Beginning with Blessing
Amy, a disciple of Jesus Christ, to the saints who are in Seattle. Grace and Peace to you from our beloved Creator and from the Jesus the Messiah.
For the next five Sundays we’ll be hearing and dwelling in the book of Ephesians. Not a book, though, a letter. It was a letter beginning, like many letters do, with the address – much as I greeted you. Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus…to the saints who are in Ephesus…Grace to you and peace. Actually, it seems likely that it was probably written after Paul’s death by disciples of his in his style and not only to the church at Ephesus, but to churches all over the region. It’s still possible it was Paul – he had a special relationship with Ephesus, where he spent 3 years. I is a letter of encouragement and instruction. A letter to be read aloud in the congregation and circulated among many congregations. It is a letter not about a particular issue or conflict, like many epistles in the New Testament are, but content meant for the whole church. For our church, even.
It is an important letter for peacemaking churches – which we are but all who follow Jesus should be – and which we will hear more about as we explore subsequent chapters. It is a letter that is in two parts, like a diptych painting – two parts the face each other and work together. In the second part followers are called to action – the ethical response of just peace-making. But this response is based first on God’s action toward us, including reconciliation and peacemaking – all very specifically through the person and being of Christ Jesus.
Somewhat unusually in the New Testament letters, Ephesians begins with blessing and a prayer. Not just any blessing, it is the mother of all blessings. In its original Greek, verses 3-14 are all one long sentence. Paul or not, the author of this letter clearly has a great love for the church. Nothing’s ever quite the same through translation, but this is poetry. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing…” In that short sentence, triple the blessing. Possibly there are some hymn snippets or references in this and the rest of the chapter that are all testaments to the great love of God. The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen could ever tell. These words pour out and unroll that love and invitation like a scroll to the whole church, indeed to all God’s creation. And the prayer that follows is the urgent hope that God’s people will live up to and into their role as blessed children.
What is noticeable, almost immediately when you read – or maybe even when you hear – the first chapter of Ephesians, is the prominence with which the name of Christ is featured. If you have your bibles with you and turn to that first chapter of Ephesians, you can count it up. And not just Christ’s name but that all that is and will be is in relationship to Christ. Each of those ten plus times that Christ is mentioned, his name is accompanied by relationship words – prepositions – in, on, through, with. Often they are the same word in Greek en. You heard it already in that initial sentence of blessing: blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing.
Not only blessed in Christ, but chosen and adopted through him. Made into God’s children. This is where our theme for the Ephesians series grew from. We are God’s children, adopted into God’s family. We are joined together, with Jesus Christ as the family glue. We bear his name when we call ourselves Christians. Many of you have heard about the work of Pink Menno within the Mennonite church, advocating for and with LGBTQ people who are members and friends of the Mennonite church. The Pink Menno t-shirts this year at the Mennonite Church USA Assembly bore the slogan, “No longer strangers and aliens. One humanity. Una humanidad.” Through Christ we are not strangers to each other, we’ve been brought into the same family. It was this message of peace and reconciliation that Pink Mennos carried and wore all through the convention week. It was (I think) a conscious effort on the part of organizers to make the same call as the church leadership is doing when we remember that we are also in the same family as people who have migrated to the US from other nations and places. God’s family does not have boundaries.
I regularly listen to the NPR podcast Radiolab. Each program explores through sound and story a scientific idea. One episode a while back was about goodness – why does one organism help or offer kindness to another? Why do we humans do it? I’m trying to remember right, but I know that there was something about the biological imperative is to only give help to one’s family members, or those in one’s own group or species – that’s what will keep your gene pool going, or benefit you, since when you help your sister or cousin stay alive and since they share your genes, your genes will trump the other genes. (Take a look at this story – particularly around minute 11:00) But in and through Christ we’ve been adopted. We are one family. We have no need to one-up each other.
As God’s children, we receive an inheritance. We are family, after all. These riches are vast enough for all of us. In the Luke text we heard a confrontation between and a man and Jesus. The man wanted his brother’s money and Jesus refused to be the judge between them. In fact he warned against such desire for riches. The letter to the Ephesians might invite this man instead, open his ears to God’s not-so-secret secret – you are invited to receive a far greater inheritance. It is an inheritance of life, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of peace! That is the invitation to us. “With all wisdom and insight,” we read in verse 11 of chapter 1, “God has made known to us the mystery of the Divine will, according to God’s good pleasure, 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.” This ‘divine mystery’ is not some puzzle to be figured out – but more along the lines of ‘wonderful secret.’
That is the verse to which this whole blessing points. The structure of it puts that at the center – God drawing all things together. ALL THINGS! All people and all the earth – all creation. We will hear next week about Jesus being and bringing peace, about how in Christ the dividing wall that has been in broken down. All that is possible, because of the connections each of us have through Christ. Those original church member might have heard words like, ‘gathering up all things in Christ’ and ‘our inheritance as God’s own people’ and looked around the room and seen around them brothers and sisters. Yes, you are my brother. You are my sister. Do you know that old song by Patty Shelly from Sing and Rejoice? ‘All grownups, all children, all mothers and fathers, are sisters and brothers in the family of God.’
Last week when I was in Saskatchewan I went to an “Eppisode” – this is what my family calls our Epp reunions. I was asked by my dad to speak on ‘family and memory’ during worship. Although I talked about how my family formed me, I also recalled that they have influenced me to think first of my church as my family. And they have emboldened me to find family and place in the world, God’s creation. I have strayed far from my genetic family, but the world is God’s and we are all being gathered together – one big family reunion. We have this to remember, even in our times of strife. And not only we in this room, but in this neighborhood, this city, even globally.
This congregation has very literally received an inheritance. Many of you have heard the story of Walter Thieme. Some of you may be hearing of him for the first time. It was his gift to our congregation long before my advent in Seattle, that has allowed us the expansive and far-reaching ministry that we have in this neighborhood. We have had to be stewards of that inheritance, and we have had to draw also on the inheritance that we have been given through Christ. It has behooved us to remember the wonderful secret that we and all people are God’s family. We and all people are inheritors of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness and life. We who live inside are, we without homes are, we who have businesses in the neigbourhood are, we who take cases to court are.
Like any good sermon, this letter – preached aloud in Ephesian churches – doesn’t leave it at blessing and a recitation of all that is for the listeners. The one who blesses cannot be departed from action. Even in the writers blessing we see hints of the greater challenge to action that will come. God is rich in mercy. God is rich in grace. And we are what God has made us: created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life. It is a balance. Our congregation has been blessed in many, many ways. We are called to all be blessing. To be peacemakers, to claim our family name as Christian and use our inheritance well.
In coming weeks we will hear more about what it means to live as God’s children, among whom there are no longer any walls to divide. About what it means to live as new beings, in families, in community. And (what I’m particularly excited about) what it means to put on the armor of God. (Peacemaking armor – what??)
I leave you with this blessing that closed our Ephesians reading: “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Amen