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.”

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.
    “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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