Saturday, July 14, 2018

What on Earth Is God Doing? Reflections on Ephesians 1.3-14 (RCL Proper 15B, 15 July 2018)

This is the first of a series of reflections on those pericopes from the Letter to the Ephesians appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B.

What on Earth Is God Doing?
Reflections on Ephesians 1.3-14

RCL Proper 15B
15 July 2018

Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ephesians 1.3-14

            1.3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us.  With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

At the heart of Christian worship is meeting the Word of God amidst the words of the Scriptures.
            Some years ago, while I was still teaching at Vancouver School of Theology, I heard my colleague Harry Maier, who teaches New Testament and early Christian literature, quote Martin Luther in a sermon.  I’m afraid that I didn’t write down exactly what Harry said, but the substance of Luther’s comment was this:  Sometimes, in order to be faithful to the Word of God, you have to preach against the words of the Scriptures.  What Luther and Harry were saying is that the words of the Scriptures are the attempt of human beings, moved by the Holy Spirit, to speak about God, to speak for God, to speak to their contemporaries.  Because we are mortal and not God, because we live in time and space, our words, however eloquent and precise they may be, can conceal as much as they reveal about the Holy One of Israel, the One who created all that is, seen and unseen.

            But every time we gather as Christians to proclaim the Word and to break the bread and to drink the cup, we cannot escape our need to discern what God is saying to us in the words of what we call the ‘Holy Scriptures’.  To help us in this task of discernment, Anglicans do not give the choice of what is to be read to the preacher alone.  We use a lectionary, a cycle of readings for Sundays and holy days, so that we are led through the Christian year to hear a wide range of voices from the beginnings of the Hebrew people to the struggles of the early Christian community.

            Sometimes, however, the number of voices we hear on a Sunday can overwhelm us, especially at this time of the year.  Our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures trace the story of David, his successes and his spectacular failures, while the readings from the Gospels will soon lead us on an extended reflection on what it means to speak of Jesus as the ‘bread of life’.  On top of all this, this Sunday we begin to read a letter from an anonymous disciple of Paul which, although we call it the Letter to the Ephesians, might not have been written to them alone.  So, when the reader ends by saying, ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church,’ we could be forgiven if we were to respond, ‘And what is the Spirit saying to the church?’

            Don’t get me wrong.  Hearing the many voices from the Scriptures is a good thing.  I remember an occasion when I was preaching at Christ Church Cathedral.  My sermon was on the gospel, but the hymns focused on the epistle and the prayers of the people on the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.  No one went home hungry for the Word of God.  But there is something to be said for focus --- not a ‘theme’ --- a focus on one current within the river of words we hear.

            So for the next few weeks I will be focussing on the Letter to the Ephesians. Why?  Because I think that the writer of this Letter, in addressing the context of his contemporaries, has something to say to us here at Holy Trinity Cathedral as we live out our commitment as disciples of Jesus.

What on Earth is God doing?
            Sometime before the year 100 c.e. a Jewish-Christian disciple whose roots where in the communities founded by the apostle Paul wrote a document to be shared widely among these communities.  He was concerned that the growing number of non-Jewish Christians, the so-called ‘Gentiles’, were not completely aware that the mystery of God’s plan began in creation, continued in the witness of the covenant with the people of Israel and made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Like many converts to a new way of life, these Gentile disciples were living too much in the present, losing sight of the past and not looking towards the long and difficult road to the future.

            He tells his audience that they are part of an unfolding drama, the ‘mystery’ of God’s plan for the whole of creation.  From the creation itself to the present day, he writes, God has been revealing this plan, nothing less than the unity of all creation, the healing of the divisions caused by human sin.  And what are the signs of this mystery?

·     Creation itself is an act of love not a cosmic accident.
·     Human beings are made in the image of God and that image is love.
·     Human beings are called to grow into the likeness of God --- ‘We are called to act with justice, we are called to love tenderly, we are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God’.[1]
·     All disciples are participants, co-workers with God, in working out this plan, whether Jew or Gentile.

What is the Spirit saying to the church?
            As we look at the society in which we live, the culture which shapes our daily lives, we know that there are many of our neighbours, our friends and our family who aren’t convinced that creation is an act of love.  And the only evidence we can offer is the self-giving love we choose to give.

            As our media daily report the tragedies of the world, the narrowness of vision expressed by many of the world’s political leaders and the active encouragement of division, prejudice and self-interest, it’s hard to believe that human beings are made in the image of God and that this image is love.  And the only evidence we can offer the witness of people of faith who resist the voices of fear and who choose hope.

            As we witness the harm done to ‘this fragile earth, our island home’ and the resistance within many of us to live more simply so that others may simply live, it’s difficult to find someone worth following, to find a way of life that can offer a different path.  And the only evidence we can offer is the way of discipleship, the way of Jesus.

            When demagogues laud ‘us’ versus ‘them’, when uninformed or intentionally malicious opinion is presented as ‘truth’, when influential voices prey on our innate fear of the ‘other’, walls that divide rise so high that we cannot see what or who is on the other side.  And the only evidence we can offer that God breaks down such walls is our own witness that there are no ‘others’, every human being is a child of God, every human being is precious not only in God’s eyes but ours.

            Among all the words from today’s readings this is what I believe is the Word and what the Spirit is saying to us, the followers of Jesus, the spiritual descendants of Abraham and Moses, the beloved of the Holy One of Israel.

[1]Evangelical Lutheran Worship #720.

No comments: