MERCY AND HOPE
In an article last week in The New York Times (March 15, 2106), David Brooks wrote of the way a ‘shame culture’ is replacing a ‘guilt culture’. ‘In a guilt culture’, he writes, ‘people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad’.
Paul the Apostle, in his Letter to the Ephesians sees a deeper problem within us: You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Our first response to this may be to think he is writing nonsense. We only have to observe the vigorous bodies of athletes, the agile minds of scholars and the charismatic attraction and perfect teeth of celebrities. How can he say that people are dead?
Clearly he sees life from a perspective we usually overlook – the issue of our soul. We all know that we are much more than the sum of our parts, that there is a spiritual dimension to our lives. When it comes to the real issue of life, Paul is saying that having a perfect body or a brilliant mind or the most charismatic personality will not help us. We have a soul problem.
And he tells us why we are spiritually dead: it is because of our trespasses and sins. Trespass is a false step, involving either the crossing of a known boundary or stepping away from the right path. Sin is missing the mark, falling short of a standard.
Trespass and sin highlight our predicament. We have done what we ought not to have done, and we have not done what we ought to have done.
CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE
Here in a sentence is the irony of our human state. Created in God’s image for relationship with him, we choose to live without him. God wants to give life and to love the life he has given. We, also having the capacity to love, turn our love away from the very God who has given us this gift. And, Paul tells us, this is our condition until the Good Shepherd finds us.
But, because God is who he is, Paul can go on to write: But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us… (2:4).
Paul moves here from speaking about us being condemned by God, to the mercy and love of God. He can hold both together because giving life and love is at the heart of God’s nature.
We need to think about this, for then we will realize that we need to pay careful attention to what disappoints and angers God. Like the Prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, we need to come to our senses and turn back to him and worship him, because his justice and love are perfect.
It is because we fail to recognize the gravity of our true condition that we tend to put our trust in other remedies – better government, better education, better laws, more acts of charity, more equal distribution of wealth. There’s no doubt these things are pleasing to God but they can never rescue us from spiritual death, spiritual captivity, or God’s condemnation.
This doesn’t mean that we should give up on providing better education or working towards a more just society, but the fact is we need a radical remedy – and this is just what God has done. God has given us a message of good news that offers life to the dead, freedom to captives, and forgiveness to the condemned.
These events don’t fit our model of the way the world works, but it doesn’t mean they are false.
Let me encourage you to set aside time this Easter to consider afresh the meaning of the cross and the amnesty God now holds out to us because he is rich in mercy. May you know afresh the hope of forgiveness and new life that God holds out to you – a hope that is grounded in the reality that God raised Jesus from the dead.
© John G. Mason