Monday, July 16, 2012

The Praise of His Glory

Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright, Priest Associate of St. Andrew's Church, on Sunday, July 15, 2012.

Today we begin a series of readings in Paul's letter to the Ephesians that
will actually take us all the way through August. I'm glad about that,
because Ephesians is my personal favorite among Paul's letters, but I'll try
not to go on too long about it this morning!

I'll talk a bit about it in
general terms today, so that as you hear the whole letter, or most of it,
week by week, you have a context to put the extracts in, but I also want to
think about what God might want to say to us through the particular verses
we read this morning.

It's called the letter to the Ephesians, but the words 'in Ephesus' aren’t
in all the early mss, and so not in all Bibles, and one 2nd century writer
calls it the epistle to the Laodiceans--the inhabitants of a city a couple
of hundred miles away. This makes it all the easier to listen to it for what
it might be saying to us. Most of Paul's letters were written to deal with a
particular problem faced by a particular group of Christians, and if we
don't feel we're facing the same problem, we might miss some of Paul's
points; this letter, more than any other, is simply Paul rejoicing in the
gospel, praising God for what He has done for sinful human beings, and has
obvious application to any Christian no matter what's going on in his life.
Whether Paul is talking about what Christ has done, or how Christians should
live, it’s all expressed in words of praise and delight, and it may have
been sent to more than one church. The first three chapters are one long
hymn of praise to God for salvation in Christ; the second three chapters are
about the way of life that glorifies God; and it ends with a reminder about
how we can make sure that Satan can never take the joy of Christ and
Christian living away from us. It contains much that we will want to apply
to ourselves as individuals, but also much that we will want to apply to the
Christian community--it’s in this letter that we find the source of the idea
of the church as the bride of Christ, and Paul’s words about living together
apply to the parish as well as to the family. But let’s take a closer look
at the words from it that we heard this morning.

We skipped vv 1 and 2, which basically just say ‘hello everyone, hope this
finds you well’, and began at v 3, 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. Blessed, blessed, blessing. Three times in a single
verse. God is blessed, we are blessed, and not only do we have every
blessing but our blessings are not earthly but spiritual, so much so that we
who have faith in Christ are in a sense already in the heavenly places. You’ve
heard about people who are so sick or frail that they already have one foot
in the grave; Paul says Christians are so showered with blessing they
already have one foot in heaven. There are two words the New Testament uses
for ‘blessed’; one is makarios, which means blessed in the sense ‘he lives a
blessed life’, and it means almost the same as lucky, or happy; it just
describes the results of being blessed, and says nothing about how the
blessing came about. The other is eulogetos, which means blessed as the
opposite of cursed--it means having had great things said about you or
promised to you. This is the kind of blessing Jacob gave his sons in Genesis
49: Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Asher, your food shall be rich;
Joseph, you will be a branch heavy with fruit and a branch so big people
outside the orchard’s walls will be able to eat of it. And when he has
blessed all his children, Jacob says The blessings of your father are
stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains, the bounties of the
everlasting hills. This kind of blessing doesn’t just mean you’re lucky or
happy, it means that someone loves you, someone is wishing for you or giving
you things that will help make your life good. Paul is using the word that
means this kind of blessing; we are blessed because of what God has done for
us in Jesus Christ, because God loves us and wants good things for us,
because of what God says to us in His word.

Praise of God because of His love for us fills the whole passage, and indeed
the whole letter, but it’s especially important to remember that praise is
the context as we look at the next few verses, because they bring up the
dreaded subject of ‘predestination’. God chose us in Christ before the
foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He
destined us--'predestinated us', the KJV translates it--for adoption as his
children through Jesus Christ. Some people get very excited when the subject
of predestination comes up, I've noticed. I think it must be because they
like to think they're in charge of their own lives, that no one controls
their lives but them. Good luck with that, is all I can say; my own
experience is that practically everyone except me determines what I do. And
I'm talking about people who are not God, and probably don't love me as much
as God loves me. So I find Paul's words at the end of this verse, according
to the good pleasure of his will, very comforting and reassuring. He
destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ according to
the good pleasure of his will. God's will is our good pleasure; that's why
Paul is so full of praise of God for the blessings God has given us.

Predestination is biblical teaching, and it's not just Paul's teaching, it's
Jesus's teaching too: You did not choose me, but I chose you, He tells His
followers. But free will is also biblical teaching; the Bible calls us so
often to make a choice, make a decision. Choose this day whom you will
serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River,
or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my
house, we will serve the Lord. We have free will, no doubt about it. To our
limited minds free will seems incompatible with the idea that God destined
us to be His children, but God sees no contradiction. And the presence of
the idea of predestination in this letter that is so filled with praise of
God for His love for us is, I think, the key to bringing the two ideas into
harmony with one another. In the words in v 4, he chose us in Christ before
the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, the
phrase 'in love' is crucial to keep in mind, because it applies to the whole
clause--he chose us in love, to be holy before Him in love. He chose us in
love. Perhaps the best illustration is the young man wooing his bride,
asking her to choose him and not the others she could have, and trying to
get her to make the right choice by saying 'I'm your destiny, we were made
to be together'. His love is so strong he can't imagine life without her, he
is convinced that it is their destiny to be together. But that doesn't mean
that he didn't freely choose this woman--he freely accepts his destiny and
wants her to freely accept it too. God's love for us is so strong He can't
imagine life without us, He is our destiny, He says, so we might as well
admit it, and choose life with Him in eternity, and say Thy will be done.
It's when we finally say that, that our lives are run by the right person,
and they begin to go well! And because it is love calling us to our destiny,
it is not a doctrine to be accepted whether we understand it or not, but one
more thing to praise God for, it's all to the praise of his glorious grace.

The praise of God's glory is the theme of the first three chapters of this
letter, but Paul really hammers away at it in these eleven verses--he's not
addressing our minds here, but hoping to awaken an echo in our hearts. In v
12 he says that God's choice is so that we, who were the first to set our
hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. He means 'we Jews,
who were the first to hope in Christ', as of course they were, and then goes
on in the last verse of our passage, to point out that the rest of mankind
has also been chosen by God, so that you also, when you believed in him,
received redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory. 'You
also' is us gentiles, but the main thing here is not to teach what God has
done--he does that in other letters--but that what God has done is reason to
praise Him for His glory. Three times he repeats it in this passage, to the
praise of His glory, to the praise of His glorious grace, to the praise of
His glory.

Paul's purpose in the first three chapters of this letter is simply to
praise God. He is singing and writing at the same time; the praise just
pours out of him. Praise because God loves us and blesses us, praise because
God chose us and invites us to choose Him, praise for God's free grace to
repentant sinners, praise because God is sovereign over the entire universe
and in the end His will is done on earth as it is in heaven, praise because
all the peoples of the earth, people of every race and nation, every tribe
and tongue, are offered a place in His heart if they will only let Him into
their hearts. It is not doctrine, it is poetry, it's not theology, it's a
hymn in prose, it is the heart of someone who loves God in Jesus Christ
overflowing with that love. In the Greek this entire passage is a single
sentence; he doesn't want to stop praising God even to take a breath. And
what I think God wants to say to us through these verses this morning,
because it's everything Paul goes on to say in the rest of the letter, is
that we who have put our faith in Jesus Christ have the same reason to
praise Him that Paul had; He has blessed us, He is our destiny, our
redemption, He has chosen us to live for Him, He has sealed us with the
promise of the Holy Spirit, and all to the praise of His glory, the praise
of His glorious grace.

As we hear Paul's words Sunday by Sunday this summer, may we know the truth
of those things, and may our hearts be filled with the same praise.

-- - the email service for alumni of the University of Kent

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