Ephesians 1:1-14; Mark 7:24-end
14th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 05.09.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Are there times when you just can’t wait to tell someone some good news. Maybe its the birth of a child or a grandchild; maybe its getting a new job; maybe your team has just won the league; maybe Abba have just released their first album in 40 years.
At such times, some social niceties may go out the window. Rather than saying hello or asking how they are, as soon as you see the person or speak to them, you just want to jump straight in with your news. Your news trumps everything else – this is what needs to be said before anything else – at that moment, this is the thing that matters more than anything else.
Well, the beginning of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a bit like that, a letter we are going to be looking at over the next few weeks.
It initially may seem a fairly standard, dare-we-say it, formulaic opening to a letter. It says who the letter is from (“Paul, an apostle”), who it is for (“the church in Ephesus”) and then gives a greeting (“grace and peace to you”).
But the thing that makes it so extraordinary is that Paul can’t stop mentioning the name of Jesus Christ. This is the news he can’t help but share.
In just the first few lines, he says he is “an apostle of Jesus Christ” writing to the “faithful in Christ Jesus”, praying that they may have “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. He then opens up with “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Paul just can’t wait to get to the subject that really matters.
It is remarkable that this letter, written within the lifetime of many who knew Jesus, who ate with him and lived alongside him, should be so absorbed with Jesus. Substitute Jesus’ name for any other human in history and we would think Paul was somewhat obsessed, imbalanced, by his focus on one person, no matter how great that person may be.
But here there is not even the question of a doubt for Paul. Jesus is God’s Son. Indeed, God Almighty is defined by his relationship to Jesus – he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the focus, the centre point of our lives and our world.
And as we will see over the coming weeks, Paul sustains this focus throughout his letter. We will see again and again how the gospel he proclaims, the prayers he prays, the life he lives, the ethics he encourages, will all be rooted in Jesus.
If you are like me, it is easy to lose focus. To forget what truly matters. To forget that Christ is at the very centre of our lives.
To get side-tracked by things of lesser importance.
But Christ, as Paul reminds us from the outset of this letter:
is the source of our hope and peace.
He is the one who calls us to service.
He is the one in whom we abide.
He is the one who blesses us.
If Paul’s total focus on Christ is the first thing to notice, the second is this: he starts his letter with joyful praise and thanksgiving.
And that is worth noting because of the context, the situation he is in and the situation those who he is writing to are in.
Paul is writing this letter from prison, prevented from visiting those he loves, prevented from doing the work of spreading the gospel that he loves. Physically it can’t have been easy either – poor food, little daylight, a confined space. There would have been much to grumble and complain about.
And the Christians in Ephesus he is writing to can’t be having it easy either. We know from the book of Acts that Paul’s visit to Ephesus a couple of years earlier had provoked riots and beatings. The rise of the Christian faith was threatening the city’s economy, based as it was on the world-famous Temple of Artemis in its midst. The Christians Paul is writing to were being persecuted, being beaten up, for their faith.
So a letter full of joyful praise and thanksgiving may not be the first thing we would expect.
Which makes me reflect on myself. If you are anything like me, life can tend to pull us down at times.
We can become worried, anxious.
We can feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do, and how little time there is to do it.
We may wonder how we will pay the next bill; or how we will cope if our health begins to fail.
There are times when living joyful, positive lives can be a challenge.
And yet here is Paul, despite his situation, just bubbling over with delight and joy:
“Praise be to the God and father of our lord Jesus Christ (he writes)…
… in accordance with God’s pleasure and will
… to the praise of his glorious grace
… according to his good pleasure
… that we might be for the praise of his glory”
Paul is full of praise and delight, joy and wonder. His immediate situation, and the situation of those he is writing to, is one of challenge, hardship, but without denying that, he is able to see the deeper realities that are true for us too: God’s love and grace.
And here, in the opening verses of his letter, he focuses in on one particular theme: being chosen by God.
When I was at school and we would have our lunchtime football game in the playground, there was always a horrible moment as we stood in a line and waited to be picked. How long would it take to be chosen? Would I be the last? Indeed, would either side want me?
If before we ran out for lunch, one of the captains had said to me – “Don’t worry – you are my star player. I had decided I was going to pick you before I woke up this morning.” – then I would just have been buzzing all day, confidence sky-high – knowing I was chosen.
How much truer is that in our relationship with God. We are not an afterthought in the mind of God. “Oh… I guess you will have to do. You’re not my first choice, but there you go…” Indeed, we are the exact opposite.
God has chosen us before the creation of the world itself to live for him, to love him, to praise him.
Before we had done anything to show that we deserved his love; before we were even born; before indeed anyone or anything had come into being, God had chosen us, chosen us to be in relationship with him, to know him and to love him. And every act of his since then has been with that in mind. He has “predestined us” to be adopted as his children, to be welcomed into his family.
We are part of the purposes, the plans of God. It is not down to chance that we know God, that we experience his love.
Take time this week to know that God has chosen you.
As the old Sunday School song goes: “Count your blessings one by one and you will be amazed at what the Lord has done.”
Paul begins to count his blessings here:
we have been blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing
we have been chosen by God
we have been adopted into his family
we have received his glorious grace
we have freedom, life, because of his sacrifice for us
we have forgiveness of sins
we know what the purpose of life is – to bring all things together to worship Christ
we have received the gift of his holy spirit.
Whatever our circumstances. Whatever our mood. Read these words of Paul again and you’ll be amazed at what the Lord has done.
May we together come to make Christ our focus, and make praise and thanksgiving the heartbeat of our lives.