Sermon: Pentecost 9, 22 July 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 22nd July 2018

THE CHURCH: GOD’S TEMPLE, GOD’S BUILDING

(2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:21-38; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-56)

“By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Powerful words, and I imagine that they will be familiar to many of you. They make very clear that our relationship with God is based not on how good we are, not on our efforts to be good enough; but rather on God’s generous love which reaches out to us, and forgives and accepts us despite our sins and our shortcomings. These words also point us to God’s purpose for us: he has good works for us to do, to be our way of life. This passage makes clear that the good things we do are not an attempt to earn our way into God’s good books, but rather they are the working out of God’s purposes in our lives. They are not a way to win God’s acceptance, but rather our thankful response to God’s grace shown to us in Christ.

And where do we find these powerful words? In the first half of Ephesians 2, which the compilers of our lectionary have omitted from our readings as we explore Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The compilers couldn’t fit the whole of the letter if they were to make reasonable length readings over seven Sundays: but I think I would have certainly included the first half of Chapter 2. It makes clear how God in his mercy has rescued us from a life without God and a life without hope, and has made us his children. By grace indeed we have been saved!

In a sense, the first half of Ephesians 2 is pretty personal: in a way it is the story of each one of us who are believers. But the second half of this chapter, which we did read this morning, takes us to a bigger picture: part of that big picture I spoke about last Sunday. For, as I have said on other occasions, God’s purpose in the Gospel is not just to save a lot of individuals, but in fact to gather a great community.

Perhaps Paul’s best-known image of the church is the body of Christ, with each member of the body playing their part in the life of God’s family. But in today’s reading he uses another image: he pictures the church as a holy temple.

And what is a temple? Some of you will have visited the ruins of great temples in your travels: mostly grand buildings, often capable of holding large numbers of worshippers. For a temple was often a place where a particular god was believed to make his or her home.

 

The temple in Jerusalem was a wonderful building set impressively on top of the hill: it had been started in 19BC, but was not completed till around 63AD, soon after this letter was written: over 80 years after from start to completion! It was a uniquely holy place, expressing God’s presence with his people. People knew that it was not God’s literal home: the eternal Creator of all could not be tied down to one location on earth. Nevertheless the temple was a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of his people.

God’s holiness was expressed in powerful ways in the temple. The central sections of the temple had significant entry restrictions, and no Gentile was permitted beyond the outer court of the temple. In fact there were prominent signs with the authority of the Roman governor warning that any non-Jew who went beyond the officially sanctioned point would be executed. The barriers were up, well and truly!

When Paul writes about a temple, the first thing he will have in mind is this temple of Jerusalem. But now he says that his Gentile readers are part of God’s temple. How could this be? How could this happen?

Paul starts by reminding the Ephesians what they once were.

They were the “uncircumcision”: they lacked that special physical sign that all male Jews had, to indicate that they belonged to God’s covenant people. They didn’t belong to God’s people. “You were outsiders”, he writes. “You were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” You were spiritually cut off from God, and you were cut off from being the people of God.

But now, says Paul, “you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” And he says that to us too! Our sins, which put up such a barrier between us and God, have been forgiven. We are reconciled to God, spiritually cleansed. We have been given eternal life, God’s kind of life. We are God’s friends rather than his enemies. We who were separated from God have been brought near. There is peace between us and God.

But peace with God is not simply a vertical thing: it has a horizontal expression. When I regularly took weddings many years ago, I used to encourage the newlywed couple to make their grand exit back down the aisle with the husband still on the bride’s right hand side. I would tell them: “That will give you a good chance to see who all your new relatives are, and to greet them.” Marriage connects you to a whole new family: for better and for worse. And faith in Christ makes us part of a new family under our loving heavenly Father. The church is the family of God. It’s a very mixed family. But it is the family of God.

And so Paul reminds us of that big barrier in the temple of Jerusalem which expressed the huge barrier between Jew and Gentile. He makes clear that in Christ the spiritual barrier between Jews and Gentiles has been abolished. Jesus himself is our peace. He has “made both groups one and destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.” The old religious laws and customs and restrictions which divided people have been abolished in Christ. Peace is his purpose for those who are near, both for Jewish people who were the very first Christians, and for Gentiles who have become followers of Christ. And that of course includes us.

Through Christ the barriers are down between us and God. Through Christ the barriers are down between his followers. Our different races and backgrounds, our different traditions and styles, must not be a barrier which prevents us relating to each other as members of the one family. The Christian Gospel does not call us to uniformity, but it does call us to express a unity that is real.

We are only too aware of the divisions and conflicts in various parts of the world today: as Christians, if we are to be true to our Lord, we ought to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Sadly throughout history, that has been far from the case for the church. Now of course there will be differences of opinion and understanding in such a varied community as God’s worldwide church: and so often committed Christians express our differences in ways which deny our fundamental unity, which display arrogance rather than humility, which push people apart rather than draw people together, which express closed minds rather than a respect which will allow us to consider ideas different from our own. These attitudes are a denial of who we are in Christ. They are a denial of the one who has brought us reconciliation. To belong to Christ is to belong to his family.

So as Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians, what are the implications of all this? “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” A holy temple in the Lord: that’s what we are meant to become. It’s not made of bricks and mortar, of stones and cement. The real temple is the people of God. Even this church building which we love and appreciate is not the real church: the real church is the people, the community. We are the church.

The temple of Christ which is the church has as its foundation the apostles and prophets, those who first preached and taught and explained the good news of Christ. Ultimately we could say that its foundation is the message of Christ we find in the scriptures.

And the cornerstone of this temple is Jesus Christ himself. Like a cornerstone, he is the starting point, from where everything else finds its position. In him alone we place our trust. It is he whom we follow through life.

And the temple is joined together and growing. God’s church is a community which is still growing. We play our part in the life of this community. And we are to welcome new members of the community, and to seek to make visitors and newcomers feel welcome and at home.

And this temple is a spiritual dwelling place for God. Yes, God is among us, sharing in our life and valuing our worship and helping us to grow in faith and love.

The church, with all its variety, is right at the heart of God’s purposes for creation. What a wonderful privilege to be part of that plan! Let us seek to play our part in the life of God’s church. Let us always remember that we gather as God’s people and in God’s loving presence. Let us be open to Christians from other churches and traditions and styles from whom we might learn, and with whom we can share in faith and love.

So then, let’s actively share in the life and witness of our part of the church, remembering that we are the living spiritual temple of God, and called to show Christ’s love to one another and to the world. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 9, 22 July 2018, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Outsiders- Ephesians 2

-Have you ever felt like an outsider?

-Have you been in one of those situations where there is a clear us and a them,

-And you are the them?

-Every time we travel there comes that moment when you’re labelled an outsider.

-Every immigration hall,

-At every international airport,

-Makes it very clear who are the insiders and who are the outsiders.

-There’s the queue for the locals,

-And the queue ten times longer and with half the immigration booths,

-For the foreigners,

-The outsiders,

-The ‘them’.

 

-This theme of the outsider runs through the first two chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

-It’s a bit subtle in ch1,

-But the nuance of such phrases as ‘he chose us’ and ‘to be adopted’,

-Describe an us and them,

-An insider and outsider.

-In this opening chapter it’s the difference between us and God,

-Of the heavenly and the earthly that’s been eliminated,

-According to the eternal purposes of God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

-Paul paints a big picture of the new identity we have as God’s people,

-As God’s plan to bring all things in heaven and earth together under the one head, Jesus Christ,

-Are fulfilled.

-Outsiders made insiders.

 

-Then ch2 zooms in from the heavenlies to the deeply personal,

-And it’s a reminder of why we were the outsiders;

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” Ephesians 2:1-2

-Paul is stark and unflattering in the contrast between us and God,

-We were dead in our transgressions,

-Gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature,

-Objects of wrath.

-This is a reminder of the deep and calamitous circumstances of all humanity,

-That goes right back to that first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,

-Where we chose selfish autonomy over obedience to our Creator.

-And through that sin,

-Death, disease and the demonic disrupted our world.

-From insiders created in the image of God,

-We became spiritual outsiders cut off from the life we once had.

 

-But then comes the contrast;

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,” Ephesians 2:4-6

-Love,

-Mercy,

-Life.

-We deserved wrath and judgement,

-Instead we got love.

-We were dead in transgressions,

-But were made alive in Christ.

-We were slaves to this world,

-But raised to heaven to be seated with Christ.

-All by the free gift of God.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

-What a contrast,

-From rebels to rescued.

 

-And after explaining how our new life has come about,

-How we’ve been adopted as sons and daughters,

-Paul offers up another contrast,

-And another reminder of the outsider status that has been changed.

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands) – 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2:11-12

-The whole Old Testament is the story of the Jewish people,

-And how God planned to use his Chosen People to bring salvation to the whole world.

-Beginning with Abraham and the covenant of circumcision,

-Through the rescue from Egypt by Moses and the Exodus to the Promised Land,

-God was working his purposes out through Israel.

-And with the incarnation of Jesus as a descendant of King David,

-His death and resurrection,

-God’s plans were fulfilled.

-But for all this history,

-All God’s leading that the Jews were to be a blessing to the whole world,

-His people considered themselves to be just that,

His people,

-To the exclusion of all others.

 

-And that was what Paul experienced on his arrival at Ephesus.

-Although he went to the Jewish synagogue first,

-Within three months Luke writes;

“. . . some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way.” Acts 19:9

-Even Paul’s own history should have warned him of the reception that he’d get from a Jewish audience.

-It’s no surprise that Paul describes this attitude as hostility.

-Because they had that covenant and promise to Abraham,

-Because they had the Law handed down to them by God through Moses,

-Because they had the Temple,

-The dwelling place of God,

-They had an antagonism against all those who were not Jews.

-They thought that because they had all these things they had a unique relationship with God,

-They were the insiders and everyone else were outsiders.

-But they were wrong.

 

-Although ch 2 is clearly directed to his Gentile readers,

-The Jews were not exempt from that universal condemnation of vv1-3.

-Although they believed that possession of the Law put them right with God,

-The problem that Jesus himself highlighted,

-Was that they failed to keep the Law 100%.

-Rather than the Law being a means of a relationship with God,

-The Law was actually a reminder of how far short everybody falls from the perfection God calls for.

-In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said;

“I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20

-And just in case people missed the point he goes on;

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Matthew 5:21-22

-And to really drive it home;

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28

-Two commandments,

-Two obligations of the Law,

-And anger and lust,

-Not just murder and adultery,

-Disbar a person from the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

-At my Mum’s funeral on Monday I told the guests that a common refrain from my Mum for five or more years was,

-‘I just want to go home to be with Jesus.’

-After the service my aunty came up to me and said,

-‘It was lovely that Denise had such a firm faith.

-‘It must be wonderful being so sure of where you’re going.’

-Now that Aunty is a very committed and devout Catholic,

-But from her wistful tone,

-I think I have more confidence I’ll see her in heaven than she has herself.

-But she wouldn’t be alone as a follower of Jesus who lacks assurance of their own salvation.

-The Jews thought that they had an automatic ticket to heaven because they had the Law,

-Their confidence lay in their hereditary.

-But what was Paul’s assessment of humanity?

-And not just Gentiles;

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air . . . All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” Ephesians 2:1-3

-And what was the antidote,

-What saved us from our deserved wrath?

-Being a Jew?

-Keeping the Law?

-Being a good person?

-No!

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:4-7

 

-It’s by grace you’ve been saved.

-And just in case his readers missed the significance of this Paul repeats it in v8-9;

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”

-It’s nothing you do that gets you salvation,

-It’s what Jesus has done for you.

-Do you know why that’s good news?

-Because it means you can be sure that you are a Christian,

-You can be assured you will spend eternity with Christ,

-You can know that you will meet again all those you have loved who have died trusting in Jesus?

-How can a human being possibly have such confidence?

-Because God,

-God who is rich in mercy,

-God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.

-That’s why my Mum kept saying with confidence,

-‘I just want to go home to be with Jesus.’

-It’s why my Aunty can have the same confidence,

-It’s why you can have such confidence.

 

-Paul is implying in this second half of Ephesians 2,

-‘We’re all in the same boat’

-It’s not just the Gentiles who were,

-Separated from Christ,

-Excluded from citizenship in the People of God,

-Foreigners to the covenants of promise,

-Without hope,

-And without God in the world,

-That’s the plight of all humanity;

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13

-And it’s the same blood that saves the Jews;

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.” Ephesians 2:14-15

-You see, the Jews thought they had the jump on the Gentiles because they had the Law.

-That was a huge barrier in relationships between the Jews and Gentiles in the ancient world.

-The Jews smugly believed they were better than everyone else,

-And not surprisingly the Gentiles were put out by the arrogance of that belief.

-But because the law can’t save,

-That barrier is removed because we’re all on the same footing.

-We’re all dependant on the grace and mercy of God.

-And it is that grace and mercy that brings all lost humanity together,

-Whether Jew or Gentile.

 

-Remember Paul’s description of God’s plan back in Ephesians 1:10;

“. . . to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Ephesians 1:10

-Well that gets expanded in ch2:15-18;

“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

-The outsiders are made insiders.

-Those relying on the Law,

-And those far from it.

-Paul’s readers,

-Coming from that culture of hostility would have seen the great miracle that this was,

-And a confirmation that God was indeed bringing all things under heaven and on earth,

-Together under one head, Jesus.

-No longer were Gentiles foreigners and strangers,

-What God had always wanted Israel to do finally comes to being through his Son,

-With the nations of the world coming to worship the Lord our Creator God.

 

-We too are part of that story.

-Once we were outsiders,

-Hopeless,

-Separated from God by our selfishness and sinfulness.

-But through his love and mercy,

-In Christ we have a sure and certain hope;

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22

 

Sermon: Pentecost 8, 15 July 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 15th July 2018

GOD’S AMAZING PLAN

(2 Samuel 6:1-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:1-14; Mark 6:14-29)

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Amen.

That is not the usual type of prayer that I use at the beginning of a sermon. It actually comes from the apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, just a few verses beyond the end of the passage we read a few minutes ago. And it gives a bit of a sense of what this letter is all about, and indeed what this morning’s reading is all about; and it expresses a desire to understand God’s blessings and his purposes better.

There is a good deal of prayer in this chapter. We heard after the opening introductory two verses of the letter, how Paul launched into a prayer, which is really an outpouring of praise. I mean an outpouring, for in the original Greek, it is actually one long sentence. I imagine Paul dictating as he paces around as far as his chains will let him, for he is a prisoner: probably in a house, perhaps chained to a Roman soldier. I say dictating because he usually had a scribe or secretary, and just wrote the last verse or two of his letters himself.

This letter is not one of Paul’s letters that responds to a crisis in a church, or seeks to correct a particular error he has heard about. He possibly intended it to be read in a number of churches, to give the Christians around Asia Minor a bigger sense of the amazing plan of God. For that is really what this letter is about.

Do you remember the first TV set you had? For most of you it was probably black and white, with a small screen which couldn’t hold a full rectangular picture; and it was probably prone to snow across the screen, and lines going up and down from time to time. Not the greatest or clearest picture! Compare that to what we have today: vivid colour, large screens and a full rectangle, and we expect a really clear picture – as long as our eyesight is good enough to appreciate it! Well, it is easy in our day-to-day life as Christians to think about our faith in a mundane way: to think of it as if it were a small black-and-white mediocre quality picture.

But in this letter, Paul wants us to take on board the reality that we are part of something that is absolutely amazing. Something extraordinary!

And as Paul begins the letter he thinks of what God has done and is doing: he starts with one blessing, and that reminds him of another, and then another and another. He waxes lyrical for 12 verses: well over 200 words in English. Quite a sentence! Paul was really excited about all that God has done for us!

God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing, says Paul. And he spells out some of those blessings: past, present and future.

What has God done for us that gets Paul so excited?

He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ. He brought us into his family, with all the privileges that belong to God’s children. Through Christ, he redeemed us or set us free from the power of sin and evil, and brought us forgiveness.

What Paul wants us to see is that we are not followers of Christ by some lucky stroke of good fortune. God has incorporated us in his love into his extraordinary and wonderful plan. God knew us before we knew him. God loved us before we loved him.

What is God’s great plan that gets Paul so excited? What is this mystery of his will, this plan which will certainly come to pass in the fullness of time?

God is going to gather up all things in Christ: things in heaven and things on earth. He is going to bring everything together in the way they are meant to be. Evil will be put down for ever. Hatred and violence and confusion and misunderstanding will be gone. Righteousness and love will abound. Heaven and a renewed earth will be one great kingdom.

Paul wants us to take on board that this is the beautiful reality that God will accomplish. And Christ is at the centre of this wonderful plan: time and time again he speaks of God’s blessings as being “in Christ”.

But right now we are living between the first coming of Christ and the culmination of God’s purposes. What is God doing for us here and now?

Right now, we are his beloved and forgiven children: we are in a loving committed relationship with the Creator here and now.

We do not have to wonder whether God will accept us, or whether there is something we have done or even something we might do that will get us tossed out of the family of God. We are his children. We have already been assured of the inheritance God promises to all his children. And we have received God’s gift of God himself: the Holy Spirit, God’s very presence within us.

Just as a seal would be put on a letter or document to make clear whose letter it was, so we have the Holy Spirit to make clear that we belong to God. The Spirit is God’s pledge to us that we shall indeed share in his promised glorious inheritance.

God has done so much for us. God will do so much for us. And God right now is doing so much for us. But we need to remember that even now, he has a purpose for us. He seeks a response from us, a response which reflects how we are to play our part in this wonderful plan of God.

Near the beginning of his prayer, Paul points out that God chose us to be holy and blameless before him in love. To be holy is first of all to belong to God in a special way: but the outcome of this is that we are to be holy in our character, we are to live a holy life, reflecting the righteousness and goodness and love of God in the way we act, and in the way we treat people. To be blameless is to be free from blame: our sins are not held against us. But that freedom from blame should lead us to live lives that do not open us up to blame, but rather bring glory to God, the perfect one.

We are chosen for wonderful privileges and blessings. But we do not take those blessings for granted. We seek to live as God’s beloved children. We allow God’s blessings to make their impact on our lives. And the Holy Spirit within us is there to help us to live that sort of life.

No wonder Paul is so excited about God’s wonderful plan! However, this idea of being chosen can raise a few problems.

People can think: “If God has chosen me, it doesn’t matter what I do or how I live. He has promised that I will always be his.” But of course, it does matter. Our lives express who we really are. If our life denies our relationship with God, what grounds have we to think that we really do belong to him? We need to seek to live as God’s children.

People can also think: “If God has chosen me, I must be pretty special, pretty wonderful.” But of course God’s relationship with us humans is always based on grace, his kindness to those who do not deserve it. Jesus came to bring forgiveness to us who need it. There are no grounds for pride or arrogance in the Christian faith. Nor are there grounds for us to judge others who may not be believers.

And people can also pick up Paul’s message, and get worried about words like predestination. They might be reminded about the old song about why we were born so beautiful: “because we had no say in it, no say in it at all.” But that is not the reality of how we came to faith, and it is not how God works. He does not deal with us as his playthings, as Lego bricks to be put together in any way he feels like. He made us as responsible people, able to make decisions, and our faith in Jesus is our decision and our responsibility. But Paul wants us to see that God has been at work all along, and his love for us and his purpose for us is gracious and eternal.

And as we look further into this beautiful letter, we will see that so often this idea is not simply about each individual, but about the church, the community of God’s people here and everywhere. And this letter to the Ephesians will indeed have much to say about the church, and its very special place in God’s plans.

This letter is packed with wonderful things to tell us. At first reading we might feel it is almost packed too tightly with so much information. But it repays closer reading, as Paul shows us how God has drawn us into his wonderful plan for us, for the church, and for all creation.

I hope you will find the journey through Ephesians over these coming weeks a real encouragement to your faith, and well as a challenge at times. You might like to read the letter more closely for yourself, or perhaps look at a chapter each week over the next six weeks. You might like to join one of our Parish groups looking more closely at the letter.

But whether or not you do that, may we all remember that God has a wonderful eternal plan, and we have the privilege of being part of it through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and our King. May we in praise and thankfulness live the life of God’s children, as we look forward to the fulfilment of God’s wonderful eternal promises. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 8, 15 July 2018, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Identity- Ephesians 1

-I was watching the State of Origin on Wednesday night,

-And the camera cut to the crowd gathered for the spectacle behind the try line.

-Right in the centre of the shot was a swathe of blue.

-A little later another pan across the arena showed a dense patch of maroon.

-Those two colours identified where allegiances lay.

 

-On two occasions this week,

-In close succession,

-I heard the term ‘cultural appropriation’ used.

-If you’ve never heard the phrase,

-It describes negatively the action of one culture adopting something from another culture for its own use.

-So American pop star Katie Perry copped flack for performing in a Japanese kimono.

-And during this NAIDOC week,

-A film producer was nervous about using an indigenous language for lyrics to music in a play.

 

-Cultural appropriation is closely linked to another phrase that achieved prominence after the US Presidential elections,

-Identity politics.

-The claim was made that Hilary Clinton lost the election,

-Because her campaign too tightly focussed,

-On the interests and perspectives of small but vocal social groups,

-With which a minority of people identified.

-Somewhat ironic given the claim Trump’s successful populism was aimed at displaced blue-collar, white males.

 

-Identity is very powerful.

-In an article earlier this year,

-Stan Grant appraised the dangers of identity politics amongst indigenous activists.

-As a general observation of contemporary Western culture he wrote;

“Who we are increasingly defines what we believe, whom we call enemy or friend.” Stan Grant The Australian 28/4/18

-Identity,

-Or more accurately,

-One small aspect of that identity,

-Is blown up to be the dominant expression of the totality of our being,

-A totality which judges everything by that one small sliver of self perception.

 

-But identity politics is nothing new.

-It was even around in Jesus’ day.

-The story of the Good Samaritan was Jesus’ swipe at the identity politics of the Pharisees.

-The story of the woman at the well shows Jesus challenging a faulty Samaritan religious identity.

-Even the sign above the cross was a pointed jab at the superiority of Roman identity,

-Over a conquered Jewish state.

-But as with so many aspects of human culture and behaviour,

-There’s nothing wrong with identity per se,

-The problem arises when we make our identity an idol that displaces who we are in the eyes of God.

 

-Over the next 7 weeks we’re going to follow the lectionary in highlighting Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

-The Catholic theologian Raymond Brown claimed that only the book of Romans could match Ephesians;

“As a candidate for exercising the most influence on Christian thought and spirituality.” PT O’Brien p1

-Another patristic scholar,

-Noting the number of quotations in early Christian literature,

-Considers only the Psalms, John’s gospel and Romans,

-Have been as significant as Ephesians in shaping the life and thought of Christians, (PT O’Brien p1, n4)

-And they were all much longer documents.

-The reason for the influence of this short letter,

-Could well be because of its mix of sublime theological reflection,

-With a down to earth practicality about living the Christian life,

-A mix you can see expressed in the very first chapter.

 

-Paul begins his letter and right up front is the issue of identity.

-He starts with his own identity;

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” Ephesians 1:1

-Although this might sound a fairly innocuous greeting to us,

-If you read through Acts 19 and the story of Paul’s ministry in the city of Ephesus,

-You could imagine the significance of those words,

-And the powerful memories that would have been stirred up in the minds of his readers.

 

-When Paul arrived in Ephesus,

-An ancient city on the coast of what we know as modern day Turkey,

-He found a small group of disciples who’d been witnessed to by a Jewish Christian named Apollos.

-I’ll just read you what took place next;

“He (Paul) said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.” Acts 19:2-7

-After this,

-He went and preached in the local synagogue for three months,

-Until the Jews rejected the gospel and began maligning it.

-For two years Paul argued daily in the Hall of Tyrannus so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

-Luke writes that God did extraordinary miracles through Paul,

-The sick were healed and demons were exorcised.

-This confrontation between Paul and the evil supernatural realm,

-Had an incredible impact upon the believers in Ephesus,

-To the point where those who’d practised sorcery,

-Brought out all their occult scrolls and burned them publicly.

-Luke says the value of those scrolls was the equivalent of 50,000 days wages.

-That is a serious and costly change of lifestyle!

 

-So when Paul identifies himself as;

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” Ephesians 1:1

-That was a powerful statement of Paul’s role in the spreading of the gospel throughout Asia,

-And his relationship with Jesus,

-A relationship he would have explained as he recounted his own dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus,

-When he came face to face with the risen Lord.

-That story is also recounted in the Book of Acts,

-And once again the issue of identity is front and centre.

-Paul was known in those days by his Jewish name Saul,

-A man who by his own admission was a persecutor of the young Church.

-On the road to Damascus to arrest the Christians there,

-A blinding light halted his journey,

-And a voice called out,

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 9:4

-Saul asks;

-‘Who are you Lord?’

-An identity question.

-In Acts 9 the answer was a very simple,

-‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’

-But in Ephesians the identity of Jesus is somewhat expanded,

-And is described within an incredibly profound Trinitarian description.

 

-Look on your reading sheet to Ephesians 1:2;

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 1:2

-Four times in ch1 Jesus is referred to as the ‘Lord Jesus Christ’.

-Eight times Paul refers to him just as Christ.

-We’re so used to hearing Jesus referred to as Christ,

-That we can easily forget the significance of that title.

-Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word messiah or anointed one.

-The kings of Israel were anointed for their role.

-The prophets looked forward to the arrival of the Messiah who would sit on the throne of David forever.

-Throughout Jesus’ ministry he speaks of the kingdom of God,

-And it’s clear that he sees himself as the king of that Kingdom.

-When Paul adds ‘Lord’ to Jesus Christ,

-He’s proclaiming the divine nature of King Jesus,

-And intimately identifying Jesus with God the Father,

-An identification which becomes explicitly Trinitarian in ch1:17;

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,” Ephesians 1:17

 

-But Paul is not only concerned to identify himself,

-And gives us a deeper insight into the identity of Jesus and the Trinity,

-He wants us to know who we are.

-One of the greatest expressions of our Christian identity comes in Galatians 3,

-Where Paul says;

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:26-28

-Whereas identity politics strokes that individualistic sliver of self perception,

-Paul raises our identity above and beyond all the tiny categories our worldly selves consider important.

-We are not our ethnic identity,

-Our economic or gender identity,

-Our identity lies in the fact that we’ve been adopted as children of God.

-Listen to the rapturous language Paul uses to describe that in Ephesians 1;

“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, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,” Ephesians 1:3-5

-And it just keeps on getting better;

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,” Ephesians 1:7-9

 

-Whatever we may think of ourselves,

-Whoever we may think we are,

-Whoever others tell us we are,

-Whatever failings, struggles, flaws or shortcomings,

-Clamber within our souls to define our identity,

-They will fail miserably in the light of this marvellous truth,

-In Christ Jesus you are a child of God!

-That’s what it means to be redeemed,

-That’s what Paul means when he says in v7;

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” Ephesians 1:7

-All the failings of our past have been forgiven.

-But better even than that is that we are redeemed,

-We’re made new,

-Restored,

-Prepared for something better.

 

-And it’s for that ‘something better’ that Paul concludes this first chapter.

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Ephesians 1:17-19

-Stan Grants observation that;

“Who we are increasingly defines what we believe, whom we call enemy or friend.”

-Is very insightful.

-You don’t need to scratch to deeply to see how the insecurities and self-doubts that so many carry in our world,

-Arise because of a false or diminished understanding of who they are.

-The child who’s told they’re hopeless,

-The teenager who’s told she’s useless,

-The adult who’s told they’re worthless.

-Paul’s prayer here is that knowing who we are in Christ,

-Will change what we believe about ourselves and about others.

-And Paul prays this won’t be a one off event,

-But that we’ll continue to know and grow in wisdom and understanding,

-As our hearts are enlightened to the hope that is held out to us in Jesus.

 

-This will be the message of Ephesians,

-Where the profound theological truths of the eternal purposes of our Creator God,

-Take root in the day to day lives of a people who come to know the wonderful grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,

-And be the people God created us to be.

Sermon: Pentecost 7, 8 July 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 8th July 2018

CLOSED MINDS OR OPEN HEARTS

(2 Samuel 5:1-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13)

I was listening to one of those radio shock-jocks the other day – only for a few minutes: my mental health is too important! He was talking about our electric power supply, and he maintained that the only things that mattered were keeping supply reliable and keeping prices down. Issues like the environment, or the effects of mining on agriculture or water supply, were irrelevant, and of course to him climate change was a fiction anyway!

Now I have to admit that I have a negative attitude to these radio personalities with their aggressively expressed opinions, which I so often disagree with. It is probably good for me to listen from time to time to see whether my assumptions about them are fair! But it was also clear to me that this one had certainly closed his mind to some very important issues, which suited his apparent agenda of getting people stirred up.

Closed minds seem to be very much part of public discourse nowadays. Abuse and name-calling and extreme accusations are pretty normal on all sides of political debate. The idea of politicians working in co-operation to come up with the best outcomes for all people is a wonderful idea, but seems to be wishful dreaming.

A closed mind is a simple alternative to thinking through complex or difficult issues. Nothing new about that, of course! And today’s Gospel from Mark 6 shows us the closed minds of people as they come into contact with Jesus and his mission.

Jesus has returned to Nazareth where he grew up, and indeed worked as a carpenter for quite a few years. People have been hearing that he is now a preacher, with an amazing ministry of healing people of a range of diseases and handicaps, and even casting evil spirits out of troubled people.

Now he is here, back at Nazareth, and he is preaching in the synagogue. And what is the reaction? Closed minds! “We know this man. We know his mother. We know his sisters and brothers. He just a handyman who’s gone off somewhere and gathered a motley group of followers. And now he’s pretending to be a Rabbi, a preacher. OK, there are those stories of wonderful miracles: but they’re probably just tricks anyway. We’re not going to listen to him.”

Closed minds. Jesus’ ministry was rejected by those who thought they knew him best. But of course, they had missed the most important part of the story. That’s what happens when our minds are closed.

Jesus was amazed at their unbelief, and yet I don’t think he was totally taken by surprise. He commented that prophets are so often rejected in their home town, by their own people. It is not surprising that he had a very limited ministry there: Mark says that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. Jesus’ pattern was that he used his divine power in response to faith: where faith was lacking, very little would happen. That, of course, is a pattern throughout the Bible. So Nazareth missed out.

We also need to beware of the danger of closed minds. It is easy to come to our decisions, to make our judgements, based on limited real knowledge. And then we stick with them rather than accept that there may be questions. We judge people. We assume we have the answers. We hold on to our prejudices. And we can so easily close our minds to important truths, and even to what God is saying to us.

Hence we can so easily close our minds to the unexpected messenger through whom God is speaking to us. Of course, we must not go along with anything and everything people tell us. We need to assess what people say to us. But just because someone belongs to the wrong church, or takes a different approach to theology, or went to the wrong college, doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to teach us. We must be ready to test, but also be ready to learn, sometimes from unexpected sources. And of course, we will still consider how any challenging idea stands in the light of God’s word and of the Gospel.

Yes,

we do need to consider and think, and even to pray about those things that don’t quite fit in with our assumptions. Let’s beware of that famous statement from a closed mind: “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts.” Let’s keep our minds open.

Mark goes on to tell us about how Jesus continued his own ministry around Galilee, and also sent his apostles out two by two to share in that mission of preaching and healing. He gave them authority to preach and heal, and even gave them authority over unclean spirits.

It looks as if the mission was for a limited time: perhaps it was their first time working by themselves. He gave them some definite instructions. They weren’t to take extra supplies: no extra food, no bag of the sort that travelling preachers took with them in order to beg for money, in fact no money. And they weren’t to take an extra tunic, one that would be useful if they had to camp out overnight. It was expected that hospitality would be provided to people visiting villages and towns, including visiting preachers. And Jesus makes clear that once they had been offered hospitality, they were to accept it: they were not to look for another place because the accommodation somewhere else might be more comfortable. So the apostles were to go out in faith: trusting that God would supply their needs as they did his work.

The apostles preached Jesus’ message: that call to repent, to turn back to God in faith and obedience. And they healed many sick people, and indeed cast out evil spirits as they had been empowered to do. God’s kingdom was coming in a new and wonderful way through Jesus: the call was to become part of it, trusting in Jesus. But Jesus’ words to the apostles indicated that not all would be smooth sailing.

There would be places where they would not be welcomed: villages and towns whose people had closed minds and would refuse to listen to their message. This would happen to them, as it had happened to Jesus. When it happened to them, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left.

Why this strange act? Strict Jews who were visiting pagan lands used to shake the dust off their feet this way as they left a foreign country: it was a way of signalling their separation from all that the country represented, a way of dissociating themselves from the false teaching and false living which that land represented. Hence Jesus was saying to the apostles that people who rejected their message, Jesus’ message, God’s message, were effectively separating themselves from God’s people, and acting as if they were foreigners and pagans. The act was a warning to anyone who saw it.

However, not all people and not all towns did act like this: there were places where their message was heard, and where they were able to bring Christ’s healing to people who needed it, and who sought it in faith.

As we reflect on these stories from Mark’s Gospel, let us ask God to help us to always be open to what he wants to say to us. It may come as we reflect on his word, in a sermon or Bible study; in our own reading and reflection. It may come from people we know, with their insights, and even from people whose backgrounds are different from ours, but who may have important things to teach us.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul tells his readers: “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise the words of prophets.” He is telling his readers to keep their minds open for new things that God may want to show them or teach them. But he goes on to say: “Test everything: hold fast to what is good and abstain from every from of evil.” An open mind must still be a mind which evaluates the messages it receives. It is not ready to accept anything and everything. So let us think through the messages we receive: let us take on board all that is good, and reject all that is false or evil.

May we maintain open minds to receive God’s messages to us. And may we maintain hearts of faith: to hear Christ’s message, and keep trusting and following Jesus. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 6, 1 July 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 1st July 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

A GENTLE MESSAGE ABOUT GIVING

(2 Samuel 1:1,17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43)

Today is the first day of the new financial year. You’ll have to hurry if you’ve going to get those end-of-financial year bargains. It’s probably too late to sort out those issues you needed to deal with before the end of the financial year. And it will soon be time to start dealing with details for income tax returns. Well, those things are for some of us anyhow!

It’s not a bad time to review our financial situation, and it’s not a bad time to think about our giving. As it happens, this date has been chosen for Noel as our Treasurer to speak about our parish’s financial situation and our giving. And as it happens, today’s Lectionary readings include a section from one of the New Testament’s most significant passages about giving, from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9: it’s worth making the time to read right through these two chapters to help us think about this issue.

The apostle Paul had long been aware that the Christians in Jerusalem were doing it tough. Bishop Barnett last week referred to financial persecution of the early Christians, as well as physical persecution. No doubt in Jerusalem, those in power regarded Christians as heretics and indeed blasphemers. They weren’t going to make it easy for them.

Christians in Jerusalem no doubt suffered exclusion in different ways. Often Christians seeking work or trying to sell their goods would be passed by. So many of them struggled to get by financially. Paul had long planned to arrange for a generous gift to be given to them from the Gentile churches he had founded and built up in Asia and Greece. Of course he couldn’t simply get someone to write a large cheque and post it, let alone arrange a bank transfer. People wanting to be involved would need time to save up so that they could make a contribution. Then these contributions would need to be collected, and taken on the long journey to Jerusalem. No wonder it took time.

The Christians of Macedonia, in Northern Greece, had been very keen to contribute, despite the fact that they also were doing it tough. The Corinthians, further south, were better off than they were: they even had time and energy to argue about whose spiritual gifts were the best, and to take each other to court when they had arguments. Receiving admiration and recognition seemed more important to the Corinthians than serving others in Christian love. When Paul had been with them before, he had told them about the difficulties faced by the Jerusalem church, and at that time they had been keen to help. But Paul was now hearing that the Corinthians had given up on the project, and didn’t seem at all ready to make their contribution.

As you might have gathered from our readings from this letter in recent weeks, Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians was rather fraught. There were ups and downs. And Paul now wants to encourage them to get back to the challenge of preparing their contribution: but he doesn’t want to get their backs up again. So he is very careful in the way he approaches this issue. He is not going to read them the riot act, but he does want them to see the importance of a making a generous response.

So what does he say, particularly in today’s extract from the chapters?

He reminds the Corinthians of all that God has given them, and the spiritual gifts they have been given. They excel in so many ways. Generosity too is something that is really important for Christians to excel in!

He reminds them of Jesus, who let go of his heavenly glory to share our human life. And then he gave up his life in terrible circumstances to bring us forgiveness and life. Though he was rich beyond our imagination, he became poor for our sakes. This is generosity beyond measure. If we are followers of Jesus, here is Christ’s pattern for us to follow.

Paul also reminds the Corinthians how important it is to keep going with what we have started. It is so easy to start something important and then run out of puff. If something really matters, we need not only to start but to keep going, and follow it through.

Then Paul reminds them of the idea of stewardship. He wants the Corinthians to give according to their resources. He is asking them to consider the good things they have, and to give in the light of that. He doesn’t ask them to impoverish themselves, but simply to be generous with what they have.

And he points out the value of fellowship. Fellowship is sharing. At the moment the Corinthians are in a position to be generous: they can share generously with those who do not have enough. Perhaps down the track the Corinthians will be struggling and the Christians in Jerusalem will be doing better: at that stage, those Jewish Christians will have the opportunity to share generously with their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters. Fellowship at its most practical! When we have more than we really need, Christ calls us to be generous in sharing where the needs are.

Paul avoids giving commands and setting rules. That’s not how generosity works. The New Testament writers are of course aware of the tithe which was commanded in the Old Testament: the one-tenth which in a special way belonged to God, recognizing that all that we have comes from God. But the writers don’t make a big thing of it. Generosity is the principle. Of course however, the tithe can be helpful as we think about what generosity might look like in our circumstances.

So let me encourage you to listen to Noel, and to review your giving in the light of what he shares with us. We are not struggling to survive as a Parish, but there are stresses. Of course, Christian giving is not only about what we put in the plate at church, or perhaps nowadays in a regular bank transfer. Many, perhaps most of us, will consider work out our church giving in relation to other ministries and causes which we also want to support.

And remember that generosity takes many forms. I am well aware of so many parishioners who are wonderfully generous in giving of their time and abilities and efforts in many forms of loving service, within the parish and beyond it. We really do appreciate your generosity.

So let me encourage you this morning to think about your financial giving; to remember God’s generosity and Christ’s sacrificial service; to find those ways you can generously serve others; and to pray that God will continue to provide for this parish, its ministry and its witness. And of course, let us remember that while is a God of miracles, much of his work is done through people like us who hear his call and who respond with loving and generous service. Amen.

Paul Weaver