daughter's
life was like at six months. It might go something like this:
In the past, you were not like the way
you are now. You were a slave to your urges. You did not sleep
through the night. You soiled your clothing. You would bring up
food after I invested 40 minutes in the process of feeding you. You
were lost in self-interest, constantly crying to be picked up, a
malady of all others who disobey the laws of adult living.
This may sound ridiculous,
yet Paul was saying the same thing using theological language. If
we used this same idea and applied it to the medical community, the
words might sound something like this:
In the past your grasp of medicine was
akin to sorcery. You were barbaric, arrogant and ignorant. At the
time you followed the hideous practice of boring holes in the skulls
of your patients so evil spirits could escape. You disobeyed the
laws of hygiene. You tried to cure the sick by engaging in dancing,
magical chanting, and the application of primitive potions. You
were uninformed butchers who were unworthy of the title, Physician.
Actually, we could produce the same kind of communication for every vocational discipline. And while this seems unreasonable to apply such a concept to Paul's words, why not? All of humanity started off disobeying God's laws. The reason they missed the mark or sinned so badly was because our ancestors had not yet discovered such laws.
For example, who knew that we could defy gravity by applying the principles of aerodynamics? Who knew about germs or how they could be controlled by medications? Who knew about the skills that governed the experience of happiness, joy and peace? Such skills can clearly be taught in a spiritual learning center like St. Matthew's.
Are we Christians new creatures,
or are we people who have expanded our awareness in the art of living
because we have experienced dramatic results by following Jesus'
teachings? One day when the Church universal becomes serious about
training the faithful in the "Science of Spirituality," it will enable
more people to grow, evolve and mature in an area of life about which
most people know so very little. Sometimes people will stumble into
a new frame of reference that dramatically changes their lives when such
a process can methodically be taught.
For example, when I was in West
Virginia, our church participated with several other churches in a
program that was very similar to Christmas in April. We would do
home repairs on four houses each year. It took a large group of young
adults and seasoned professionals to do the work.
On the sight where I worked, we had a college student who was lost without her curling iron, hair spray and make-up. She was not used to being in public without her face being just the way she wanted it. She was not used to getting sweaty and dirty. She even had an attitude about drinking water out of a Styrofoam cup.
Because everyone immersed themselves into the work, so did she. She started swinging a hammer for the first time in her life. She thoroughly enjoyed the children of the family. Frequently she would ride along when I drove the truck to the city dump. She was surprised to learn that I was a minister because of the way I was dressed.
Something happened to her during that week. Her energy flow reversed itself. She had learned to give herself away. She was eating lunch with the poor. She was laughing with others. She could actually see results from efforts she engaged in on behalf of someone else.
Toward the end of the week, she told me that she wanted to be a minister. She was asking me about my training, the requirements and how life in the Church worked. She was as cute as a button. She said, "Do you think anyone will mind if I'm Jewish?" I said, "No, no one will mind."
Had she become a new creature? She did not know a thing about Jesus or even her own faith. She was a Jew by birth who had been invited to our adventure by a friend. She learned about herself and how this elusive quality of happiness rose from within her when she did something for someone else. She had never experienced sustained joy in her life. I told her that she did not need to be a minister in order to feel that way every day.
I remember the story of Thomas
Griswald, who was an extremely brilliant attorney. When he was in law
school, he and his colleagues were highly competitive with each other.
Tom had all the assets. He was a charismatic actor who had a very
creative imagination. Without notes, Tom could do the best summation of
anyone in his class. His legal briefs were written impeccably. He
thrived on winning. Nothing felt better than to beat the best lawyers
that the State’s Attorney's office had to offer. Tom said, "Every time I
faced those folks in the courtroom, it was like sheep being led to the
slaughter." He loved it!
Tom fell under the spell of a woman who turned out to be the love of his life. She was a United Methodist who made him attend her church. He was one of these roll-your-eyes compliant husbands but his eye was on which restaurant they would visit following the service. She was into justice while Tom was into winning. She was into humility while Tom's greatest joy came from flaunting his abilities while "destroying" other attorneys who had failed to do their homework as well as he.
Tom was in a train accident.
Passenger cars were tossed like toys all over the landscape. Tom
miraculously escaped injury. People were crying out for help all around
him. None of his training had prepared him for an emergency. He made
his way to a little girl whose mother was not breathing. She said,
"Please, Mr., don't let my Mommy die. She won't talk to me." He looked
at the woman and became immobilized.
A voice shouted above the noise, "Get that woman out of her seat, pinch her nose, tilt her head back and begin to breathe forcefully into her mouth. Do it now!" The woman who barked out those orders was a nurse. She struggled to get to them and together they were successful in getting the woman to breathe on her own.
In that instant, something
happened to Tom. His energy reversed its flow. He had saved someone's
life and he worked with numerous others until emergency personnel
arrived at the accident scene. He was one of those heroes who happened
to be at the right place and the right time to make a difference in the
lives of people he did not know. Thus far in life, winning in court was
his peak experience. That day, Tom had become a healer. That
experience changed the way he viewed life.
Tom quit his law practice. He told his wife that he had decided to go to medical school, and that is exactly what he did. His love for using his brilliance and his photogenic memory to manipulate juries gave way to something far more satisfying.
Had Tom become a new creature? No. He was the same person who had discovered a different framework through which to view and live his life. Tom is currently in a medical practice in Austin, Texas. Interestingly enough, Tom is also the Lay Leader of his congregation.
In verse 10, Paul wrote, "God has made us what we are and in our union with Christ Jesus, God has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has prepared for us to do." God designed all people the same way. Every person has potential to make Jesus' teachings visible. This is why the message of Jesus is so universal. It applies to everyone. Following it will produce similar results in everyone. People often rediscover their energy, motivation and purpose for living.
While watching scenes on
television from Iraq the other day, I was struck by a coalition soldier
who was observing an Iraqi prisoner as he sat on the ground with his
hands fastened behind him. The soldier thoughtfully wrapped a blanket
more securely around the prisoner so he would retain more of his body's
heat. Who knows how that POW responded when he felt kindness coming
from someone who, only moments before, he had wanted to kill? Did his
energy flow reverse? Time will tell.
When Christ comes into our
lives, we learn to look for places to be useful, for circumstances that
may need our specific talents, for people who appear to have momentarily
lost their way in life and for shy people who are wanting to feel
included. Life in Christ has to do with giving away what Jesus taught
was available to all people. When we invest our energy in others,
our self-absorption starts to leave us, as though we are being cured of
a dreaded illness that has plagued us for years.
The contents of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount are already inside each of us. His teachings were not another set of "spiritual laws" to be memorized, but a way of life that will generate happiness, peace and joy. Skills like forgiveness, kindness and understanding become visible the more we use them. It staggers the imagination to consider how many people have remained dormant for most of their lives simply because they were never taught that they had alternatives.
What happened to Rebecca, who
accompanied United Methodist workers in West Virginia, or to Tom, who
chose to add to his considerable skill levels, can happen to anyone.
Since each of us has vast potential, how much we learn and how rapidly
we evolve is up to us. As we extend ourselves as did Rebecca and Tom, we
make it easier for others to learn as they had. This was Paul's reason
for writing to the Ephesians. This is our mission. This is who we are.
Rather than becoming new creatures, we are learning how to be more
faithful to the way God made us.
(The prayers below were created and delivered by our Junior High youth)
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Almighty God, thank
you for being our strength when we are weak, our light when all seems
dark and the calm in the midst of a storm. We have a way of straying
from what it is you want us to do or to be. We are often weak in mind
and in spirit. Yet in spite of all this, your love for us shines as
bright as the noonday sun. Help us to search our hearts to find where
we are falling short of the potential you have for us. Help us strive
to follow the example that your son Jesus set for us in what we say and
what we do, that we may make our world a better, more peaceful and
compassionate place in which to live. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
everlasting God, we thank you for bringing us to this day in our lives.
We thank you for the signs of Spring that are evident all around us.
The new leaves, the budding flower stems and the cleansing rain. They
each remind us of the opportunity you give us every day to wipe the
slate clean and start our lives anew. Help us to make today a Spring
time in our lives.
We all have many
things weighing us down. We have many concerns that we should turn over
to you, concerns for ourselves, for our family and friends, for our
country and for our world. Help us to have the strength to allow you to
shoulder these burdens, for it is only through you that they will be
Heavenly Father, we
ask that you touch the hearts and souls of those who need you most
today. We ask you to speak directly to those whose names we have
mentioned today as well as those who we carry in our hearts and minds.
Let them know that you are there with them and that you are there for
them. Let them know that if they call on you, you will respond at just
the right time. Help them and us to be patient in our lives. In the
same way that we have endured this harsh winter with the knowledge that
Spring will eventually come, let us endure the dark and cold moments of
our lives with the knowledge that you will see us through to a new day.
We thank you for sending your son Jesus as a symbol of your love for us and pray that you will help us as we strive to follow his perfect example. Help us to start anew today by repeating the prayer he taught us to say . . .