Today is celebration. We celebrate God – God’s love, God’s goodness, God’s blessings – it is a time of dancing and singing and joy! Reflected in the song of hope in Ephesians – The theme of celebration is in the specific story in 2 Samuel as the Hebrew people come together to celebrate the uniting of Israel under God’s chosen, David – and in the praise for the unity of all things in the Creator God expressed in Psalm 24. My focus will be in the spirit of celebration in Ephesians where the words overflow in an endless stream of praise and wonder, as if meant to lift us to the very heights of God’s presence.because “before the world began, God chose us…to be full of love…adopted children of God, you and I and us together… that all may give thanks for God’s grace. The Divine’s beloved! The intent is clear: to strengthen and encourage the church of Jesus Christ to be faithful in service, to remember who we are, and whose we are, to live in the sheer joy meant for God’s people!
Imagine with me for a moment as if you were one of the gathered communities in Ephesus and you just heard this letter from Paul read to you. Imagine the buzz in the house church go something like this: (shawl)
We are in a bit of quandary as to how to practice our faith. You might imagine then how a letter is so important to us. How grateful we are to be included as children in the family of God, to know that the one who created us extends lavish forgiveness and redemption on us and gathers us in care and love. How truly grateful we are that we are inheritors of a divine mystery, a mystery that is no longer hidden by God but has been revealed through the love of Christ, so that all things, everything and everyone in all creation will be transformed and united in justice and peace. How wonderful to be told that we, too, have our place in God’s plan. This letter has made our hearts sing.
There is something within us today too that longs to know and live the liberating, creative spirit expressed here in Ephesians. We need to be reminded over and over to be and live the JOY of our faith. I know I do! How easily we forget that abundant blessings and grace are lavished upon us; we forget to see ourselves as God’s beloved called into love and praise; we leave the dancing to the young-at-heart instead of claiming it for our own (but we will sing!). When you came here this morning, did you come to celebrate? We can be a bit inhibited about visual expression of faith. (One of my favorite worship materials that I used throughout my ministry called Seasons of the Spirit published by Woodlake sought to address this inhibition through liturgies that included a vast array of visual and movement arts.)
We as ‘church’ and I refer here to the church as a whole, are so often discouraged! We question our worth and value as congregations; we wrestle with despair as we consider the future of the church, losing sight of our true purpose as we look around at declining numbers, worship participation, or youth involvement. The Observer a month ago stated in one article that there are no easy answers to decline “no one knows what to do about it”. In our own context, the ministry report so faithfully offered by the Search team we voted on last Sunday identifies our gifts and blessings, as well as the work so faithfully done in recent years. At the same time it acknowledges that our congregation is changing – that we have some anxiety and have either a rough idea or don’t know how to go forward, in the words of the report. We have a future; it’s just not easy to see it!
This is when we need to read and re-read this particular message from Paul to the Ephesians. It affirms to us that we do have a future! That the future is God’s and God is alive and active in and through us as God’s people in this community. As ‘church’ our work and purpose is not in vain – our hope for tomorrow and into the next decade rests in the abundance of a giving God. Here in these few verses, God’s love for us is expressed in excessive, tender, richly abundant language that is ours to live! Filled with promise through the Holy Spirit, we are invited to embrace with assurance and to live wholeheartedly into the promises that that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing, and we can move forward with confidence that we have all we need now and into the future. The mission of the church, our mission here at TUC, must first and foremost and always be God’s mission (and it does take time and work to sort what that looks like in each generation). You and I and we have been invited to be co-partners with God in Christ Jesus. Who and what we are and will become is gift, bestowed by the one who lavishly loves us!
This passage could send us off into several other directions but time limits our focus. The tensions within it include earlier theological issues like predestination. It raises questions for us like: How do you understand ‘salvation’ as a Christian? What does it mean to be ‘marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit?” The theme of unity with one another and all of creation calls for personal and social critique in the questions: what issues or obstacles make unity a challenge for you? for us? How can discovering unity amid differences be a blessing?
We need as a church to continue to explore what the unity of all peoples and creation expressed here is meant to look like in the whole human community, to imagine a world filled with such love that includes those most unlikely – those most different – that reaches out in harmonious care for all – today we too, as Jesus and later Paul challenged their listeners, must challenge our assumptions about the full scope of God’s family – to find the oneness in the other rather than focus on the differences. How do we regardless of different perspectives let the scales fall from our eyes and begin to recognize and celebrate our sameness in Christ? Ephesians 1 outlines God’s plan – like a household where all things are part and parcel of the family – where one day there will indeed be one universal family reunion!
In the meantime, we wondernot only the question of but also: What would our lives look like if we lived for the praise of God’s glory? How would we behave if we accepted the sacredness of everything and of everyone? How can we play a part in living out such a vision? What gifts can we, individually and as church, use to bring others together? – so that God’s vision of unity amid difference/diversity be realized through us? Endless questions and possibilities for our lives!
The affirmative, grace-filled message in Ephesians moves towards only one imperative that reveals what is essential for our faith communities: to “live for the praise of his glory”! That means the purpose and goal of all our work and lives together as church is worship! When we get lost and overwhelmed by the work yet to do in bringing justice and hope into our world, in the words of traditional catechism language remember that our primary calling is to glorify God and enjoy God forever! In more contemporary words, to sing and dance and shout and celebrate the joy of living as children of God! The rest will take care of itself! This is Paul’s message long ago and we need to hear it as well.
Yet, note, the language of Ephesians is not individualistic. It is not about a personal salvation that excludes others. There is a salvation story here that is communal. We are blessed and lifted up into something far greater than ourselves. In Christ, through Christ, with Christ is always for the sake of others, for the whole community of Christ. We are part of something extraordinary and invited to share in the riches of God’s grace so that we might live as God’s children and this living must and is always for the sake of others and all created things. It is an invitation that goes out to and for all people to become brothers and sisters with one anther and in Christ; it is an invitation that invites us to grow in love for one another and the earth and to reflect on the unity of all God’s creation. It is, some would say, a universal salvation! Listen again: With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that 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.
This gathering up includes all persons that no one and nothing will remain outside God’s embrace. Here lies a mystery beyond our understanding and it is enough now to glimpse it, and to simply soak up the wonder of it all, and to immerse ourselves in being and living as God’s beloved in a unity that embraces all. As our vision statement says, we envision a world that lives in the wholeness of God’s shalom, God’s peace, God’s hope that enemies be reconciled, injustices righted, hurts healed, fears calmed and communities prosper. God’s mission is to bring the whole of creation into harmony; peace with God; peace between the nations, peace with the created order and we as God’s followers are invited to work with God in this peace-making mission. That is our vision! And when we are overwhelmed and discouraged, then we remember, as Paul in Ephesians counselled us to simply live to praise God’s goodness, bask in God’s love, celebrate God’s presence and know all is well even in uncertain times.
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