Who Does God Say We Are?

Sunday, July 15, 2018
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 10)

Focus Theme:
Who Does God Say We Are?

Focus Prayer:
God of hosts, before whom David danced and sang, Mother of mercy and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all things cohere: whenever we are confronted by lust, hate, or fear, give us the faith of John the baptizer, that we may trust in the redemption of your Messiah. Amen.

Focus Scripture:
Ephesians 1:3-14

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, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He 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 that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 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. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 Psalm 24 or
Amos 7:7-15 Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Focus Questions:

1. How would you describe God’s grand plan for everything?

2. What challenges do you think churches face in every time and place?

3. What do you think brings people to church?

4. When have you experienced God “putting things back together” in your own life?

5. Who are we, in the grand scheme of things?

by Kate Matthews

What a wonderful opportunity we have, for several Sundays in a row, to reflect on the Letter to the Ephesians, and yet, if we choose only one of those Sundays, there is perhaps no more beautiful passage than this week’s text from the opening of Paul’s letter to the little struggling church in Ephesus.

It’s true that churches struggle in every age and every place, and their issues and challenges are often very similar, even in very different times and very different circumstances. The scholars make this clear: empire, in one form or another; the surrounding culture, with its many and powerful messages; our drive to divide and be divided; and the questioning human spirit, longing to understand our lives, both individually and communallyÖa heady mix that might lead us to experience Paul’s exuberant poetry as an uplifting message of both meaning and hope because it fixes us firmly on the sure foundation of God’s own purposes and love.

No catechism here

No, this is not a catechism or systematic statement of beliefs: it is heart language as much as head language, as poetry and praise ought to be. Like all of our talk about God, it is partial, too, for our human comprehension is limited. Lewis Donelson says that Paul’s “propositions are flashes of insights into the being of God. They are true, but God is still transcendent.”

First, it’s good to note some background material on the text, including the authorship of the letter: while Paul or one writing in his name probably wrote the letter, we can think of the author simply as “Paul.” Also, scholars debate whether the letter was actually written to the church in Ephesus or as a circular letter for many churches eager to receive further teaching and guidance from the great apostle-teacher, Paul. In any case, we’re not just overhearing a message meant for only one church but one meant for us today, in each of our churches as well.

A burst of exuberance

Perhaps my favorite scholarly note is that our passage of many run-on sentences (at least that’s what they would have been called by my junior-high English teacher) was originally, in Greek, only one very long sentence. That’s not only remarkable to consider; it illustrates the exuberance of Paul once he got wound up and launched into his writing. His sense of gratitude and wonder at everything God has done, is doing, and has promised yet to do, leads him to soaring heights of praise in which he acknowledges God as both blessed and blessing.

In fact, this text is so beautiful, especially Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message (which makes it much more accessible and moving as well, as it does with all of the Epistles) that very little background may be needed for us to be deeply moved, deeply inspired, by its message.

How it all works

In recent years, for example, we keep learning more and more amazing things about the way the universe works. Something called “the God particle,” that is, the Higgs-Boson particle, has been discovered, but it seems to provoke both wonder and questioning more than clear and firm answers about “the meaning of it all.”

It seems to me that Paul is, in a sense, exploring a similar question when he sings out his praise for “the big picture” of God’s purposes. He’s certainly not taking a scientific approach, or even a philosophical one, to his work. Instead, he sings from deep faith, from intuition that sometimes whispers and suggests, and sometimes bursts out in assured conviction of God’s goodness and mercy, of God’s amazing grace. That’s what this first part of the Letter to the Ephesians is about: God’s amazing grace.

God puts things back together

In his introduction to the letter, Eugene Peterson writes evocatively about the brokenness of our lives and the way God puts things back together, as they should be: Paul “begins with an exuberant exploration of what Christians believe about God, and then, like a surgeon skillfully setting a compound fracture, ‘sets’ this belief in God into our behavior before God so that the bones–belief and behavior–knit together and heal” (The Message).

That’s all part of “the plan” that continues to unfold right before our eyes, if we take the time to notice, the great plan of God to bring everything together in one marvelous unity in Christ. God is working this great wonder in every age, in every day, in each of us and all of us, together. When we ponder who God is, and how God is, we get a sense of who we are as creatures formed, lovingly, in God’s own image.

The plan may be an ancient one, rooted long before the earth was created, but it stretches forward, too, far into the future, and we have our own place within it, in this moment of history. To live meaningfully in this moment, however, we need to see ourselves not only as heirs, as those who receive these blessings, but as ancestors as well, for God has an eye on all that will come after us, and a grace-filled purpose for it all.

Singing God’s goodness

A second, related, line of thought relates to our human response to God’s great goodness, of which Paul sings. I have often heard folks who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” speak of their deep longing to find a place and a community of worship where they feel both deeply moved and a sense of belonging. Interestingly, these are people who lead lives that have many marks of discipleship: healing the sick and broken, working for justice, sharing generously, forgiving and seeking reconciliation and peace. But they long for a spiritual community where they can sense, with others, God’s presence in quiet moments in community, in ritual, in music, in worship.

We might be surprised by how many “Spiritual But Not Religious” folks are actually hungry for traditional ritual and liturgy. Barbara Brown Taylor is one of many writers who draw our attention to our worship life and to our spiritual hunger: in her sermon, “He Who Fills All in All” she wonders if we are offering the spiritually hungry “a place where they may sense the presence of God, among people who show some sign of having been changed by that presence.”

Longing for the divine

As Anthony Robinson has written so powerfully about evangelism, “People want to experience the divine, the sacred, the holy. They are dying for want of grace, wonder, mystery, and not for want of by-laws, committees, and sign-up lists. At least they don’t want those things instead of God.”

Here’s a thought: we might accompany our time of reflection and prayer with images like the dramatic photographs of the universe returned to us by our long-distance spacecraft, which may inspire awe at times as effectively as our words and music and sanctuaries. And then we could picture our cities and countryside in many different settings, our neighborhoods and the people they hold, nature, including images of the very smallest things, even drawings of particles and other such incomprehensible objects. Such use of the visual and the imagination might make it a bit easier to ponder God’s grand plan for all things.

Justice and worship, worship and justice

Yes, the ethics of discipleship will be addressed in this letter to the church in Ephesus, but we Christians today seem to spend far more time talking about the rules than raising the quality of our time with God together, in worship, and on our own, in prayer-time. This might be especially true of us in the United Church of Christ, as we follow our passionate commitment to justice and healing for a broken world.

We work hard on the issues, but we also need to be able to return to a base camp where we can renew our spirits, where we can tap into the deep roots of our tradition, the ancient songs of praise and lament, the blessings that we have received and will share with those who come after us. We have, after all, been brought together not only to work but to pray and praise, to remember and remind, to celebrate and to hope as well. We can draw on that time together and find the courage to hope, as the Letter to the Ephesians will say in two more chapters, for “far more than all we can ask or imagine” (3:20).

A voice from the border

One of the most powerful commentaries on this text comes from the voices assembled by Cl·udio Carvalhaes, who shares the responses to this text from people who live in Nogales, Mexico, near the border with the United States (a most timely resource). They “engage the Bible from their own social locationÖdrawing connections to their own lives,” and they ask, “What is God telling us to consider, to do, to change, to move, to engage, or to transform here today?”

I appreciated not only their questions and observations, including God’s call to participate in the healing of all things, but also Carvalhaes’ description of Ordinary Time. I was taught that Ordinary Time describes the numbering of Sundays, but Carvalhaes connects it to “the normative, the standard, the expected in lifeÖ.the daily stuff of life fueled with extraordinary encounters with God.” This is where God is at work, just as much as in those highest heavens. It is a beautiful thought on a warm summer morning in Ordinary Time, and provides rich material for our reflections together.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Rachel Carson, 20th century
“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

Socrates, 5th century B.C.E.
“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”

Jodi Picoult, Change of Heart, 21st century
“…words are like nets–we hope they’ll cover what we mean, but we know they can’t possibly hold that much joy, or grief, or wonder.”

Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, 20th century
“When every hope is gone, ‘when helpers fail and comforts flee,’ I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.”

Ray Bradbury, 20th century
“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“… but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, 20th century
“We live in all we seek.”

Anne Lamott, 21st century
“We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.”

William Shakespeare, 17th century
“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about [God].”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 20th century
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

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