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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Destined for Love - A Sermon on Ephesians 1: 3 - 14

I attended a funeral yesterday, the funeral of a 90 (almost 91) year old woman. I didn’t know her well, but what little I did know impressed me. She was funny and sharp witted and generous. And as I sat in the funeral home, listening to the shared stories of her life and the pastor’s remarks, I began to think about those questions–you know the BIG ones. And it may be nothing more significant the changing of pages in a calendar, the shifting of a numerical digit, but the beginning of a new year feels like an appropriate time to think about those BIG questions–those existential, meaning of life and existence kind of questions. What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? [i]

During that funeral service I began to think about my own life and wondered: is the meaning of life something more than the sum of the individual, discrete moments that I’ve lived? Is life something more than the sum total of the times that I’ve laughed and sobbed, celebrated and despaired, triumphed and failed?  Is there significance in all of this? Is there meaning? When all the individual, discrete moments of my life have been lived, could one look at them and say “this meant something”? And if so, what will it have meant?

This kind of examination is dangerous to the ego. Because I am vain, because I am narcissistic, I want to believe that I am important. That I am heroic. That I can change the world, that I can do something of significance, that when I am dead I will be remembered. But in those moments when I can push my ego aside and my vanity away, I know that I am a little man with a little voice in a very large and noisy world.

I am not someone with great wealth. I have no political power. I am not strong. I am not influential. I am not the shaper of destinies. And this should not be construed as a passive aggressive attempt to wheedle out ego salving compliments and affirmations. It is an attempt to honestly survey myself. I am, in the face of the universe, insignificant. I have lived for 40 years, I will (likely) live something like 40 more and within 40 years after that I will be mostly forgotten.

This kind of examination can be dangerous to the ego. And this realization of my insignificance can be paralyzing, can lead to one of those ‘existential crises’ we hear about. What does it matter what I do if it will all be swallowed up in the vastness of space and time? I am only a little man with a little voice in a very large and noisy world. And this is scary. This is troubling. I rebel against it. But this too is meaningless. We can say with the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1: 2)

“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.” (Eco)

And yet I do believe that there is something of value, something of merit and meaning in this life. I may be nothing more than a little man with a little voice in a large and noisy world, but this is not nothing. This may be all that there is but it is everything.

We have been chosen, us little ones, we the insignificant, the powerless, the paltry; we have been marked with a great destiny. In the brevity of our lives, in the insignificance of our existence, in the futility of our power, we were chosen–before the foundation of the world, before the fiery explosion that brought the universe with all its vast magnificence-to become the children of God, sons and daughters of the divine.

The Letter to the Ephesians (known as such despite the fact that the earliest and most important manuscripts lack the phrase “at / in Ephesus” (Furnish 535)) includes one of the longest and most complicated sentences in the entire bible. Verses 3 – 14 of chapter 1 are one long, run-on sentence, filled with pleonastic clauses and lengthy prepositional sequences. One biblical scholar said, it is “the most monstrous sentence conglomeration … I have ever seen in the Greek language” (Barth 77).

But when it is detangled and explicated we find something of existential wonder. We find that we have a destiny and a purpose.

Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ.
Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made
to be holy and faultless before him in love,
marking us out for himself beforehand, to be adopted sons, through Jesus Christ.
Such was his purpose and good pleasure,
to the praise of the glory of his grace,
his free gift to us in the Beloved,
in whom, through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins.
Such is the richness of the grace
which he has showered on us
in all wisdom and insight.
He has let us know the mystery of his purpose,
according to his good pleasure which he determined beforehand in Christ,
for him to act upon when the times had run their course:
that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head,
everything in the heavens and everything on earth.
And it is in him that we have received our heritage,
marked out beforehand as we were,
under the plan of the One who guides all things
as he decides by his own will,
chosen to be, for the praise of his glory,
the people who would put their hopes in Christ before he came.
now you too, in him,
have heard the message of truth and the gospel of your salvation,
and having put your trust in it
you have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit of the Promise,
who is the pledge of our inheritance
for the freedom of the people whom God has taken for his own,
for the praise of his glory.
(Ephesians 1: 3 – 14 NJB)

Tangled up in that mess of phrases and clauses is the affirmation from Paul (or one writing in the name of Paul [ii]) that we-insignificant as we are-were chosen before the foundations of the world, chosen to become the children of God. And this is not because of anything we had done (we weren’t even created yet) or because of anything that we would do or will do. Ultimately, we are powerless in the face of the universe; what could we do to earn or create our salvation? What could we do to earn a place in God’s family, to achieve entrance into the heavenly places?

And yet, we have been chosen. We have been marked. We have been adopted and made a part of the family of God. We have been filiated. And this filiation is a gift, an extravagant demonstration of God’s gratuitous love. “Human persons exist because they are destined to be daughters and sons of God... Everything has its origin in God’s gratuitous love, a love based on God’s own goodness, not on our own merits. This is the ‘word of truth’ (v. 13): in the beginning was gratuitous love...” (Gutierrez 36).

It may not make sense of the vast indifferent universe, but it gives us a magnificence beyond our insignificance. We are called to be the sons and daughters of God, called to be the Church, the body of Christ Jesus in in this world. We are part of the great eternal plan to bring all things to unity under his rule and reign, the unity of holiness and love. We are part of God’s plan, from the timeless time before space and time, to be a part of bringing all things-in heaven and on earth-together in the unity of love.

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one;
nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky
peals forth in joy man’s old, undaunted cry,
“Earth shall be fair and all her folk be one!”

We will be brilliant. We will be a reflection of the effulgent sun, the glorious son. We will be brilliant, even in our transient existence and powerlessness. We will be made brilliant by the love and holiness of God. What could we do to change the world? Love.  Powerless as I am, I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me (U2). And this is everything.

Everything changes when I realize that I am a part of God’s vast eternal plan, that even in my nothingness I am a part of everything. Maybe I can’t change the world and maybe that’s okay. Maybe I am small and insignificant and nothing in the face of the universe, a little man with a little voice in a large and noise world, but that is everything. And I am free. You are free. We are free to live great and glorious lives because God has given us the magnificent gift of his grace in Christ Jesus, made us his children, made us a part of his cosmic plan to bring everything in existence into the unity of love and holiness. We will be brilliant in our brief and little lives and this is a wonderful, beautiful thing.

You're like some great dying planet,

Scarred by rifts, ruts, and cracks
From all the mighty collisions and the
Knives in your back.
Still there's ambrosia on your surface
And manna for the hungry,
Food for the beggar, the poor for your money.
Still you will be brilliant.
You will be brilliant;
A reflection of the sun above.
You will be brilliant, you will be brilliant,
Predestined for the sweet work of love.
 (The Lost Dogs)

And what am I to do?
Just tell me, what am I supposed to say?
I can't change the world.
But I can change the world in me
If I rejoice.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
from “The Dry Salvages” – T.S. Elliot

Bar, Clifford. “Turn Back, O Man”

Barth, Markus. Ephesians 1 – 3. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 1974.

Eco, Umberto. Foucault’s Pendulum.  1989.

Elliot, T.S. “The Dry Salvages” Four Quartets.  

Furnish, Victor Paul. “Ephesians, Epistle to” Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume II. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 1997.

The New Jerusalem Bible. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1985.

U2. “Rejoice.” October. Island, 1981.

The Lost Dogs. “Sweet Work of Love.” The Green Room Serenade, Part 1. BAI Records, 1996.

[i] 42. Obviously. But what more?
[ii]  Scholarly debate is divided on whether Paul himself or a later disciple wrote this epistle

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