Jesus vs. zombies in Ephesians 2

This past weekend for my message on Ephesians 2:1-10, I decided on a zombie theme since I can get away with that in my contemporary service and because zombies are “in” with the young people. The inspiration was a phrase that Paul uses to describe people who are enslaved to sin: “children of wrath,” which sounds like the title of a bad horror movie. He also tells the Ephesians that they “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which [they] once lived,” i.e. living dead, a.k.a. zombies. In all seriousness, I think a zombie apocalypse is an excellent metaphor for capturing the nature of sin. Sin is not just “breaking the rules” or “offending God’s honor” as we often hear in the pop-evangelical “Four Spiritual Laws” account of the gospel. Sin is a devastating spiritual disease that makes us into zombies; Jesus provides the means to resurrect us from this state of living death.

I. Sin makes us dead

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived” (2:1). This is a different way of wording the basic spiritual truth captured in Romans 3:23 — “The wages of sin is death,” but the wording of Ephesians explicitly describes “death” as a present spiritual deterioration instilled organically by sin rather than a future punishment inflicted juridically by God. I told my congregation that sin is death because it deadens our spiritual sensibilities. Each time I hurt another person or myself, I grow more comfortably numb with the pain that I cause.

The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt observed this spiritual numbness in Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi architect of Hitler’s Jewish extermination program. When she went to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, she had expected to encounter a wild-eyed monster. To her surprise, he was a very boring, polite man whose comfort with the horrendous crime he manufactured became the basis for Arendt’s theory about the “banality of evil.” This is consistent with the thinking of the great Christian theologians Augustine and Aquinas who equate evil with non-existence. Sin erodes our vitality in a way that extends beyond our acclimation to hurting ourselves or others. The more we sin, the less we can enjoy life. Our “enjoyment” turns into fulfilling compulsions and addictions that never can be fulfilled.

II. Sin makes us hard-headed

Paul says that in their former state, the Ephesians were “following the ruler of the powers of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (2:2). The word that gets translated as “disobedient” here is apeitheias. It doesn’t just mean disobedient in the sense of being unwilling to follow a particular command; it means being unteachable, intransigent, and obstinate, or in layman’s terms, “hard-headed.” When we do things we know are wrong and we lack a safe space in which to confess the wrong and receive some kind of penance or absolution, then we cope with the resulting shame and insecurity by projecting a shell of “hard-headedness.” When we’re threatened by others’ good behavior, we ridicule it. We come up with cynical deconstructions for the motives of whichever authority figures impinge upon our sovereignty. The disease of “hard-headedness” becomes a stage four spiritual cancer when we find a good deed or a theological or political cause that becomes the self-justification by which we can dismiss all other criticism against us. When supposedly “born-again” Christians have been infected with self-justification, it’s very difficult to overcome their hard-headedness because they’ve convinced themselves that they’re already “saved,” not recognizing that they are putting themselves back into the handcuffs that Jesus unlocked for them.

III. Sin fills us with wrath

“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” (2:3). The word wrath in Greek is orge, the root word for our English word orgy. It means “violent passion.” There are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s wrath, but there is no legitimate exegetical basis for connecting the wrath in Ephesians 2:3 to God (the NIV is WRONG!!!). It simply describes the violence that fills a human soul that has been consumed by the desires of flesh and senses. In this particular context, the wrath is not God’s punitive response to our rebellion against Him, but the natural degeneration that our sin enacts within us (although I suppose you could see this degeneration as punitive like Augustine did). When we obey the impulses of our flesh and senses, they are never satisfied; they always multiply. If I smoke a cigarette to deal with my stress, it temporarily takes it away, but the next day, I need two cigarettes and then four and then eight (I’m speaking from personal experience). People who are slaves to their desires become increasingly irritable towards other people as well which causes their internal wrath to become a social wrath that infects others insofar as they haven’t been immunized against it. Before long, voila, you have a zombie apocalypse on your hands.

IV. Jesus makes us alive

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (2:4-5). Notice that God is not described as being angry for the pathetic condition that sin has left us in. He simply swoops down and rescues us through Jesus because He’s “rich in mercy.” There’s a whole lot that has to be filled in to explain how we are “made alive together with Christ.” In my sermon, I filled in by reiterating what I preached a few weeks ago about Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:4 that Jesus causes our mortality to be “swallowed up in life.” Jesus makes us alive by absorbing our spiritual death, our hard-headedness, and our wrath on the cross and replacing it with new life through His resurrection.

I realize that this probably sounds completely ridiculous to any “outsider” reading this. How can something that happened 2000 years ago have anything to do with my spiritual vitality today? I don’t know how to explain it other than to say that when we trust in Jesus’ sacrifice, we ourselves become living sacrifices through Christ in which our sin is crucified and we are given new life. Here is the way Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:11: “While we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” We are in a perpetual renewal process of crucifixion and resurrection that occurs as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It may sound ridiculous, but this accurately describes my daily spiritual experience. I cannot express how immensely free is the life that I receive when the rotten exoskeleton of my sinful residue is disintegrated through the elixir of Jesus’ blood.

V. Jesus raises us up

Paul next writes that God “raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (2:6). If we allow ourselves to take this verse seriously, it really pushes back against the mainstream understanding of heaven as our afterlife reward, because just as Ephesians 2:1 describes the death that results from sin in the past tense, Ephesians 2:6 puts heaven in the past tense as well. What does it mean that we have already been seated with Christ in the heavenly places? The only way I can interpret this is that Jesus’ sacrifice has granted us an immunity to sinful “zombie” infection that effectively lifts us out of the social pinball machine in which wrath is circulated between people who are trapped in sin. We continue to live in the same world with the same problems surrounded by the same people, but we inhabit eternity even from within our perishable “earthly tent” (2 Cor 5:1). Having been raised up by Jesus, we can walk through the waters and fires of a fallen world without being drowned or burned (Isaiah 43:2).

VI. Jesus makes us rich

Paul says “that in the ages to come [God will] show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (2:7). I don’t know how to unpack the phrase “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness.” What I do know is that my life has become abundantly rich through Jesus Christ. The concept of richness is completely redefined when you live in Christ. It has nothing to do with how fancy your counter-tops are or how many ounces of rare precious metals you have in bullion form. Your world becomes rich because your field of vision is soaked with the grace of God. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at the smokestacks of Gary, Indiana, or the most secretive, loveliest waterfall in all of Hawaii. When your perspective has been transformed to see reality as God’s loving gift to us, then your life is made rich.

VII. Jesus makes us into God’s poetry

I’m going to skip over the two verses 8 & 9 that provide the best summary I’ve found of the doctrine of justification by faith just because analyzing them would require an entire blog post in itself. Verse 10 is lovely as well: “For we are God’s poetry, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” The NRSV really lets me down here, so I made my own translation. The Greek word that the NRSV clumsily translates into “what he has made us” is poiema, the root for our word poetry in English. The discovery that Jesus makes possible is that we are not the source of our own existence, but the creatures of a Creator who hasn’t stopped creating us.

We are poetry that God is writing as we speak. The less we resist His pen, the more beautifully we can be written. When we understand that God is the author of every “good work” that we do, then our good deeds can be “our way of life” and not the source of poisonous self-justification that keeps us hard-headed and filled with wrath. Jesus makes it possible for us to become God’s art instead of thinking solipsistically that we are the artists. Of course, I would suspect that true artists recognize, in whatever language that they use, that their vocation as creators is to be perfect vessels of a power that is creating through them. We were made to radiate the image of our Creator between us. The more that the wrath and death of our sin is dissolved through Christ, the more that we can live in perfect imagination and beauty as God’s poetry.

7 thoughts on “Jesus vs. zombies in Ephesians 2

  1. Hi – I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and really like it. It’s helpful and realistic and sensible. Your understanding of sin rings true for me.
    Could you write more about how, practically, we share in Christ’s life? I agree with you that it’s an ongoing process rather than a one-off decision, but I’m not clear on what the process consists of. And I agree that it’s his work and not ours, but would you say there are some habits of thought or something that allow us to receive it?

    • What a great question! Here’s the short answer. In the Wesleyan tradition, we call our daily practices means of God’s grace. They serve the purpose of bringing us into a more perfect trust of Christ and greater conformity to His holiness. There are works of piety (prayer, Bible study, worship, meditation) and works of mercy (volunteer work, taking care of kids, fighting for justice, etc). Engaging in both types of works helps us to fall more in love with God and reflect His image more perfectly. One simple thing you can do thats actually been very meaningful to me is to pray a prayer called the Jesus Prayer that you repeat over and over again as a contemplative practice: “Lord Jesus son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” I have a set of rosary beads. They’re spaced out alternating between sets of 10 and single beads. On the single beads I say the Lord’s Prayer; on the 10 I say the Jesus prayer. It’s actually been very meaningful to me. I also have a journal in which I pour out all kinds of things to God including cuss words when I’m having a rough time.

      • Thanks for replying!

        I’m struggling with how that avoids being salvation by works. If salvation is just a get-out-of-hell-free card, which we’ve already been given, then clearly doing those works doesn’t help earn it; but if salvation is (also) participating in the new life in this life, and being freed from zombification, and so on, then it sounds like doing those works (at least partly) *causes* us to experience this, and so it depends on our works.

        I’m not attacking or criticising; on the contrary, your way of looking at things makes so much sense to me that I really want to fill in the gaps and understand it fully.

        • Nothing we do can *earn* God’s favor, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do things to more deeply experience God’s favor. God’s offer of freedom is extended unconditionally. It’s not “Make this decision and/or do this set of tasks or else you’ll get punished.” It’s “I’ve already done this to liberate you so leave the punishment of your sins behind.” We can accept or decline. God is not going to force us out of the lonely one-person empire/prison that spiritual pride creates, but He’s unlocked the door for us.

          If you want to describe salvation as the moment we first see the sunlight outside the walls of our empty tomb, that’s fine, or you can describe it as the entire ongoing journey of resurrection. I think there’s Biblical support for both. Two pieces I wrote that might help you are “Perpetual Conversion” and “Justification by Faith: 3 Perspectives.” Please keep engaging if it doesn’t make sense or if it seems like I’m wrong.

      • I think you’re right, I’m just trying to understand it better.

        It seems to me like the solution is the same as the problem. I.e. my problem is that I sin and can’t help it, and I ask for God’s help, and he says the solution is to do a bunch of good deeds which I was trying and failing to do in the first place.
        He doesn’t force us out of the prison, but can he help us out of it if we’re already trying? How?

        • No, the solution is to give Him your trust. Whatever deeds you do after that are only beneficial if you’ve first given your trust and for the purpose of deepening that trust.

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