June 10, 2012

Blessed Us In Christ With Every Spiritual Blessing

Passage: Ephesians 1:3-4

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.

A few days ago our office administrator Sally related to me her surprise over a phone call she had made that morning.  What surprised her was the curtness—the general unhelpfulness—of the person who answered the call on behalf of the organization she had contacted; the reception seemed out of character for an organization whose public personae is one dedicated to the service of people.  We concluded that the person who answered the call must have been having one of those days when difficulties had piled up to the breaking point.

Most of us have had days like that; days when we take the frustration of what is happening to us personally out on the next person with whom we have interaction.  None of it is their fault but they certainly leave their interaction with us feeling as if it were the case.  Perhaps, like me, you experience moments when you are so preoccupied with the volume of things you need to get done it is easy to forgo the common courtesies of even simple greeting of work colleagues.

We are influenced by our circumstances.  Think of written communication with friends or colleagues; positive and happy thoughts flow more readily when things are generally sunny in the circumstances of our lives.  When the clouds of difficulty roll in its shadows are reflected in how we talk of things.  Yes, we can hide much but those who know us well can tell when things are weighing us down.

1. What was the Apostle’s Paul’s personal circumstance when he composes his letter to the Ephesians?  Most of Paul’s letters are composed to combat error and expose the inconsistencies of false teaching; in many instances Paul would have received a report of challenges occurring in a particular church he established and would write a letter to commend the gospel and correct errors that falsify the gospel.  The letters to the Romans and the Ephesians are two notable exceptions.  His letter to the Romans is written to a church he did not establish.  Ephesians is written to a church that is flourishing; during his third missionary journey Paul had extended his stay in Ephesus because “a wide door of effective work has opened for me” (1 Cor. 16:8-9).

Consequently, in both Romans and Ephesians, you find Paul at his systematic best; in these letters Paul’s explanation of the gospel finds its fullest expression and completeness of order.  The letter Romans is the longer, and thus fuller of the two letters, but Ephesians soars.  The opening verses (3-14)  of Ephesians contains a succinct yet soaring description of Paul’s understanding of the breathtaking scope of God’s strategy in Christ for the fullness of time.  Listen to how Paul begins: “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.” And on it soars as Paul unpacks those spiritual blessings.

Upon reading Ephesians one could be left with the impression that Paul must be in a very happy place.  You could readily envision Paul sitting in his library writing this letter overlooking the Mediterranean taking in a magnificent view of sun and sand and surf cooled by a gentle ocean breeze.  But he is not there.  Neither is Paul in an air-conditioned office in a church building surrounded by shelves filled with books with classical music playing in the background with an espresso machine nearby in the office kitchen.  Paul is in prison in Rome.

He had wanted to visit Rome; I am sure that this was not how he envisioned a stay in Rome.  Some two years earlier Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem; he was taken to Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine, for trial.  It was there before the governor Festus that Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to the Emperor; Paul was uneasy because Festus—newly appointed to the governorship—who wanted to curry favour with the Jews and bring Paul back to Jerusalem to be tried (the scene of a plot to murder Paul).  Paul’s living arrangements in Rome—which had to be self-financed—appears to be some kind of house arrest; Paul is able to welcome guests to see him.  Still, he is not free to leave and he has the uncertainty of trail before Emperor Nero hanging over his head.

So, when I reflect on Paul’s personal circumstances and consider the loftiness of the tome that issues from his pen I am stuck by the power and wonder of the good news of Jesus Christ.  There is a sense in which we could say that the gospel transcends our circumstances but I am leery of the word “transcends” here.  I want to be careful lest I give the impression in saying that the good news of Jesus “transcends” circumstance that somehow it floats above where we find ourselves.  Christ’s love for his people includes any and every circumstance we may encounter; the gospel never affirms that the particulars of our circumstances are irrelevant.  Rather the gospel and its spiritual blessedness is relevant to any and every circumstanced we may encounter.

I wonder if my own sense of well-being is too closely tied to the relative pleasantness of the circumstances in which I find myself.  I wonder if my idea of “blessings’ is of things that are thin in comparison to the depth of the spiritual blessings in Christ.  I confess I find it easier to count my blessings when I am in a happy place.  The wonder of the gospel is that it assures the believer that the spiritual blessings lavished upon us in Christ are ours in every circumstance we may find ourselves.  Reflect with me on these blessings.

2. 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.

The question, "Who is God?", is a question which scripture answers only indirectly. It answers this question by first asking and answering two others: "What does God do (outside of us, yet for our sake)?", and "What does God effect (in us)?" According to the New Testament the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one who blesses humans with redemption from sin for a life so filled with love we can only begin to comprehend its glory in this life.  There are all manner of ideas for God being proferred in this world; the generic God of the religious pluralist thought to be so malleable as to suit everyone, the “unmoved mover” of Aristotelian philosophy, the “first cause” or “grand designer” of other schools of thought, the “universe” as god of pantheism.  The question the Christians ask is this; do these affirmations have anything to do with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one who redeems.

The logic of the gospel teaches us that we can know who God is only as we first learn what God has done on our behalf, for our sake, in the Son, and only as we become beneficiaries of this work on our behalf through the power of the Spirit.  In sum, we know God as we are included in God's work for us and as we are illumined concerning this work.  The fact that you are illumed to God’s work for us in Christ is a spiritual blessing.

When Paul writes “spiritual blessing” we must be careful not to think of “spiritual” as a category distinct from physical.  In the Hebrew mind “spiritual” is a category that includes all of life.  It is true that you are more than your bodies—i.e., your mind is more than your brain.  However, you are never who you are apart from your bodies—you never had a though apart from your brain.  The same is true spiritually; your spiritual experiences are never apart from your bodies.

“What’s your purpose in life?”, was the title of a brief news article. “Knowing the answer to that question could help to protect your brain, according to a new study,” says The Huffington Post. “Researchers from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center [in Chicago] found that people who have a ‘greater purpose’ in life are also more likely to have slower rates of mental decline.”

The Apostle wrote that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”  It is indeed astounding that God planned from long ago for us to be part of his redemptive plan; to be part of God’s purposes for restoration.   As the research on mental well-being shows, knowing ourselves loved by God brings blessings to all areas of our lives.  The spiritual blessings of serving God’s purposes penetrates our lives for good is all aspects of living.

3. I have never seen an episode of the television show Glee, but I was intrigued by the title of an online article: “Born This Way? The Moral Universe of 'Glee'”.  Christian writer Amy Lepine Peterson wrote a blog about the show’s 2012 season finale that she said “underscores how the show is just as preachy as 'Christian films.'”

Peterson writes: “If Ryan Murphy (show’s creator) is an evangelist, his moral universe has one guiding principle: tolerance. We were born this way, he preaches, and we should accept ourselves and others as we are.  But the Christian story tells us that we are born broken, and that we need to be transformed; that we must put off the old self, and be made new. I believe this to be true; but beyond that, I believe it to be a better story, every time, than a story about a person who learns to accept herself the way she is.”

I cannot comment on the Peterson’s analysis of Glee’s message; if its message is as she states I agree the Christian story is a better story.  A philosophy of life guided by the idea that we should accept ourselves because we were born the way we are is a fatalistic view of our world; whatever is is and so we had best accept that and try to live happily within the boundaries of what we are born with.  Is this the nature of our world; is it merely the theatre of whatever emerges? Is this how the world appears from behind the desk in the Hollywood studios of the writers?  I doubt that you would write that from a prison cell.

From a place of imprisonment the Apostle Paul writes that the world is the theatre of God’s redeeming activities; that this world filled with injustice and wrong is the very place where God is at work in peoples’ lives to redeem.  Has Paul lost his mind?  According to our gospel reading Jesus’ family thought Jesus had; they thought he had finally snapped and came to take him home.  We noted a moment ago of the logic of the gospel that we know God as we are included in God's work for us and as we are illumined concerning this work.  I cannot imagine someone writing what Paul does from a prison cell as an attempt to attach some meaning to their existence; the only explanation is God’s work in Paul’s life that illumines to him the nature of the world in which he lives; this world is the very theatre of God’s redeeming love.

These verses (3-14) describing God’s redeeming work in our world for us reveal a triune God; the grammar for the New Testament’s talk of God.  Redemption is planned by the Father before the foundation of the world; it is accomplished by Christ in history as he gave himself for us on the cross; it is applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit who is the seal of our redemption and the promise for the final consummation of what God has promised.  This is the true history of the world in which we live; when we talk of history we speak of nations and leaders and their rise and fall.  True history is God’s sure redemption that will not fail.  Such are the “spiritual blessings” lavished on us in Christ.  As we look at our world it is good to treasure and work for the democracy and freedoms in which we live; yet we must also keep in mind that greater history of God’s redeeming of this world that includes all other histories looking to the final day when all will be set to rights.

4.  Paul writes that before the foundation of the world God chose us in Christ “to be holy and blameless before him in love”.

When we hear the word “holy” many are prone to think boring, priggish, above the rest.  Dr. Victor Shepherd has rightly noted that the “Root Commandment” of Scripture is God’s command in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” In fact Scripture is so preoccupied with holiness, both God’s and ours, that variations of this commandment appear on virtually every page. God is clearly consumed with reaffirming His own holiness in the wake of sinners having denied it, and re-establishing our holiness in the wake of sinners having turned away from it.

The purpose of the cross, the centrepoint of Scripture, isn’t that we should be forgiven—it’s that we should be rendered holy, forgiveness being the first step toward our holiness. Obviously nothing is more important than the recovery of our holiness, not least because without it we shall not “see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). In other words, Spirit-wrought holiness is the qualification for our ultimate blessedness, our apprehension of God in which we find ourselves “lost in wonder, love and praise,” to quote an old hymn.

Yet the risen, ruling Lord Jesus Christ pours forth the Holy Spirit in order that His people—alive, alert, active in His name—might be rendered holy inwardly and display it outwardly. Such holiness must never be confused with religious knowledge. While the Hebrew word for “holy” means “separate” or “different,” the difference the Holy Spirit makes isn’t trivial. It has to do, rather, with what lies at the root or foundation of life.

You will note that Paul writes we are “to be holy and blameless before him in love”.  Self-giving, self-forgetful love is what lies at the foundation of holiness; love of God and love of neighbour.  All of this looks forward to the day when all of this shall be complete; that Day when love and nothing but love will pour out of us in self-forgetful self-giving.

Consider for a moment what it would be like to always say and do the right thing towards everyone we meet.  Picture a world where this was the case for the way everyone behaved towards one another.  You thoughts so infused by love that nothing except what was right in every way pouring from your mind towards others.  This is a glimpse of the great consummation.

We have experiences of loving friendships that ever expand into greater sharing and blessing of one another.  My wife and I recently spent a few days with a minster friend of ours and his wife; though separated by an ocean our friendship in Christ is something we all treasure.  I find every time we are together saying goodbye is harder.  Imagine a world where love is allowed to grow unimpeded by sin and wrong; this is part of what is imagined in Paul’s soaring Spirit-filled imagination as he writes: “just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”  Such are the glories of being blessed in Christ with  every spiritual blessings