25 Apr The Interesting Thing About Religion is God
The Interesting Thing About Religion is God
April 22, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
After our initial introduction last week to the book of Ephesians and its focus on helping us grow up as followers of Christ, this morning we dive into the deep end of this epistle. Paul doesn’t give us much choice about that, as the 201 words that comprise v.3-14 of chapter 1 is a single sentence in the Greek. One scholar calls it “the most monstrous sentence conglomeration….I have ever met in the Greek language.” Others who are perhaps less fussy grammarians hear in these words the lilt of extravagant poetry, because only poetry dares to give language to the God-created, Christ-saved, Spirit-blessed world into which we have been born and are now growing up. This is no small, cramped universe in which we live from hand to mouth. The horizons are vast, the heavens high, the oceans deep. We have elbowroom to spare.
The sheer size, the staggering largeness of the world into which God calls us, must not be reduced to dimensions that we are cozily comfortable with. Sin shrinks our imaginations. Ephesians seeks to stretch us. If we calculate the nature of the world by what we can manage or explain, we end up living in a very small place. If we are going to grow to the mature stature of Christ, we need conditions in which that can happen. We need room, and Ephesians gives us that room.
Over a period of three decades in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, Walker Percy wrote six novels in which he made us insiders to the spiritual disease of alienation that he found pervasive in American culture. His name for the condition is “lost in the cosmos.” We don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we came from or where we are going.
The letter to the Ephesians agrees with Percy’s diagnosis of humanity’s lostness but then goes on to provide an extensive witness to the ways in which God in Christ by the Holy Spirit is at work in this cosmos. God. We begin with God which seems obvious enough. “In the beginning God”… “God said”… “God so loved the world.” “Blessed be the God”…God, God, God.
But we have short attention spans. Having been introduced to God, we soon lose interest in God and become preoccupied with ourselves. The self expands and the soul atrophies. Psychology trumps theology. Our feelings and emotions, our health and our jobs, our friends and our families muscle their way to center stage. God is not exactly sent packing or shut in a closet. But God is consigned to the sidelines, conveniently within calling distance to help out in emergencies and be available for consultation for the times when we run out of answers.
Our days are busy. We have work to do, interests to pursue, books to read, phones to answer, errands to run, children to raise, finances to tend to, the lawn to mow, food to prepare and serve, the garbage to take out. We don’t need God’s help or counsel in doing any of these things. God is necessary for the big things, most obviously creation and salvation. But for the rest we can, for the most part, take care of ourselves.
This usually adds up to a workable life, at least when accompanied by a decent job and reasonable health. But, it is not the practice of resurrection. It is not growing up in Christ, it is not living in the company of the Trinity, it is not living abundantly, freely, with the authenticity and joy for which we are created.
We are settling for a life far too small.
Ephesians gets our attention by shooting off seven verbal rockets: verbs that get things done, verbs that run the cosmos intentionally and personally, verbs that fill the sky and illuminate the earth with God’s ways of working among us. Seven verbs: blessed…chose…destined…bestowed…lavished…made known…gather up…
First, God blessed. “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.” (1:3) God is both blessed and blesses us as he himself is blessed. What God does comes out of who God is. And what we receive from God is who God is. The being of God is expressed in the action of God. Another way to think of it is that there is no dividing God up into parts or attributes. God is who God is. We don’t figure God out. We don’t explain God. We don’t define God. We worship God who is as he is. In other words, we let God be God.
Verb two: God chose. “Just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” (1:4) It seems to be a common human experience that at some point or other, we are not chosen: not chosen for the soccer team, not chosen for a job, not chosen as a spouse. It feels terrible; it stings and hurts. Sometimes it’s a memory that we never forget. Against this background, common to all of us, of not being noticed, being ignored, being dismissed, being indistinguishable from anyone else, the verb “chose” breathes life into our lungs. God chose us. Not as a last-minute pity choice because no one else would have us. God chose us before the foundation of the world. We are in on the action, long before we have any idea that we are in on the action. We are cosmic.
Verb three: God destined. “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.” (1:5-6) “Destined” is related to “chosen.” Both words carry a sense of intention. Life is not random. Deep within God and deep within us there is a relational element of intentionality: God chooses us, God destines us. When God destines, he marks out boundaries in which we live the purposed life for which we are created. Think of it this way: a fence line on the prairie sets a boundary, determining where a farmer’s land begins and ends. Without that fence line, the farmer would be paralyzed by the ocean of prairie, the endless possibilities stretched out in front of him—“Where do I start? Is there any end to it?” Because God “destines” us, we aren’t set loose in the cosmos to find our place and way in it the best we can. (p. 60)
That God destines encompasses huge mysteries. The moment we recognize that virtually everything that has to do with God takes place previous to our know-ing anything about it, it becomes obvious that since we are not gods ourselves, we are forever unable to totally comprehend this “everything.” This has two critical effects on us: it demands humility—we don’t know enough to either protest or approve. And, adoration is spontaneous. We become aware that we are in the presence of a reality that cannot be used, packaged, or grasped on any other terms than are given to us by God. We open our hands and receive.
Verb four: God bestowed. The “what” God bestowed is grace; the “how” God bestowed is “freely.” (1:6) Translators have a hard time catching the unique quality of this verb. It occurs only twice in the New Testament and never in classical Greek writings. Luke uses it to convey Gabriel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation, where she is addressed as “favored one.” (Luke 1:28) Here, it expresses God’s action of bestowing grace on us, but it has behind it an emphatic energy expressive of sheer extravagance. God drenches us with grace, his favor, his pleasure in us, his delight in giving us what we could never imagine or guess.
Ephesians asks us to get comfortable with largeness, with the sheer immen-sity of the world in which we are growing up in Christ. Every part of the land-scape, every shift in the weather, every conversation, every person we meet, every book we read provides a different and unique slant on what is involved: God’s grace activated, God’ grace in motion—in us. It is not our aim or our business to figure out God’s immensity. We are simply invited to get used to abundance.
Verb five: God lavished. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” (Eph. 1:7-8) While the word “bestowed” is used only once in Ephesians, the word “lavish” is everywhere. It is used 78 times in the New Testament in its various forms, with Paul being responsible for over half, 45 of them. When it comes to God’s grace, hyperboles are understatements.
Verb six: God made known. “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will.” (1:8-9) In other words, we are not in the dark. We are in on what God does. We are not intended to be kept in a state of ignorance, asking no questions. But—and this is critical—what God makes known to us is “the mystery of his will.” “Mystery” here refers to something like the inside story of the way God does things. This knowledge isn’t about God dumping information on us, but instead, God giving us insight and wisdom.
One of the criticisms, with good reason, of modern education is that so much of it centers on dates and figures, explanations and definitions, how things work, how to use a library, doing experiments in a laboratory. None of this is without usefulness, but is often has little to do with becoming a mature person, with growing up. We know a thing, a truth, a person only in relationship. There is a great deal of impersonal knowledge, but there is no impersonal wisdom.
Verb seven: God gathers up. “To gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:10) “Gather up” is the summary verb in this sequence that makes us insiders to the comprehensive and action-filled conditions in the cosmos where we are maturing, becoming our created and redeemed selves, practicing resurrection.
When we review the verbs, the striking thing is that it is Jesus Christ who reveals and executes each of these actions, and everything takes places “to the praise of God’s glory.” This is our destiny, this is what we are made for: a grand celebration in the presence of God. And, although each of us is generously included in all seven verbs of God’s activity, there is not a single one commanding us to do something. This long introductory sentence places us in a cosmos in which God starts everything. Absolutely everything. The practice of resurrection is not a do-it-yourself self-help project. It is God’s project and he is engaged full-time in carrying it out. Our invitation is to receive. All is gift. Grace is everywhere. God in Christ is actively doing for and in us everything involved in living Christ’s resurrection life. So what is there left for us to do? Receive the gift. And in doing so, you will no longer be lost in the cosmos. You’ll be right at home. Amen.