Do you ever tend to forget the things you should remember and remember many things you wish you could forget? I know I do, and I’m sure that might happen to you occasionally as well! In today’s passage the apostle Paul begins by asking us to "remember" something very important. What is it that is so important that he repeats the word twice in two verses? Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, knows how important it is to remind us what we were and what we have become in Christ Jesus.
Do you ever see those before and after photos in Weight Watcher ads or ads for Cross Fit? Paul is sort of lifting up a before and after scriptural picture so we remember the “before Christ” in our ancestors’ lives of faith and can claim and celebrate “the after.”
Let’s check out the “before Christ.” Paul reminds us about the absolute barrier that had existed between Jews and Gentiles previously. It was believed at that time that “Gentiles were created by God to fuel the fires of hell” and “it was not…lawful to give help to a Gentile woman in childbirth because that would bring another Gentile into the world.” Likewise, if a Jew married a Gentile, “the funeral of the Jew was carried out.” [Ephesians, William Barclay, p. 123] This barrier between Jews and Gentiles was as absolute as any Berlin Wall or Iron Curtain.
Also, before Christ, Gentiles lived what might be described as pragmatic lives…not forward thinking or filled with hope. The Jews on the other hand had the understanding that history had meaning and direction and that it would culminate in in a glorious ending. It was sort of a “march to God” verses the Gentile’s “progress to nowhere.” [Barclay, p.123]
Paul has us remember that before Christ, Gentiles were also “strangers” to God’s laws and covenant promises. The Jews were a covenant people with special privilege and also responsibilities. Gentiles were not yet part of the covenant people.
Then Paul switches gears from “before Christ” to “after Christ.” The important things we are to remember. How the barriers are down now because Gentiles have been “brought near.” Jesus has “broken down the dividing walls of hostility.”[Ephesians 2: 14] The phrase Paul uses “brought near” is the same that described Gentiles who converted to Judaism in Paul’s time. But instead of having Gentiles become Jews or vice versa, Paul says that Jesus removes the barriers and brings about unity.
The gifts of unity are threefold. First, Jesus transforms us into new beings. We are all new creations in Jesus Christ. More than we were before, and not yet what we shall become. That has not yet been revealed. As new creatures in Christ we see life in brand new ways. In each person we encounter, we can look past the exterior and see a heart that God loves no matter what. We can learn to love as God loves and we can even love our enemies and pray for them. That leads directly into the second gift of unity.
The second gift of the unity of Christ is that of bringing together the children of God who have been estranged from each other. Enemies can become coworkers or friends. It is removing the barriers. Because we are all God’s children, Jesus showed that we can be friends with one another. It is the natural thing to do because we are full members of God’s family. This is vital as we learn to coexist alongside our politics, and in negotiations with one another in godly and loving manners. Christians are peacemakers.
The final gift of unity is access to God. We Gentiles, who were previously far off, are now covenant people as well, having special privileges and acknowledging our special responsibilities as well. We have been set apart and consecrated by the Holy Spirit for God’s work. We are called directly into service.
As you are aware, our main responsibility is bringing the love of God to bear on the human situation. I have seen that countless times here among you, exercising your privilege and responsibilities in caring for the homeless; for moms and children in shelters; building houses alongside Paterson families; packing thousands of meals for school children in Africa; having dinners to raise money for mission; reaching out during the pandemic in caring caravans, small groups, and caring calls. And last but hardly least, your volunteering in so many, many different community organizations. We are a church that is living out our Christian responsibilities.
In the final section of this morning’s scripture, St. Paul gives us a stunning image of everyone of us as a stone, mysteriously growing together into a “holy temple.” It is understood that Jesus is the cornerstone of this eternal dwelling. And just as important every stone, every one of us here this morning, is an important part of this “dwelling place for God.” Amazing thought! We are the house that Jesus’ love builds! Growing, becoming secure, stones forming walls, an ongoing building project in which we bring God close to his family, have him live intimately with us, have walls that shelter and protect us from sin and death and rooms and roof that provide shelter from the storms. Within the house, the dwelling for God, a light burns brightly, signaling that Christ is the light of our lives and Christ is the light of our world.
There is no darkness in the family of God. No unwanted people, no misfits, no one is outside of the circle of this healing welcoming light within the circle and fellowship of our lives. This is the church at its best! And this is what Paul would have us remember. Your place in the building up of the house where God dwells.
Let us pray:
Good and Gracious God, We thank you for the life and sacrifice of your son whose death and resurrection brought us closer to you; clothed us with privilege as your children and with responsibilities as your servants; and built us into a home where you can visit among us sharing lighgt and strength and hope. Amen.
the forgiveness of trespasses, according to the richness of grace.”
Ephesians 1: 7
Once when daughter Robin was little she curled up next to me on the sofa one evening and she asked: What if a little kid doesn’t have a mom, who would take care of her? I thought a moment and answered: Well, I suppose that child’s father would take care of her. There was a pause. And then another question: But what if that little kid doesn’t have a father? Another pause. I replied: Why I suppose a grandparent or an aunt or uncle or a friend would take care of the child. And then her real question: What if, what if that kid doesn’t have anybody at all?
What if? “What if?” is that existential question. What if there is nothing else. No divine being or any purpose to life at all…Like Peggy Lee’s song “Is That All There is?” What if? Even as adults we want to value the certainty that there is a plan, that there is someone or something looking out for us. That life has a purpose, a meaning greater than ourselves.
In today’s scripture Paul assures us that there is more to life than meets the eye. He expresses words of assurance and joy, as one commentator put it “a lyrical song of praise…gift after gift, wonder after wander” concerning our place in God’s plan. [Ephesians, William Barclay, p.87]
The riches of God’s grace is a favorite theme of St. Paul. In last Sunday’s scripture, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians prayed that God would remove what he referred to as the thorn in his side, but that did not happen. Instead, God enabled Paul to continue his work, to follow his calling despite the things that troubled him. God answered Paul like this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” [v. 9] And Paul esponds: “Therefore I am content…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” [v. 10] That promise of sufficient grace is for us as well.
In today’s lesson Paul shows us additional gifts of God’s grace. Perhaps the first point and most special of all is that God has chosen us to do God’s work. Jesus repeats this in John 15: 16 “You did not choose me but I chose you.” What really is special about this choosing is that it was God’s choice to bless us deeply. Haven’t we heard adoptive parents saying this to a child. We have chosen you. To love you, to care for you and to treat you as a member of our family. You are special.
God says the same thing to us. Paige, you are special, Bill, you are special, Ken, Jane, Max, Robb, Ruth, Amy, Jeannie, Jackie, everyone of us, you are special. We are special because God has chosen us for adoption into his family. That we might be the children of God. Imagine that.
Sometimes people brag about their families. You’ve heard them. Things like my dad was a Super Bowl referee. My mom sells fashion on QVC. My uncle has his own podcast. My cousin is vice president of her own hedge fund. You know those folks. But it is us who have something to really brag about. We can say with assurance. I am the daughter of God. I am the son of God. I am a child of God. This is the first of the“riches of grace.”
Secondly, God is overwhelmingly generous in sharing with us goodness and peace of mind. There is never any worry necessary that we might not have anyone to watch over and care for us. Instead, our hearts and minds are at peace because this great God of the entire universe and of the tiny sparrow, has seen fit to provide a peace that passes understanding for our troubled souls.
How do you welcome the peace of God into your life? So many different ways. Setting aside a time each day to read some scripture or a devotion. Maybe engaging in meditation or yoga or a time of silence or walking in nature opens hearts to the peace of Christ. When Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples, he explains his gift of peace. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” [John 14: 27]
Let’s move on to yet a third aspect of God’s grace. Perhaps the greatest gift of all the riches of grace is being “sealed” with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes: In [Christ] you…were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit…” [ v. 13]
In the sending of scrolls or important packages, a seal was often applied to show who owned the scroll or the package that was being transported. Just so, Paul uses the same word for the “seal” that the Holy Spirit affixes to the believer. It is this “seal” that identifies us as belonging to God.
Then Paul describes the Holy Spirit like this: “ the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.” [v.14] In the New International Version [NIV] it is translated this way, this seal is “a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.” [v. 14 NIV]
Paul uses the Greek word arrabon here which described “a regular feature in the Greek business world…a deposit paid in advance as a guarantee that the rest would in due course be paid.” [Barclay, p.100] In other words, God has paid a deposit on us in advance. As one commentator shared: it is “a foretaste of the blessedness of heaven.”[Barclay, p.99]
All of the riches of grace bless us, the children of God, and bring us peace for all that troubles our hearts, and promise us eternal life in heaven. The take aways?
Serve your heavenly parent with reassurance,
invite God’s peace into your hearts and lives,
live every day knowing that the best is yet to come.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, sometimes we forget how rich we are! How your grace pours through our lives like a mighty rushing stream. Help us to “dive deeply into the living waters of loving fidelity”* and to someday reach the shores of eternal life and the “blessedness of heaven.” Amen.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor. 12: 9
‘While I was changing channels this week watching TV I came upon one of the strongest man competitions. The event in the contest I watched was to see which man could pick up the heaviest barbell from the ground, straighten up and hold it for a few seconds. The winner picked up over a thousand pounds. That was pretty incredible but what captured my attention was how the winner seemed to use absolutely every fiber in his being, he mustered every iota of his powerful muscular strength in the gargantuan task of lifting the barbell.
That’s the gold standard for strength. The muscular capability of a human to lift over four times his weight. Wow. Our scripture today from St. Paul’s Letter called Second Corinthians is also about strength and heavy weights. But in a very different way. Let’s check it out.
In the beginning of today’s passage there is an odd story about a person who visits heaven and then returns to earth. Kind of puzzling and then one realizes that Paul is talking about himself… that this man is Paul, and that experience happened to Paul. He writes as if he is in the third person: “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven….and was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” [vv 2-4] A mystical kind of experience.
It seems that Paul’s spirit somehow rose up to heaven and experienced God. “Things that are not to be told….not to be repeated.” [v. 4] Paul recounts that he was caught up “into Paradise.” We sometimes use that word for heaven but Paul seems to be referencing Paradise the way Persians referred to it. Paradise represented a “walled garden.” So, Paul was not only transported to heaven, he was admitted to God’s special garden. A walled garden where he would have had conversation and companionship with God.
I wonder if this scripture helped inform the favorite hymn “In The Garden”? Remember the lines? “He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own. And the joy I feel as I tarry there none other has ever known.” It is clear from this scripture that Paul has had a life changing mystical kind of experience!
The thought process that follows next for Paul is a bit surprising. He doesn’t boast because he has smelled the roses in the heavenly garden, instead, he shares that just the opposite happens! He writes “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” [v.7]
There have been many theories over the centuries as to what that “thorn” was. It may have been the continuing opposition and persecution he faced; it could have been worldly temptations; it could have been his physical appearance; many medical “thorns” have been surmised from epilepsy to migraine headaches to eye difficulties. Proponents of each have scripture passages to support their views. A well known pediatrician from Philadelphia has gone on the record convinced that Paul had autism.
Paul prayed that God would remove the thorn in his side, but that did not happen. Instead, God enabled Paul to continue to follow his calling despite that thorn. As one Bible scholar put it so well: “[God] does not spare us things, but makes us able to conquer them.” [Second Corinthians, William Barclay] God answered Paul like this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” [v. 9] And Paul esponds: “Therefore I am content…for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” [v. 10]
Even when we are feeling incapable of doing something we feel called to do, Paul’s words remind us that we are not the world’s strongest people on our own. Instead, God’s strength and power is our energy source.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley preached 42,000 sermons in his lifetime; travelled 4,500 miles yearly by horseback; and preached three sermons per day average. At age 80, Wesley wrote in his diary: “I am a wonder to myself. I am never tired, either with preaching, writing or travelling.”
This power and strength of God can help you and me through our weaknesses so we can proclaim along with John Wesley “I am a wonder to myself.” God’s power and strength can respond to so many trying things in our lives. Maybe it is physical weariness, we are tired and feel worn out; maybe it is some kind of pain or ailment that hampers us; maybe we are struggling with our faith; each of us has a thorn in the flesh that reminds us of our need for God.
The great good news in or lesson today is that when we reach down to pick up that very, very heavy barbell, it is not us alone lifting it. God loans us strength for all the heavy lifting we have to do in our lives from parenting to growing older, from caring for friends and neighbors in need to serving in our local church. God’s strength and power are made perfect in our weakness. Never forget the weightlifting miraculous power of God. For whenever you are weak, God is strong.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, Life can be very tough at times. Some responsibilities seem too much. Some tasks too daunting. Some pain feels as if it has no end. Be present in our weaknesses, fill us with your strength, let us feel your power in the everyday opportunities in our lives. We thank you and praise your name. Amen.
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