July 12, 2015 Ephesians 1: 3-14
Rev. Catherine Purves
In preparation for this sermon I read our text from Ephesians many, many times. It’s the kind of passage that you have to read a number of times, and even then you may feel that you are simply being swept away in an avalanche of words. This is one of those instances (and there are quite a few in the Bible) when it seems like the thoughts of the writer are being shot out of a cannon. In the original Greek, these twelve verses are one long sentence; the author barely paused to draw breath. This is like an uncontrollable exclamation, an explosion of praise and awe over what God has done, is doing, and will surely do for us, his undeserving children. What is difficult about this passage is that we are challenged to join in this ecstatic hymn of praise using someone else’s words and making them our own. Can we join in his song? And even more important, perhaps, do we see that is this a song that we must sing, either in these or in our own words? Do we recognize that this is our calling: to live for the praise of God’s glory?
Those of you who are born and bred Presbyterians and who are of a certain age will no doubt be able to answer this question from the Westminster catechism. What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. This is question number one in a long list of questions that every Presbyterian (every Christian) should be able to answer. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I’ve know this since I was twelve, and I think several of you can say the same. But the obvious follow-up question never seems to be asked. How does that change or shape your life? What does that look like? If this is, indeed, your reason for being, your God-given purpose, then how do you live it? I guess what I’m wondering is why we don’t spontaneously break out in praise, as our text for today does, celebrating with great joy and conviction everything that God has done for us in Jesus Christ? Even when we have hymnals open before us with other people’s heart-felt words we don’t seem to be able to glorify God and enjoy him with real exuberance.
This is not meant to be a scold. I’ll freely admit that often this isn’t easy for me either. It just seems that we are missing something when we can’t live our praise like that. And, according to the catechism that many of us memorized, what we are missing is our chief end, our ultimate purpose. So we’re going to spend a little time trying to immerse ourselves in this important text from Ephesians, letting the words flow over and under and around us until they may sweep us up into that pure expression of praise that is why we are alive in the first place.
Notice, first, that this hymn of praise (without music) is not an expression of the emotional state of the one offering the praise. Clearly, the author of these words feels joyful and happy, but the focus is not on the singer but on the one God who is being praised. This is really important. Worship and praise is something that we offer to God. It is all about God. It should not be focused on our feelings about God, but on who God is and what God has done. So, in our text we have a long list of verbs about God, not adjectives about us. God has acted, and we live to praise him for what he has done. Look at those verbs, because they express the essence of salvation. The Father blessed us in Christ, chose us in Christ, destined us for adoption through Christ, bestowed grace on us in Christ. Do you see the pattern? Everything that the Father did that is worthy of our constant praise was done in and through Christ.
Then our hymn affirms that we have redemption through his blood and forgiveness through his grace which he lavished upon us. Redemption is just another way to speak about those other verbs: blessed, chose, adopted. And again this happened through Christ, through his blood, which I take to mean both his life and his sacrifice. These acts represent an outpouring of divine grace that is abundant and lavish, like a fountain of grace that just keeps on flowing. This is what we are praising and this is why we are praising with every fiber of our being.
Now, this hymn shifts its focus just a bit as it goes on to emphasize the fact that this is all part of God’s overarching plan. All of these acts of God in and through Christ are leading to something that is even greater. In other words, our own personal hymns of praise can’t just stop once we’ve said in so many words, “O happy day, now I’m saved.” In fact, (and I think this is very significant), if you look again at the text of our hymn, you will search in vain for the words “I” or “me” or “my”. You will find “we” and “us” and “our” because hymns are always meant to be corporate expressions of what God has done for all of us. Using these plurals reminds us again that it is not about “me” and “my” experience; it’s all about God.
When God acts, we witness the unfolding of what our hymn calls “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,” that is, in Christ. My little life is a teeny, tiny part of that, and even our corporate life is just a very small piece of the overarching sweep of God’s redemptive plan. When we sing this hymn, then, we are expressing our awe at the scope, the breadth and the depth of a salvation that will encompass and transform the whole of creation and all of time. No wonder our chief end and purpose is to praise God for that.
The end of our hymn, celebrates one more thing that is equally amazing. Being chosen and adopted as children of this powerful and purposeful God means that we will receive an inheritance. The word “inheritance” is repeated twice, so it deserves some attention. Obviously, the whole focus of this hymn of praise is not “what’s in it for me.” We’ve already demonstrated that. So, why use this word “inheritance”? Remember at the beginning of the hymn when we listed all of those verbs and each one described something that the Father did in or through Christ? We are blessed, chosen, and adopted through Christ. Our relationship to the Father is established by the Father in and through Christ. Put another way, because Jesus Christ is our brother, sharing our flesh and blood, Almighty God is our Father and we are made children of God. As children of the Father through Christ, we will receive an inheritance. This is not something that we earn or deserve (no inheritance is); it is something that we will receive as part of that overflowing fountain of God’s grace.
And that’s not all! We know that this inheritance will be ours because we have already received what our hymn calls, “the pledge of our inheritance.” What is this pledge or foretaste of what is to come? It is yet one more divine activity that has a direct impact on our lives. Now it is the work of the Holy Spirit that is praised. Our hymn doesn’t expound on the varied ways in which the Spirit works. We have no list of verbs this time. Verse 14 simply says that “we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” This could be a reference to baptism, but the sacrament is just the beginning of the Spirit’s work. Essentially, the Spirit binds us to Christ, equips us for a life of service and praise, deepens our faith, and enables us to see God’s plan unfolding in the world. Another reason to praise this God of abundant grace is because the presence of the Spirit is a clear demonstration or preview of that promised inheritance that will be ours because, in Christ, we are God’s children.
Why has God done all of this? The explanation is hidden, though being revealed, in what our hymn calls “the mystery of his will” And part of the mystery of it is that this is somehow the fulfillment of God’s good pleasure. That’s another phrase, his “good pleasure,” that is repeated twice, in verses 5 and 9, so we should pay attention to it. God is pleased to do all of this, and this was part of his will for creation and for us since before the foundation of the world. In another great hymn of the early church recorded in the Letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “In him (that is, in Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…” Is that not something that we should rejoice in, that our salvation is actually pleasing to God?
In a somewhat more recent hymn of the church, first published in 1868, our primary calling to glorify God and enjoy him forever and to live for the praise of his glory is again expressed. In closing, let me read a few of the verses.
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?