Bible verses for reflection: Ephesians 1:1-14
You have probably heard the phrase: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The pace of change in the world is staggering. Family life is changing, entertainment options are changing, methods of communication are changing. Our vocational lives are changing.
Career paths are more circuitous than perhaps ever before. A significant percentage of today’s entering college students will work in jobs that are not even yet invented. Everything seems to be in flux – even the way people shop for Christmas presents. I understand that Amazon Prime now offers half day delivery in Atlanta.
Even so, as much as the way we live human life is changing, we still face the same issues that were faced by the church in the first century. You might even say: The more the world changes, the more the purposes of God for humanity remain the same.
In the first century, two issues of particular importance were addressed by Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus.
Scholars will tell you that, while this letter has an ascription to the saints at Ephesus, it was likely meant for a wider audience, written more as a general circular to all the churches in the region.
The two issues were disunity and immorality. Disunity in the church and world was stemming from ethnic rivalries and tensions, just as it is today. Immorality in the church and world was stemming, at least in part, from a fearful and uncertain view of the world and of the future, just as it is today.
One commentator wrote that this first chapter of Ephesians may not seem pragmatic or seem to have any “practical” value at first sight, yet when we realize the direction to which Paul is pointing us, then we begin to realize the power of his words to bring hope and reconciliation to a fractured and fearful world. (Ralph Martin. Interpretation Commentary, pg. 2)
First, the fractures and disunity. One of the real challenges in the first century church was that the worshiping body,
in Ephesus and in other places, had become predominantly non-Jewish. The movement that had started among Jesus’ disciples and their friends and families had now grown far beyond the boundaries of the Jewish experience of the diaspora. Many Gentiles, slaves and free, had heard the good news of forgiveness of sin and redemption in Jesus Christ. They had come to believe in Jesus as Savior and even received the gift of the Holy Spirit and so now were worshiping among the faithful Jewish believers. The Jews and Greeks were gathering regularly for the first time in history around the same table and, as they gathered, they were bringing their own styles of music and prayers and morals.
People are people, and anytime “difference” is introduced into a group, rivalries and tensions and disagreements will tend to arise. Whether it was Jew versus Gentile, or slave versus free, or the challenges between males and females in this less hierarchical worshiping body, the potential of disunity and fractures was ever-present.
Today, we are no less immune to such divisions within the church or certainly, the nation. Conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat, long time U.S. citizen and new immigrant, black and white and yellow and mixed race, gay and straight and whatever the Jenner/Kardashian clan is…People are people, and the introduction of “difference” into a group of people will tend to cause rivalries and tensions. Paul wrote Ephesians to address this issue.
The second, more subtle challenge was a fatalistic worldview that was leading people to live with moral laxity. Many people in the first century were genuinely afraid of an unknown and uncertain future. It did not seem as though there was any direction to history. It did not seem as though God was in charge. Or, if God was in charge, it did not seem as though God cared much about what was happening.
This led to problems of theology – particularly a Gnostic worldview. In Gnosticism, God is good, but creation is bad,
and so God doesn’t really care about what we do in the world or what we do with our bodies. Religion was about rising spiritually above earthly concerns, all the while living daily like nothing or nobody really matters. When life seems beyond control, people tend to seek escape from reality and begin to live as if there’s no tomorrow, as if there are no consequences for what we do.
In the face of such issues within the church, then and now, Paul wrote this letter and encouraged the people to read the letter together in worship. In the letter, Paul reminds us that we are chosen to be holy and blameless before God.
He claims that we have been destined for adoption as God’s beloved children, and not only our little group has been chosen and destined, but that other group as well, and the other one across the city and the other one across the country, and that other one across the national border also. The mystery of God’s will has been revealed to us and is being revealed to them, that in Christ we all may obtain an inheritance as God’s people, that we all may hear the word of truth, the good news of salvation, that all may come to believe and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, that all of humanity might one day live for the praise of God’s glory.
The vision of Paul for the Church is that it would shine as a beacon in the world, that it would set a new standard as a community of love, where disunity and moral laxity are replaced by spiritual maturity, where false claims and half-truths are replaced by speaking the truth in love, where tearing one another down is replaced by building one another up, where ingratitude and foolishness are replaced by thankfulness and wisdom, where spiteful and tense interactions are replaced by peaceful and spirit-filled relationships.
In short, Paul makes the bold claim that Jesus and his body, the Church, are the answer to our political and racial tensions. Paul makes the bold claim that Jesus and his body, the Church, are the answer to today’s overwhelming and fearful feeling that human life is beyond our control. This first chapter of Ephesians is Paul’s words of praise about God’s purposes being fulfilled in Christ’s body, the Church.
When we pause long enough to consider what it is that we do here, we are reminded that the Church is the embodiment in history of God’s eternal purposes made known in Jesus Christ. (Archibald Hunter, Layman’s Bible Commentary, 1959, p. 46) Which is to say that this church, Decatur Presbyterian, at the corner of Church and Sycamore Streets, is the embodiment in this year, 2016, of God’s eternal purposes made known in Jesus Christ. When we gather as church, when we read Scripture and pray and share the bread and cup, God’s will for all of humanity, and particularly for the peoples of this neighborhood, is being made manifest.
When we gather at this table, God’s eternal purpose of a unified humanity living in love and hope is once again being made known. When we come forward to dip our piece of bread into a common cup, we proclaim once again that the way of Jesus Christ is central in our lives, we proclaim that our diverse humanity is united because of him, and we proclaim that God’s glory can be witnessed even here -even in this fallible and imperfect worshiping body.
At this table, something truly incredible happens – barriers of background, race, culture, and status are broken down.
Everyone is included as one family, all are grateful for their forgiveness, and all are in the process of being made new by the grace of God. At this table, there are no distinctions – between newcomers vs old guard, between lifelong Presbyterians vs those who did not grow up in church, between those who pray and read their Bible and serve their neighbor every day vs those who feel like they’re doing really well just to have made it here today. At this table, we are one. At this table, all things are brought together in Christ, and God’s eternal purposes are being fulfilled.
You may have showed up today just to do your part for your family or your church. At this table, remember that you too have been included in God’s extravagant grace, even though none of us have deserved to be included. You may have showed up to receive some hope and inspiration for the New Year. At this table, remember that your human life is not simply at the mercy of fate or chance. God has called you by name in baptism and brought you here for a purpose. You may have showed up because you appreciate the warm fellowship of this congregation. At this table, remember that you and I and all of this worshiping body are gathered not simply for ourselves, but to show forth God’s glory in the way that we live human life together.
At this table, we are a part of something so much larger than ourselves. At this table, we participate in God’s eternal purposes for all of humankind in every age – God’s purposes in Jesus Christ of reconciling the world to God and to one another, God’s purposes of unity and common redemption in Jesus Christ, God’s purposes of healing and salvation for all who live with division and fear.
There is no doubt that the world is changing dramatically, and that, over time, our lives and our churches will change significantly as a result. But no matter how much things change, some things will stay the same.
In an uncertain future, groups of disparate people will still gather at the table of Jesus Christ. They will read and interpret scripture together. They will break bread and pour wine. And, for brief yet powerful moments, they will embody, as we do today, God’s eternal purposes for all of humanity – that one day all flesh will glorify God and enjoy God forever, and will live in peace and unity with one another. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 3, 2016