Ephesians 1:3-14 – We Are Blessed

Hallelujah by Mike Moyers

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (New International Version)

God has blessed us. The word “blessing” comes from the same word for “giving thanks.”  So, when, we consider the ways God has spiritually blessed us, it leads us to effusive gratitude and praise.  And this was exactly the case for the Apostle Paul.

In writing these words, Paul was so excited to share with the church at Ephesus about the blessings of God that he could not stop. In our English translations we have broken these verses up into several sentences and two paragraphs. But Paul originally penned this as one sentence!

More than anything, Paul wanted the church to know the wonderful blessings of God to them. Throughout the book of Ephesians, Paul’s constant theme to the church is reconciliation and restoration. In fact, that is the end game for God. God has cares about reconciling people to himself, and others. The Lord deeply cares about restoring the entire world to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

To accomplish this gigantic feat, God intervened into humanity by giving the church three main blessings: election, redemption, and inheritance.

Election 

The word “chose” and “chosen” in some English translations is the Greek word ἐκλεκτός (eklektos) or “election.” This is where it all begins for us. Even before the creation of the world, God had the end of the story in mind. Divine decisions were made about outcomes and results. 

This approach, by the way, is how we are to engage ministry in the church. That is, we begin with the end in mind of what we want to accomplish. Then, we gather the people and begin making the needed decisions to see that end purpose realized. Too often, churches begin with a group of people and wonder about what they should do – which is backwards from how God does it. 

In eternity past, in love, God predestined us to be adopted as his children. You and I are so loved by God that we were special to him before we were even ever born! Election means God has a purpose for us. On the human level, we elect candidates so that they may serve the common good and put their energies into accomplishing some noble cause. 

Likewise with God. We were not elected or chosen by God solely to go to heaven when we die.  Although that is true and shall happen, the reason we were chosen by God was for us to be holy and blameless, to be for the praise of God’s glory. We are not in some sort of holding pattern on earth, impatiently waiting for the afterlife. Rather, we are to be active in accomplishing God’s purposes for our election. And what is that purpose?

We are to participate with God in the grand scheme of reconciling and restoring all of creation back to the original design. Therefore, every act of forgiveness, grace, love, and kindness; every overture of faith and communication of the gospel to others; and all steps of obedience are small movements toward the great restoration story God is writing. 

For example, the book of Acts ends on a dramatic note with no resolution to it. That’s because the story is still being written. We are chosen to be a part of it.

Redemption 

To be redeemed means to be delivered by a payment of a price. In the ancient world, slavery was an entrenched part of the society. The picture of the slave market provided a means for Paul to communicate a spiritual blessing: We have been redeemed from the slave market of sin through the payment of Christ’s blood, and so now, we enjoy the freedom from and forgiveness of sin. 

This is not just redemption from something (sin, death, and hell); it is also redemption to reconciliation and restoration. God elected us to receive redemption so that the grand design of bringing all the earth under the lordship of Christ will happen. God has and is creating a new society, the community of the redeemed, that will realize the original design of unhindered connection with God and others. 

Inheritance

We are receiving an inheritance. It will be put into effect when God’s timing and purpose is accomplished – and Paul spells the purpose out: To bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, Jesus Christ. 

Here is how Paul envisions what is coming: The chosen and redeemed of God will one day die, then they will go to be with Christ. But that is not yet the end because the entire world still needs redemption. This is why the preacher of Hebrews could say about the great heroes of the faith:  

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40, NIV)

There is not just life after death; there is life after life-after-death. All those people of faith, including our believing friends and relatives who have gone before us to be with Jesus, are waiting. They, along with us, have not yet received all the promised blessings of our inheritance. 

We are waiting for the reconciliation and restoration of all things, a new heaven and a new earth in which we will be together as sons and daughters in the kingdom of God with Jesus as King over us. The possession of the Holy Spirit is the guarantee that this is the case, and it will happen. 

Conclusion

Our blessings of election, redemption, and inheritance are all activated by faith. Belief is the switch that turns on the blessings to us in a real and actual way. The electricity is there in the person of the Holy Spirit. The light bulb is there, and it is us. 

So, the question for us today is: Are we turned on and shining brightly, or is the switch off?  We must access our blessings by belief in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.

God is on a mission to reconcile and restore the world. Our salvation is part of God’s plan to make that happen. God is a missionary. The Lord has chosen us to be emissaries to a world that needs redemption and restoration. 

The church is like no other institution on earth – existing for the life of the world, and not for itself. Like a mighty army, we are to train ourselves for godliness so that we can engage an invisible enemy and see the kingdom of God come and the will of God done here on earth as it is always done in heaven. 

The camaraderie we enjoy as fellow soldiers is not the end purpose – restoring enemy territory back to its original government is. So, we care for our wounded and do everything we can for them. There are yet more spiritual battles to be won and hearts captured for King Jesus. 

May you and I, then, give thanks with grateful hearts for the great spiritual blessings of election, redemption, and inheritance so that God’s benevolent and merciful rule might spread everywhere to everyone.

God our Savior, you desire that none should perish, and you have taught us through your Son that there is great joy in heaven over every sinner who repents: Grant that our hearts may ache for a lost and broken world. May your Holy Spirit work through our words, deeds, and prayers, that the lost may be found and the dead made alive, and that all your redeemed may rejoice around your throne, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Corinthians 3:10-17 – Being a Holy Temple

Albi Cathedral in Sainte-Chapelle, France

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (New International Version)

God is holy, pure, beautiful, and completely separated from all that is evil. 

However, there is a problem; but it isn’t with God. 

Ever since the fall of humanity into guilt, shame, and impurity, people cannot be near or approach a perfect Being. Just as we will surely go blind by looking directly at the sun – or be totally disintegrated by getting too close to it – so humans cannot be with such a holy God.

In the Old Testament, God graciously devised a system whereby people could approach the divine. A temple was built. It had very detailed and strict prescriptions about how it was to be built. There needed to be curtains, walls, and borders everywhere to shield the people from being destroyed by the sheer holiness of God.

Entering the New Testament, Jesus is the exact representation of God’s holy being and presence. In Christ, God became intimately close to people. Through the redemptive events of Jesus, humanity is delivered from the vexing problem of being far away from God. 

If that were not enough, God the Father and Son sent God the Holy Spirit to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth. 

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul tells us that, as the church, we are a holy temple which is graciously, patiently, and with great care being built into a spiritual house that can be the place where God meets with humanity.

The triune God has conspired and gone out of the way to be with us. The Lord has bended the arc of history for good purposes to be with us. Like a lover separated from his beloved, God has pulled out all the stops to make us holy so that we can abide with him in divine holiness.

From the solid foundation of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone, we take care to build a spiritual infrastructure worthy of holiness.

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16, NRSV)

God’s will is for you to be holy… God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7, NLT)

Some Christians mistakenly believe that holiness means to exclusively separate as far from everything and everyone who is impure. Any hint or smell of unsound dogma or nonconformity with established rules results in separation. Yet, this predilection for separation is really a form of division – which is contrary to the holiness of God. Because the Lord bends over backwards to accommodate the sinner’s ability to approach the divine presence.

Indeed, holiness involves a separation from all that is evil so that we can attach ourselves to God and others. Holiness isn’t simply an end in itself. To be holy means we are prepared and ready to engage in the highest of aims: Love.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23, NIV)

Holiness without a clear trajectory toward love is like putting a new collar on a dead dog. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Yet, too many folks have put a leash on that shiny new collar and are dragging the deceased around – much to the chagrin and revulsion of the world – who rightly sees this behavior as both downright crazy and plain stupid.

Paul would say that kind of behavior will be shown for what it is: Building on the wrong spiritual foundation.

It’s really all about Jesus. Christians bear the name of Christ because we (ideally) center our entire existence – past, present, and future – on the redemption provided through Jesus.

And that’s what this Christian season of the year is about: We celebrate the birth of Christ, God’s breaking into this world, to bridge the great divide between divinity and humanity.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ is our foundation.

Being a holy temple means being a sacred space large enough to hold love for all people.

From that strong support, there is no limit to the breadth and height of God’s kingdom. So, may you, along with the Apostle Paul pray:

I’m asking God to give you a gift from the wealth of his glory. I pray that he would give you inner strength and power through his Spirit. Then Christ will live in you through faith. I also pray that love may be the ground into which you sink your roots and on which you have your foundation. This way, with all of God’s people you will be able to understand how wide, long, high, and deep his love is. You will know Christ’s love, which goes far beyond any knowledge. I am praying this so that you may be completely filled with God. (Ephesians 3:16-19, GW)

Amen.

Luke 13:31-35 – Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord, by José Luis Castrillo

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you – you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (New International Version)

King Herod of Judea, who was in the pocket of the Roman Empire, was issuing threats against Jesus. And those threats had some teeth behind them. Herod had recently beheaded Christ’s friend and cousin, John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Yet, Jesus seemed unconcerned by the warnings. He made it clear that he was going to keep doing what he was doing, unfazed by Herod’s bluster.

Jesus had no intention of halting his travels, even because of a credible threat by the governing powers. Christ emphasizes his words by assuring his listeners that the work he is doing will be done today, and the next, and the day after that—building ultimately to his greatest work of securing redemption through his crucifixion and resurrection. 

I hope to be always journeying towards Jerusalem with a heart full of compassion that will not waver in the midst of violent killing and injustice. That isn’t easy, yet I know that my humble pilgrimage with Jesus will be worth it all, in the end.

Yet, for now, I need to make a stop in Bethlehem. I must follow the star to the place where Christ the newborn king is lying in a simple stinky feeding trough. The juxtaposition of that reality could not be more pronounced. The rightful Lord of all, far more powerful than old King Herod or the Roman Emperor, comes to earth not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)

What’s more, Jesus deliberately donned the clothing and postured himself as a lowly servant throughout his earthly ministry. Whereas Herod acted the predictable part of a power hungry worldly ruler, squelching all rivals to the throne, Jesus shared his authority with others, along with a promise of continual presence. (Matthew 2:16-18, 28:16-20)

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; So that, at the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.” 

Book of Common Prayer

Jesus is down for the struggle. He knows that injustice and systemic evil must be carefully rooted out. He understands that hearts and minds aren’t changed overnight. It will take time. Yet, Christ is in it for the long haul. The Lord is patiently, and sometimes imperceptibly, using divine power and authority to preserve the good and weed out the bad.

It will take a long time, and will be an extended process, because there are so many hard hearts. Jesus was ready, willing, and able to gather people together, as a mother hen gathers her chicks – yet there was an unwillingness to it. And Christ isn’t in the business of twisting arms and manipulating others, like Herod.

Jesus invites. He doesn’t squeeze people like an orange to get their juice. Christ carefully prepares a meal. He sets the table himself. He gives of himself. Like some wildly potent superfood, a bit of wine and morsel of bread is more than enough to fill the hungry soul and thirsty spirit.

There is always room at the Table.

There is room for you and for me. There is room for every kind of person – from every nation, race, gender, ethnicity, class – no matter the distinctions and no matter the past. It is the love of God in Christ, not the judgment, which brings people peace and salvation. It comes through a baby, not some wily old fox of a ruler.

Eventually, the phrase will be uttered, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus pulled this phrase from the Old Testament psalms. He did this, knowing quite well the context surrounding the verse:

The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.

Lord, save us!
    Lord, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. (Psalm 118:22-26, NIV)

The chicks might scatter and refuse to be gathered. The builders may reject the crucial cornerstone and still try to build. Yet, it will not always be this way. As we celebrate the first advent of Christ in his incarnation, the second advent is continually in view. Christ is coming… again. The time is near….

Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven.
    And everyone will see him—
    even those who pierced him.
And all the nations of the world
    will mourn for him.
Yes! Amen! (Revelation 1:7, NLT)

The triumphal entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday is followed by a triumphal entry into my heart, and the hearts of many. And there is coming yet another triumphal entry, back to this earth. All things will made new….

“There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared.” Then the one who sits on the throne said, “And now I make all things new!” (Revelation 21:4-5, GNT)

May it be so, to the glory of God.

The Suffering of Christmas

Christmas:  a time for joy and a time for cheer…  But, unfortunately, it is also a time of profound loneliness and a yearning of days gone by for many people.  A few years back, I received a call on Christmas Day.  One of my parishioners was stretching out to put the angel on top of the family Christmas tree, and fell over dead from a heart attack.  The family’s Christmas will never be the same again, a weird mix, a strange amalgam of both happiness and heartache.  Tragedy that occurs around the holidays makes all future holidays awkward and different.

I also know folks who were expecting a juicy Christmas bonus, instead finding a pink slip and a surprise lay-off from their job.  Children of divorce probably know the strangeness of the holiday the most, being shuttled here and there obtaining more gifts than they need but more bitterness than they want.  For every one of us who look forward to Christmas Day, there is another who dreads facing another season with unpleasant memories of what happened and what could have been….

Whether Christmas is chiefly joyous for one or sorrowful for another, the bald fact of the matter is that we all suffer in some way.  Let me offer a definition/description of suffering for you to ponder: 

Suffering occurs when someone or some circumstance acts against your will and damages either your body, mind, soul, spirit, or all/part of them, creating the great need for healing.

Suffering creates a portal, an opening to either love or hate.  It brings us to the point of decision:  We did not choose suffering; it chose us.  But the choice for healing is very much in our control.  Suffering is an event, maybe even extended over time, which will make us either bitter, or better – it’s your choice.

There are numerous people who will offer you a cup of bitterness, the sour wine vinegar which will dull the pain.  Jesus had such an offer while he hung on the cross, and he refused it.  Nothing was going to stand in the way of his full faculties experiencing the vicarious suffering for our sins.  Dulling the pain doesn’t bring healing; it only makes us forget for a time and just prolongs the actual healing.

Instead, the wise choice is to take charge of your life and choose the hard path of healing.  There is a world of difference between the pain that is forced upon us, and the pain which we choose so that we become better and healthy.  The pain of violation must be followed with the pain of healing. 

“It takes courage to love, but pain through love is the purifying fire which those who love generously know. We all know people who are so much afraid of pain that they shut themselves up like clams in a shell and, giving out nothing, receive nothing and therefore shrink until life is a mere living death.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

A major way you know your choice of healing is happening is when your heart and life open-up to love, when the shape of grace begins to mold your soul and brings a reception to people who benevolently wait to help with kind words and ways.  Your sight becomes different.  The world becomes brighter.  Decisions are motivated more by love than by protection.  There is the willingness to persevere and patiently complete the process of healing and see it through to a new maturity.  You cease trying to manipulate others and focus more on your own responses to people and situations.  Every day becomes a fresh opportunity to love God by serving others.

Because God is love, and we are created in the image of God, this means we were designed to receive and to give love.  We are love, as well.  To not love is to buck our inherent design from the beginning of time.  We are not just to grit our teeth and force loving words and actions; we are to tap into the originality of our souls and be love.  The great task of the Christian life is to awaken to who we really are, to become a whole person, complete and mature.  The means for this to happen is through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, our great professor in the faith, knows that suffering is a teacher.

Far too many persons are perplexed as to why they still struggle and hurt.  They have prayed.  They have read the Bible.  They have tried, time and time again.  Hurt and pain might and is very personal; but healing is communal – it demands more than our own efforts.  Unless we open ourselves to the love of others, and risk putting our souls on the line, we will not realize the peace we long for and the mending of our spirits. 

The first step is speaking to someone who is safe, someone for whom you trust, and telling them where you are in your soul – not making yourself look better than you are, and providing a real picture of the state of your life – and, not diminishing the very real abuse which occurred against you by saying others have it harder than you.  In other words, be real.  Humility and honesty will always serve you well.

Yes, it’s Christmas.  How will you choose to deal with it?