Sunday, July 26, 2015

Gordon Zook: All the fullness of God

In God's household, we are rooted in love
Ephesians 3:14-21

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INTRO: COUNTING THE STARS

They must have been Third and First Graders when they wanted to see the eclipse of the moon. Betsey and Matthew, our oldest daughter and son, were talking at the supper table about the lunar event they had learned in school would be happening that night. Bonnie and I agreed to set the alarm about midnight so we could all see the special sight.

It didn’t seem like nearly as good an idea when the alarm went off. Betsey immediately began complaining and begged us to let her sleep. But we reminded her of her supper time request, and she finally got up. Matt was more cooperative, and we all went outside to view the sky. We were duly impressed as we looked at the full moon, partially obscured by the earth’s shadow, like a big bite had been taken out of the lunar sphere. Then we went back to bed.

Next morning, Matt remembered our table agreement and wondered why we hadn’t gotten him up. Betsey remembered in vivid detail and told him so. In spite of his blank memory on that occasion, Matt retained a continuing interest in the skies. As a teenager there were a number of nights when he climbed to our roof so he could get a better view. He took an astronomy course in college, and even became a student lecturer in the Earlham College planetarium.

People have been watching the moon and stars and planets and eclipses for generations. A few minutes ago, we read in Genesis how Abraham was looking at the stars some 3,500 years ago. He was learning to know Yahweh; had even set out on a nomadic quest to a new land, at the beck and call of this new divine awareness, buoyed with God’s promise that “I will make you into a great nation.” (Gen 12:2)

Three chapters later, however, (Gen 15) the promise seemed hollow. Abram was approaching his 100th birthday and his wife, although a decade younger (17:17), was well past the age of child-bearing. “What can you give me,” he asked God reproachfully, “since I remain childless and my chief servant is in line to become my heir?” (15:2-3)

That’s when Yahweh took him outside to look up at the night sky and count the stars—“if indeed you can count them.” And Yahweh assured him that his descendants would be as uncountable as the stars (15:5).

How many stars did Abraham see? Astronomers tell us that on a clear night we can see about 2,000 stars in our northern hemisphere, and if we were to travel to the southern hemisphere, we could see another 2,000 there. With telescopes the number is multiplied. Indeed, World Book Encyclopedia speaks of 200 billion-billion stars (i.e. “2” followed by 20 zeroes). In Carl Sagan’s TV documentaries about the universe several decades ago, I can still hear his voice rumbling about: “billions and billions of stars.”

Currently, astronomers are debating whether Pluto is a ninth solar planet or not. And we have been mesmerized by the recent Pluto flyby after launching of the New Horizons space craft some nine and a half years ago. We are told that New Horizons has now traveled some 3 billion miles from earth to its rendezvous with Pluto, and that it takes four and a half hours for the space craft to transmit pictures back to earth, even though signals are traveling at the speed of light.

I. LEARNING TO LIVE BY FAITH

While those numbers stagger our imagination, are they any less believable than a childless couple in their 80s or 90s, contemplating maybe 2,000 stars and a corresponding number of descendants? Our minds go spinning as Star Trek and many other science fiction fantasies imagine people (and other strange creatures) traveling between constellations and galaxies to worlds not yet discovered.

So where is God in all this? For some, God is irrelevant. If God exists at all, he would need to be much older than Abraham. Which suggests that God is probably too old to understand computers or internets or a space craft mission to Pluto. At best, many believe, God’s understandings are limited to the near stars in our galaxy.

Others see each new discovery as further attestation of an infinite God who is in it all. Abraham apparently was one of these. In spite of his advancing age and diminishing prospects of offspring, Abraham heard Yahweh’s promise. Incredible as it was, Gen 15:6 says: “Abram believed Yahweh, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

I put Paul on the same list when he speaks in today’s Ephesians passage about the love of Christ “that surpasses knowledge,” which is far beyond our abilities to see, or our puny minds’ ability to fathom. Yet Paul prays (and our whole passage from Ephesians 3, is a prayer) that we “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” How much is that?

One measure can be found in the created universe. Many times people have said (maybe we’ve said it ourselves), we feel closer to God in wilderness areas:

  • where one can see an unending variety of creatures and trees and vegetation all the way to the mountain peaks.
  • when we can see stars and planets unblocked by manmade buildings or dimmed by city lights.

I, too, marvel at outdoor wonders, with their amazing variety of heavenly bodies, and trees, and garden vegetables, and insects, and (the list has no end). But I also marvel when I visit a hospital and see the microscopes, and CT scanners, and heart monitors, and hypodermic needles.

How did our universe come to be, with its outer expanses on one hand and its minutiae of tiny interacting molecules on the other? Some say it just happened. Others say that “just happening” is no more believable than supposing a variety of matter shaken together long enough could emerge as a fine watch.

When scientists study the world, they see order, and predictability, and relationships, and sequences, and causes, and effects. When I review the Genesis accounts, I see order, and predictability, and relationships, and sequences, and causes, and effects. From either starting point, there are dimensions beyond the grasp of my mind, even if I held degrees in biochemistry and astrophysics.

Paul prayed in Eph 3:16-17 that God

may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

Faith comes from Spirit power in our inner beings, so that we sense Christ in our hearts. Thus equipped, like Abraham, we are able to “believe God” and walk with him into the future. Tho we can’t count the stars, let alone explain outer space or inner space, we proceed with a profound confidence that God is in control, and we can trust his promises.

II. EXPLORING THE DIMENSIONS OF LOVE

Paul’s second prayer, beginning in v. 17, is that we,

being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:17b-19a)

Here Paul depicts the love of Christ in four dimensions. Usually, three dimensions are enough to be comprehensive. That’s how the postal service measures a package for mailing. If we add a fourth dimension, we are more likely to think of time as a multiplier for width and length and height.

Interestingly, the fourth dimension specified here is depth. Perhaps it is only poetic, echoing and reinforcing height which is its opposite. Perhaps it is for emphasis, like claiming to support someone or something 1,000%. Maybe it is like counting the stars, which is beyond our comprehension, even with atomic telescopes.

Yet Paul believes this four dimensional love is knowable, because he prays precisely that we may “know this love that surpasses knowledge” so that we “may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19b, NIV). After counting the stars, try absorbing the deep, deep love of Christ!

Personally, I believe Paul’s fourth dimension has something to do with inner space, regarding which he prayed in 3:16 that God would strengthen us “with power through his Spirit in [our] inner being, so that Christ may [fill your hearts] through faith” (3:16b-17a). Talk about a big order: The goal is “to be filled with all the fullness of God.”(NRSV)

What is the fullness of God? Try as I may, I can’t wrap that concept around my little brain, any more than Abraham could count all the stars. Yet, for Abraham, the fourth dimension broke through! His inner being was so overwhelmed by his encounter with Yahweh, that “he believed God.” Scripture says, his believing was reckoned to Abram as right relation with God. Presumably he was “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (NIV)

This is the Almighty God, who said “Let there be Light,” and by that word created heavens and earth, a universe more vast than humans can explore, or even imagine.

According to John 1, it was that very creative word which spoke the world into being from “the beginning,” then became a human being and lived among us, of whom John proclaimed: “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). Then two verses later: “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” or “one blessing after another.”

As we study the NT, we understand that John’s “word which became flesh” is the Christ who died on the cross as a criminal, later to resume his position at the right hand of God. In the first chapter of Eph., Paul said of the exalted Christ:

God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:22-23)

Amazingly, the Church, those who follow Christ, become the earthly manifestation of the fullness of Christ. Listen again to Eph 3:18, where Paul prayed for his original readers and for us:

that you … may have power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:18-19)





  1. TRYING TO IMAGINE THE UNIMAGINABLE

The first half of Ephesians (chaps. 1, 2, 3) represents a carefully crafted essay on the blessings that come to those who are “in Christ Jesus,” as Paul characterizes the relationship. The second half (chaps. 4, 5, 6) focuses more on how those so blessed should respond. The first half, which we have been studying these past three Sundays, is a worshipful exposition of what God has done through Christ. The second half is a logical exhortation to live accordingly. That portion is to be highlighted the next four Sundays. [Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, p. 20.]

This two-part structure helps explain the unexpected doxology, or ascription of praise, which appears here in the middle of the letter, at the end of Eph 3. Most often Paul speaks a short benediction at the end of a letter or, as in Romans, he places a longer doxology such as this one at the end. But here, it seems, he can’t wait. Already he has been counting our blessings:

  • God’s plan to bring all things together under Christ, ch 1
  • God’s grace exhibited in Christ, chap 2
  • Christ’s peacemaking between Jews and non-Jews, ch 2-3
  • and the four-dimensional love of Christ, chap 3

Now Paul stirs our sense of wonder to believe that there is no end to all that God can do, and will do, for us:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! (Eph 3:20-21)

Which then allows him to launch the second part of his letter in Chap 4, with “Therefore … “

Immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine…” Just how big is our God? How full is the fullness of God? In the OT we see God as big enough to create the universe. Then when the creation went sour, God implemented the plan to call a particular people as channel for reclaiming and blessing all peoples. The NT delivers good news that the blessing has arrived in the person of Jesus, the word become flesh, and representative of the family of Abraham.

It wasn’t what the Jewish people asked for or imagined. According to the NT, Jesus’ contemporaries couldn’t see it when it was happening, or if they could see it, they didn’t want to. For example, there is that heated conversation in John 8 which goes something like this:

People: Abraham is our father. (39)

Jesus: If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the things Abraham did, like believing the truth that I am teaching you. (39) If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? (45)

P Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed? (48)

J I am not possessed by a demon, but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself… If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death. (49-50)

P Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are? (53)

J Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad. (56)

P You aren’t even 50 years old, and you have seen Abr! (57)

J I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I AM (58)

That was beyond imagination. And rather than believing like their father Abraham, they reached for stones to throw.

Nor was it anything non-Jews asked or imagined. Although Gentiles didn’t have the benefit of Hebrew scripture, Paul insisted in Romans (1:19-20) that much can be known about God in other ways.

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and divine nature, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

So in this letter to both Gentile and Jewish Christians living in Ephesus, Paul is celebrating the God who is way out in front of us, who is at work within the new people of God. Ours is a can-do God, capable of far more than our limited ability to beg or brainstorm. I experienced a bit of this amazing international, cross-cultural, able-to-do-more-than- we-imagine God this past week at Mennonite World Conference. And I newly motivated to join in Paul’s doxology:

To the boundary breaking and unlimited God: “be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.”



CONCLUSION: EVERYTHING I HAVE IS YOURS

Evangelist Wilbur Chapman often retold the testimony given by a certain man in one of his meetings. (Obviously, money was worth a lot more then.) In the man’s words:

I got off at the Pennsylvania depot as a tramp, and for a year I begged on the streets for a living. One day I touched a man on the shoulder and said, “Hey, mister, can you give me a dime?” As soon as I saw his face, I was shocked to see that it was my own father. I said, “Father, Father, do you know me?” Throwing his arms around me and with tears in his eyes, he said, “Oh my son, at last I’ve found you! I’ve found you. You want a dime? Everything I have is yours”

Think of it. I was a tramp. I stood begging my own father for ten cents, when for 18 years he had been looking for me to give me all that he had. [John MacArthur, Ephesians, New Testament Commentary, p. 111]



So what about you?

  • Have you been able to grasp just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ?
  • Do you believe with Abraham, that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine?
  • Are you ready to participate in the fullness of God our Father, which is demonstrated in Christ’s body, the church?
  • What are you thinking or imagining that such fullness may be like?

PRAYER: Father God, having been rooted and grounded in your love, together with believers in every age and continent, we pray for heavenly power, to sense how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus.

Even if that is beyond our grasp, we pray that you will fill us to the measure of all the fullness of God, through the grace of Christ who dwells within. Amen.



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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Phil Kniss: Jesus saves

In God’s household, we are brought near
Ephesians 2:11-22

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Jesus saves.
    Those two words have a familiar ring to almost everyone.
    Christian or not, people recognize that message
        from yard signs, bumper stickers, or billboards.
    Whether or not people know what it means,
        people have encountered it
        on roadside crosses, T-shirts, and key-chains.

    Those two words say a lot, and they say very little.
        When people see them,
            they might react positively,
            they might react negatively.
        But they will, probably, react,
            because the words make a statement
            that invites a reaction.

    And the message of those two words, I believe,
        is deeply, profoundly, and eternally true.

Jesus saves.
    That’s the business Jesus is in.
    That’s the agenda of God, in Christ, by the Spirit.
    Always has been. Always will be.

Jesus saves.
    I thank God for that.
    It’s been my own experience.
    I have been saved by God’s grace.

There’s a song we used to sing a lot in church when I was young,
    but in the last couple decades, not so much.
        It’s not as popular anymore.
    I’m sure you don’t all know it,
        but I’m guessing enough of you do,
        that if I start singing, most of you would join in.
    “Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul.
        Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.
        Thank you, Lord, for giving to me
            thy great salvation so rich and free.”

A short and simple song thanking Jesus for saving.

But as simple and true as it is, to say, “Jesus saves,”
    those two words, by themselves, raise a host of questions.

To start with, it’s a complete sentence, but not much of one.
    It’s only a subject and a verb.
    There is no object.
        No adjectives or adverbs or subordinate clauses.
    We’re left to guess what the speaker means.

Jesus saves who?
    Saves me? saves you? saves the church?
        saves our nation? saves the world? saves creation?
    Does Jesus save us from something?
    Does Jesus save us for something?
    How does Jesus save?
    Under what conditions does Jesus save?
    What part do we play, in being saved by Jesus?

Those two words, “Jesus saves,”
    hold enough questions for a dozen sermons.

But let me reflect on one,
    that comes to mind when we read today’s text from Ephesians 2.
The question is,
    “What is the role of the cross of Jesus Christ,
        in this gift of salvation?

It’s one of the most basic claims of Christian faith,
    no matter which Christian tradition you identify with,
    that the cross is a pivotal part of our salvation.
    That is, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
        somehow makes possible our reconciliation with God.

Depending on your tradition, of course,
    and your personal convictions,
    you will no doubt talk about the cross in different ways.

Different traditions give the cross different kinds of significance.
    But I can’t quite imagine any Christian confession of faith,
        that wouldn’t give the cross of Christ
            a central role in our atonement,
            and in the renewal of God’s covenant with God’s people.

And yes, I just threw five words at you,
    that are rich and thick with meaning,
    but are specialized theological jargon we don’t use in everyday life—
        confession, atonement, reconciliation, salvation, covenant.

Let me say it again without the jargon.
    Christians believe that through Jesus’ cross and resurrection,
        God takes what is broken, pulled apart, estranged, alienated,
            and makes it whole, makes it one, saves it,
            and establishes a whole new basis for relating to us
                as God’s people.

Christians don’t necessarily agree on exactly how the cross,
    or how the blood of Jesus reconciles us with God.
    There must be a dozen different theories of atonement—
        the moral-influence theory,
        penal-substitution theory,
        governmental theory,
        ransom theory,
        satisfaction theory,
        Christus-Victor theory,
        and countless variations on these.

Some of these theories emphasize God’s action,
    some emphasize our response.
Or you could say, some are more subjective,
    some more objective.

I won’t bore you to tears analyzing these.
But I do think it’s important how we think about atonement.
    It impacts how we view God, how we view our response to God.
    There are ethical implications
        to how we speak of the cross.

But within the limited confines of this sermon,
    I want to boil it down to one basic question,
    “Why is the cross important
        when we say that Jesus saves, or Jesus reconciles?”

    What really matters here, it seems to me,
        is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice
            made on behalf of God’s covenant with humanity.
        Jesus offered up his life as a sacrifice for the covenant.

    No matter how you read the crucifixion story—
        you can’t argue with the fact
        that Jesus pretty much laid himself out,
        offered up his life for the larger purposes of God.
    Jesus’ own words say as much,
        especially in his prayer in the Garden, before his arrest.

The covenant between God and God’s people was in shambles.
    The way God intended to relate to humanity,
        was not working out.
    The people of Israel were not functioning how God intended,
        as a light to the nations,
        as a people living in righteousness and justice,
        demonstrating the goodness of God’s shalom.
    They had become alienated—
        from God, from each other, from the nations.

So not only were God’s ordained people estranged from the covenant,
    the nations, to whom they were supposed to be giving witness,
    were also continuing in their separation from God’s covenant love.
All were alienated.
    Both the Jewish heirs of God’s promise to Abraham,
        and the rest of the nations, the Gentiles.

In the words of Paul in Ephesians 2, vv. 11-12,
    the Gentiles were alienated at birth from God’s commonwealth,
        strangers to the covenant,
        having no hope, and without God in the world.
    But the Jews were likewise alienated,
        not by birth, but by choice, so to speak—
            the choices of their ancestors who strayed from,
            and ultimately broke from the covenant available to them.

So that now, there is double-alienation.
    And it’s doubly tragic.
    They are all, Jews and Gentiles, alienated from God.
    And from each other.
        Not only alienated, but outright hostile to each other.
    As Ephesians puts it,
        there is a dividing wall of hostility between them.
        God’s children are at war with each other,
            and a wall separating them.

God looks on this with grief and compassion—
    and sees two groups of people—
        people God created, people God dearly loves—
    separated by a great dividing wall of hostility.

I don’t know if you’ve had the painful experience
    of having two people you dearly love,
        live as enemies of each other.

I haven’t experienced this in my immediate family,
    but I know of families where it is the case.
    Parents have two adult children they love equally,
        who won’t speak to each other.
    Or children have two parents they love equally well,
        who have not only separated,
        but seem intent on destroying each other.
    It’s agonizing to see people you love
        living in hostility with each other.

That was God’s story. God was saying,
    “Dear children of Abraham, I love you,”
    “Dear nations of the world, I love you.”
        Live into the peace I have for you.
        But they would not.

The only way God could communicate clearly to these peoples
    God’s great desire for their reconciliation,
    was to give Godself completely to them,
        in an act of sacrificial love.

Maybe not unlike what some parents might do for feuding children.
    By pouring themselves out to their children,
        in some grand sacrificial act of love for them both,
        in hope that the children be drawn, in some way,
            toward their parents, and toward each other.

Paul asserts, v. 13, “You who were far off,
    are being brought near by the blood of Christ.”

The blood of Jesus.
    Don’t be put off by this classical Christian doctrine
        of the blood of Jesus.
    Don’t think you have to believe that God is blood-thirsty.
        That God is wrathful and raging,
            and the only way to calm him down,
            is to violently draw blood from an innocent victim.
    That idea causes some Christians to downplay the cross altogether.
        That’s not necessary.

    Put most simply, blood is life.
        It’s the most enduring and universal symbol of life.
        We call it life-blood.

    Jesus voluntarily gave his entire life
        for the sake of God’s kingdom.
    It started on the first day of his public ministry,
        when he preached that the kingdom of God was at hand,
        and started offending authorities by his subversive messages.
    He didn’t cave in to the wishes of the religious leaders,
        or to the wishes of the Empire,
        who wanted to tame him, domesticate him,
            make him underwrite the status quo.
    Jesus persisted in his revolutionary message,
        knowing full well where it would likely lead.
        He didn’t try to get himself brutally killed,
            because God wanted him brutally killed.
        No, he simply, and profoundly, and amazingly,
            laid down his life.
            He offered up his life-blood,
                agonizingly, but willingly.
            Out of love.

Jesus had other options available, besides self-sacrifice.
    He had all the power of God behind him.
    He had adoring crowds following him.
    He could have mounted a serious rebellion
        against the political powers that killed him.
    But instead, he laid himself out.
    Or to use the words of Philippians 2,
        “though he was in the form of God,
            [he] did not regard equality with God
                as something to be exploited,
            but emptied himself . . .
            and became obedient to the point of death—
                even death on a cross.”

    With the power of suffering love
         God defeated sin and death,
            and made reconciliation possible.
    With the power of that act of putting it all on the table,
        emptying self,
        God defeated the sin and evil that cause alienation,
            restored the relationship,
            rewrote the covenant.

    Jesus saved by emptying self,
        pouring out his life-blood.
    In a humble act of obedience to God,
        Jesus effected our salvation.
        Jesus saved.
    That’s good news.
        Reconciliation with God is possible,
            because there is a new covenant,
            a new basis on which to relate to God.
    My willingness to accept the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross,
        is a willingness to accept the terms of the new covenant
            God made with humanity.
        Salvation is not a private transaction
            between me and Jesus.
        It’s personal,
            because I have to accept it and own it personally,
            but it can never be private,
            because it involves me entering into a covenant relationship,
                between God and the people of God.
        That’s why the cross also has to do with
            how we relate to one another.
        A cross-shaped, or cruciform, reconciliation with God,
            is directly connected to our reconciliation with each other.
        They cannot be separated!

Again, Ephesians 2, and v. 12—
    We were once distant from God,
        “strangers to the covenant,
            without hope in the world.”
        But now, the cross has brought us near.
            Those we were estranged from,
                are also brought near, with us.
        The dividing wall is broken—v. 14.
        In his sacrificial death, Christ created a new humanity,
            in order that,
            “he might reconcile both groups to God in one body
                through the cross,
                thus putting to death the hostility through it.”

    That’s what the cross is all about, thanks be to God.

It’s Jesus Christ taking our hostility, our brokenness, our alienation—
    from God, from each other, from ourselves, from creation—
    and bringing it together into one reality through the cross.
    Reconciling. Healing. Making One. Saving.
        It’s all the same thing.
        It’s the new covenant at work.

That’s how I read Ephesians 2.
    And that’s what we mean by those two little words, “Jesus saves.”
    In this Ephesians text,
        we have the basis for Christian ethics under the new covenant.
    We follow Jesus not by exploiting our position,
        but by emptying, humbling, becoming obedient,
        even when obedience means death to self.

    You know the phrase—“putting it all out on the table.”
        As when you play cards,
            instead of holding the cards close to your chest,
            there are times when you lay them out on the table.
        Once they’re laid out, you can no longer make plays,
            that is, we can no longer manipulate things to our benefit.
            Everything is there to see, to respond to, to challenge.
        Laying it “out on the table” relinquishes our control.
        That’s how Jesus lived his life.
            And that’s how he died.
            And that’s how he brought us into a new covenant.

    Jesus put it all out on the table,
        made himself vulnerable,
        opened himself in utter obedience to God,
        opened himself to others,
        opened himself to the powers of this world,
            trusting God to work things out.

    Is that a similar attitude that we might adopt?
        As Philippians 2 said,
            Can the same mind be in us, that was in Christ Jesus?

And as Ephesians 2 said,
    “Christ is our peace;
        in his flesh he has made [us] one...
        [he is creating] in himself one new humanity...
            thus making peace.”

It is because of the cross,
    that we can even imagine one new humanity,
        where there is or East or West, South or North,
        but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
    Let’s sing together, from HWB #306.

—Phil Kniss, July 19, 2015

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Phil Kniss: Belonging matters

In God’s household, we are adopted
Ephesians 1:3-14; John 15:16-17; 1 Peter 2:9-10

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I had no idea how well-timed this series on Ephesians would be.
    Although it wasn’t my timing.
    It was the lectionary.
    Christian churches all over the world
        are reading this same text from Ephesians today.
        Along with others.
    We will focus these six weeks on the reading from the epistles,
        which works through the book of Ephesians,
        so we’ll essentially be engaged in book study series.
    I encourage you to read through the book of Ephesians.
        Maybe several times.
        To help you go deeper into it.

The timing couldn’t be better for us to reflect on Ephesians,
    which emphasizes life in the household of God.
    In light of all that we are going through in the church,
        all we are feeling, experiencing, or concerned about,
        it will be good for us to dwell in this book for a while.

So let’s all open ourselves to whatever the Holy Spirit has,
    for us, for the church, in this scripture.
    It’s always a temptation to read the Bible
        to find the viewpoint we already had.
    We all do that, often, myself included.

    But the right way to approach scripture
        is open-minded and open-hearted,
            expecting God to speak,
            expecting these writings to shape us,
                sometimes to comfort us,
                sometimes to confront us.
    But always, we approach them in humility and receptivity.
_____________________

So, about Ephesians.
    This is a letter that celebrates the life of the church.
    It has a high view of the church of Jesus Christ.
        It makes a strong case that the church is unique,
            like no other human community,
            and is established by God, through Jesus Christ,
                who is head of the church,
                and head of all creation.
        In the church, believers find union with God
            in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
        In the church, we discover reconciliation to God and each other.
            Because of the death of Christ
                the power of evil has been defeated,
                and peoples formerly separated—Jews and Gentiles—
                    are now made one.
        In the church, we find a household of faith,
            a community of moral formation,
            where we practice a life of love, and unity, and holiness.

    That’s the Cliff Notes for the book of Ephesians.
        We’ll go deeper with those ideas in coming weeks,
            but let’s dive in to this first text, from chapter 1, 3-14.
_____________________

This letter doesn’t start off slow,
    then build to a climax a couple chapters in.
Immediately after, “Hello,”
    the apostle Paul breaks out in a high and lofty doxology,
    praising God, and reassuring us
        that one of our most fundamental human aspirations
        is fulfilled by God in Christ.
    It’s that aspiration to belong.
    Not a superficial belonging,
        as in belonging to one or another social group,
    but belonging as in,
        knowing I have a place in this world,
        that I am loved unconditionally,
        that I have a family who will always, always, be there for me.

Paul writes, “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.”

“God chose us.”
    Nothing is more important for the well-being of a child
        than knowing they are valued, loved, and chosen.

It reminds me of the high-stakes playground ritual
    we had when I was a kid at Sarasota Christian School—
        choosing up ball teams.
    Maybe it’s not done this way anymore, at least I hope not.
        I think, personally, it scarred me for life.

Every day at recess there was a public sorting of the kids in my class,
    from most valued, to least valued.
The teacher chose two captains (always, the two class jocks)
    and the captains took turns choosing their team members,
        thereby assigning a relative value on each classmate,
        based on some formula involving popularity and athleticism.
    I think I was absent the day they passed those out at school.

So the first ones chosen would walk over to their captain
    with a swagger in their steps.
    The further they got down the list,
        the more we shuffled, rather than swaggered.
    And the last few of us bowed our heads as we shuffled.
        We knew where we stood.
            We were not really chosen.
            We were accommodated.
    I considered it a good day, if there were at least two girls left,
        when I was chosen. I knew all the boys would be picked.

Recess may not operate this way anymore,
    but I think, even as mature adults
        we play this game.
    Being chosen is still a high-stakes social ritual.
    It matters, in terms of how we view ourselves
        and our value as a person,
        whether we are chosen, or passed over,
            for a promotion at work,
            for an invitation to a wedding or birthday party,
            for an award or public recognition,
            or for a position on the church ballot.
    We believe, on a deep emotional level,
        it says something negative about our value,
        if someone else is chosen over us.

Anne LaMott writes, in her book, Grace Eventually,
    about a Sunday School game she would play
        when she taught the pre-kindergarten class at her church.
    She called the game “loved and chosen.”
    Here is what she writes about the scene in her classroom,
        with the children on the floor, and she on a couch.

        I sat on the couch, and glanced around slowly
            in a goofy, menacing way,
        and then said, “Is anyone here wearing
            a blue sweatshirt with Pokemon on it?”
        The four-year-old looked down at his chest,
            astonished to discover that he matched this description,
            like . . . what are the odds?
        He raised his hand.
        “Come over here to the couch, I said.
            You are so loved and so chosen.”
        He clutched at himself like a beauty pageant finalist.
        Then I asked if anyone that day was wearing
            green socks with brown shoes? a Giants cap? an argyle vest?
        Each of them turned out to be loved and chosen,
            which does not happen so often . . .
        My Jesuit friend Tom once told me that this is a good exercise,
            because in truth, everyone is loved and chosen . . .
            God loves them, because God loves.

Anne is right. A foundational truth about God,
    is that God loves us, and God chooses us.
_____________________

So this is a pretty good way to start the book of Ephesians,
    a book about the church as the household of God.
    We start by affirming that God chose us.
        It is by God’s choice, God’s will, God’s initiative,
            that we are adopted into God’s household.

Adoption is a great metaphor.
    Of course, any family bond can be deep and lasting.
    But adopted children have a unique sort of bond.
    At least, in healthy adoptions and healthy families,
        adopted children know their parents
            gave it long and careful thought,
            looked them over thoroughly,
            and consciously and deliberately chose them
            knowing that choice was for a lifetime.

There can be great joy in adoption.
    But it’s a joy often born of deep pain.
        The pain of infertility.
        Or the pain of a birth parent’s unwanted pregnancy.
        Or the pain of children growing up and learning
            that when they were born,
            another family chose not to include them.
    But that pain may well deepen the joy of having been chosen
        to belong to a whole and health family.

That’s the joy Paul displays in these opening words of Ephesians.
    English translations break this up into six or more sentences.
    But in the original Greek, all twelve verses,
        are one long sentence.
    A grammar teacher’s nightmare—wordy, awkward, repetitive.
    But what a glorious outpouring!
        Paul is like a child, breathless with excitement,
            trying to describe something beyond words.

Paul was writing to a church in a pressure cooker.
    There were external pressures from Rome, and the Jewish leaders.
    But the internal pressures were worse.
        Jews and Gentiles were being brought into the same church,
            trying to relate to each other for the first time, ever.
        They had vastly different cultural assumptions,
            vastly different moral frameworks.
            Conflict erupted time and again.

Whether you were Jew or Gentile, this was a church full of pain.
    The pain of feeling alone, rejected, alienated.

It wasn’t easy being a Gentile in the church of Asia Minor.
    Gentiles were joining a Jewish-initiated and Jewish-led movement.
        They were outsiders.
        They were used to being held at arms length by Jews
            in polite society.
            Jewish law required it.
        But when it happened in their own new church,
            it had to be painful.

But it also wasn’t easy being Jewish in the church of Asia Minor.
    Jesus-following Jews were rejected by other Jews, and their leaders.
        There was persecution.
        Families were torn apart.
        They couldn’t go home. Couldn’t go to synagogue.
            Couldn’t nurture the relationships they grew up with.
    They had to worship with Gentiles,
        with whom they had little in common, culturally or religiously.

So both Jews and Gentiles in the church
    had a hard time believing they were loved and chosen.
They were both asking,
    “Who am I? Who are my people? Do I even belong here?”
That’s why the apostle gets beside himself with joy,
    eager to share the good news!
    “You belong! You really do belong to this family!”

    God has adopted all of us—Jew and Gentile.
        God has chosen us to be part of God’s household.
    We have all the joys, privileges, and blessings
        of being bona fide children of God.

    In Christ we have redemption by his blood,
        we have forgiveness of sins,
        we have the riches of God’s grace. [v. 7]
    By their common faith in Jesus Christ,
        Jews and Gentiles were given the gift of a new family.
    They were both deliberately chosen by God to be God’s children,
        according to the “good pleasure of his will.”
    It says that twice, actually,
        we are chosen by “God’s good pleasure.”

So . . . we aren’t God’s charity case?
    We aren’t adopted because God had pity on our miserable souls?
    No, we were adopted for God’s sake,
        for the sake of God’s pleasure.
        God chose us. It wasn’t the other way around.

As Jesus said to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, John 15:
    “You did not choose me but I chose you.”
_____________________

So we are in God’s household.
    But in letting us in, God didn’t do us a favor,
        because we tried so hard to get in,
        or behaved so well,
        or finally met all the qualifications
            to be part of God’s elite people.
    We didn’t finally figure out the theological combination lock,
        on God’s front door,
        so we could get in.

No, God saw us and loved us and chose us to join the family.

I like the family metaphor when it comes to understanding the church.
    There are many metaphors for the church,
        but Ephesians is all about church as family,
            church as household.

Often, when we talk of being members of God’s household,
    we go straight to the house rules, and put the emphasis there—
        on what it takes to be a deserving member of the house.

Of course, belonging to a family comes with responsibilities.
    We were chosen for a purpose, after all, as verse 12 says,
        “so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ,
            might live for the praise of God’s glory.”
    And in verse 4, it says,
        we were chosen in Christ “to be holy and blameless
            before him in love.”
    When we are part of God’s household,
        we will live as if we are.
    We will live in such a way as to bring honor to the family name.
    In a family, we always give some kind of account for our lives.

But we don’t start with the house rules, as a matter of entry.
    We don’t work our way into the house.
    We don’t earn a place in the family.
    Being adopted into God’s household
        is a pure gift of God’s grace.

Once that reality that we are loved and chosen
    starts to sink into our being,
    we start living like loved and chosen people.
That’s how it works.

So as we dig into this book of Ephesians,
    let’s just soak in this comforting and life-giving truth—
        we are loved and chosen.
    We don’t need to act like kids on a playground
        begging the captains,
        “Ooh! Pick me! Pick me!”
    We have already been picked!
        Out of God’s great love.
        For God’s good pleasure.
        We are chosen to join together with others,
            to live in God’s household.

God’s door is open wide for all.
    No matter who we are.
    No matter where we come from.
    No matter what baggage we drag in with us.
God chooses us,
    for God’s own good pleasure, and for ours.

It is the ultimate gesture of hospitality from God.
    The unanswered question is whether we accept the offer.
    May God help us answer with a yes.

I want to end with my own version
    of Anne LaMott’s loved and chosen game.
I invite you to stand, if you’re able.
Then turn to the person on both your left and your right, and say,
    “You are loved. You are chosen. You belong in God’s family.”
Or some variation of that,
    “You are loved. You are chosen. You belong in God’s family.”
    Go.

Now, let us each claim that truth for ourselves.
    “I am loved. I am chosen. I belong in God’s family.”
Wrap your arms around yourself as you speak these words of faith.
    Together.
    “I am loved. I am chosen. I belong in God’s family.”

Now, let’s sing a song together affirming this truth.
    In Sing the Story, the purple book, #49
    “I will come to you in the silence.
        I will lift you from all your fear.
        You will hear my voice.
        I claim you as my choice.
        Be still and know I am here.”

    We will join each time with the refrain,
        “Do not be afraid, I am with you
        I have called you each by name
        Come and follow Me
        I will bring you home
        I love you and you are mine.”

—Phil Kniss, July 12, 2015

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