November 7, 2010
William G. Carter
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
I will understand completely if your heart did not flutter with the reading of the text. It comes from the first chapter of Ephesians and it is a little over our heads.There is a lot of high-faluting language. The writer speaks of huge concepts that aim pretty high. We have a spiritual inheritance, he says. Our destiny is to live out God’s eternal purpose. As we set our hope on Christ, we live for the praise of his glory. Nobody but a preacher talks this way. After you depart from worship, and converse with loved ones over lunch or on the phone, I cannot imagine anybody saying, “I am claiming the riches of my glorious inheritance among the saints.”
This is the letter to the Ephesians. There are a lot of big words in Ephesians, words like salvation, redemption, predestination, and revelation. Nobody normal uses words like these. Such words shut down conversation. Should we speak them, people look at us curiously and clam up. They figure we know what we are talking about, and they need a dictionary just to look them up.
Much of this sounds like church language, like worship language. You have probably noticed we say things in this room that we say nowhere else. Just recall the long sentence that concludes today’s text. It sounds like it belongs in a creed: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come, and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It’s hard to know when to take a breath! In English, we add some punctuation, but the first version of the letter was one long burst of energy.
I am aware that nobody talks like that, outside of a church. In fact, few people talk like that inside of a church. Within these walls, there are sign-up sheets and lists of ushering duties. People discuss how many mission projects we should do in December and whether we should sit when we light candles and sing “Silent Night.” One committee hopes enough money can be raised to run all the operations for next year, and another committee is grateful for the cleanup efforts around the grounds. The Deacons ask, “Is this the year to stop Christmas caroling around the neighborhood?” and others ask, “Should we deliver that big pile of canned food to the pantry between the worship services or after the second service?” Welcome to a week at First Presbyterian, the church on the hill. These are only a few of the conversations in the air around here.And then we hear the line from Ephesians, “When you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in Christ, (you) were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.”
It might seem there is a disconnection between the high and holy words of our scripture and the kind of lives we actually live. That reminds me of the man who went to visit a Russian Orthodox Church. It was so much more than he could take in: the gold icons, the haunting chants, the heavy incense, the heavenly liturgy. “It was so incredibly beautiful,” he exclaimed, “but I have no clue what it has to do with my life.”
It’s possible to get the same feeling when we hear the lyrics of the Ephesian letter. The words swirl up high like chants and incense while somebody downstairs forgets it was her turn to bring muffins for coffee hour. Do you know about that disconnection? Some call it the divorce between Sunday morning and Monday morning – to put it as a question: what does the liturgy of Sunday have to do with the labor of Monday?But here’s the thing: the first chapter of Ephesians would declare that the question is backwards. It should be: what does our labor on Monday have to do with our worship on Sunday? What is it that we discover here that makes a difference in everything we do all week? What are the mysteries in here that we live out when we step outside?
Eugene Peterson, retired minister, wrote recently that Ephesians describes the church that we never actually see. We see the building with the leaky roof, filled with its share of comics and cranks. Ephesians sees a people in whom God is saving the whole world. Here in chapter one, for instance, the church is full of people called “saints,” the “holy ones.” Look around, they are here! (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p. 14
What we see, of course, is the fidgety child, the guy who just stifled a yawn, the alto who forgot to turn her clock back an hour. Yet “saint” is the name given to each Christian by Christ. They are the holy ones because holy power is at work in them ever since God raised Jesus from the dead. To see ourselves as saints is to recognize a greater authority over our lives than the power of destruction or the quicksand of despair. Something really big is going on, thanks to the grace of God. Ephesians uses all those really big words to name it: “redemption,” “salvation,” “glory,” “wisdom,” and “power.” This is God’s mission to the world – if only we can see it.
I remember a favorite Norman Rockwell painting. It’s a shot of St. Thomas’ Church in New York City. It’s a gloomy day on Fifth Avenue and people are shuffling by. The priest has just given his sermon title to the sexton who puts the words on the bulletin board: “Lift Up Thine Eyes.” A flock of doves fly upward, and the pedestrians shuffle by with their eyes downcast.“Lift Up Thine Eyes.” That is the message from Ephesians to the church. See that God has come down here to salvage the world, and then do something to take part in that work. Look through the moment to see what is truly going on. A child is claimed and commissioned by God. A community is fed at the Table by grace. See these moments in all their glory.
It is no wonder that the center of today’s text is a prayer. As Paul describes the holy work of God, he prays for people to have the eyes to see it. The prayer is a mouthful, but listen to it once again:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.That is the prayer: to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened.” To have your faith enlivened. To know the hope, to claim the spiritual riches, to live in the shelter of God’s power. The prayer is grounded in a relationship. As we come to know God, we see more and more glimpses of what God is doing. As we discover how much God loves us, we grow in our love for the poor and the rich, the hungry and the self-satisfied.
We pray to have the eyes of our heart enlightened. And we recognize that the grace and mercy of God lie beneath everything we say and do.
A high point in New Hampshire is Mount Monadnock, a large slope that many of the natives of New Hampshire never climb. Just as the dwellers of Manhattan never visit the Statue of Liberty, the folks of New Hampshire drive by Mount Monadnock. The poet Robert Siegel drove by it all the time. One day he saw the sign for the turnoff and said to his wife, “Isn’t it about time we saw this famous mountain for ourselves?” The experience led him to write a poem:
We see the sign, “Monadnock State Park”
as it flashes by, after a mile or two
decide to go back, “We can’t pass by Mondnock
without seeing it,” I say, turning around.
We head down the side road – “Monadnock Realty,”
“Monadnock Pottery,” “Monadnock Designs,”
but no Monadnock. Then the signs fall away –
bothing but trees and the darkening afternoon.
We don’t speak, pass a clearing, and you say,
“I think I saw it, or part of it – a bald rock?”
Miles and miles more. Finally, I pull over
and we consult a map. “Monadnock’s right there.”
“Or just back a bit there.” “But we should see it –
we’re practically on top of it.” And driving back
we look – trees, a flash of clearing, purple rock =
but we are, it seems, too close to see it:
It is here. We are on it. It is under us.
I suppose some people come to church looking for God. But God is too close to see. God is here. The immensity and glory are under our feet. God is under everything we are, and everything we can hope to be.
Pray for the eyes to see.
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 Robert Siegel, “Looking for Mt. Monadnock,” The Waters Under the Earth (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) 70.