We are part of a Plan

This is the first in a series of sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians.  A sermon delivered by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam on July 15, 2012  

Almost every Sunday we read part of one of the letters written by Saint Paul nearly 2000 years ago to small congregations of brand new Christians who had never seen indoor plumbing, who paid no income tax, who couldn’t imagine television, who had no health insurance or hospitals or computers, who had no say in their government – in short, people whose lives were not like ours.

And yet we read the same letters they read, and you might well ask whether these are the letters we need to make sense of Christian faith for us in our very different world. Besides that, people will tell you that this letter is difficult. Well, maybe so in some ways. I have one commentary on it from a series that assigns one book, one commentary, to almost every book of the Bible but there are two volumes for Ephesians, each of them well over 400 pages.  So, yes, there’s a lot to say about this letter but let me point out two things by way of encouragement: first: the people in Ephesus were not any smarter than we are and probably not as well educated.  Lots of them probably couldn’t even read. So they had this letter read to them just as we have it read to us. And Paul thought they could benefit from it.  So I have to assume that we can too.  And second, even if their world was very different, not much comes up in these letters that’s specific to that world. My sermons are full of specific, local references to current events and the modern world. People in Ephesus would scratch their heads if they got a letter talking about elections and computers and health care. They didn’t have any of those.  But Paul didn’t write to them about chariot races or the latest news from Syria; he wrote to tell them about things that don’t change: he wrote about human nature, and he wrote about the love of God. That’s the same for us that it was for them.

I’m not saying the Epistle to the Ephesians is easy reading – it’s not – but it’s worthwhile, it’s worth working at. It’s things we need to know. Paul thought the Ephesians would care enough to do some hard thinking.  I’m hoping you do.

But what would you want to know if you could ask Paul to write a letter to us?  I’ll tell you one thing I’d want to ask Paul if I had the chance:  I’d say, “Tell me about Jesus: what was he really like?  Can you give me a verbal picture?  What was his voice like? Did he have a beard?  Was he easy to talk to?” We don’t know whether Paul himself ever met Jesus, but he spent a lot of time with Peter and James and others who did. He must have asked them questions like that. But if Paul knew things like that himself, he never tells us.  And not only does Paul never tell us those things, no one else in the New Testament does either.  In all the writing they did, do you know that they never describe Jesus at all!

So we are different, I think, from the Ephesians.  We’re likely to ask questions they didn’t ask. But then we might ask whether our questions are really important or whether we tend to ask the wrong questions and ought to listen to what Paul thinks is important. So let’s look at this letter, this Epistle to the Ephesians and see what Paul wants us to know. And Paul tells us exactly what he thinks matters.  We don’t come to it until chapter 3, a couple of weeks from now, but he says, I pray that you will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

I quote that now because I want to point out that Paul doesn’t say “the love of Jesus.” Almost always, he speaks of Jesus with a title as he does in the passage this morning: Five times he says “Christ,” once “Our Lord Jesus Christ,” and once “Jesus Christ;” never just “Jesus.”  There is almost always the title that puts a little distance between us and a simple, first-name-basis Jesus.  It’s as if what matters is not Jesus himself, if I can put it this way, but who Jesus is: the role he plays: that he is our King, our Lord, our Savior, and that that’s what matters, not the personal information we might like to have. It’s as if the Hollywood Star magazines and the sports magazines and the newspapers never told us anything personal about Tom Cruise or Mitt Romney or R.S.Dickey – just statistics, just facts, what they do or did, but not who they are in themselves.

“I want you to know the love of Christ,” Paul writes, but what about the love of Jesus?  Wouldn’t you want examples, descriptions, stories about how Jesus helped this person and cured that person.  The gospels do tell us that kind of thing – but Paul never does.  In all his letters, there’s not a single, personal story to illustrate his point. The gospel do tell such stories, of course, but when Paul wrote there were no written gospels.  I guess he didn’t think it was important.  And I think that’s a major difference between the things Paul thought mattered and the things modern Americans think matter. We want the personal stories.  We want to know about Jesus.

Now there are certainly books about that.  Over the last hundred years, one of the main things theologians wrote books about was waht they called “the search for the historical Jesus.”  They have tried to get behind the texts to see whether we can answer the questions we ask that the Bible doesn’t answer. And they can’t. So maybe we should forget about it and look at the answers we do have and see whether maybe we’re asking the wrong questions.

What is it we’re looking for?  You hear people talk about “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and that’s OK as far as it goes but I wonder whether it goes far enough and whether the people who put that front and center wind up with a Christianity that’s out of focus – too narrow, too personal, too individual.  So look at what Paul says to the Ephesians in Chapter One, today’s reading. He’s talking not first about Jesus but first about God’s plan and purpose and about our role in that plan. Did you notice how the reading focused on that?  “He chose us,” Paul writes; “he destined us.” He chose us in fact “before the foundation of the world . . . He destined us for adoption as his children.” And this begins to get a bit frightening, as of we had no freedom, no voice on the matter..

I don’t think the Ephesians would have worried. One thing about Paul’s world that was different from ours was that your destiny was pretty much set by factors beyond your control. If your father was a tent-maker, you would be a tent-maker; if your father was a camel driver, you would be a camel driver, if you father and mother were slaves, and two-thirds of the population were slaves, you would be a slave.  Now, that’s offensive to all our deep-seated American notions of equal opportunity and a fair chance for all. And here is Paul saying, if you are a Christian, it’s because God decided long ago that you would be a Christian. Is that fair?  Did you think you had a choice?  Yes, but suppose you were an orphan and had no family and no opportunity; no father or mother to give you an identity and a role in life; then what? There was an evening news program I used to watch that had a regular feature called Wednesday’s Child which gave you a brief glimpse of an orphan available for adoption. “Call the New York Bureau of Social Services to adopt this child.” And all those children want in the world is what most of us get by being born: a family, an identity, some role models. I think Paul sees us all as having been orphans. At least if we grew up outside the church or outside Judaism, we were orphans because we had no knowledge of God and we might then be thrilled to know that God had chosen us, had always intended for us to have an identity and a place to belong and a purpose in life.

So, yes, maybe it would be nice to know what Jesus was like, but isn’t it really a whole lot more important to know Jesus’ message: God loves you.  God calls you.  You have a place where you belong. You have a home. You have a place in God’s family and indeed in God’s purpose in creating the world.  You aren’t here by chance; you aren’t just a random mutation of atoms.  There are a lot of people today who believe that and I would guess that if Paul wrote to us, he would develop that theme: creation is not just an accident; beyond the atoms and spiral nebulae is a loving God who made you and made you part of an over-arching purpose, part of God’s purpose: that’s why we’re here.

And what is that purpose?  Paul, tells us that too.  It’s “ a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  It’s a plan to make sense of things, to bring things together, to take all the contradictory and hostile and warring elements – as it looks to us – and bring out of it a place of joy and peace and harmony. Do you want to be part of that plan? Well, that’s what God wants too. And what God wants, God will get.  So you need to know that because once you see where things are going and your part in it, then you can get on with life and face the hard parts with more confidence because you know it’s only a bump on the road that leads at last to the city of God.

So there is a plan and we have a part in the plan. God has a purpose for us, we are not just a random collection of atoms. We have a part in God’s plan, and the biggest part of the plan is praise.  Paul says it three times in the reading to day. We are called, Paul writes, “to the praise of his glorious grace,” to “live for the praise of his glory,” “to the praise of his glory.  And here again, we might wonder whether we are on the same page as the Ephesians.  I mean, to spend eternity praising God is kind of hard for Americans to imagine.  But what do we mean by praise?  I don’t think it’s just singing “alleluia.” I think we praise someone we want to honor by the way we live. Children praise their parents by behaving well, studying hard – and praise spreads because people then praise their parents, saying, “Well, their parents have done a good job.” Likewise, a business is praised when its employees are helpful to customers. And so God is praised when our lives reflect well on our faith. And if God is praised now for the way we live, we can praise God for ever by continuing hereafter to live lives that praise God.

I don’t have much idea of what we’ll be doing eternally but whatever it is, it will praise God if we do it well. And maybe it will be singing God’s praise – I can’t imagine a heaven without music – but I think it’s much too narrow an idea of God to think that will be all of it. Not everyone is musical, but we all have gifts and we praise God now with the gifts we have and I expect we will do the same for ever.  Will there be golf or cook outs or baseball?  Who knows.  But whatever it is it can be offered in praise.

Praise God for ever?  Yes, it’s hard to imagine but I wonder whether that’s because we’ve never had even a glimpse of someone worth praising for ever.  I mean, where are the role models? Donald Trump, LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Tom Cruise?  Some of them may have a few good points, but to praise any one of them or all of them for more than five minutes is hard for me to imagine.  And surely that’s why Paul wants us to know about Jesus.  Paul wants us to stretch a bit, to let our imaginations run free, to understand that there is in fact one – in all the universe, only one – truly worthy of our praise. The God made known to us in Jesus Christ is that One.  That One made us, loves us, calls us.

And if the hard facts of life in this world have left us cynical and doubting and unready to trust anyone or praise anyone, then this message is for you.  Paul sent this letter to the Ephesians and they passed it on because there’s no one, no human being, who doesn’t need to hear it and know that at the center of the universe is one who loves us and gives our lives meaning.  Seems to me we need to know that – and tell others.  Even after 2000 years, I think that’s a message we need. This letter really is for us.

Leave a comment

Your comment