EPH 1:3-14 (NRSV)
3 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, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 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, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 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; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
Welcome to 2014! Many of us have returned to work or to school and Christmas seems like a long forgotten event.
We are actually still within the twelve days of Christmas – the season in the church calendar called Christmastide, where the song “12 Days of Christmas” comes from.
Today is the 5th of January, is the twelfth and final day of Christmas. Traditionally, today is the last day of Christmas parties, the day where we take down the Christmas trees and wreaths are taken down, and in the UK a popular play by Shakespeare used to be performed as entertainment during this day of celebration. Can anyone guess what is the name of play? It’s “Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare.
How many were here at one of our Christmas services? How many of you enjoyed the Christmas service?
Do you remember this character called “Ying Jie” played by Ben? She was our host for the service and do you remember one segment she went about the congregation to ask “what does Christmas means to you”? At which for most people refused to meet her gaze lest she would call on them.
One of those who were called on was Mark, who as one of the readers, when asked what Christmas meant to him said that Christmas to him was about the story.
And so we read the Christmas story together and shared in the journey from the perspective of a Jewish couple 2000 years ago when they realized that they were to become parents to the Son of God. It was also revealed in the Matthew reading that the event fulfilled a prophecy of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, that this Messiah was revealed as Emmanuel, meaning in Hebrew “GOD IS WITH US”.
Since we are still in the season of Christmas and it doesn’t happen very often that we get a second Sunday service after Christmas, this week’s lectionary passage appropriately wraps up Christmas and we will dive into that passage from Ephesians in a moment.
But where the story we read on Christmas day was like a zoom into one moment in history to what God did in and through one family in one place, this week’s lectionary passage is like a zoom out taking a macro view of that event. It is like pressing the “zoom out” button in Google Maps until we are high above the earth, and then zooming out further till we are looking down from the vantage point high above even our galaxy.
And not just a zoom out from that place, but also a zoom out of that moment in time as if to look at that one event that split our calendars into B.C. and A.D. from the perspective of eternity.
Also a zoom out too away from just the one couple in the story, but in this passage of scripture as we study it I believe that we will find ourselves today included the story – that it was not just for the Jewish people of that time, not for just the religious people of that time, but the story of Christmas has a true universality of who it includes – all creation for all time.
Sometimes we read some stories and we think, “yeah, that’s good on you Mary, good on you Joseph, good on you Paul, good on you church in Ephesus, but that’s not the promise to me, my life or this church.”
As we read this together, I pray that in the words of Paul that “the eyes of our hearts will be enlightened”, “awakened in the aftermath” of Christmas (which is what I have titled today’s sermon).
What does Emmanuel: “GOD IS WITH US” really mean for us from the rest of the 11 months of the year when it is not the season of Christmas?
I pray that we will be taken us out of our limited view of Christmas – that it is not just a remote, distant, isolated event, but that is part of the eternal, exhilarating and expansive plan of God that is for us today, and for all people for all time.
Are you ready? Put on your seatbelts and let’s get in to the Word this morning.
BACKGROUND OF EPHESUS
The passage from Ephesians was written to the church in Ephesus – Ephesus is an ancient city in Western Turkey.
Back then, Ephesus was a prospering colony of Rome – a port city, gateway city between Europe and Asia, managing trade between Rome, China, Egypt – similar to Singapore today.
And as a result of her position and purpose, trade and tourism boomed during that time – again similar to Singapore.
The population there at that time was primarily into goddess worship. There was a large temple dedicated to the worship the goddess Artemis (the twin sister of Apollo, also known as Diana by the Romans). Artemis was the goddess of the hunt and childbirth.
The dominant belief system of the people then was that the deities had to be pleased to ensure blessing – a good harvest, good hunting, protection in childbirth.
The belief system of that time was that external forces like magic and the favour of the gods were sought to seek protection and favour.
Ephesus was a peaceful city, but it was an enforced peace by Rome, ruled by the rich and the powerful Roman army.
Being a port city, the masters got rich through slave labour while the Roman army suppressed anyone who misbehaved – a big contrast against the backdrop of the kind of peace that Christ came to proclaim at His birth.
BACKGROUND OF THE CHURCH IN EPHESUS
The church in Ephesus was one of the communities of Christian faith that Paul helped to establish.
They then had spread the Gospel to regional towns and cities in Turkey, but new believers struggled with questions about belief and behaviour. These new believers were non Jews, given this gospel from a Jew that they only heard about – Paul, about a Jew – Jesus.
Some scholars say that this letter was written from Roman prison or by one of Paul’s aides to encourage this church and these believers in the region about five years after Paul had left the area.
In a sense they were like us – outsiders to this faith and to this God.
As we read this passage from Ephesians 1 together, I invites us to listen to the rush of words in this passage from that “zoom out” lens of time, place and people.
Sometimes letters were written by Paul to address particular situations, and this is one that we find very similar to us. We see echoes of the position and role of Ephesus and the situation there. We find ourselves able to identify with the Ephesians being outsiders to this faith and to this God – they were non-Jews, learning about the God of the Jews. Many of us here are LGBT Christians or we are here because you don’t quite find that you fit into mainstream Christianity, and we are learning about the God of the Christians.
This passage of scripture in Eph 1:3-14 is one continuous sentence in the original Greek, very breathless and exciting like a friend who talks non-stop and you can’t get a word in.
But as we get into it, we see that the English translation has been broken down into four sections and will be natural breaks in our study together.
The first section is a blessing and talks about the benefits of Christ coming.
EPH 1:3-4 (NRSV)
3 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, 4 just as he chose us in Christ[b]before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
On its own, the first word here “blessed” means the favour or gift of God. The first phrase here “blessed are the God” or “blessed be the God” is a traditional Jewish greeting – an acknowledgement and thanksgiving to the source of all blessing – God.
In v3 we see that in Christ, we are blessed with every spiritual gift; you are not under a curse. V4 says that God has chosen you even before you chose God; that you are holy – set apart to fulfil the will of God, and that you are blameless before God because of God’s love.
One important thing to note here – v3 says that you are already blessed. Blessing is not something that you have to earn or wait for.
So the first thing when we say that GOD IS WITH US, this means that GOD IS FOR US!
Turn to your neighbour and declare it over his or her life that “God is for you”.
Turn to the other neighbour that you didn’t choose and tell him or her that “God is for me”.
I know some of you are giggling and feel a little uncomfortable saying it. It is an such an incredible promise but some of us view passages of scripture like this with a suspicion.
Is this too good to be true? Something for nothing? We are already blessed? Is this the “prosperity gospel”?
Do you know why we are uncomfortable? Because this flies in the face of “religion” – blessing and protection is only given to those who please the deities. The Gospel says you are already blessed with every spiritual blessing!
Religion says that God is for some, and some more than others. The Gospel says that God is for all.
Religion says that only the holy can approach God. The Gospel says that you have been made holy and all can approach God – the veil of separation has been torn forever.
This is our identity as a result of “Christ is with us”. This identity has been given to us from the foundation of the world. This identity is one that comes from Christ – not from what we do.
To be blessed means to know that GOD IS FOR US.
5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us.
In the next section in v5 we see that In Christ we are adopted as the children of God. I believe that this reveals three things to us from our vantage point.
1. At Christmas, the same relationship between God the Father and Jesus is now between Jesus and us.
2. As God’s children, God is revealed as the “Abba” God – an intimate, familial God. This is not a distant deity that is detached, indifferent, uninterested, or uninvolved. This is a God that we can know intimately and reaches out to know us intimately. This is a God who helps us in our condition, who suffers with us in our pain, who gives us hope in our struggles.
3. As God’s children, we all have the same standing. The same standing that the Gentiles had with Jews, we have with those in mainline churches – there are no such thing as second-class Christians. This is no “better” Christian.
And v6 tells us that this is because of God’s grace given to us because God so loves us.
This is the God who is on your side regardless of who you are or what you have done – it is because of God’s grace.
Then v7 goes on to say that in Christ, we have redemption through the blood of Christ, forgiveness from all things that we have done or not done outside of the will of God. And God here is revealed as the God of love, grace, forgiveness, redemption. And this in v8 says is lavishly, generously, unconditionally poured out upon us.
That should really get you happy! The peace that you have that comes from that assurance.
If you ever doubt God’s love for you, if you ever doubt your worth, if you are having a down day, read this passage. This is declared over your life.
God calls you worthy. God calls you a friend of God. God calls you the Beloved. God calls you God’s sons and daughters. God calls you blessed. God calls you forgiven. God calls you redeemed.
If I had to sum up this section of what this reveals about “GOD IS IT WITH US”, it is “GOD IS CALLING US”.
This God who is with us is the God that is also “calling us” into relationship also “calls” over our lives.
But it doesn’t stop there. The next section of this letter goes on “calling us” to “see” what God’s will is and how we participate in it.
Many of us wonder, what is God’s will for my life? What is God’s will for this church? Can God’s will even be known?
Let’s read the rest of v8 up to v10.
With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
So v8b to v10 tells us that God’s will is not a mystery. God has made God’s will known to us – it is not a secret.
From the vantage point of eternity, the Birth of Christ is all part of God’s grand plan. And that plan at the end of time is to gather up all things to God. In some translations it says to reconcile, to redeem, to restore all things to God.
We are all created in God’s image; it is for all that God became incarnate in Jesus. We are all part of the plan – wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever we are doing. And the plan is to reconcile, redeem, restore all things to God.
From our zoomed out vantage point, we can observe that the arc of history bends towards the Commonwealth of God over all things and over all people. All things and events in history move towards justice and God’s shalom.
These were the same words used by Martin Luther King Jr, quoting the abolitionist Theodore Parker: “the arc of the moral universe is long; but it bends towards justice.”
I love this thought!
We see how our vantage point on history now gives us a lens on this, that things move in one direction and history has a point to it.
In the long run, things don’t go backwards, there is a trajectory. The Greeks have a word for this. They call it “telos”, which is a forward movement, a purpose, a direction, a goal with all its potential and possibilities.
We have been moving to greater equality and justice. In recent history, we see the changing role of women, the abolition of slavery, greater equality in human rights for LGBT people. This is the progressive in-breaking of the Commonwealth of God.
If we summarized this thought in GOD IS WITH US, it reveal that GOD IS AHEAD OF US, pulling us in our present age into what God is preparing to do in the future.
The next two verses then goes on to talk about our role in this.
11 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,12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
V11 tells us that we have an inheritance, a purpose, a destiny, our role we play in all of this – it is to accomplish the will of God.
We, who are the blessed, are now called to participate that telos of what God is doing – to gather up all things and all people into that same household, that same blessing, into reconciliation and God’s shalom peace.
2 Cor 5:18, 20a puts it like this:
2 Cor 5:18, 20a (NIV)
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors.
This is a clear call for us that the same ministry that Christ had to reconcile all things is now our ministry as well. We need to move from being focused on ourselves and our own preservation and blessing towards fulfilling God’s mission and purpose.
This is the same call of God to Abraham to be a blessing to all nations. This is the same call of Jesus to His disciples to follow Him. And this is the same call in the Spirit to us today to fill everything with God’s presence, with God’s shalom, so that we might live for the praise of God’s glory (Eph 1:12).
The purposes of God is to be accomplished in your life and my life. I wonder when people see your life and my life today, do they give praise and glory to God? When people see the works of this church today, do they give praise and glory to God?
Let’s move to the last section and two final verses,
13 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; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
When you heard this word of truth (vs. what the world is saying); when you have received this good news of the Gospel (not religion); when you believe it, put your trust in it, v13 says that you have been given a pledge and an inheritance from God – you are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.
What does being marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit mean?
I believe we can learn three things from this –
1. You have God’s trademark. The seal is like a potter’s initials on the bottom of a bowl or the artist’s signature on the masterpiece. It shows off who created the masterpiece, who had formed you and developed you.
2. You have been given the Holy Spirit who takes residence in you. This “Spirit” of God in Greek is the word “pneuma” where we get the word “pneumatic”. In Hebrew, it the same word we find is “ruach” or “breath”, “wind”. This Spirit of God is not abstract; it is very real and intimate – you can’t see it but you can feel her presence and power.
In Ecclesiastes, the Spirit of God is revealed as the very life force that brings everything into existence, the presence of God in the world, dwelling in every created being, ever-present in everything.
When we hear the Gospel and put our trust in it, we are awakened to this truth.
That the God who is with us, is the God who is around us, beside us (sometimes the Spirit is known as our “parakletos” (Greek) or “comforter”), and in us.
So when we say that GOD IS WITH US, we say that GOD IS IN US.
Turn to your neighbour and declare over their lives “God is in You”.
3. Finally, the awakening to the spirit of God at work in us, around us and through us, is to be awakened to an awareness that everything is ultimately connected to everything else. When we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves, we are acknowledging this interconnectedness.
I like the way Rob Bell gives an example of this in his latest book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” around something as ordinary as how we eat.
He says, “How we eat is connected to how we care for our planet; which is connected to how we use our resources; which is connected to how many people in the world go to bed hungry every night; which is connected to how food is distributed; which is connected to the massive inequalities in our world; which is connected to how our justice system treats people; which is connected to how treat those who don’t have what we have; which is connected to the sanctity, holiness, mystery and identity of all of humanity.”
GOD IS WITH US means that GOD IS FOR US, GOD IS CALLING US, GOD IS AHEAD OF US, and GOD IS IN US.
This is the GOD who is with us.
I pray that if you forget the theology, that this truth will take root deeply. I pray that this radical truth of Christmas will burst in your life, will grip you in awe like a light in the darkest night as it did on the first Christmas.
As we close, this chapter of Eph 1 ends with the passage that is the cornerstone of our understanding of the role of the church in proclaiming and living this truth of God is with us.
I am going to read this to you from the Message version of scripture and this is one of my favourite scriptures –
EPH 1:21-23 (The Message)
At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.
Christ has not come to make me richer or more prosperous. This God who is with us calls us to be awakened to the truth that: we are already blessed – God has blessed us all richly and made us stewards of all God’s blessings.
This God who is with us calls us to join God in reconciling everything to God.
The God who is with us pulls us towards this telos in our present age toward the future to heal those who are sick; to mend broken relationships; to protect human dignity; to reconcile the estranged; to integrate our hearts, minds and bodies; to treat all people equally regardless of gender identities, sexual orientation, theological backgrounds and even religion; to include the forgotten and marginalized; to care for creation.
This is our vocation, our calling – both individually and as a church. If this is not our focus, we cease to become the church that Christ is calling us to become.
Everything else we do supports this, enables this – worship, organization, even the preaching and bible studies. It prepares us for this, it helps us to see more clearly each day our call and the call of the church, like wiping away the fog from our goggles. But let us not miss the forest for the trees, let us not be focused on the box that the gift came in that we miss this gift of Christmas.
John Wesley said that the world was his parish (his community where his ministry is directed), and so it must be ours if we are to live with Christ. However, if the parish becomes our world, we will be focused on our own self-preservation, we will be out of step with God’s purposes in Christ, we will be useless, we will die.
Have you learnt something today? I know I have.
PREPARING TO CELEBRATE THE HOLY COMMUNION
In a moment, we are going to celebrate the Holy Communion.
We come together each time around the table to celebrate Holy Communion to remind ourselves of this truth that this God who is with us and for us and calling us and in us is here with us today.
As we prepare the table today, let us be awakened that the ever-present God’s is in all moments – even in the mundane events like sharing a meal together.
Let prepare our hearts this morning by being aware of the inter-connectedness of each one of us in Christ in sharing this meal at this table – that Communion is about people in community coming together.
Let us be awakened as we gather around this table to first realize everyone is equal and all are welcomed at the table exactly as we are – whoever we are and whatever our situation; whether we are hyper-aware of God in our lives or we feel like an inhuman cog in the system of the world, separated from God.
Let us see the sacraments in the meal like the Word being made flesh and taking residence among us.
Let us remember that the meal represents the love and grace of God that has been poured out lavishly, generously, unconditionally, for all of us.