Todays readings for the 8th Sunday of Pentecost 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 Psalm 24 Ephesians 1:1-14 Mark 6:14-29
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
The letter to the Ephesians is almost certainly not written by St Paul, but is a letter from the next generation, which takes up and expands many of Paul’s themes. It is modeled on the letter to the Colossians but while it is quite similar in some ways it is different in others and reflects the different emphasis of its author. We cannot know who wrote this letter but from the things it contains we can presume that it was not written for a Jewish audience but for a gentile one. It was also not written to a specific group of people but instead written as a letter for circulation among a group of churches.
It is important to understand that our modern ideas about authorship only developed during the last hundred years or so and the act of attributing a letter you had written yourself to one of the people you admired and respected was actually an attempt to give honour rather than a piece of shady dealing. The writer of this letter is attempting to say what he or she thought Paul would have said at this juncture, to a group of people who have not met the Apostle Paul. We know that it is not written by St Paul because even though it is similar to some of Paul’s letters, primarily Colossians, there are big differences in the vocabulary and also the way this writer uses terms that are familiar in Paul’s writings but in a quite different way. If you are interested we can talk about all those things later.
The reason why we continue to read and learn from this letter is that, regardless of who wrote, it is filled with good things for us. And because it was a letter not directed to a particular church with a particular set of problems, and because it is written to a gentile audience, which, of course, we are, it makes it very appropriate to us. When the early Church Fathers were deciding what went into the NT they chose this letter along with others because they believed that it would help those in the future to live out their Christian lives.
So let us have a look at what the letter actually says. It begins as do all letters with a greeting. It greets the readers in the name of Paul, and that is doing honour to the great apostle who has founded so many churches. The bit that says it is to the saints at Ephesus is not in the earliest copies so was quite possibly added later, the first ones just say “to the saints who are faithful in Christ Jesus”- and that is us, isn’t it? This letter is written to the faithful and passed down through the centuries.
The writer then wishes us grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, which of course, is a traditional salutation. God’s grace is the key thing that separates Christianity from all other world religions. The idea that the great God of the universe loves each of us personally and is prepared to give us the free gift of his love is a revolutionary one. Grace is the thing that characterizes God and should characterize us too, as his people. And peace, as we have seen with Jesus and his miracles as we have been reading Mark’s gospel, is God’s great gift to mankind. Human beings so often choose conflict, fear and doubt, Jesus brings peace.
The first section of the letter, that we read this morning, is a Eulogy on Salvation and starts by giving God praise and honour. This formula of blessing God, is of course, an inheritance from the Jewish way of doing things. We read it over and over, particularly in the Psalms, don’t we? I have always thought it was a bit strange to think that we could give God blessing, but really it is giving God praise, just as it is in the Psalms. It is a right response for us to praise God for what he has done for us, and the first thing that this writer gives thanks for is that God has blessed us in Christ. This, of course, is a significant departure from the Psalms because the idea of Jesus being God’s son in a special sense is a new concept, which has come with the Christian faith. And it is very important here as this letter is concerned with what Jesus has done, in salvation and what he continues to do.
It is through Jesus that we have adoption as children of God; through Jesus that we are given his grace; and particularly, through his blood that we have received redemption and forgiveness. We are accustomed to hearing this but just pause a moment and think of the difference that it makes to our faith. We don’t have to offer sacrifices, we don’t have to do good deeds or great and marvelous acts to be accepted by God, all we have to do is have faith in Jesus, in his death and resurrection, and we are saved and adopted by God. No wonder this writer can’t contain his praise.
And God, he tells us, planned all this before the foundation of the world. Could God have known that it would all go wrong? Yes, certainly God could have known, or at the very least that by giving us free will God was taking a risk that it would. But there was always a plan for salvation- God wanted us to be in relationship, and not a distant one either but God wanted us to be children, beloved and cherished. God also wanted us to holy and blameless so he had to deal with sin as well and all that, God did through the person of Jesus.
Let’s just think about what that means. Since the first century, when this was written, we have a much greater understanding of the cosmos- its beauty, its enormous size, its infinite possibility. God is the creator of worlds beyond worlds, things we can’t even imagine and yet, at the same time you were precious to God and God made a plan for your salvation. When we look at creation we marvel at its beauty and majesty, its infinite variety and enormous scope and we feel like tiny ants, or smaller, like microscopic bacteria, but the great God of the cosmos chose you to be adopted as a child, precious and honoured, as it says in Isaiah 43. And what is all this for? Why? Why us?
And the answer is in order that we might praise God and join in the perichoretic dance. God is trinity, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, or, in our more familiar language, the Father, the creator, the Son or redeemer, and the Holy Spirit who through her presence sustains the whole world. And these three are one, totally integrated, in what the Greeks called perichoresis, being in one another, part of one another. But is this great Trinity just sitting around being? No, God is engaged in a dance that keeps the whole universe in being- it is the great dance of creation and at the same time it is the great dance of redemption and the great dance that sustains the universe. And we are invited to be part of the dance because as the writer says here we have obtained an inheritance that we might live for God’s praise and glory. We tend to focus on the small things of our day to day life- and we think often about our role here on earth serving and loving our neighbours, but today we are lifting our eyes to see the great patterns of the universe made by our dancing God. The most amazing part is that we are called to participate. And, of course, we do participate as we go about our small day to day lives. As we live, we take part in God’s great dance. And when we worship God and share in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we are tasting the universal and eternal. God is here in our worship.
And it is because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we are able to be part of God’s great dance- it is the pledge or promise of what is to come in eternity, and what is to come for us as we are transformed into complete children of God, beings like God. It takes my breath away to think that I will be able to spend the whole of eternity praising God and joining God in the dance that sustains the universe. It is joy beyond imagining that God has in store for us. And, you know, it has begun now, we are part of the Kingdom of God here and now. When we lift our eyes to God, and praise and honour God, we begin to experience that joy, and we take the first steps of the dance.
Life can be hard and wearisome, our joints ache and there is a never ending list of tasks to do and then the priest calls us to serve our brothers and sisters inside and outside the church, but we have all chosen to live as God Kingdom. It is easy to forget that sometimes. This week, let us make a pact with one another to lift our hearts in thanks and praise to our great God, who has given us life, taken away our sins and breathed a new spirit into us. This week, let’s choose to dance with God every day.