Monthly Archives: July 2021

So What?

If you have been following readings from Ephesians, you may remember Paul has first covered “theory”. He has talked about the blessings received through Christ, the dangers of that time (not only as Paul was a prisoner), and the unity of Jew and Gentile in a shared faith. So we come to Ephesians 4:1-16 (or 1-24), and Paul comes to the consequences of faith.

The first thing is unity, mutual dependence – according to one commentator “the fundamental principle of corporate life”. The focus of this unity is not common ritual or practice, but one Lord. The body looks to him, the Spirit comes from Him, the faith (and baptism) are in Him.There is great danger when unity is focused elsewhere – in a building, in a denomination, in habit. These destroy unity, and provide no base for humility, gentleness, patience and love. On the other hand, loyalty and commitment to God in Christ lead on to these. This is an important part of what Paul is saying. “All life should be lived as an expression of and response to God’s calling”

Then (vv7-16) comes a surprise. Rather than the victor demanding tribute, Christ gives gifts, to equip the Church and facilitate the ministry of all its people. The pattern is clearly unity, not in uniformity but in diversity – a variety of gifts used to promote mature faith which makes a resilient body of believers not easily mislead. It is interesting that the most “gifted” (for all are gifted) are themselves to be seen as gifts, not an authority figures, and are themselves part of the body. No role here for superheroes, just the call for every one to use what gifts they have, and encourage others to do so.

If Christian people are to be drawn together by loyalty to one Lord, and enriched by gifts deployed for the good of all, then in 4:17-24, (missed in our Sunday sequence – we start at v25 next week) as in 4:1 they are to live a new life. The selfish, morally blind life is to be abandoned in favour of a new way. The knowledge of God is important morally as well as intellectually, and Christian life is lived for God’s purpose, not simply our own pleasure or advantage. So v23 you are “to be made new in the attitude of your minds”.

There is no shortage here of specific, and demanding, instructions (you may want to take away and think about those that are new, or that seem to affect you directly) – but everything is linked back to faith, and to what Christians have been given. Nothing here is “because I say so” or “we have always done it this way and so must you”. Paul’s appeal is that Christians should live “a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” 4.1 Those who are most aware of how much they have been given, how greatly they need rescue from themselves and their world, are most likely to be ready to hear and respond to the call to a new life. I hope that includes us.

Strength of (God’s) character

We often admire people who show great strength of character. They have a hard time, and manage to cope, even to encourage others. There is nothing new about this – Paul knew that the philosophers of his time would say much the same, arguing about how to achieve this.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-15 (which we read today on 25 July, the feast of James the Apostle, replacing the readings in the regular sequence which would have given us Ephesians 3:14-21), Paul has an answer. Whatever good qualities Christians show, they are not a personal possession or achievement, but the gift of God.

The comparison he uses is clay pots – comparatively cheap (compared to bronze or precious metal), and always fragile. Although they can be chipped or broken, they can be filled with all sorts of precious things.

James was a fisherman, perhaps with a bit of a temper, if we think of his nickname “Son of Thunder”. One of the twelve apostles, he was the first to die as a martyr – before Peter was arrested and then miraculously released. (Acts 12). What was the point of that? Somehow the twin events showed God at work in frail humans. They were not guaranteed protection, but given support and purpose – as Paul says in this passage.

We are often perplexed, by the things happening around us, and not least our own reactions and failures. But there is no need for despair (verse 8), as God leads us on and provides what we need. We shan’t always look good, or come out of things with a glowing reputation, but we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us on and through all, and hopefully to allow even our failures to show something of God’s love and patience.

Oh heavens!

Have you ever thought that you might end up in heaven – and discover that you really didn’t like it there? (CS Lewis developed the idea in his book “The Great Divorce”). It’s not that I want to worry you, or cause nightmares, but it will certainly be very different!

The idea came to me as I thought about Ephesians 2:11-22. The question of Christians from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds doesn’t seem very important to us now. The Ephesians – like most of us – came to faith from various positions, but few were of Jewish family. Paul is quite definite about there now being just one family and household of faith, which might seem uncontroversial.

Until you think about what it will be like to experience family life with all sorts of other Christians. How will you take to South American Pentecostals, or Asian members of ancient churches, or first nation people, or . . In heaven we shall be brought to understand that the God who has brought us together is greater and more precious than any of our distinctive traditions, or the families we come from, the lives we have lead . .

So, it may be all right in heaven, but perhaps we should start preparing now? After all, if we can think about what really matters and lasts for eternity, and what is going to be left behind, would it not smooth the transition? Or do we find that we are too attached to some temporary things, and want to say that they are really much more important than – well, than God might think?

Back to normal?

The Covid pandemic is not “over”, but we are thinking of a return to “normal”. Our reading from Ephesians (Ephesians 1:3-14) may take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. The letter begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work. Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about (as soon as we are allowed!) and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “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”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at this point. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of the last year lead on?

Why not tell this story now? Because it doesn’t fit with a secularised history. But our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not a story re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – life and love in bad times as well as good. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving lockdown and going back to routine. But while the world is tempted to write another history, we take with us the strength gained from the story written here. We know that there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

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.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Fireworks

We like to do well, and to encourage others – celebrating family and friends’ achievements. But we can overdo it! A proper ambition can become stressful competition of the most unhelpful sort. What to one person is friendly rivalry and motivation is to another a load of expectation and the fear of failure.

Paul had a problem with the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). He found that they were preferring to listen to other teachers, whose example was harmfully competitive, perhaps with a financial motive. His reaction is not to enter the competition, but to “boast”. There seems no doubt that “the man” who had the revelations he talks about is himself, but he prefers to boast about his weakness, so that he can focus on the strength God supplies.

This may seem remote from our experience, yet it has importance. On the one hand, we are warned against being competitive in telling stories of our religious experience. There is no merit in “experiences” unless they lead on to a changed character, and a life of faithful and effective service – and that can be seen without publicity. At the same time, we are reminded of God’s help, to provide what is needed (yes, not always what we want, or even think we need!). The focus should be on God, not on self-dramatisation.

On the other hand, those who choose Christian leaders, whether deciding which group to join, or which person gets a job, need to beware. The qualities that matter do not include an inflated sense of self-importance, nor stories of dramatic spiritual experience. If there is faith, the experience will show in gifts and character. If there is only a desire for excitement or the unusual, there is danger.