Sermon #239 St. James the Less #146 7/11/21
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In 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, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In 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; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone, and afterward you are completely exhausted? And not because it was boring, but the opposite, because it was so engaging and engrossing that you then had to go take a nap.
I think Paul may have been like that, but there’s no doubt that his writings could overwhelm even the most learned theologians. He has given us a lot to process in his letter to the Ephesians this morning.
The purpose of this letter is actually quite practical, Paul is trying to teach this mostly Gentile church how to live a mature life in Christ. He’s trying to encourage these new believers in their faith, and how they can grow in God’s abundant grace, or as one writer put it, how they can “practice resurrection.”
For Paul, actions matter. How we live out our faith matters. It matters to God, but it also matters because people will look at our actions and associate them with the God we believe in. Being Christian is not enough—Paul wants to help us become mature Christians who daily practice resurrection.
But looking at our reading this morning you may have noticed that he doesn’t give them a list of 10 steps to become a mature Christian. Instead, he starts with a hymn of praise, with poetry, which was actually a very Jewish thing to do. Paul is showing us in that way that he’s still connected to his tradition and culture.
And so, he proceeds with a run-on sentence that spans a grand total of 201 words. Just enough to make an English teacher cringe and be inspired at the same time. It irked the translators so much that they added a number of commas and periods to it, but it still is one continuous thought from verses 3 to 14.
In it, Paul tells the glories of God. “Blessed be God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him.”
Paul is like any good dinner party host. The guests have arrived, they’ve commented on how nice the house, how well the yard is maintained, and then he says, “Well, let me give you a tour.”
I’ve always found it strange when people give me a tour of their house, but then I find myself doing the same thing. I can’t help but say, “Well let me show you the rest of the house.”
In these opening verses, Paul is giving the Ephesians a tour of their new home in Christ—the vast dimensions of every room: the high ceilings, the grand staircase, and crystal chandelier; the dining room table with a feast set before them, and a chair reserved just for them. “Look at it all,” he says, “and take it in.”
“In 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, so that we…might live for the praise of his glory.”
As Paul is going about this grand tour he is saying, “Look at this new life in Christ—the grace that is abundant and overflowing—grace and love that is freely given, recklessly bestowed on us.”
Throughout this magnificent run-on sentence there are seven verbs. And these verbs are not used haphazardly, there is an intention behind each of them.
They are: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.
And all of these verbs are describing God’s actions, not ours. It is God who does the blessing and choosing, the bestowing and lavishing.
With the same energy that he had during creation, God is still enthusiastically at work. In the same way God blessed creation, he is still blessing creation. In the way that he called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob he is still the One who calls each of us.
Paul is making it clear to his readers that God is not sitting passively on his heavenly throne—God is alive and active. In fact, in comparison, he’s running laps around us.
What seems like simply a hymn of praise, and nothing else, Paul is actually teaching the Ephesians (and us) the first lesson of becoming a mature Christian. Paul shows us that we need to be able to see the bigger plan and to understand our place in it. Paul shows us the larger cosmic story of God and how our small story is intertwined with God’s big story (Wright).
With all these verbs associated with God we learn that first and foremost we should be looking for how God is acting—how he is making known and gathering up. Too many times we are primarily worried about what we’re doing, rather than prayerfully discerning how God is already at work.
Being chosen by God, with this in mind, doesn’t mean that we are chosen for our own sake (because we are good enough or strong enough), but rather we are chosen to be a vessel for God to carry out his cosmic plan that is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
If anything, we put up limits for what God can do in our lives. One writer said that “Sin shrinks our imaginations. [And here in this passage] Paul stretches us” (Peterson 54). Paul shatters the bubble we live in so that we can behold the vast plans of God.
And so, in some strange way, becoming a mature believer, means reclaiming our childlike wonder. Children rarely see limits, and more times than not, they see endless possibilities. A tree is not only a tree to them. It is something to climb and to play on. It can be a shelter or a castle, it can be a nice or a mean tree. There’s no telling what they’ll come up with.
It’s the adults who create boundaries and set limits. Maybe what we’re missing is a more vivid Christian imagination—one that first begins with the God who has no limits, the One who chooses and calls us, rather than starting with our broken human state of affairs.
Where are we starting? With our deficiencies or God’s proficiencies? With our weakness or God’s strength?
Paul, in this passage, is encouraging us to start with God. No matter what, start with God and his action, his verbs.
What I find astounding is that Paul is preaching all about freedom in Christ, the great joy God gives us, and yet Paul himself is in prison because of his faith. This is known as one of Paul’s prison epistles.
Even in chains, Paul was giving thanks for the ultimate freedom he has received—the grace and love of God—though his situation seemed hopeless. His hope rested not in his current predicament but on the cosmic plan of God that was fulfilled in Christ Jesus.
How many of us could do that? Could we say, “Don’t mind these chains, I’ve got the Lord’s work to do.” So many start from a place of deficiency, with what’s going wrong with their life, or why they can’t possibly do what God may be inviting them into.
And yet, there are plenty of people like Paul, who start from the point of God’s strength and go from there. People who have lost loved ones, who have experienced personal tragedy, or have had something taken away from them because of sickness—they have a choice, and I know many who have chosen to trust God’s bigger plan in the face of what looks like a hopeless situation.
And it has nothing to do with them being Super Christians, but maybe it is simply they have a big enough imagination to see God’s plan at work. Somehow, someway they have the perspective to see their story caught up in God’s story.
One writer put it this way, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup” (Buechner). Paul would agree. The chains he was in were a small inconvenience to the mission God called him to.
So, my friends, think bigger, grander, without limits. Our home is Christ is greater than anything we could ask or imagine. We just have to dare to believe that God exceeds our everything, and that somehow someway he’s invited into this amazing life in him and to practice resurrection.
7th Sunday after Pentecost. Year B. Proper 10. Mark 6:14-29. Quote Frederich Buechner’s Godric. Practice Resurrection E. Peterson. N.T. Wright Ephesians for Everyone. Photo by Xie Yujie Nick on Unsplash.