Life in Sacred Community
| Ephesians 1:3-14
||Sun, November 3, 2002
|The longing for community is great today. Maybe there was a time when people felt confined to their towns and villages, but not anymore. Now we are free, and even encouraged, to leave home and chase our dreams. A hundred years ago, no one asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up. Children grew up to do whatever their parents did. Fifty years ago, no one spent the week flying in and out of airports. They spent all day, every day, working at the same farm, in the same office, at the same factory or industry with the same people. Thirty years ago people didn’t keep switching careers as often as they do now. My mom worked at the same candy factory for almost 25 years while my brother has changed professions five times. Ten years ago, no one looked for friends on the Internet. For better or worse, our friends used to be the people around us that we knew.
For quite some time now we have lived in a society that often teaches us to define the individual apart from community. "Be yourself," we said. "Do your own thing. Follow your star." Many pop psychology books tell people to, "Be all that you can be" and find strength in “the power of one.” After having spent so many years trying to figure out who we are and what we want, and finally getting down to the core of ourselves, what have we discovered… but that we are lonely.
So there is a lot of talk today about community. New homes are being built with porches again or bigger decks that invite people to converse. Employees are turning down promotions that would cause them to re-locate away from their relatives and friends. People are fed up with their long lonely commutes from the suburbs and so are returning to city neighborhoods. TV shows keep coming at us that depict friendships because the hunger is so great. Places like Blenzes and Starbucks make quite a bit of money selling not just coffee, but a place where you can have conversation. And some people are coming back to church in search of community.
In his letter to the saints at Ephesus the Apostle Paul wrote about what we can find in the community called church. What he describes in this letter is not the communities of the 1950s, nor is it a contemporary support group where we come to talk about the stress of living successful but solitary lives. Paul's idea of community doesn’t have that much to do with finding friends or meeting folks who have the same interests. . . or being in a place where everybody knows your name. What Paul has in mind is something more sacred than that.
Paul begins his discussion of community by claiming that the real reason we long for it is because we are made in the image of God who chose us in Christ before the creation of the world (v 4). There is a created imprint on each one of our souls that makes us long for God. We may not know that the longing is for God, but that’s because at times we have so distorted God’s image in our lives that we no longer recognize it. Perhaps we long for community as one way of finding and knowing God who is, by nature, communal.
God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - is a perfect triune community living in unity and love. And through the perfect love and communion they enjoy comes the decision to extend their family through adoption. This is where you and I come in.
As Paul says in verses three to six of the first chapter of Ephesians, you were chosen to be adopted by the Holy Spirit into the beloved Son's relationship to the Father. The Spirit adopts us, freeing us to address God as Abba, Father . . . and so we become by grace what Jesus the Son is by nature - sons and daughters of God. And therefore we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing of heaven.
How many of you truly feel that you have received every blessing heaven has to offer? Yet that is exactly what you have been given. God the Father "has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places." This doesn’t mean that you will get everything you want. It means that you were chosen to be brought into the family of God, and made an heir -- joint heirs -- with Jesus Christ. In other words, everything Jesus has by rights, you have received by adoption.
You are chosen! Think about how good it feels when you are chosen for something. Remember when you were picked for the team as a child, or picked for a part in a play, or admission to college? Or when the prospective employer said, "We have selected you for the job." Or when someone with twinkling eyes said, "I love you."
Paul is telling us that you were chosen by God! And like a parent who picks a child for adoption, you were not chosen because you were “just so cute” or because of your promise for future success. You were chosen because it is God’s pleasure to love you and reach out to you through Jesus.
This is at the heart of the doctrine of Predestination. Before we dwell too much on who’s going to heaven and hell, this wonderful teaching proclaims that God’s Son Jesus was predestined to come to earth to find us. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit to live for us, die for our sins, and bring us home to the waiting Father, just like in the parable of the prodigal son.
This brings us to verse seven: "In him, [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us." In the process of trying to discover who we are, each of us has made a lot of mistakes, committed a lot of sin, hurt a lot of people, and hurt the image of God imprinted on our souls.
So perhaps the thing that many people search for in seeking to belong to a community is absolution. We have tried managing our sins. We have tried denying our sins and protesting our innocence. We have tried running from our sins toward something else. But none of that works very well, does it? No, the only thing that will work is to be absolved of our sin. . . to be pardoned by having our sins cleared away and being declared not guilty.
There are some things an individual can do alone with God, like pray, read the Bible, choose to accept Jesus Christ as the Savior of your life. But when it comes to hearing that we are forgiven for our sins, we all need help with that. This is a critical role of the Sacred Community. We do not give absolution, but we announce that Jesus Christ has given it through God’s mercy and grace. To be absolved of sin and forgiven means to be made free. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be free from the things that weigh us down, like guilt and shame? Wouldn't it be wonderful to be free from always trying to get life right on your own?
One of the Early Church Fathers named Athanasius wrote that, "The church is the place where access to the Father through the Son is grounded in space and time."
This is your space, and this is your time -- as the church worships God before the open Word of God -- to hear what only the church community can proclaim. "In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven." This has been "lavished" upon you. God’s grace is lavished on us in this world of competition, judgment and ranking, a world that is often ungracious.
To come to the church is not primarily to find a social experience. There are other places where you may find people who you like better or who know you better. But to come to church, to this sacred community, is to hear the wonderful news that in Christ, no matter who you are, you are forgiven and brought home.
This is a great comfort to me. Because there are some days when my faith isn't so strong. There are some days when I have as much unbelief as belief in my heart. On those days I lean into the faith of God's people -- those saints of God known and unknown -- and I remind myself that Christ prays for me and extends his grace and mercy.
So the sacred community proclaims that in Christ you are chosen. And it proclaims that in Christ you are forgiven. Then in verses nine and ten, Paul says in the sacred community of church we hear, "the mystery of God's will...a plan...to gather up all things in him."
We lose a lot of things along the way in life. Sometimes we think we’re on our way to losing everything. Recently while trying to carry too many groceries to the checkout counter, without a basket or cart, I dropped the bag of bagels I was carrying. While reaching down to grab it, which was not an easy thing to do at the time since I was pregnant, I dropped the yogurt carton and the cheese. Then the apples fell out of the plastic bag and went rolling down the aisle. I thought to myself, I must remember this experience for a sermon because it seems like a good metaphor about the way life is sometimes.
As we reach for a job, we lose time with family. As we stretch to grab them in time, we lose other things… like our volunteer commitments, our promotion at work, or our so called spare time. And then because we are trying so hard to hold everything all together, our sanity starts to roll down the aisle away from us.
It seems to me that the hardest thing to lose is not your job, your health, or even a loved one. The hardest thing to lose are the pieces of your heart that get cut away each time something else is pulled away from you.
The mystery of God's will, the plan of the Holy Spirit, is to gather up all the pieces of your heart you have lost and restore them. The sacred community proclaims that broken families can be restored. Your created purpose and mission can be restored. The Church’s created purpose and mission can be restored. Every spiritual blessing of heaven can be restored to you in Christ.
Thus, the sacred community of the church has to be about the task of repairing broken lives. The church does that not just through its many programs and mission projects, and not just through its pastoral care and counseling. Primarily, the church gathers up broken hearts by reminding you that your home is with the family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
During my childhood years my family spent time once a week at the Union Gospel Mission. This mission, like so many rescue missions, was involved in providing “soup, soap, and salvation” to all who came, which means folks received a hot meal, a hot shower, the gospel message, and a bed for the night. My family was responsible for sharing the gospel message on Friday evenings and serving food to whoever came. I have fond memories of this time.
I remember one of the pictures on the wall in the chapel of this mission. It was a picture of the story of the Good Samaritan. Later I found that this picture was there to remind the leaders what the rescue mission was to be about. They were to be like the Samaritan, who not only rescued the victim from the ditch where the robbers had left him, but who took the broken person to an inn for long-term care and treatment until their whole person - body, mind and spirit - were well again and they could return home or make a new home. Offering each person the love and hope of Christ was a big part of their service.
What Paul is writing about in Ephesians is an identity issue. He is inviting you to come home where you remember who you are and whose you are. You are not lost. You are not a victim. You are not on your own to make a life. Come home, Paul says, where your identity is made clear.
At home, in God’s presence, we remember that it is never about us. It isn't about what we have done or what we have left undone. It is about what God the Father has done in choosing to adopt you. It is about what God the Son has done for the forgiveness of your sins. It is about what God the Holy Spirit has done in gathering you into God’s Kingdom family. Your role, my role, is to learn to live as a beloved child in the Triune Family. . . all to the praise and glory of God who in Christ loved us and gave himself for us.