Sunday, November 6, 2016

All Saints Sunday

Ephesians 1: 11-23

Good morning on All Saints Sunday—a high day of the Church Year and at St. Andrew’s an exceptionally rich day of worship and music.  I would share a word of thanks to our choir and the members of this Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra, to Pete Luley, Tom Octave.  In our reading from Ephesians Paul uses this phrase twice, “that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory,” and, “this is the pledge of our inheritance toward the redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”   And that sounds just right for this morning: “the praise of his glory”

All Saints about connections: our connections with one another in this Christian community of faith, our connections with Christians around the world, and with those of every generation.  And this morning as we have heard Dr. Knight read the appointed lesson from Ephesians 1, thinking about the Church of Ephesus, and connections.

Ephesus was an interesting place in the first century.  San Francisco in the 1970’s or Times Square in the 80’s, a dash of Las Vegas on the side. Materialism and, really, hedonism the dominant themes, as they were around most of the Hellenistic world: a “go-go” economy, a jumble of high culture and low culture.  “What happens in Ephesus stays in Ephesus.”  A crossroads of trade and commerce.  All sorts and conditions, nationalities and ethnicities and social classes jumbled together.  The famous temple of the goddess Diana made Ephesus a global tourist attraction and a center for cults and spiritual and religious groups.  Think Past Lives therapists and tarot card readers on every corner.  A wild and crazy place.   And not a very easy place to be a Christian.  There was a small Jewish community, and there were Christians there also from a very early time, both Jewish and Gentile—and the Church of Ephesus had a rather high profile in the world of the New Testament.  It was a center for St. Paul’s ministry, a place where he lived and taught and built up the church for over two years.

In all the hustle and bustle the Christians were distinctively counter-cultural.  We might picture a handful of Lancaster County Amish set down in an Atlantic City casino.   Known for their piety, for their modesty and temperance, for their social and moral restraint, for their quiet faithfulness in marriage and family life, for their charity, for their care for the young and the elderly, the sick, those unable to care for themselves, for their careful teaching of the gospel message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sin and the promise of new and everlasting life to those who put their trust in him--and for their sometimes too-visible refusal to participate in the extravagant public ceremonies celebrating the pagan gods and values of the city.  It wasn’t so much that they were on the street-corners preaching hellfire and damnation.  But just going about their day to day lives seemed to their neighbors like an unspoken but nonetheless very public affront.  The Christians were in turn mocked, scorned, attacked--sometimes persecuted. Fired from jobs.  Their kids didn’t get invited to the prom or accepted at the better colleges. Christians were bad for business—and they made the Chamber of Commerce and pretty much everybody at the party a little uncomfortable . . . .

Perhaps they would have been comforted to hear Jesus in our gospel reading from Luke 6.   Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who have experienced the pain of loss, you who have known rejection and oppression for my sake.  It doesn’t sound like the recipe for a popular movement, certainly as the world then or now would define it.  Not what many Church Growth specialists would suggest we print on the front page of our “Welcome to our Church” brochures.   But when we do suffer for his sake, it means a lot to remember him saying that he notices, that he is with us. The mothers of Ephesus didn’t want their sons and daughters to grow up to be Christians.  But the Ephesian Christians remained steadfast.  A life in exile.  Strangers in a strange land.  Which maybe anyway is our natural condition.

It is always so interesting to me that here in the Letter to the Ephesians we have what is perhaps the most beautiful and graceful expression of Paul’s witness to the Gospel and his exposition of Christian life and thinking.  I would commend it to you.  A book you could sit down and read  in less than an hour.  Hearing all kinds of echoes of language and images incorporated into our prayer book collects and services.  Not quite as systematic in theological development perhaps as Romans, but for me anyway a literary jewel.  Swimming against the tide, the Ephesians are again and again for Paul the heart and soul of Christian life and community.  Not that they don’t have need of warning and correction.  Paul wouldn’t have written this letter if he wasn’t concerned about how they were doing.   Keeping the main thing the main thing, in a world of distraction and temptation.  The description at the end of Acts 20, Paul’s last farewell moments with the elders of the Church at Ephesus, is just one of the most emotionally powerful and deep scenes in the story of the early Christian church.  Paul says, “I haven’t held anything back; I’ve shared with you the whole gospel as it has been revealed to me; and now I commend you with my love to God’s continuing care.”  Christian pastors and preachers and teachers, parents, friends, all of us in one way or another haunted by those words.  “I haven’t held anything back.  I have shared with you the whole gospel as it has been revealed to me.”  A reminder always of the compromises and accommodations and self-indulgences that so often flavor the water we swim in.  A high bar and standard, anyway.

We know a few of the names of the Ephesian Christians from the first century.  Prisca and Aquila,  Alexander the Jew, the household of Onesiphorous.  But in the Paul’s words to them here we see the reflected pattern that is intended to be passed down by these ancient strangers generation by generation, from Ephesus all the way to Pittsburgh.  For all the saints.  “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe . . . .”  Wisdom, but not the wisdom of the so-called wise.  Riches, but not the kind you can take to the bank.  Power, but mostly the kind known in the grace of a fragile, holy weakness.  Like the power Jesus demonstrated on the Cross. 

We would picture the Communion of Saints this Sunday morning—the ones in the books and the stained glass windows, and here our ancestors long ago in Ephesus, who in some distant way must have had us in mind, the people of St. Andrew’s Church, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, as they lived faithfully together in their time and place, and shared the Good News of Jesus with their friends and neighbors, their children and grandchildren.  As we would, in our time and place.  We picture this morning the saints and heroes who live on in simply in our memories and prayers of family and friends, not so much like the elite members of a Christian Hall of Fame, but as a simple and loving fellowship of encouragement and witness.   A choir of voices who sing in a way that will bring out in our time and place the best in us, so that we can sing too—and so that our hearts and minds and lives would be lifted more and more perfectly and day by day in the knowledge and love of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray, and perhaps especially this morning with our brothers and sisters from ancient Ephesus in mind.

O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your hold Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary, for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also maybe partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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