Living in the Big Picture
I’m sure we’ve heard if not said, ‘Slow down’, ‘take it easy’ when someone is so excited about something that they’re speaking too fast. Maybe we’ve smiled at the energy, the effervescence we encountering as the person is so taken up by what she / he is describing. It is good to be passionate about things, excited by them and their possibilities, energised by them.
Our second reading today seems a rather standard beginning of a Pauline letter in which Paul acknowledges God’s goodness towards us in choosing us in Christ and blessing us now with life with him so that we can live to the praise of his glory. It sounds sort of mundane after almost 2,000 years even though it is the most gracious and wonderful thing to have happened to us. What we don’t hear in the English we’d pick up more in the Greek. We’re talking verses 3 to 14 which in English is 5 long sentences –with lots of additional phrases – that we might think a good editor would pare down – after all Jesus Christ is referred to 13 times and the phrase ‘praise of his glory’ or similar is used three times. What we miss in English is that this is one long sentence in the Greek – it is phrase upon phrase – I wonder whether it might be printed as a type of poetry rather than prose – but if Paul was speaking it to us, I can imagine us saying to him with a smile at his intensity and excitement, ‘Slow down, Paul, let us take it in’.
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, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV)
I liken this to taking a snap shot of the night sky with a very powerful telescope and then zooming to this or that part of the picture so that the galaxies give way to constellations which give way to solar systems and planets and then with super zoom we can pick out one planet and while keeping zooming in we see a creature looking up at the night sky. Paul paints the cosmic reality of God’s action before the foundation of the world, his plans, his actions to achieve those plans no matter what it takes, focusing always and ultimately on Jesus – so that we might be redeemed, forgiven, and have a place in heaven (the inheritance is secure) with the deposit of the Holy Spirit so that we can live here in this world to the praise of his glory – and that is a scandal for the world because this glory is a cross. Like painting a vast vista Paul then points to the people in it and then turns to his audience – the saints in Christ – those who have faith in Christ – some manuscripts have Ephesus as a place, others don’t which leads scholars to suggest that this is a circular letter to be read around while possibly having special priority in Ephesus where Paul spent the longest part of his travelling ministry – and it’s as if he’s turned from the picture, or looking up so to speak to those who are hearing him – remember that the letter would have been read out in the congregation – and just as you are hearing me, so all that Paul is saying applies to you. He is saying, ‘This is all for you!’.
So I can say without fear of error to those who are members of Christ’s body today – God has blessed you; God has chosen you (before the foundation of the world even); God has predestined you for adoption in his family; God lavishes his gifts upon you – salvation and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus so look carefully at water, bread and wine and listen to the words that go with them – and hear constantly this is all ‘for you’; and while we live here before we see this with our own eyes, God seals us with the promised Holy Spirit so that we can follow Jesus, listen to his words, understand what he is saying, and then have the strength to struggle on but with hope and joy, no matter what might be happening to us because nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
We can make it more complicated – and we do – when we doubt or reinterpret the words (they can’t mean what they say) – or suggest that my rubbish life now means that God hasn’t been and isn’t acting for me at all. Paul isn’t arguing with his audience but praising God and you’re overhearing it, as it were, and Paul’s including you in what he’s saying because in Ephesus Paul would have known his congregation and what they had learnt from him – just as I know what I have taught and how God continues to act nearly 2,000 years later – just as you do.
God is saying to his people that they are not accidents, flukes, or freaks – we all have our idiosyncrasies after all – but chosen not culled from the herd but picked by his grace to live with him. Yes, meditation and reflection on this thought might lead us to think why others push God away but in beginning this letter Paul is setting our bearings, giving us the big picture to orient us so that we can live with mortgages, joys, babies, teenagers, happiness, sadness, good governments, bad governments, fears, failures, friends, enemies – all the daily stuff that makes up our lives – and says in effect ‘life is more than this, here is the big picture and you’re in it’. Critics of religion accuse Christians in particular of being no earthly good with this perspective when in truth what happens is that with meaning and purpose in life – with the big picture known (maybe entitled ‘God’s graciousness’) – we now can focus on the here and now, the day and the people around us – as people of worth, loved by God himself who has forgiven us in Christ and who is saying that the world doesn’t know this mystery of who Jesus is and what he has done and how he is working now but Christians know the mystery – especially grounded in the sacraments of living with Jesus and hence we can grow in this relationship through worship, bible reading, meditation, and prayer – as we live through each day.
Paul’s excited truth of God’s faithfulness to us in Christ – his choosing us – is a message that we still need to hear all the time – because it can get very lonely behind our eyes – seeing the world from only our perspective. Whether crushed or elevated in life, we are always in danger of becoming self absorbed and that is simply a slow death for us and probably suffering for those around us as we increasingly become selfish. Of course we should be reflective about ourselves but Paul’s letter to the Ephesians begins by reminding us of another vantage point rather than our eyes or feelings or our brain – there (altar / cross), there (font), and there (lectern / pulpit) where we hear God speak to us in love and mercy, forgiveness and the call to discipleship. It is this perspective that opens the way to life in all its fullness.
- Ephesians 1:3 - 14