In these beautiful verses Paul is telling the story of the Ephesian Christians, many of whom became Christians in the middle of life. He isn’t giving details, of course; everyone’s life story was at least somewhat different; everyone didn’t become a Christian in exactly the same way. In some cases the change was sudden and dramatic, in others more gradual. Some came to Christ alone; others in the company of husbands or wives or parents. Still, the general facts were and are the same in every case and so every Christian’s story can be told in this way.
Now let me ask you to think about the story of your life; your life’s story, as we say. Everyone has a story and we tell it in much the same way. “I was born in such and such a place… My parents were so and so… I went to this school and then to that. I met my wife or husband at such and such a time and place and after we married we lived there and then here, we did this and then that. I have so many children, so many boys and so many girls.” Perhaps at one point or another in our story we will tell of some remarkable thing that happened to us or some terrible trial through which we passed – we went to war, we were diagnosed with cancer, or our company prospered and we became rich. The longer version of the story adds more detail. To be sure, men and women will not tell the story in just the same way. We are more likely to hear about work from the men and about children from the women, more likely to hear rather inconsequential details from the men – “I got that job in 2001, the last time, the Mariners made the playoffs” – and from the women we are more likely to hear details about their relationships, precisely how they met their husbands, the foolish thing he said on that first date, and so on! Such are the stories of our lives.
And, to be sure, for everyone must come at last the end of the story. It must be told, of course, by someone else, a husband or wife, a son or daughter. He died, she died on such and such a date, in such and such a place, from such and such an illness, and perhaps we will learn about how the last years or the last months went. We hear such stories all the time. My grandfather and my father were reasonably well-known men and I have told their stories many times through the years. I was only two when my grandfather died, but I was in the hospital room when my father died now some 27 years ago. We read such life-stories in books, we are given short summaries of them in newspaper accounts of prominent people (especially when they die), we tell them to one another, and we treasure up such stories about our relatives in our family circle. And, from time to time, we stop to think about our own story. Something prompts us to remember what has occurred so far, Florence and I just yesterday picked up the prints that were made from slides that we took during our three year sojourn in Scotland in the 1970s and found ourselves remembering people we had largely forgotten and things we had done we hadn’t thought of for a long time. We thought we were pretty smart in those days but then we saw what clothes we wore in the 1970s and it was a blow. From time to time we all find ourselves thinking about how the years have passed, and, for a moment only perhaps, we can’t help but wonder how it will all end.
Now Christians especially are given to telling the story of their lives. Paul himself used his own life-story frequently in his letters precisely because he knew that it was a way of making clear what the Christian message actually is. His life story was a story of the gospel of Jesus Christ at work. He was one kind of person before he met Christ; he was another kind of person altogether afterward. His life changed; it took an entirely different direction. And stories like that have been told by the millions ever since. We heard another one beautifully told this morning by Mrs. Rico: a story of before and of after, a story of one life becoming an altogether different life, and of an encounter with Jesus Christ as the turning point between them.
Now, as Paul indicates here, the Christian’s story is not complete. The transformation of life that the Christian has experienced, that new life he or she has begun to live with Christ has only begun in this world. As Paul puts it in vv. 5-6, Christians, those who believe in Jesus, have been raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places. That is the significance of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, as Paul explains several times in his letters. The risen Christ, the same Christ who lived on earth and died on the cross, is now alive and in heaven. His resurrection is the guarantee, the anticipation, the model for our own resurrection at the end of history. What he did, we will someday do because he did it for us.
Now when he said that Christians were already seated with Christ in the heavenly places Paul didn’t mean that they were actually – physically or spiritually – in heaven, as if this world were heaven or as if in some mysterious way they could be in two places at once. What he meant was that Christ, by his death and resurrection, had absolutely guaranteed that someday they would be with him in heaven. That was a fact so certain that it could be said that Christians were already in heaven. That is a characteristic way of emphasizing certainty in the Bible: describe something that will someday be true as if it already were. Put the future tense in the past, if you will. Paul continues the thought in the next verse: “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace toward us in Christ Jesus.” In other words, our life stories are going to be demonstrations of God’s gracious salvation for ages and ages to come. Christians are made alive in Christ and this new life is eternal; it will never end. Astonishing! In other words, our story isn’t over when we die. There will be a great deal more to tell. In fact, we will be adding to our story forever. This isn’t wishful thinking. If anyone asks you how it is possible that human beings can live forever, you have simply to say: how it is possible I cannot explain; but that it is possible is beyond doubt. I know that because Jesus Christ rose from the dead to true and eternal human life. And he promised those who trust in him that what he had done they would do.
But Paul’s point here, and an extraordinarily important point, is that the life that lasts forever begins in this world. Eternity has broken into time because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Life now is known to continue after death – the same person alive on the other side, the same conscious human life continuing but now in perfection, in unrivaled happiness and goodness in the very presence of God and Christ. Here in this world we can begin to experience the beginning of eternal life, we can taste the nature of it, even if like Jesus we must die and rise again to enter into that perfect and final condition of human existence that awaits us on the other side. Again, this is not wishful thinking because Christ has already done this and because Christians by the millions and the hundreds of millions have in their lives the evidence of a new and different life, a life with eternity stamped on it.
The reverse, alas, is also true. Paul says very clearly here that it is entirely possible to be dead already while living in this world. Paul says in v.1 that the person who lives without God and without Christ “is dead in transgressions and sins.” In another of his letters he will describe that same kind of person, this time a woman, as “dead even while she lives” (1 Tim. 5:6). Here he speaks of the Ephesian Christians before their coming to faith in Christ as “dead in your…sins” and of those same persons, now Christians, as having been made alive. Life and death in the Bible are not first biological states, they are not merely conscious existence and non-existence; quite the contrary. In the Bible life and death are states or conditions of human existence. The Bible knows nothing of the actual extinction of human existence, as if a person at some point will cease to exist. That will never happen. God did not make human beings to be temporary things, here today, gone tomorrow. Every human being knows this down deep. He was made to live; she was not made to become nothing at all.
Death, in the Bible, is human existence apart from God; life is human existence in fellowship with God. Death is human existence with no true purpose; life is human existence lived for God and for what remains forever. Death is conscious existence lived out for what is unreal, untrue, and unworthy; life is conscious existence lived for what is real, true, and forever beautiful. Death is existence lived with only the resources of one’s own thoughts and effort; life is human existence lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Death is that kind of life that is going nowhere worth going; life is that kind of life already pulsing with eternal peace, satisfaction, and joy, and heading to the perfect fulfillment of everything a human being was made to be and do and that forever. And that life begins not on the other side of the grave, but when a man or woman, boy or girl believes in Jesus Christ and finds this life in him. It is the existence of eternal life already in this world, this better, higher life that is one of the grandest and most beautiful demonstrations that the resurrection of Jesus not only happened but is only the first of a great many.
On January 8, 1956, five American missionaries were speared to death by what were then called the Auca Indians of the Amazon jungle of South America. The name “Auca” had been given to that tribe by their neighbors in the jungles of eastern Ecuador. It meant “savage.” They are nowadays referred to by the name they give themselves: the Huaorani or Waodani. These men had gone to find this people, a reclusive and uniquely primitive tribe, in order to tell them about Christ and how they could obtain eternal life by believing in him. The murder of those five young missionary men was a front page story in the papers of the world. To Christians it was a heroic account of a modern martyrdom – death for Christ’s sake and for the sake of Christian witness to the truth. For non-Christians it was a story of heroism and sacrifice for the sake of others. As we learned more about this hidden people it became clear that there could be no thought here of the so-called “noble savage.” These were a uniquely vicious people. Anthropologists who later studied the tribe concluded that six out of every ten Huaorani adults died by homicide! The missionaries had decided to try to reach these people when they met a Huaorani girl who had fled the tribe after her family had been murdered. Isolated from virtually all other human beings, the Huaorani lived a terrible life and spoke a language that is not known to relate to any other.
But now more than 60 years have passed and fewer and fewer people remember the story of those five men who, after three months of flying over the Huaorani villages and dropping presents, and greeting the people from above, they flew into the jungle, landed on a river beach, spent several days calling into the jungle hoping for a response, and then made an initial and very promising contact with several Huaorani. Three of them, a man and two women, came to their river-side camp and stayed while the missionaries attempted some communication with the help of a phrase book they had crafted with the help of that Huaoroni girl who had fled her home. The man was given a ride in the airplane and they all shared a meal. But, for some reason, most likely a deep suspicion of outsiders, a few days later all five of the missionaries were speared to death. The Huaorani have since been evangelized and many are Christians. And their stone-age ways have given way to somewhat more modern ways of living. Still, however, they represent and at least the older among them can describe a way of life far more primitive than almost any other in the world. It is for that reason that some of these people now make a living providing so-called “stone age” tours to North American university students. We actually have a woman in this congregation who has been on such a tour.
One such tour several years ago involved 34 students from the University of Washington and Western Washington University. To reach the Huaorani encampment, the students were transported by jungle bus to the end of a gravel road laid down by an oil company. There three Huaorani men led them on a fourteen hour hike down the flanks of the Ecuadorian Andes and into the Amazon basin where they then paddled downstream in large dugout canoes to reach their campsite. These were students on a field trip to learn about the life of primitive peoples. Present at that campsite was Stephen Saint, the son of one of the martyred missionaries. At the campsite the students were joined by other Huaorani. Stephen recalls:
“As the students unloaded their bags I could see that they had come to truly respect and enjoy their Huaorani guides. So much so, in fact, that as we settled around a campfire for the evening, a student asked me where the savage Huaorani were that they had read about in preparation for their trip. Sitting on logs under a star-studded sky and with a chorus of jungle insects singing in the background, I explained that the very people they had been traveling…with were, in fact, these “savages.” Seeing the students’ look of unbelief, I suggested they ask some of the Huaorani who were middle-aged or older where their fathers were. One student, taking up the challenge, nodded toward a Huaorani woman. I translated.
“[S]he replied, ‘He is already dead a long time ago. Having been speared, he died.’ Her tone of voice suggested any other cause would have been unusual. Four more Huaorani around the circle gave similar answers, graphically showing on their own bodies where each victim had been impaled.
“‘Ask Ompodae,’ one student urged another. Several of the young ladies had taken a liking to Ompodae, an unusually warm and affectionate woman who was a wife and a mother of ten.
“‘My Father, too,’ she said, the pain of the memory showing in her expression. Then, holding out her arm, she pointed at old Dabo, who was listening to our conversation a couple of feet away. ‘He killed my father and almost all of the rest of my family, too. Living angry, he speared them all.’
“‘My God, I was just sitting next to him,’ exclaimed one of the young men from the tour group. Another added, ‘I’ve heard enough about killing.’
“But one more Huaorani woman, Dawa, who normally left the conversation to others, spoke up. Pointing to her aging and gentle husband, Kimo, who was sitting by me, she stated, ‘Hating us, he speared my father, my brothers, and my mother and baby sister whom my mother was nursing in her hammock. He took me and made me his wife.’
“Our visitors looked genuinely stunned. ‘How could she live with the man who murdered her family?’ one of the young ladies asked. The students began whispering among themselves, and suddenly I pictured the setting from their perspective. They had gotten themselves in a situation where they couldn’t travel without a guide. They were utterly dependent for their survival on a group of primitive people that had just admitted to being habitual killers.
“It occurred to me that they didn’t yet know my relationship to the Huaorani. Dawa had just finished telling how Kimo had killed her family and made her his wife. Now I put my arm around Kimo’s shoulders and informed them, ‘He killed my father, too.’
“Silence. At last, the question on everyone’s mind found a voice: ‘What changed these people?’
“I interpreted the question, and Dawa, Kimo, and other Huaorani began to describe a life where everyone did as [he or she wanted]. They explained how they threw babies away when they weren’t convenient to care for. They talked about how people begged to be buried alive when they knew they were dying so their spirits wouldn’t wander without solace when freed from their decomposing and unburied bodies.
“One of the Huaorani, a gentle and happy woman, told the group how she had strangled her daughter with her own hands to meet the demands of her speared and dying husband, who wanted his children to be buried with him to keep him company. The one son she had refused to kill was the students’ lead guide.
“Then they explained to our 34 highly educated young people from the most technologically advanced society in history how they learned from missionaries that the Man Maker sent his Son to die for people full of hate, fear, and desire for revenge.
“‘Badly, badly we lived back then,’ Dawa said. ‘Now, walking God’s trail which he has marked for us on paper [the Bible], we live well. All people still die, but if living you follow God’s trail, then dying will lead you to heaven. But only one trail leads there. All other trails lead to where God will never be after death.’
“Dawa’s clear explanation had left her audience spellbound. Now she had a question for her listeners. “‘Have you heard me well? Which one of you wants to follow God’s trail, living well?’ There was silence again. Then the seed of Dawa’s message landed in the fertile soil of at least one heart as a lone hand raised into the night air. Dawa understood the American student’s gesture and joyously clapped her hands. ‘Now I see you well,’ she said. ‘Leaving, we will still see each other in God’s place someday.’ Then she looked around at the others. ‘Dying, I will never see you again if you don’t follow God’s trail. Think well on what I have spoken, so that dying, we will live happily together in heaven.’” [Christianity Today, March 2, 1998]
What a perfect illustration of the point that Paul made two-thousand years ago in his letter to the Ephesians. There is a kind of life that has eternity in it and stamped upon it. It is the life that human beings were made to live, meant to live. It is, of course, highly imperfect in this world, but holds within itself the promise of far more wonderful things to come, the fulfillment of every longing in the human heart. You heard that Huaorani woman saying much the same thing Paul said and Jesus before him. “Now, walking God’s trail…we live well [and] dying, we go to heaven.” Eternal life already and forever!
It was for those primitive jungle people an absolutely, radically new life, an entirely new condition of existence. It was a life so radically different that the difference between what they had been and what they now were stunned the North American young people who heard them describe the before and after. Revenge became the spirit of forgiveness, a forgiveness so powerful that it overcame multiple murders of loved ones! Hate became a heart of love. Betrayal became faithfulness. Despair became hope. Fear of one another became faith in a God who loved them and gave himself for them. As Matt McCully, another son of one of the martyred missionaries – indeed he was not yet born when his father was killed – said after visiting the Huaorani:
“To meet [them], you can hardly imagine that they were once capable of living so brutally. They are such kind and loving people, they made us feel right at home from the start.”
I have seen a picture of Matt with his arm around Mincaye who, as a young man of 20, delivered the blows that killed his father Ed McCully. “He is such a warm and likeable person,” says Matt. [Arches (Puget Sound University Alumni Magazine) Autumn 2004, 21-24]
And you will have heard something else in what Dawa said, that dear and good woman. Death had virtually disappeared from their view. “All people still die, but if living you follow God’s trail, then dying will lead you to heaven.” That is, if you remember, what Jesus said, just before he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, one of his most striking miracles and proof that he had the power to give human beings life again after they had died: those who believe in him, he said, never die; not really. For them death is just a brief passage to a brighter, happier, purer life on the other side. A trip to heaven does not deserve to be called “death!” Jesus Christ has, for those who trust in him, turned death into nothing more than finally the opening of the gates of heaven, the drawing back the veil to behold the glory of God, and falling asleep so that one may wake up to the most wonderful of all possible mornings.
But take the point, whether you see it in the history of Jesus, read it in the letters of Paul, or hear it from the mouth of a woman who once lived a life so awful we can scarcely imagine it. When one believes in Jesus he or she begins to live forever right at that moment. That is, eternal life is not something that one obtains only in the life and the world to come. Nor is eternal life simply human life with no chronological end. It is not only unending, it is a kind of life, a quality of life, a life of love, of devotion, of goodness, and high purpose. One obtains it already in this world. Jesus gives it to him or to her as soon as he or she believes. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” The crossing over happens not when one dies, but when one believes in Jesus. The eternal life that begins at that moment cannot then ever be extinguished.
There are people in this world who are dead though their hearts are beating and they are as healthy as can be. And there are people who are sick and soon to die who are as alive as God himself. They will both die in the one sense, the unimportant sense. Their life in this world will end. But the real question is this: how does a person know, how can a person know where and what he or she will be on the other side? And the only possible answer to that question is this: you know what will become of you by what has become of you. Are you living eternal life already or are you living death? You can, you must start eternal life now, in this life, in this world. It cannot be begun in the next.
Why am I telling you this? Because it is very possible that no one else ever will! “Have you heard me well? Which one of you wants to follow God’s trail, living well?” There is a gravestone in an English cemetery that reads: “Here lies an old man who lived but seven years.” He had come to Jesus Christ late, but not too late. Tell the Lord Jesus that you want to live, really to live, to live the life you were meant to live, that eternal life that begins in this world but continues forever in the world to come. Ask him to give it to you as he gave it to those savages who are now so brim full of life that American university students sat listening to their story with mouths agape. What did Jesus say? “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.