01 May Bless God, Bless Others
Bless God, Bless Others
April 29, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
What better day could there be to talk about the blessings of God than today when we celebrate the blessing of Sophia being presented her Bible, the Karikari wedding yesterday, Calvary’s 70 years of faithful ministry, Dana’s ordination this afternoon, and the 10th anniversary of my ordained service to the church? Blessings upon blessings, which is a major theme throughout Ephesians. As we read last week, Paul begins his letter to the church at Ephesus with a blessing: he blesses God for blessing us, using seven verbs to provide an IMAX-sized panorama of the comprehensive ways in which God works in us and in our world. God is on our side; God is not against us. God is actively working among us for our good and for our redemption, not passive or remote. God is present and personal and totally involved in the cosmos. God is not indifferent.
This is the first thing: this blessing. We start with God, and when we do, we see what we have not seen before. We thought we were looking for God. No, God is looking for us. We thought we were seeking God. No, God is seeking us.
This blessing is actually Paul at prayer. Prayer is the primary language that we use as we grow up in Christ, as we practice the resurrection life that has been gifted to us. But this is not prayer as people often think of it. Paul is modeling for us an understanding of prayer as an all-encompassing way of life. It is not a special way of using language that we trot out for holy things or sacred concerns. It is a way of using language personally in response to and in the presence of God, and in response to and in the company of God’s people.
From the moment we start reading Ephesians we are immersed in prayer language: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Paul continues by redirecting his prayers from blessing God to praying for his friends, the Christian congregation in Ephesus. He names them (and us) “the saints” and makes them his particular focus beginning in verse 15: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” He gives thanks for them and before you know it, he is praying for them: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you….”
Give what? Paul lists five gifts that he is praying that the God of blessing will give them: wisdom and revelation, an enlightened heart, hope, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. These five gifts don’t just float at random down out of the sky, scattered like confetti. They have resurrection energy behind them. They are the “working of God’s great power” in Christ which God puts to work by raising him from the dead, seating him at God’s right hand, putting all things under his feet, and making him head over all things for the church.
The five anticipated gifts tell us what we can expect from God as we practice resurrection. God’s way of putting “this power,” this gift-giving to work in us is both personal and cosmic. Paul reiterates the point that faith is not a solely private affair. We participate in everything that Christ does, and Christ gives us the church in which to practice this resurrection life together. The five prayed-for gifts and the reach of Christ’s power take their place in the context of the seven all-encompassing rocket verbs of blessing we looked at last week, and the triply emphatic “praise of his glory” tells us how all of this is going to turn out.
It is a lot to take in. It is extravagance compounded, prayer extrapolated in every direction. We can’t help but be impressed. This resurrection life cannot be reduced to domesticated moralism or civilized good manners—or projected into a future that we will inhabit someday after death. This is the life we live here. And now.
Paul has used three words to name what he is doing thus far: bless, give thanks, pray. What Paul wants us to understand is that prayer is the total experience of those who practice resurrection. We pray when we sit in quiet meditation and we pray while taking out the garbage; we pray when we feel overwhelmed and ask God for help and we pray when we weed the garden; we pray when we are interacting with the cynical, disagreeable co-worker and when we name those who are ill and grieving before the Lord.
I’m not saying that everything we do is prayer but that everything we do and say and think can be prayer. We pray far more than we know. We pray when we are not in a conventional place of prayer or the conventional posture of prayer or using the conventional language of prayer. Every time we breathe a wordless sigh of thanks for a starlit sky, of appreciation for an act of kindness, of a plea for how to respond to a testy teenager or troubled neighbor, we are sharing our life with God and God is sharing his life with us. We’re praying.
Paul names those he is praying for as saints. Understanding who Paul is talking about, this resurrection company that we now find ourselves among, requires a recalibration of imagination. “Saint”, as it turns out, is Paul’s word of choice for the people of God. It is interesting to note that the word “Christian” occurs only three times in the New Testament, and never in Paul’s writings. Paul does not use the word “saint” in an elitist, spiritual superhero sort of way. His churches were no more filled with spiritual giants than our modern-day churches are. His congregations were as average as anyone else’s—full of people at all points along the spiritual maturity yardstick.
Paul identifies them all as God-blessed people—which includes us—and he deliberately chooses a word that identifies us by what God does in and for us, not what we do for God. He reminds us that we are creatures of God, saved by Jesus, formed for holiness by the Spirit. He is retraining our imaginations to understand ourselves not in terms of how we feel about ourselves and not in terms of how others treat us—parents, teachers, employers, or our children—but in terms of how God feels about us and treats us.
You are a saint. This is a new word for yourself, a word that gets beneath appearances, behind all roles and functions, a word that defines you in terms of who God is for you and what God is doing in your life, a person who is growing up in Christ, a person who cannot be accurately identified apart from God’s intents and persistent attention: you are a saint.
This requires a radical shift in perception both of ourselves and of others. We live in a society that evaluates us by appearance and role, by behavior and potential. We are endlessly tested, examined, classified, praised and scorned, admired and despised. The institutional ways of looking at us by government, businesses and schools gives rise to a systematic and pervasive de-personalizing of people that runs rough-shod over our souls and strips us of anything that has to do with God.
But if Paul is telling the truth, any term used to identify us that fails to convey the basic reality of our lives, that we are saints, men and women who belong to God, fails to accurately depict who we are. Our identity is God-oriented and God-ordained. Maturity means we learn to see ourselves and others that way. Paul knows that will often mean taking a second look at the men and women that it would never occur to us to name as saints. We see ourselves and we see others as ever and always in the company of the Trinity which makes us holy men, holy women, holy children, holy, holy, holy. And this applies not just to us, but to others as well.
Anybody who has spent any time at all in the company of Christians knows that none of us whom Paul calls saints is a saint in any conventional sense. Most of us are not exceptionally good, but it’s even worse than that. Adultery and addictions, gossip and gluttony, pride and propaganda, sexual abuse, self-absorption, and self-righteousness are as likely to occur, even flourish, in congregations of Christians as in any school or military unit or governmental office or business. Still, Paul insists on calling us saints.
And there is no use looking around for a congregation that is any better. It has always been this way. But God, it seems, is not squeamish about keeping company with the worst and the vile. In fact, God goes to work each day to redeem the worst in each of us.
Every pastor and every church at some point will experience the loss of someone in the church who just gets fed up with dealing with imperfect saints. It’s understandable. Presbyterian Pastor Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message, keeps a letter in his desk drawer that he pulls out from time to time to reread and keep himself clear on what sainthood is all about. A friend of Peterson’s, another pastor, wrote the letter in response to a man who left his congregation, declaring a self-imposed excommunication from all the ne’er-do-wells he found in churches.
The pastor wrote, “I agree. The church is woefully sinful, distorted, and inadequate. In its seasons and centuries it is often in bed with commerce, the military, and the political establishment, or just as bad, opportunistically leeching superficial life out of them by reactionism. But it’s still in the bowels of the church, the worshipers, that God has chosen to work, live and sometimes be crucified. It’s the church, that Jesus says he will build, and that hell will not prevail against.”
Saints—the “bowels of the church.” And so we are. But here’s the marvel: from within these bowels comes a continuous witness, sounds of praise, healing and forgiveness, preaching and praying and the totally unexpected life and practice of resurrection. It’s been that way for 2000 years. It’s been that way for 70 years from this very corner, and if we take our identity as saints seriously, I’m believing and hoping and praying it will be that way for another 70. Thanks be to God. Amen.