I wish you could have seen the faces at 8am. I proclaimed the Gospel, prayed, laid the Gospel book back on the altar, and then told them I had had 4 sermons pop into my head quickly last Monday. I told them as well that, unfortunately, there had been no real discussions with individuals outside the Psalms and Genesis Bible study classes. Rather than let me struggle with guessing at which sermon those present needed to hear, I asked them to pick one, and I gave a quick outline of all four. As you might imagine, their faces told me that clergy had probably never asked them what they wanted or needed to hear before. But, and this is where I should have had my phone out filming the faces as a sermon illustration on David’s joy, I offered, in the silence, to simply preach all four sermons! You are all laughing, but tell me you wouldn’t be terrified if I did that at 10:30am! You all do owe 8am a debt of gratitude. More often than not, they share what they thought of my sermons and offer suggestions. I like to think that the 10:30am sermon is better than the 8am version. On more than one occasion, I have gotten the “that was a good sermon on . . . but I really wish you would have preached on . . . “ and I have switched sermons as a result. If you have not found yourself falling asleep during these services the first few months of my tenure, much of the credit lies with those who come to early church. By the way, that you are chuckling and elbowing one another with smiles is a testimony that you share in the joy evidenced by David today. I know the visitors among us are trying to figure out what is wrong with us. Wait, did we not pull into a church this morning? Christians should be somber, serious, opposed to fun, incapable of sarcasm, and all those other descriptions that some embrace, right? Wrong! But that was a sermon pushed off until the future. Maybe in three year’s time we will look at joy again.
8am wanted to talk about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians today. More specifically, 8am attendees admitted that they sometimes wonder whether God listens, whether their work makes any difference, whether God even notices their struggles. Paul might seem a weird place to turn to many of us. I often think that Paul was a man out of country. He should have been a Scot rather than a Jew. You are laughing, but tell me, how tolerant are the Scottish in your life about whining and complaining? Ever hear them use the phrase “Buck up!” In many of his writings, Paul is very much a “Buck up” or “shape up” writer. Thanks to his writings, we can piece together the pastoral problem or problems which would cause a congregation to reach out to the Apostle. More often than not, Paul is seen as brusque and determined. I give thanks that I baptized none of you. As if to say, hey, this one is on Apollos or Peter or John. You idiots countenance behavior that even the Romans deplore! Ok. He does not use the word idiot, but he is clearly upset with those at Corinth who have failed to internalize the Gospel.
Sometimes, our focus on Paul in his letters to Corinth and Rome and other places causes us to forget that Paul had a complete perspective on the Gospel of Christ and how God’s plan of salvation is being worked out in us. It might seem to be a heady thing to say, particularly in this day and age when professional and armchair theologians are attempting to drive a wedge between Paul and Jesus, as if there is a Jesus Christianity vs. Paul Christianity warring out there in the wider world. I think we often forget that Damascus Road experience which profoundly impacted Paul. He met the risen Christ, he spoke with the risen Christ, and he spent three years considering the impact of that experience with what he understood about God in light of the torah and the Cross and Resurrection of this Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God! There can be no arguing with the result. This man, who was one of the most feared and most zealous persecutors of the early Church, did a complete 180. The zealous persecutor became the zealous herald. Heck, as Christians, and as Episcopalians in particular, we believe the letters of Paul, included in the Bible, to be God-breathed. I don’t know that many in our heritage have ever understood the letters to have been dictated by God. We have understood the letters, as with the rest of Scripture, to have been inspired by God. But we recognize that God also likely had a hand in the editing and gathering. Why did we keep these letters and not others? What about these letters that survive was important? What was in those other letters that caused them to be lost? In the end, faithful Christians believe that God simply thought some were needed and that others were not.
Paul’s letters often allow us some insight as to issues facing the early Church. We have to imagine the other side of the conversation, but such is pretty easy. If Paul is chewing the church out for feasting like Romans while some in their midst go hungry, we know the kind of meal against which he is railing. If Paul is writing a letter asking a fellow brother in Christ to treat the returned slave, who is now a brother in Christ, as a fellow brother, we can well imagine the societal and family pressures that will be applied against the slave owner and the call of Christ to live transformed lives in all segments of society.
Given all that, Ephesians is a bit of a challenge for us to deduce what was happening in Ephesus that needed to be addressed. Rather than a checklist of answers, Paul seems to be giving a bit of a lecture or sermon on the results of union with Christ. The language is soaring. There is no real “do this, don’t do that,” “you should be ashamed of yourselves,” or any other list of problems. Instead, Paul seems to be addressing a group from prison who has forgotten their place in salvation history. Thankfully, such never happens in today’s Church, does it? None of you ever feel disconnected from God in the slightest, right? We all feel confident all the time, right? We never wonder if God really cares about us? We never worry whether the Cross and Resurrection applies to everyone else but us? We never wonder whether our work and our ministries in thanksgiving to God ever make a difference, right? I mean, there is only so much poverty, so much hunger, so much need out there. We never feel like our work is futile. . . or do we?
It seems to me one of the pastoral problems addressed by Paul are those issues of security and meaning. Ever the good pastor, Paul recognizes that there is a time to confront and a time to cajole a flock, a time to kick in the backside to remove inertia and a time to reign in enthusiasm, a time to demand action and a time to call to reflection. His letter to the Ephesians, it seems to me, gives us an opportunity to bask in God’s love of us, to reflect upon His grace in our lives, and to wrestle with those servants of His enemy who constantly remind us that we do not really matter.
Look closely at the letter in your Order of Worship. Did you know that the entirety of this passage in Greek is just one sentence? The rest of the passage is full of dependent clauses and phrases. We don’t speak or write like that in English, but look at the words.. Now, except for the sentence in verse 8-9, imagine these are all dependent on that single sentence. Bookending that amazing sentence is the reminder that all of this was God’s plan for our redemption. I am by no means a grammar nazi, and I certainly lack the love of writing as my brothers and sisters who love psalms and poetry; but even I can see how Paul is reminding those in Ephesus and those in Nashville of our place and value in God’s plan of salvation!
Does God really love you or really know you? In amazing, lofty words Paul reminds us that God chose us before the foundation of the world. Listen to that again. Before, even, He created the heavens and the earth, He chose you and me to be holy and blameless before Him in love! Wow! The next time you wonder about your significance in God’s plan, in your ministries in the world, in your ministries here at Advent, say those words again aloud. It is hard to devalue oneself when one knows the value placed upon one not just before being formed in the womb, but before the foundation of the world!
What kind of value do we have in His eyes? Admittedly, Paul could have stopped in verse 5, but he goes on to describe our value to God. In other words, it was not enough that God destined us to be saved in Christ before the foundation of the world. God destined us to become full, adopted sons and daughters through Christ. Put differently, you and I are princes and princesses in His family. More accurately, we are Princesses and Princes in the Holy family. Think of your favorite royal family today. Maybe you love Kate and William. Maybe another royal family elsewhere in the world catches your attention and longing. Your inheritance, your adoption is greater than theirs. How can I say that with a straight face? How can Paul imply that? The Creator of Heaven and earth has adopted us. In Christ, we are made his holy and blameless children. Best of all, nothing, not even death can separate us from our inheritance! How do we know? The Resurrection of Christ. God has already demonstrated His power to keep His promises to us. The Kate’s and William’s of the world will pass away, the Disney princes and princesses were never real, but you and I will be Princes and Princesses for all eternity! That, brothers and sisters, is a promise! That, brothers and sisters, is a reminder of the value which our Lord places upon each one of us, even those who, in the end, reject Him.
Sounds too good to be true, does it not? Paul seems even to understand that, though. How does Paul describe what has been given and prepared for us? God has lavished us with His grace. We have been forgiven our sins and made adoptive sons and daughters in His family. Our sins should have made the second impossible. In fact, they did. But God paved the way so that we could be adopted, so that we could be made holy, so that we would be blameless in His eyes. Ever spend any time in the torah? Next time you are feeling righteous and holy, start reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy. We treat it like a do/don’t do list. To the Jews, it represented what it was like to live in full communion with, in the very midst of, a righteous, holy God. About a year into a Bible Study at my last parish, one of the guys joked that they had looked forward to tying all the laws to the Ten Commandments and to the two Great Commandments as a kind of academic exercise. What had happened, though, was that he had gained a greater understanding of the grace offered him by God. All of us knew what he meant. We figured we were decent Christians. Heck, I was a priest. But we ended up treating Deuteronomy like a checklist of our own sins and forgiveness before we got around to the academic exercise. We gained a far greater understanding of the grace He had lavished on each one of us. Some of you are laughing, but when we apply the noose that Jesus tightens when He discusses the torah and its intentions, I think the only sin I successfully avoided was the digging of the latrine on the wrong side of camp. And let’s face it, I can’t even take credit for avoiding that sin. I have not been called to a camp by God and asked to dig a latrine! I see others nodding in agreement. About the only thing that used to keep us from sinning was opportunity. But that is precisely why Paul wrote those words. We have been lavished with grace. Not only are we forgiven, when we had no right to expect to be, but we are adopted, since before the foundation of the world.
The meat of this big sentence, of course, is Paul’s reminder that all of those was accomplished through the work and purpose of Christ. All things have been gathered up in Christ. Our sins are forgiven in Christ. Our adoption is made possible in Christ. Our inheritance will be completed in Christ and His Return. Everything, in Paul’s eyes, points to the work and person of Jesus Christ. He is the focus of creation. He is the possibility of redemption. He will be the means by which we are sanctified and glorified for all eternity! He is the means by which sinners become united, filled with purpose and power. All other paths, no matter how enticing, no matter how alluring, fail.
And, just so we are aware, Paul makes sure that the promises are not just a future, vague event. Already we are realizing His promises. To be sure, we will not realize them in full until He comes again, but we are already experiencing a foretaste, a precursor to the appetizer. How do we know? Paul covers both ways, though, interestingly I think, in reverse order. After we have gathered, participated in the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, what do we pray? Whether we are following Rite 1 or Rite 2, we thank God for nourishing us with the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of His Son our Lord, and then what do we pray? We ask God for the grace to accomplish the work He has given us to do. Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we ask God to give us part of our inheritance. We recognize, as Paul says, that we have work to do, but it is His work we really want to be about. The things of this world, the cares and the concerns of this world, at least in our liturgy if not our own minds—we are supposed to understand that the real work to be done is the work that He has given us to do. Our work, our efforts will not glorify Him, unless our hearts and minds are in accord with His will and His purpose.
It is a weighty thing, is it not, to lay claim to God’s lavishness. Who wants to seem greedy? Who wants to risk offending? Yet Paul reminds us that our inheritance was assured when we were baptized into the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. What makes it possible for us to be so confident that we can ask God to supply us with whatever is necessary for us to accomplish His will? What makes it possible for us to stand before Him blameless and holy? Our baptism. That sacramental act, that outward profession of an inward and spiritual grace, reminds us and all those around us that we are now one of those whom He chose to redeem before the foundation of the world and, by virtue of His lavished grace, gifted by the Holy Spirit with a pledge of our inheritance. Put in easier words to understand, we are buried in Christ’s death and raised with Him in new life, that we might live for His praise and His glory. The gift of the Holy Spirit reminds us not only of the promise, but it begins to equip us, to gift us, to lavish upon us, those things that are necessary for us to accomplish His will! And remember, all this wonderful, soaring language is from the pen of hard-nosed Paul!
Brothers and sisters, I recognize the difficulty of accepting the truth of Paul’s discussion and the promises of God. We live in a world and age which bombards us constantly with anti-gospel messages. Have it your way? We can fix what’s wrong with you (your face, your chest, your stomach, your legs) in a year’s worth of easy payments. Over and over again, false prophets offer all kinds of idols which seek to undermine our faith, which seek to challenge our loyalty, which seek to question our confidence. I get it. I understand the difficulty you face in this world, in this place, in trying to be a loyal disciple of Christ. Better still, so does God. He understands far better than me right now the pressures that you face. He knows the seeming lack of provision which compels you to work as if you were of this world. He knows the seeming lack of love in your life which causes you to question your own worth in your own eyes and in His. He knows your fears and hurts which cause you to cry to Him to help your unbelief. And despite all our worry, despite all that would seek to isolate us from Him, still He reaches out that hand of love from the hard wood of the cross. He reminds us each and every day that He loved us enough to save us, even when we were comfortable with being His enemy. And He reminds us in the words of St. Paul this morning, that love for each one of us was present before He laid the foundation of the world. And, if we will but trust and follow Him, that love will still be present in our lives even when these foundations have been torn out, and the new creation has come!