Sunday 27 February 2011

Kind and forgiving, children of light

The 4th of 5 addresses on Paul's letter to the Ephesians on the 5 Sundays before Lent. This one given was given in Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 27th February 2011, the 2nd before Lent.

The first four and a half chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians are about theology.
They are about the relationship between God – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and human beings – both individually and together as the Church.

In the first 3 of these 5 addresses, we explored key theological themes:
  1. ‘We must start with Christ’;
  2. ‘In Christ God is saving us by grace through faith for good works’; and
  3. ‘In Christ we are members of God’s household, Christ’s Church’.
We looked at Paul’s beautiful metaphor of the church as like a building, knit together by Christ as the corner stone, with the Apostles and Prophets as foundation. And although we didn’t examine it, Paul at the beginning of Chapter 4 gives another lovely metaphor of the church as like Christ’s body, with Christ as the head and Christians as its different parts, each given different gifts and different roles.

But in today’s reading (Ephesians 4:22-5:14) Paul moves beyond his theology to look at its ethical implications for how the Ephesians should behave to each other.
‘You were taught’, says Paul, ‘to put away your former way of life, your old self … and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness’.

Paul continues with specific advice about how Christians should behave to one another:
  • We must speak the truth to our neighbours, because we are all members of one community.
  • If someone angers us, we must seek to make it up. Anger is not wrong in itself – remember, Jesus often showed righteous anger, for instance when driving the money-changers from the Temple. But if we let anger fester – if, in Paul’s words, we ‘let the sun go down on (our) anger’– we allow sin a way into our lives – we ‘make room for the devil’.
  • We must be honest in all our dealings – we should work for what we get, not steal it. And why? So that we have something to share with those in need. Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor – but this is not the Christian way: we must work, so that we have a surplus to give away in charity.
  • We should avoid evil talk – words intended to hurt others rather than help them – and this includes ‘obscene, silly and vulgar talk’, because ‘fornication and impurity of any kind, and greed’ cut us off from God. I find it interesting that Paul links fornication and greed in this way – for surely what is sinful about fornication is the greedy grasping at our own pleasure without thought for others.
  • And we should weigh up carefully what we hear, in order to avoid being ‘deceive(d) … by empty words’ into doing anything which would incur God’s wrath.
So, says Paul summarising, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you… Live as children of light' – what a beautiful image - 'for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.’

And finally Paul quotes from what scholars believe is one of the very earliest Christian hymns, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you”.

Paul’s message to the Ephesians - and to us, for we are the present day Ephesians – is this: ‘In God’s household we must be kind and forgiving, we must live as children of light’. This is how God wants Christians to behave to each other, and towards neighbours. In fact, we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, just as Jesus taught us.

If you’ve been reading ahead, as I suggested, you will have found the next section of Ephesians (5:21-6:9) challenging.
Challenging particularly for women, but also I hope for those of us who are men! It would be wrong of me to just ignore it, I think. So let me try to unpick it.

‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’, Paul tells the Ephesians. This ethical principle of mutual submission, of being subject to one another, is derived from his theological insight, that as God’s adopted children ‘In Christ we are all members of God’s household’ - Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. Few would argue, I think, with the idea of mutual submission between those who live together in the same household – it is surely a recipe for peace and harmony!

But then he goes on to consider three pairs of personal relationships, in which he calls on one party to be subject to the other:
  • ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church’.
  • ‘Children, obey your parents… And fathers, do not provoke your children to anger’.
  • ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters … as you obey Christ… knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord… And masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.’
‘Wives, be subject to your husbands’, indeed! What a shocking thing for Paul to say! Nowadays almost all of us see equality between men and women as a fundamental human right, so Paul’s words shock us to the core today. But let’s not forget how recent this view is - in Irish law a husband owned all his wife’s assets until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, it was not until 1923 that Irish women got the general right to vote, and the ‘marriage bar’ required women to resign from the public service on marriage as late as 1973.

It’s hard not to see Paul as a sexist old curmudgeon, isn't it, but he was a man of his own time. Among all ethnic groups then – Jews, Greeks and Romans – women had few rights and were legally just appendages of their husbands. Paul made no attempt to lead his churches to challenge this, any more than he led them to challenge the institution of slavery. He seems to have shared the general view that women should be submissive and that there was nothing wrong with slavery. But if he didn’t share that view, it was surely wise of him not to challenge it directly – since the result would surely have been even greater persecution of his small and vulnerable churches.

But starting from his theological conviction that ‘In Christ we are all members of God’s household’, he argues for mutual submission, seeking to balance social and Christian obligations. The social obligation on a woman to submit to her husband is balanced by a Christian obligation on a husband to love his wife. The social obligation of children to obey their parents is balanced by a Christian obligation on parents to treat children fairly. And he balances the social obligation on slaves to obey their masters, with a Christian obligation on masters to treat their slaves well.

This is what we should learn from Paul, I believe - the ethical principle that we should be mutually submissive, one to another in all our personal relationships. We should apply it within our own society, in which we all accept the equality of women and the unacceptability of slavery, and we should also apply it within our own families. In giving advice to wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters, he was making the best attempt he could do to apply that principle to the specific social circumstances of his own time. It would be wrong to insist on it today in our different social circumstances. We should try to do better today than Paul could in his time!

I shall finish with a prayer:
Loving Father God,
may your Holy Spirit help us
to be kind and forgiving members
of your household the Church,
and show us how to be mutually submissive
in all our personal relationships,
that we may live as children of light.
Through your Son Jesus Christ we pray.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Members of God's household

The 3rd of 5 addresses I am giving on Paul's letter to the Ephesians on the 5 Sundays before Lent. This one given was given in Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 20th February 2011, the 3rd before Lent.

Today we take the 3rd of 5 bites at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Taken as a whole the letter is, I think, the finest expression of Paul’s vision for his churches. It is an answer to the question, ‘How should Christians, as God’s adopted children, behave in God’s household, which is Christ’s Church’.

In the 1st and 2nd bites we reflected on the themes ‘We must start with Christ!’, and ‘In Jesus Christ, God is saving us by grace through faith for good works’.

This Sunday we look at the 2nd half of chapter 2, and a bit of chapter 3 (Ephesians 2:11-22, 3:8-13). The theme is ‘We are all members of God’s household, which is Christ’s church’.

What sort of people were the Ephesians to whom Paul wrote?
In Paul’s time Ephesus was the Greek-speaking capital of the Roman province of Asia, with a population second in the Empire only to Rome itself, perhaps as many as half-a-million. It was as vibrant and cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith as any modern European city is. And it was rich, as I saw from the amazing archaeological remains when I visited it 20 years ago, including an amphitheatre big enough for 20,000 spectators - still used for concerts.

Paul stayed in Ephesus for 2 years on his 2nd missionary journey, according to Acts. His first dozen or so converts had been baptised by John the Baptist – they were Jews like himself no doubt – Paul re-baptised them in the name of Jesus and they received the Holy Spirit. At first Paul preached the gospel in the Synagogue, but he encountered opposition there, so he withdrew elsewhere with his growing flock of Christians, both Jews and Greeks. By the time he left 2 years later, he had converted enough followers of the Greek goddess Artemis to threaten the business of local silversmiths who specialised in making shrines to her, provoking them to a nasty riot.

By the time Paul wrote his letter it is clear the Ephesian church was overwhelmingly Greek.

Paul addresses the Ephesians as ‘you Gentiles by birth, called the “uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”’
Called that is, by Jews – like Paul himself – who were traditionally brought up to despise and dislike Gentiles, whom they saw as immoral and unclean.

Paul believes absolutely in the continuity of the new faith in Christ that he preached, with the old faith of the Jews. He reminds the Ephesian Gentiles that before they became Christians they were cut off from the true God that the Jews knew. They were ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world’.

But he is intensely conscious also of the staggering change that Christ brings to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Christ has ‘create(d) in himself one new humanity in place of (Jews and Gentiles), thus making peace, reconcil(ing) both groups to God in one body through the cross’. All Christians, whatever their background or traditions, are made one people in Christ, ‘for through him (all of us) have access in one Spirit to the Father’.

Paul’s insight is just as important for us in Nenagh today as it was for the Ephesians then. Our town, our country, is increasingly cosmopolitan like Ephesus. Our neighbours come from many countries, speak many languages and hold many faiths. The old divisions of Catholic and Protestant are increasingly irrelevant. All our churches must work together, we must break down the barriers between us, we must move from being exclusive to being inclusive, if we are ever to make a reality of Paul’s vision of one new humanity in Christ.

Only then will we be able to hear Paul’s words clearly, ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’.

Paul goes on to describe the Church as being built like ‘the household of God’.
The Church as a building is a lovely, suggestive metaphor. It is an alternative to the slightly more familiar metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, which Paul also uses later on in the letter (Ephesians 4:11-16).

It is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone’, says Paul. ‘In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God’.

Without the right foundations a building is unstable – as unfortunate people living in new Dublin housing estates have recently discovered, when foundations made from unsuitable pyrites rock swelled and cracked. The right foundation for the church is the teaching of the apostles – those Jesus sent out, of which Paul understood himself to be one – and the prophets – no doubt Christian as well as Hebrew prophets. As the church we must be grounded solidly in scripture before we can build anything worthwhile using tradition or reason.

In Paul’s day builders made sure the walls of a building were true by carefully aligning them with a cornerstone – Jesus serves that function for the church. Jesus joins all of us together into a structure worthy of God, in which we can find God present.

Is today’s church recognisable in Paul’s description? Or do we see instead a building site with a higgledy-piggledy jumble of jerry-built shacks and lean-to extensions, where the architect’s plans have been ignored? I rather think we all need some lessons in construction!

We are all members of God’s household, which is Christ’s church - whoever we are, wherever we come from!
Paul believed that by God’s grace he was chosen ‘to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God’.

God’s plan, in Paul’s words, is ‘that through the church’ – through God’s household, of which we are all members – ‘the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known … in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

This is the heavy responsibility we bear as Christians, as members of God’s household, built into Christ’s church – to make known the wisdom of God in all its rich variety.

Let us pray through ‘Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him’, that we may together play the parts God has given us in his plan as he intends we should play them.

Eternal God and Father,
whose Son at supper prayed that his disciples might be one,
as he is one with you:
draw us closer to him,
that in common love and obedience to you
we may be united to one another
in the fellowship of the one Spirit,
that the world may believe that he is Lord
to your eternal glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

There are printed copies of the first 3 addresses at the back of the church, if you missed any or want to look back at them. But there’s no substitute for reflecting on Paul’s words for yourself, so you might like to read a chapter or so of Ephesians each week to keep pace with me. If you want to read ahead we will be looking at Ephesians 4:22-5:14 next Sunday, with the theme ‘In God’s household we must be kind and forgiving and live like children of light’.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Saved by grace through faith for good works

The 2nd of 5 addresses I am giving on Paul's letter to the Ephesians on the 5 Sundays before Lent. This one given was given in Templederry and Killodiernan on Sunday 13th February 2011, the 4th before Lent.

Today we take a 2nd bite at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
In the 5 Sundays before Lent we are taking 5 bites at Ephesians. Taken as a whole it expresses Paul’s vision for his churches – it is his answer to the question, ‘How should Christians, as God’s adopted children, behave in God’s household, which is Christ’s church’.

If you miss any of the 5 addresses, or want to read them again, printed copies are available. But there’s no substitute for reflecting on Paul’s words for yourself, so you might like to read a chapter or so of Ephesians a week keeping pace with these addresses.

In our 1st bite last Sunday, after looking at the context of the letter – who wrote it, to whom, and why - we saw how Paul in chapter 1 almost bludgeons us to recognise that ‘We must start with Christ!’

This Sunday we look at the first half of chapter 2 (Ephesians 2:1-10), which we have just heard.

But before we turn to Paul’s words, I invite you to travel back in your memory to your early childhood – what did it feel like to be you?
I was blessed with a childhood filled with love and happiness, and I hope you were too. But not everyone is so blessed – if you weren’t, you might imagine some other time when you did feel filled with love and happiness by the presence of another.

As a baby, my mother made me feel completely and utterly loved – my father too, but she spent much more time with me - can you conjure up the warmth and scent of your mother, that sense of complete happiness and safety in her presence? I responded, I suppose, in the only way I could respond, with complete trust and love in return.

As a toddler, I was often bold, as toddlers are. But even when I could see I’d done something to make her unhappy, I was still sure of her love. I could learn to say I was sorry and mean it. And in response she would forgive me, give me a cuddle, and the warmth and closeness would be renewed – can you recall the rush of relief that came with that cuddle?

And as I grew up, imitating her, encouraged by her, I learned how to behave, how to be a good boy – at least some of the time, how to be ‘a useful engine’ like Thomas the Tank Engine, how to be kind to others - including the dog and the cat, and my baby brother, hard as that sometimes seemed! I began to learn the difference between right and wrong, and I began to understand that happiness comes from doing right. And that lesson of course is one we never stop learning as long as we live.

‘You were dead’, says Paul to the Ephesians – and we are all Ephesians!
‘You were dead through (your) trespasses and sins’.
We are all souls with consciences. We are all made in the image of God, and we have all eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, to use the imagery of Genesis. Yet like all human beings we so often do wrong or fail to do right – that is a matter of observation, part of the human condition.

You followed ‘the course of the world… the ruler of the power of the air… the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient’.
We don’t see the world the same way people in Paul’s time did – they believed the air teemed with demons under Satan’s influence that put evil thoughts into people’s minds. And yet… We know, don’t we, that the spirit of a place and time is a powerful influence on us, for good or ill? I have seen marriage-breakdown sweep through a social circle in a small community like an epidemic, bringing untold hurt to children and adults alike. And we must all be aware of how so many of us bought into the Celtic Tiger ethos of greed and excess, with the evil results we are now struggling to live with.

You lived ‘in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses’.
We are so primed by our natures to always want more, aren’t we? More and richer food and drink, more sex, more comfort, more excitement, more luxury, more than our neighbour has. And today as never before we are bombarded with messages to tempt us, ‘because we’re worth it’.

Our own failures, social pressures and our greedy desires cut us off from God. And they make us feel dead to all that is good and true and beautiful, dead to God.

‘But God’, says Paul, ‘out of (his) great love, made us alive together with Christ’.
‘(God) raised us up with him and seated us with him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus’. ‘For’
, says Paul, 'by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God… For we are what (God) has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works’. What wonderful poetic words!

In summary, ‘In Jesus Christ, God has saved us by grace through faith for good works’. This is Paul’s great message to the Ephesians – and also to us. It is a dense and coded formula – as hard to understand as Einstein’s famous equation, ‘E=MC2’. Let me try to tease out what it means.
  • Despite our trespasses and sins, God has saved us – he has healed us and made us whole, reunited us with himself – he has made us rise from the dead like Christ.
  • God has done this by his grace alone, by his loving kindness towards us – it is not our own doing – there is nothing we could possibly do to deserve it.
  • God has done this through faith – our faith in Jesus Christ, who leads us to God and shows us all that is good and true and beautiful.
  • And it is because Christ has led us to God that the Spirit moves us to be the kind of people that God has made us to be – people who do good works.

In Ephesians Paul speaks of salvation as something completed, in the past.
But it is better, I think, to see it as something that is continuing, as Paul himself does elsewhere – we are ‘being saved’.

Salvation is surely a dynamic psychological process – much like the process of socialisation we experience as children. That is why I asked you earlier to imagine how you felt as a child as you were learning how to behave.

  • When God shows us his grace - his loving kindness – in Jesus Christ, we respond with faith in Christ, and we feel enveloped in God’s love.
  • Our conscience tells us when we offend against God’s love, and we hear Jesus call us to repent – to change our ways. And when we do repent, God responds by forgiving us. We are saved. No longer crushed by a burden of guilt, we feel loved and close to God again.
  • When we feel touched by God’s love, we can respond to the prompting of his Holy Spirit to do good and reject evil, to live as the sort of people God wants us to be.
  • And this dynamic process of being saved continues as long as we live.

In Jesus Christ, God is saving us by grace through faith for good works.
Let us give thanks for this message from Paul to the Ephesians – it is surely also meant for us. Amen

Next Sunday we shall look at the 2nd half of Chapter 2 (Ephesians2:11-22), and the theme ‘We are all members of God’s household’.

Sunday 6 February 2011

We must start with Jesus Christ

On the five Sundays before Lent I shall be giving a series of addresses on Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. This is the first, given in Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 6th February 2011, the 5th before Lent.

Today and the next 4 Sundays I shall be talking about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
When the Rector invited me to give a series of themed addresses I confess I gulped hard several times. But something prompted me to reply, ‘Why not?’ And when I thought about possible themes ‘Ephesians!’ jumped straight into my mind, as if somebody had put it there.

In many ways it’s the supreme expression of Paul’s vision for his churches. I see the whole letter as Paul’s answer to this question: ‘How should Christians, as God’s adopted children, behave in God’s household, which is Christ’s church’. Its often poetic imagery is just as relevant today as it was in Paul’s time, I think.

I’m enjoying the challenge of probing deeper than I've done before into Ephesians and what it means. Inevitably in just five addresses I can only talk about some of its themes, but I hope you will find my take on it thought provoking. If you miss an address one Sunday, or want to come back to one, there will be paper copies available.

But there is no substitute for reading and reflecting on Paul’s words for yourself. So I would encourage you to take down your Bible at home and read perhaps a chapter or two of Ephesians a week, keeping pace with these addresses. It’s quite short – 6 chapters take up just 6 pages in my copy.

This week I shall first look briefly at the context of the letter, and then turn to examine the great theme of chapter 1, ‘We must start with Jesus Christ' - he is the source of all our blessings.

What is the context of Ephesians - who wrote it, to whom, and why?
The letter claims to be written by ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’. But many scholars doubt that it was written by Paul himself, for reasons of style and vocabulary. They suggest that it may have been written by a slightly later author in Paul’s tradition, drawing on other letters, in particular Colossians, in order to summarise and pass on Paul’s thinking about the church.

In the version handed down to us the letter is addressed ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus’. But most scholars today think that it is really a circular letter sent to several of Paul’s missionary churches, and wasn’t written specifically to the Ephesians at all. The earliest manuscripts omit the words ‘in Ephesus’. And it is strangely impersonal, unlike Paul’s other letters. There are no personal messages or references to specific events in Ephesus, even though Paul knew the Ephesian church and people very well.

Ultimately I don’t think these scholarly arguments matter a whit. What does matter is the quality of the thinking in it about the nature of the church and its role in God’s plan of salvation. I shall continue the ancient tradition of calling its author Paul and those to whom it’s addressed Ephesians.

We are all saints! Did you realise that? You, you, all of you, and me too – we are all saints, at least in the way that Paul uses the word - ‘hagios’ in Greek means one who has been made holy. The idea that a saint is someone with a halo, someone who is peculiarly good, someone able to grant miracles through intercession, is a much later idea, a medieval superstition. We are saints because by the grace of God we are Christians, ‘faithful in Christ Jesus’, to use Paul’s words. Our baptism was an external and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that God has made us holy.

In fact I suggest that we should see Paul’s letter as addressed to us – we are ‘the saints who are in Ephesus’!

Paul begins his letter (1:3-14) by counting the ways in which God has blessed the saints.
It is an amazing, poetic passage, a single sentence in the original Greek. The subordinate clauses break one after another like waves on a seashore, pounding in the message that God, in Paul’s words, ‘has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places’. It is the same message we heard in the Gospel reading (John 1:14-16): ‘From (Christ’s) fullness we have all received grace upon grace’.

The name of Christ echoes and re-echoes through Paul’s words:
  • ‘In Christ, God ‘chose us … before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love’.
    We are not Christians because we choose to be, but because God has chosen us to be - and we can trust God not to change his mind, because he chose us from the very beginning.
  • ‘Through Jesus Christ’ God has ‘destined us for adoption as his children …, according to the good pleasure of his will’.
    God adopts us as his beloved children, full members of the household of God, because God's Son Jesus Christ introduces us to him.
  • ‘Through (Christ’s) blood we have redemption and the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us’.
    It is Christ’s example of self-sacrifice upon the cross which shows us the way to redemption and forgiveness. It is a gift from God we do not deserve.
  • In Christ, God has revealed ‘the mystery of his will … as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him’, that is in Christ, ‘things in heaven and things on earth’.
    The Greek word translated here as ‘plan’ is 'oikonomia' - also the root of the English word 'economy', which we are probably tired of hearing in this election time! It literally means the stewardship or overseeing of a household or institution. Paul is saying here that God’s purpose in overseeing his creation is that the whole of it should be drawn together in Christ. The whole of creation - chosen, adopted, redeemed and forgiven, all in Christ - what a breathtaking cosmic vision!
  • ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance’. Those who hear Christ’s ‘word of truth, the gospel of salvation and … believe in him’, are ‘marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit’ And ‘this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people’.
    It is precisely because we feel Christ’s promised Spirit at work in and through us, that we can be sure that God has chosen and adopted us as his children, and has redeemed and forgiven us.

Paul almost bludgeons us to recognise that we must start with Christ! This is the key message Paul begins with. This is the message which I hope you will take away from all my words today. We must start with Christ – everything else, including the church insofar as it is a human institution, can only be secondary to Christ.

Paul continues, thanking God for the Ephesians’ faith and the love they show the saints.
He prays in beautiful words that they may know ‘the immeasurable greatness of (God’s) power for us who believe’ - we will shortly pray them for ourselves as our parish prayer for February.

And finally Paul drives home again to the saints at Ephesus, that Christ must be their starting point, finishing the 1st chapter with these words: ‘God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand … And he has put all things under his feet and has made him head of all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’.

‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ’

He must be our only starting point! Amen

Next week we shall look at Ephesians 2:1-10, and the theme ‘We are saved by grace through faith for good works’.