Sunday, January 05, 2020

Epiphany Sunday

Ephesians 1.3-14
11 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, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

There are no ropes on a boat.

There are lines, there are sheets, there are halyards, but there are no ropes on a boat. Maybe power boats have ropes, but how would I know? Ignoring that question, I want you to go home today understanding that there are no ropes on a boat.

Mostly it’s a way to torment new sailors. They will innocently point to something that in their mind resembles a rope and maybe ask a question like “what does that rope do?” and we give the standard response. There are no ropes on a boat. There are lines, there are sheets, there are halyards, but there are no ropes on a boat.

It’s not that we’re being difficult—okay, maybe a little difficult—we’re simply doing that sailors have done since the ark cast off (lifted off?), and that is to introduce people to the complexity of the thing they seek to learn. And it takes time. Everything on the boat has multiple names as well: jib, jenny, genoa, foresail or blade (that’s five) for that sail at the front that’s not the spinnaker—that’s the one that looks like a balloon dragging the boat.

Clearly we are at the midpoint between last racing season and the season to come. But that’s not why I share all this. I share all this because there are always things that are foreign to us, but known to others. Or things that we know well, but completely foreign to others. Like, for example, going to church. So far today it’s narthex, greeting, bulletin, pew, prelude, announcements, peace, prayer, hymn, get the picture. And if you give this list to someone who has never come to church before, you might lose them at narthex and say a bunch of other words that don’t make a lot of sense with the exception of announcements. Everyone understands announcements.

Now, this isn’t an evangelism sermon (not yet), I simply want you to understand the extent to which we are engaging in a slightly complex endeavor that will be unfamiliar to most. Actually, it’s slightly less than slightly, but I don’t think there is a word for that, so we’ll go with slightly. It’s not complicated like sailing, but it’s certainly unfamiliar (to many) in the same way.

So what do you do? Some churches have tried to eliminate “insider language” like narthex, and opted for lobby instead. And I guess that’s okay, but part of the joy of joining something and having a new experience is learning. It’s certainly part of the appeal of sailing— twenty years later I know that I have barely scratched the surface—and that makes it more engaging for me, not less.

And if you take away all the insider or churchy words that describe rooms and rituals, can you stop there? What about words related to faith and belief, do you take them away too? Grace, redemption, salvation—are these words too churchy? I expect few would want to ditch grace, even though it’s an insider word that describes God’s unconditional love for us. It’s part of the learning curve of faith, as is the word faith, now that I mention it.

Speaking about faith, one of the ways we learn the faith is through reciting creeds (we will recite our creed next week) or memorizing a catechism. A catechism—now that we’re confronting churchy words—is a form of instruction, usually in a question-and-answer format. If you learn a catechism, you are engaged in catechesis. The adjective is catechetical (you undertake catechetical instruction), which is not only fun to say, but an important step in a life of faith.

So why have we arrived at catechetical instruction, of all places? Well, because Ephesians said we should. St. Paul (or more likely someone writing in Paul’s name) wants to tell us about predestination, unity, and glory, more or less in that order, and he wants us to understand how unique we are—with something that is available to everyone. So let’s do first things first.

No one is predestined to win $70,000,000 on Tuesday, but buying a ticket will increase your odds—but not by much. Predestination doesn’t work that way, because if it did, we could point to any misfortune and say ‘that was their destiny,’ it was meant to be. In fact, it’s more complex than that. Misfortune, and even good fortune, comes from a melange of external factors, sheer randomness, and the choices we make in life with the ever-present gift of freewill. We live in the tension between God’s control over our lives, and the extent to which we live in a complex collusion of human factors.

So what does Ephesians say? First, we are called to praise the God who chose us “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” In other words, this is our destiny: to be holy and blameless. And just to be clear, he says it again: “In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” It is God’s desire (God’s will) that we be God’s children—not just to reflect what God wants, but for God’s pleasure.

In other words, we have been adopted as God’s children—this is our destiny—that we might be holy and blameless in the same way Jesus is holy and blameless. It brings God great pleasure to have this bond with us—in Christ, and to each other. And not just us, but all people, because there is no limit to this potential bond. And this takes us to unity, and what we are destined to experience together. Let’s listen again:

With all wisdom and understanding, God 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.

Again, reaching our destiny gives God pleasure, but in this case it’s a larger project than adoption, maybe the largest project of all—the end of time. Jesus prayed and said “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and his goal was unity, “unity to all things” in this world and the next. It is, therefore, God’s desire (and our destiny) that this realm and the heavenly realm be one, and we each experience the unity this implies.

The question that follows, of course, is what do we do in the meantime? What do we do while we wait for the fulfilment that will come at the end of time? And for that answer, we need some catechism. Perhaps the most famous (in our Presbyterian tradition) is called the Westminster Shorter Catechism, originally written for the instruction of children. This is perhaps why it’s so profound, profound in it’s clarity and simplicity. And the author of Ephesians would approve. The first question is all we need:

Q: What is the chief aim of humanity?
A: To glorify God and enjoy God each day.

It’s certainly simpler than the difference between lines, sheets, and halyards, and that is no accident. The first question of the “shorter” catechism is meant to stick with you, to live in your heart and mind, to challenge and guide in the face of the everyday. So taken in reverse, do you enjoy God everyday? It is actually a tough question, but one worth pondering. If half of my purpose in life is to enjoy God each day, how will I do it?

Giving thanks—that’s a great place to start. It’s not the obligatory “thank you” that your mother made you say, but the ‘Thanks!” that you spontaneously say when someone does something really thoughtful for you, when you are really enjoying the gift. And then there is wonder, the enjoyment we find in the people we love, or the things we treasure, or the time we have been given. And then there is the mystery: enjoying God’s grace, the inexplicable, inexpressible, and often undeserved love God has for us.

And to glorify God? First, we glorify God by living well, reflecting God’s glory in what we say and do. And second, we glorify God because God deserves our praise. The author of all that is, the source of love and mercy, the light of the world—our words fail to express the glory that surrounds us. And so, we become students of glory, seeking examples of God’s glory and seeking ways to express that glory. All in the light of Jesus the Christ.

Chosen, adopted, destined—we seek to unify heaven and earth, and in doing so, give God the glory, now and ever. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home