October 15, 2017

Every Spiritual Blessing

Passage: Exodus32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Ephesians 1:1-14, Matthew 22:1-14
Service Type:

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.

You can easily imagine the excitement in the voice of the Apostle Paul as he dictates the opening line of one of the longest sentences in scripture (in the Greek text it ends at verse 12); “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.” Do you share the Apostle’s excitement? When you hear the phrase “with every spiritual blessing” what images come to your mind, if any at all?

1. I invite you to hold that question in your mind as I share a story with you that comes from Dr. Michael Egnor a professor of neurological surgery at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York. Dr. Egnor writes:

“Doctor, what’s that sound?”

The voice startled me. I was performing brain surgery on a woman with a tumor near the area that controls speech. I was removing much of her frontal lobe, in order to remove the tumor. To map her speech area with an electrical probe, I needed her to be awake. So I performed the surgery under mild local sedation only. The brain itself feels no pain.

It took me a moment to realize that it was my patient, not a nurse, speaking to me from under the surgical drapes. “Just the sound of the instruments,” I replied, not entirely candid.

“It’s loud,” she said, half-laughing from nervousness and a sedative. “How’s the operation going?” “Fine. Everything’s going well. How do you feel?”
“OK. Sleepy. It doesn’t hurt.”

We chatted as I worked. She was drowsy, but quite coherent. She went on to recover nicely. Her tumor had been benign, and her prognosis was good.

Francis Crick, neuroscientist and co-discoverer of the helical structure of DNA, expressed the widespread view that the mind is a function of material stuff: “A person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influenced them.” How, then, is it possible (asks Dr. Egnor) to converse with someone while removing the large portions of her brain that serve thought and reasoning?

I’m a neuroscientist and professor of neurosurgery. The mind-brain question haunts me. Neurosurgeons alter the brain on a daily basis, and what we find doesn’t fit the prevailing view that the brain runs the mind as computer hardware runs software.

I have scores of patients who are missing large areas of their brains, yet who have quite good minds. I have a patient born with two-thirds of her brain absent. She’s a normal junior high kid who loves to play soccer. Another patient, missing a similar amount of brain tissue, is an accomplished musician with a master’s degree in English.

How can this be?”

Dr. Egnor went on to say that it was upon reading thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas that he found help for his question. Aquinas taught that our soul’s immaterial powers are only facilitated by matter, not caused by it, and the correlation is loose. Dr Egnor went on to conclude that Aquinas’ “insight presaged certain findings of modern neuroscience. … Materialism, the view that matter is all that exists, is the premise of much contemporary thinking about what a human being is. Yet evidence from the laboratory, operating room, and clinical experience points to a less fashionable conclusion: Human beings straddle the material and immaterial realms.”

I would describe the nature of human existence this way. The Biblical witness is that humans are spiritual beings. The Genesis story is that God formed the human from the dust of the ground and breathed in the breath of life. These together are what the scripture declares to be the nature of human existence or as the Genesis account says, “and the man became a living being.” These aspects of physical and spiritual are intricately woven together; we are surely physical beings but so much more. Jesus implied our spiritual nature when he said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Let us return to the question I posed to you a few moments ago; When you hear the phrase “with every spiritual blessing” what images come to your mind, if any at all? The point I want to make with you in relating this neurosurgeon’s story is that “every spiritual blessing” has to do with the most profound aspects of our being. In other words God gives us what is of the best; that which is of the all-encompassing about our human existence. These are great treasures. These spiritual treasures are “in Christ.” Can we imagine that God is giving us something that is second-rate when it cost God so much to provide this for us?

I wonder how we conceive of “spiritual blessings”? Perhaps like the luxury items on a new car? They are nice to have but not germane to the operation of the vehicle; they make operating the vehicle more comfortable but how many extras we need is a function of price. The Biblical witness is that the spiritual is more akin to the engine that drives the car. It is necessary and part of the basics of every model of vehicle.

For every person who has fallen in love you know the difference between infatuation and the real deal. And further you know that the real deal is much more than a function of urges and surges. Being in love straddles the material and immaterial realms; it is of the spiritual nature of our existence. Yes it includes the physical but is so much more.

So when the Apostle exudes how “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” he is talking of blessings that are of the very essence of our human existence. God gives us what is most profound for us. There are no higher blessings that could be given. Consider, for example, the cosmic scope of these blessings. The Apostle says that in Christ God has made known the mystery of his will; “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” For the believer, this means that the best is always yet to come. It has us looking forward and profoundly shapes how we experience life now.

Every spiritual blessing—nothing could be of greater benefit for us.

2. Further the spiritual blessings are the source of great hope for the believer. In the small group study we are undertaking the author J.D. Greear characterizes the Ephesian letter as a survival manual—it equips believers to thrive in a world hostile to the message of Jesus Christ. I think that Greear makes a valid point. Indeed Ephesus was a city dominated by idol worship. It was there that a riot occurred against Christians stirred up by silversmiths whose livelihood was earned by the sale of silver shrines of the goddess Artemis. The accusation was that the Apostle Paul had persuaded a considerable number of people that gods made with hands were not gods. Christian faith was perceived a threat to their livelihood and to the honour of the goddess; the largest temple in Ephesus was to Artemis.

Note how Paul begins with a recitation of the wonder of the spiritual blessings God has lavished upon us in Christ. Paul is ever pastorally sensitive. He knows the situation these people face and he begins with a proclamation aimed to encourage people in an environment hostile to the faith in Jesus Christ. Paul’s declaration of God’s outpouring of strikes a note of hope; hope grounded in the goodness of God who pours upon us every spiritual blessing—everything we need to cling to faith in Jesus Christ.

I believe that we live in a culture that is largely indifferent to the gospel and increasingly hostile. It is discouraging to faith in Jesus Christ. Talk of God is ruled out of bounds in many places. I had the privilege to attend the summer school of theology at Oxford this past summer. Someone made the point that in large parts of Oxford University saying the word God was almost forbidden; it made students uncomfortable because it conjured up images of the dominance of Christian faith.

It is one thing that we live in a culture hostile to the gospel. It is compounded by the fact that things we see occurring contradict the good news that God loves us. The debilitation of disease, the harm of crime, the corruption in governance and business—these and many other things make us wonder. Luther said that we need to shut our eyes and open our ears because the gospel is heard. In this world that contradicts the love of God, God sent the Son. And when the powers of evil and death had done their worst in seeming triumph at the cross God was a work for our good raising the Son to life that we might have life in him. The contradictions we see are just that; contradictions. They are not the final story. The final story of when God will gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

It is also my experience that in the ordinary course of our lives the dominance of the world’s materialistic understanding of human existence is so pronounced we find little space for spiritual nurture. The message of our world treats the spiritual as a curiosity, a crutch for weak minds, something private to be kept to yourself. I believe that the rhythm of weekly worship very important for us for it is here we are reminded of God’s gracious gift of every spiritual blessing. Here we are reoriented, get our compass reset to again face the world and its counter-claims.

Every spiritual blessing—the source of great hope.

3. I invite you to reflect with me about one of these blessings—God’s choice to be for us. “… just as he (God) chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” The point that I invite you to underscore is this—God made the choice to be for us in sending the Son for our redemption. If God does not make the choice to be for us then want we choose is of little consequence. But God has chosen. And because God has chosen the ground and assurance of our salvation rests in Christ. As believers, ours is a life of response to having been so wonderfully and spiritually blessed with life in him.

We read also today that rather unnerving parable of our Lord where he declared “for many are called, but few chosen.” Jesus likened the kingdom of heaven to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Those on the invitation list made light of the invitation and ignored it thinking they had more important things to do; others maltreated the messengers of the king and killed a few. When the banquet was finally filled with an open invitation to everyone there was this one attendee who didn’t have the requisite wedding robe.

In our Lord’s teaching we do find both gracious invitation and warning. The response to God’s choice to be for us in the Son is of consequence. In the parable Jesus warns that the generous invitation of God isn’t to be treated with disdain or trivialized. Further, we cannot dictate our terms on God—I will crash the part in my own way.

It is a mystery to me why anyone would say no to Jesus’ love for them. I understand that people have been turned off by the imperfections of ministers, hypocrisy in the church, disasters that befall them. I would encourage people to let none of these things prevent them from the love of Jesus for them; to say yes to him. His love is the love that will perfect all things and bring us to the future when the harm of disaster is over, hypocrisy is ended, imperfections gone and love will only give way to more love.

4. Finally note how every spiritual blessing is an act of God. It is God doing these things for us in the Son and in us by the presence of the promised Holy Spirit who is the pledge of our future inheritance. Our assurance rests in him to takes action for us. I noted with you earlier of this one very long sentence (less a problem for Greek-speakers than for us) elucidating every spiritual blessing. It is filled with so many images, promises, and challenges that we barely know where to enter the text. Ephesians 1:3-14 is like one of those rushing streams that looks easy to wade in but sweeps us off our feet by its sheer flowing power.

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. Amen.