“Dead man; Dead man walking!” That’s what the guard says as he escorts convicted prisoner John Coffey from the prison truck to his death row prison cell in the movie The Green Mile. It’s a phrase that’s traditionally used to announce a condemned prisoner who is walking to the place of his execution. Though he is still alive at the moment, he is a walking dead man.
In the movie, Tom Hank’s character tells us what death row was like in Louisiana during the Great Depression in 1935: “Usually, death row was called ‘the last mile’ [but] we called ours ‘the Green Mile’ [because] the floor was the color of faded limes. We had the electric chair —'Old Sparky,’ we called it.” The movie shows several individuals who had to journey down that green mile all the while knowing they were a dead man walking.
That’s the kind of imagery the Apostle Paul gives us in the reading from Ephesians. Listen again: 1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked… Because of your sins, your bad deeds, your wicked thoughts, and your immoral behavior the verdict is in, the sentence has been handed down, and Paul says you are a “dead man walking!”
Paul is rather specific in his description. Not only does he describe the guilt of sin, but he also describes how sin works and the consequences of sin.: 1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
“[L]ike the rest of mankind…” No one is excluded from this indictment. Not you, not me, and certainly not the unbeliever down the street or on the other side of the world. Just like you and just like me, because of their trespasses and sins, they too are the walking dead. They too need a Savior from the rot and the stench of sin.
Paul’s imagery here is quite provocative. I think that’s intentionally so. Paul wants his readers to use their imagination to see how destructive and how grotesque sin is upon every last man, women, and child. He wants you to consider not only the guilt of sin, but the consequence and contamination of sin too.
The irony about this is that right now our culture has an utter fascination with depicting the gruesome and heinous rot of the walking dead. From heavy metal rockers, to comic books, to TV shows, to movies, depictions of the walking dead are all around. A popular heavy metal rocker who goes by the name Rob Zombie, (and also makes horror movies) had a popular hit song called, “Living Dead Girl” that speaks of the horrors of what such a living dead girl does.
Even more, from 2012 to 2017 the highest rated cable TV series was a show about survivors living in a zombie apocalypse world. The name of the series is, of course, The Walking Dead. It’s now in its eighth season. It depicts survivors who band together for protection against the threat of the “walkers,” who are the undead gruesome and vile creatures perpetually trudging across the broken landscape, looking for survivors to gorge on and turn into fellow zombies.
I’ve only seen snippets of the show, and I certainly don’t recommend it. But perhaps such grotesque portrayals help us to see the effects of sin on us and those around us. Sin is vile. It’s putrid. It contaminates. Whatever its form, be it lies, cruel thoughts, lust, greed, or hatred—sin pollutes and infects, and ultimately turns you and me into the walking dead. It isn’t pretty.
When you are infected by sinful desires, and contaminated by uncontrolled passions, you often go looking for someone else to gorge upon and infect. You know how it is. When you’re angry you lash out. When others hurt you, you hurt them back. When you’re a bully at school or at work, you intimidate and threaten. When you are in the cool crowd you put others down.
Yes, as Paul says, we are dead in our trespasses and sins… carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and are by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
“Children of wrath.” Not just any wrath, but God’s wrath, His anger, His almighty fury! Be assured it is no comforting thought to be a sinner in the hands of an angry God. Like John Coffey you and I are a “dead man walking.”
We are left to beg for clemency. Like a death row inmate, we can only repent and plead for mercy. And that is the very message we want all people to know. Not only for yourself, but for your family, your friends, your coworkers, and your unbelieving neighbors down the street. Like a convicted felon walking the green mile, we must cry out to God for mercy.
In the movie The Green Mile, John Coffey is convicted of terrible crimes he did not commit. Though he is giant black man, set in the prejudice south of 1935, we find he has many unique abilities. He is a gentle giant, who though naïve, is kind and deeply compassionate. He has the ability to not only feel the great pain and sorrow of people, but he can take their pain into himself, remove it from them, and give them relief, even bringing physical healing.
Though wrongly accused and convicted of terrible crimes, (the murder of two young girls), he is ready to take the death penalty. Yet, in so doing he heals people along the way, even taking away their diseases, before finally walking to his death an innocent man.
Of course, that was just a movie. But we know one who truly and willingly endured suffering, injustice, and death on our behalf. As we sit on death row begging for clemency and crying out for mercy, the Apostle Paul happily tells us of our merciful and compassionate Lord:
“4But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”
Because of his great love… Convicted for crimes He did not commit, Jesus Christ willingly took all of your pain into Himself so that you might be healed. He willing took all of your punishment into Himself so that you might have clemency.
Because of his great love… Jesus willingly endured the wrath and fury of God the Father in your place, in my place, and in the place of the unbeliever down the street and across the globe. The love He has for you, He also as for the person sitting next to you, for the one living across the street, and for the one living on the other side of the world.
Because of his great love… Jesus stood before Pilate, He before Herod, and He stood before the people and all rejected Him, lied about Him, mocked Him, beat Him and bullied Him. He knows what it is to feel the contamination of sin heaped upon Him. He knows what it is to have the walking dead try to gorge upon Him and infect Him with their sin and savagery.
Because of his great love… Jesus set out toward Golgotha with the cross on His back, a crown of thorns on His head, and the sin of the whole world infecting His whole being. He set out, not on the green mile, but on the “Calvary mile” with all the guards and all the people pointing and shouting, “Dead man; Dead man walking!”
He did that for you. He did that for your children and for your grandchildren. He did that for your neighbor. He did that for your coworker. He did that for the unbeliever who knows the pain of this world but doesn’t yet know Jesus. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).
Because we are the walking dead, Jesus willingly became a dead man walking, so that even when we were dead in our trespasses, we are made alive together with Christ.
Because of his great love… Jesus walked right through death, and three days later walked out of that tomb as the resurrection and the life. That contamination of sin and the infection of evil had been undone. Death had been defeated. And when people saw Him alive, they couldn’t believe it. He was a dead man, a dead man walking! And He is walking right into your life and mine.
You are baptized in the name of this death defeater. You now have His death and His resurrection welling up within you. Now you go forward dead to sin, but alive to Christ. For when you are baptized into Jesus it means that the sinful self in you, the self that gives in to temptation and fleshly desires, is by daily contrition and repentance drowned and put to death with all sins and evil desires.
But yet, when you die with Jesus it means you also rise with Jesus. Those sinful desires that rage inside are put to death so that a new, forgiven and freed person can emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity. In fact, Paul declares that now “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
Now you walk in His works. Now you walk in His love. Where you go, He goes. His love is wrapped around you. Share it with others! Share it with others in your daily vocations.
His forgiveness is poured into you through His sacramental body and blood. Christ is at work in you. So now you walk in the works He sets before you. Yes, He who once was a dead man walking, is now walking right into your life and mine. He loves you! He forgives you. And He will raise you from the dead. You walk with Him. Amen.