This Week’s Lectionary Sermon

To find other sermons for Lectionary Year B, go to Menu on the home page and find Year B Lectionary Sermons.  They are listed in ascending order, so the Advent series is at the bottom.

This summer I am using the Ephesians texts in the Revised Common Lectionary Year B for a series I’m calling “Our Spiritual Blessings in Christ.” This is the second in the series. Scroll down to see the rest of the series in ascending order.

Jesus Unites Us

Ephesians 2:11-22…Proper 11B

I love books.  I have always loved them.  In fact, books are like a security blanket to me.  When I was in high school, I took books home even when my homework was finished, just in case I needed them.  I know.  That’s a little crazy.  At least I have found other people who have the same relationship with books, so maybe it’s not abnormal.

I have been on a quest for the past year or so, delving into books, seeking deeper understanding about faith, about the Bible, and about how the Bible is meant to be regarded by God’s people.  I have found some authors whose writings are so intriguing, I can’t get enough of them.

I think the books are a symbol for what gives me confidence: knowledge.  That is probably no surprise to you, since I like to give the impression that I am well-read and intelligent.  After eight years together, you know that all too well.

There is something ironic about this.  Some of my reading has been about the historical development of faith, and learning all the ways that we have packaged our theology.   In the process, it is becoming more and more clear to me that knowledge is a false comfort when it comes to faith.  The biblical story seems to tell us that God wants us to rely on him, not on knowing about him.

But I kept reading, and highlighting things, and taking notes.  My knowledge grew and grew.  In some areas, ideas became more integrated, but in others, I became more confused.  Maybe the next book would have the answers, or the next.  Gradually I am realizing that none of them can fully explain God’s relationship with us, nor the full intent of the Scriptures or even their meaning.

Now I don’t want to dismiss the value of careful study, and of seeking greater understanding of the Scriptures.  That is important to us as God’s people.  We read and study the Bible so we can be familiar with the ways of God.  We even say the Bible is our authority.

But, like every other good gift from God, over-emphasis on the Scriptures—and on knowledge—is a problem.  It is so much easier to look at words on a page than to wait on God.  Knowing what the Bible says is not the same as trusting God.  And the Bible is not on the same level as God in terms of authority.  God is sovereign and all-knowing and has used the Bible to communicate with us.  But the Bible is static, the canon closed.  By contrast, God is living.  God’s guidance, love, and forgiveness are fresh every day, suited perfectly to each situation.

Our churches and our society have been overtaken by arguments about what the Bible does or does not say.  What is interesting is that the arguments on both sides of most issues are reasoned and plausible.  Everybody has biblical, sociological, and scientific evidence to back up their claims.  And everybody seems to be suspicious of the motives of those on the other side.  How quickly the arguments become nasty.

It is sad because Christian people, all of whom are trying to be faithful to God, are accusing one another of being unfaithful.  One side is striving to be obedient to Scripture.  The other side is trying to model the compassion and justice of Jesus.  Is either of them wrong?  No.  But how can they both be right?

All that reading has not helped me get closer to a solution.  I think that is because the Scriptures were not given to us to provide answers.  That is not God’s way.  God expects us to depend on him, not on quoted verses or doctrines, even if they seem perfectly suited to prove our point.

But we live in a society that expects black and white answers.  We expect somebody to be right, and that means everybody else is wrong.  But that simply does not line up with the ways of God.  God tells us that rightness is found in Him alone.

Ephesians 2 really arrested me this week.  Recently I made some foolish, offensive remarks that I had to apologize for.  I misunderstood a minor decision that was made, and I overreacted.  What had me in its grip was the need to be right.  To let everybody know how things should be done around here.  I’m the pastor, so I ought to know!

But whatever knowledge I claim to have is useless without love.  Paul said that in 1 Cor. 13.  And knowledge is also useless when it comes to the unity of the church.  What does the writer of Ephesians tell us about that?

First he described all the goodness of God in chapter 1—all the riches of salvation and hope and the privilege of being called God’s beloved children.  Next, in the first part of Ephesians 2, the writer reminds the believers in Ephesus that both groups share the same spiritual origin: They were dead in their sins but God made them alive together in Jesus Christ, by grace, through faith in him.  A tidy summary of the gospel, that.

But the Ephesian believers are at odds with each other.  Their Jewish and Gentile backgrounds make it hard for them to come together.  Paul doesn’t use logical arguments to persuade the believers to play nice with each other.  Pointing out their common humanity or their shared beliefs wasn’t enough to break down centuries-old barriers between Jews and Gentiles.  The truth about their salvation was not enough!  Only Jesus could accomplish it through his living Spirit working among them.

The writer points to the cross of Jesus as the way we are brought together perfectly.  He says “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (v. 14)  And the cross of Jesus keeps doing it continuously.

Do you see?  Understanding what happened on the cross isn’t the key.  Knowing all about what Jesus did and taught isn’t the key.  The key is Jesus himself, and where he unites us is on the cross.

It is striking that God uses a brutal image used to torture criminals as the place where we are brought together.  I would rather meet in a pleasant place, wouldn’t you?  The cross assaults our carefully defended arguments and egos.  It challenges us to go beyond understanding to trust.  We can trust the one who takes all the suffering into himself.

Do you remember what it was that got us all into trouble in the first place?  What was the one thing Adam and Eve were forbidden to do in the garden of Eden?  Eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  It is the sinister, deceptive character of knowledge that gets us into trouble every time.  We think that if we know what is right and good, we are better than anybody else.  And we can wield power to make our rights or our righteousness hold sway over others.  This does violence to relationships, and to the world in general.  Suffering is the inevitable result.

Boy, don’t I know it.  Careless words hurt people.  With the stroke of a few keys on my computer and hitting “send,” I have done more damage than I ever thought I would.  Words matter.  Family feuds are ignited by them.  Great projects are undermined.  Religious people fight over words.  We all want things to be done our way, because we are right, right, right.  And we end up acting as though we speak on God’s behalf.  It is what I hate to see in others, but I have done it myself.

As God’s people, here and everywhere else, we are going to have to accept the fact that there are different perspectives on what God has revealed, and it is impossible in many cases to convince everyone else that our claims are the right ones.

Jesus walks into the middle of all of this and commands silence.  The image of his cross is lifted up, and what do we see?  We see the one who said, “Do your worst.  Unleash your frustration and murderous thoughts, and do the violence to me.  Don’t do it to each other.  Let me be the scapegoat you are so determined to blame for all the ills of this world.  Let’s see what good it does you.”

And then, then, he transforms that horrible image of cruelty into the most profound symbol of love.  The one who is right and good above all else takes the punishment we think somebody deserves (not us), even though he of all people is the last to earn it.  In his flesh he makes us one by showing how we are all the same in our sin.  He exposes our arguments and barriers for the flimsy, ridiculous things they are.  As we gaze at the cross together, all of our disagreements fall away.

I don’t know how he does that!  And I will never know.  Neither will you.  But because he invites us to that place, we are able to forgive one another, as he has forgiven us.  He is first in line to give up his right to superiority, and he invites us to do the same.  He resists changing people’s attitudes—even though he could do that—and tells us to stop trying to change others.  It is futile, and will just make us angry at one another, over and over.

The arguments will crop up again.  We will keep making mistakes, and hurting one another.  It is no wonder we need to gather every seven days to gaze at the cross together, over and over.  We need Jesus to unite us continuously, because without him we will surely fail.

Life is full of contradictions.  Each one of us is full of contradictions.  We say and do things we regret, and we suffer for it.  Then we expend effort avoiding certain subjects, or even each other.  We waste time and effort bearing grudges that don’t serve us well at all.

We will always disagree about many things.  Better that we listen to one another and try to seek common ground, than to focus on trying to change one another.  There are enough problems in this world, in this community, that we can spend our effort trying to solve instead of harping at each other.  To me, that is one of the greatest tragedies of our culture and the church.  How much time and energy has been spent on trying to convince one another of our positions, when the poor and hungry suffer from neglect?  Jesus asks us to pay attention to them, and care for them.  That may be the best way that he unites us, because then we will be too busy to argue.

My beloved books have not gotten me any closer to figuring out how to resolve the puzzles of faith than has Ephesians 2, and you.  The mess I made last week was addressed by leaders who faced it, and corrected me as we are told to do in Matthew 19.  Uncomfortable as it was, it was the church at its finest, speaking the truth in love, seeking to restore, allowing Jesus to keep us united.  I was humbled and embarrassed by what I had done, but I was forgiven.

The church is where the presence of Jesus Christ is the source and force of our unity.  As God’s people together, we are the prime exhibits of what the cross of Jesus really does for us, mysterious as it is.  We don’t need to know how it works.  All we are called to do is trust that it does work, because it is Jesus who makes it happen.   In himself, he actually, truly unites us in spite of our knowledge, in spite of our sin, in spite of our spite.  He has made us one.  Thanks be to God.

Our Spiritual Blessings in Christ, Week 1: “Every Spiritual Blessing

Ephesians 1:3-14…Proper 10B

Rev. Deb Mechler

            When my friends Indielou Dougnon and his wife Nema came from Mali for a Luke Society Conference, I remember driving them through the countryside of northwest Iowa to see our landscape and way of life.  Later, during a church presentation, someone asked Nema what she would remember most about Iowa.  Her reply was surprising to anyone who hasn’t been to Mali: “The roads.” 

            Having traveled in the region where the Dougnons live, I could appreciate her answer.  We traveled long distances where there were no roads whatsoever.  We struggled through dry river beds where there were no bridges.  It is no wonder that travel is almost impossible during the rainy season.

            We take our roads for granted, but they are an amazing blessing.  They enable so much of our way of life.  Our freedom to travel, transport goods, go to work and go to school all depend on good roads.

            Just so, the gifts of God’s forgiveness and all the other undeserved gifts from God are too easily taken for granted.  Yet they create the pathway for everything else God does for and with us.  Every aspect of our faith depends on the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ who died for us!

            We are embarking on series that will take us through highlights of the book of Ephesians.  I am calling the series “Our Spiritual Blessings in Christ.”  Today’s reading sets the tone for the rest of the book.  It reviews what God has done for us, and we can miss the impact of it if we read it too quickly.

            The opening of Ephesians is good news layered on more good news.  In fact, verses three to fourteen in the original are one long sentence that would horrify your high school English teacher.  It was a rhetorical device of the day, expressing enthusiasm.  What could evoke more excitement than the abundance of benefits we have through faith in Jesus Christ?   

            The verbs used in Ephesians 1 give us a clue about the good news.  God’s blessings are “lavished” on us.  God “freely bestows” them.  And what does God give us?  The list begins with “every spiritual blessing,” even though this is not a complete list.  We could not get them all into a few paragraphs, because once we start listing them, we realize that this catalog could go on and on.  But we get some of the basics in this introduction in chapter one. 

            First, there is the wondrous fact that we are chosen by God to be holy and blameless.  God fashioned each one of us as we are and declares us special.  God did not make a plan to make a few good human models and the rest would be duds.  Think of it: on this tiny speck of a planet in a vast universe God decided to make us and consider us members of the divine family. 

            The writer also cites our adoption as God’s children (v. 5).  Adoption is a wonderful picture of God’s love for us, for the act of adopting involves choosing someone on purpose.  Because we are God’s children, we have all the rights and favors that go along with it, not the least of which is an inheritance of goodness, meaning, and life that far surpasses any riches we might leave behind to our own children.

            Next we have grace (v. 6).  Someone figured out an acronym for grace: G.R.A.C.E. = God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.  When I think of grace, I think of the waters that flow over Niagara Falls.  If you have ever seen a waterfall like that, you may have wondered where all that water comes from.  It just keeps coming and coming.  God’s grace is like that.  It washes over us continually, and it is more than we need.   We can think of grace as God doing for us what we can never accomplish on our own.  That includes not only salvation, but the desire and power to do everything good that we are simply incapable of doing but want so much to do. 

            Redemption is the next gift (v. 7).  It is God’s act of reaching us in our sorry state, deciding to include us in the family, and making it so through the cross of Jesus.  We can think of it as our rescue when we consider where we would be without God’s lovingkindness.  This is reason for deep gratitude. 

            The next blessing listed forgiveness.  This gets personal.  We all have secrets that we hope other people will never find out about us.  But God knows, and God’s choice is to erase the shame of it.  God takes away the power of our rebellion and our petty sins to rule our lives.  God removes them “as far as the east is from the west,” as David says in Psalm 103 (v. 12).  God makes the loving choice to take our sins out of the picture.  They are gone completely.  What a relief!

            Besides all of this, God reveals the mystery of the divine will to us, and it is this: God’s plan is to “gather up all things in [Jesus Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.”  (v. 10)  So not only are we as God’s people given an amazing array of gifts, but God’s aim is to pull everything together.  Not just us, not just the global church, but all things in heaven and on earth.  Animals, people, computers, video games and airplanes, Asians and Mexicans, Disneyworld and Alcatraz.  Every thing and every one.  This might seem puzzling to us, but it is God’s prerogative.  It is the direction in which God is taking the universe. 

            Finally, these blessings are guaranteed and cannot be taken away.  We can refuse them, but God will not stop offering them to every single one of us.  We are marked with a permanent marker—the Holy Spirit, no less—as a pledge that God will never break.  Nothing—not even our own worst efforts to resist this—can wrestle us out of God’s hands, as Jesus proved on the cross, when we humans threw the worst we could imagine at him, and he lived beyond it. 

            Blessing after blessing.  This is the road that the rest of the book of Ephesians will travel in order to drive home the point of how rich we are as God’s children.  We don’t want to take any of it for granted, as we Americans take our roads for granted. 

You have heard the phrase “an embarrassment of riches.”  We might apply it to our relationship with God.  If we didn’t think it were disrespectful, we might consider God to be a fool, to lavish such gifts on us, ungrateful and fumbling as we usually are.  But God is no fool.  The creator of DNA and gravity and corn plants and babies is not careless.  God is pure love, self-giving, compassionate, and gracious.  God decided that this is how it is: we are God’s beloved and thus worthy of every good gift. Thanks be to God.