Spiritual Blessings in Christ
Ephesians 1 : 1 – 14
Paul's Letter to the Ephesians is more theological than pastoral. He exercises his great mind on the meaning that Jesus brings to new Christians and also the challenge which Jesus gives to the thought, understanding and philosophy of the world and society in which he lived. These thoughts didn't just come out of the thin air. No doubt, even though he was a house prisoner in Rome when he wrote this letter in 62AD, he was having discussions and debates with inquirers and with newly baptised Christians who sought answers to all sorts of questions. The criticisms of atheists today that Christians are stupid are hereby refuted. No stupid person could have written Ephesians. Paul writes as a man of authority; he is not writing for himself but as an apostle of Jesus Christ called by the will of the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Jesus. He confirms this status and calling by adding 'Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ'. It is amazing and astonishing that an otherwise ordinary man can say such things. We do also every week. We request, invoke and share Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Apostolic authority is a big issue in the Church of Christ. Recently Rev Libby Lane was consecrated as the first woman bishop in the Church of England. It was refreshing to see a Christian item on the main TV news. Fellow bishops laid hands on Libby Lane's head and shoulders as a visible sign of the transfer of apostolic authority to her and the belief in an anointing of the Holy Spirit guaranteed by apostolic succession. The Rev Sidney Smith was an Anglican clergyman and a great wit. He lived from 1771 – 1845 and said 'I must believe in Apostolic Succession, there being no other way of accounting for the descent of the Bishop of Exeter from Judas Iscariot'. His parishioners loved his humour but he was relentless once he got going. Somebody told him that a young Scotsman was about to marry a widow who was twice his age and three times his size. His reaction was typically witty: 'Going to marry her? Impossible! You mean a part of her; he could not marry her all himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy but trigamy; there is enough of her to furnish wives for the whole parish. One man marry her! - it is monstrous! You might people a colony with her; or give an assembly with her; or perhaps take your morning's walk round her, always provided there were frequent resting places, and you were in rude health. I once was rash enough to try walking round her before breakfast, but only got half way and gave it up exhausted. Or you might read the Riot Act and disperse her; in short, you might do anything but marry her!'
In our Church of Scotland apostolic authority is defused and shared by ministers and elders at Presbytery level primarily, but also at Kirk Session level and at General Assembly level. This collegiate apostolic succession is disregarded by the Roman Catholic Church, by the Anglican Church, by the Greek Orthodox Church and by Pentecostal and Independent Evangelical Churches who have somewhat similar structures of authority. As you know the Brethren share authority at local level as members, one with another. The Society of Friends, Quakers do so too in a less formal way. There is a story about an old crofter from South Uist who had shown great loyalty toward his Church. Such was his devotion that he was made a Papal Knight. The Catholic community on the island raised enough money to send him to Rome. This was the first time that he had ever left the island in his long life time. In Rome, he was given a special guided tour of all the wonderful sites that are in that most wonderful City. But he seemed to show little interest in the Catacombs, the works of Michelangelo, even the Sistine Chapel. Then the priest who was his courier had a brainwave: a visit to a smallholding just behind the Vatican gardens to see a flock of hens. 'These', announced the priest with great pride, 'these are in direct Apostolic Succession from the cock that crowed when St Peter betrayed his Lord'. 'Aye, aye', replied the crofter, 'but are they good layers?' That is actually good theology. There have been many bad bishops. There have been bad ministers and elders too. We can claim this and that authority for all we want. Is there evidence of our being used and blessed by the Lord? That is what counts. Paul was much used, more so that he ever realised.
'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ' writes Paul. What does he mean? Paul mentions God's choosing and election of Christians, those saved in Jesus Christ, believers in and followers of Jesus, baptised, given the Holy Spirit, living and witnessing for Jesus and the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Are you with him? Do you know that for yourself? Does it work for you? Do you know the Lord in this way? Not every church goer has confidence in and assurance of salvation. People can be here every week and worship God at a distance – within themselves. You can keep God out even while singing His praise. But remember, you are baptised. You have professed Christian faith. You believe. You have known God in your life. He has met you, spoken to you, called to you. Be assured then that you are not a Christian in vain, for nothing, that it doesn't matter or that you are going nowhere.
Paul uses the word 'predestined'. In Scottish Church history that became a loaded word full of negativity and apparent discrimination. But Paul's life was spent spreading and communicating the Good News to anyone and everyone. He did not restrict God's choice. He opened it up – in fact – to the whole world as it turned out. What Paul really means is that a Christian is not an afterthought. It is not luck or coincidence or serendipity that makes you a Christian. It is God's intention and plan for you that makes you a Christian. It is not God's intention and plan that your family member or neighbour should not be a Christian either. God is the Father of the prodigal son who watches and prays for the return of his lost child.
'We are redeemed' says Paul. We have redemption, another way of describing the spiritual blessings that are in Christ. Today we have pawn shops on our streets and in our shopping centres. In London there are upmarket high value pawn shops in which people pawn expensive jewellery and top of the range cars. If their circumstances improve, they redeem their own possessions while paying a fee for the pawn. If they cannot pay, they lose the items. 'Jesus', says Paul, 'has redeemed us'. We have pawned ourselves by our sins and wrongdoing, just often by being part of the human condition from which we cannot escape. Jesus has paid the cost of our release, our redemption. He did so with his life. By the shedding of his blood he gained forgiveness for us. This is God's own gift to us which we may freely accept. It comes with spiritual blessings such as God's own life changing grace and his character changing Holy Spirit. Did God harshly demand the cruel death of his own Son? Not in that brutal way. Rather he made this transaction for all humanity for all time so that nothing we humans can do can ever be beyond God's love and saving grace. As Jesus himself told the disciples. 'Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for this friends'. Calvary is not required by a divine tyrant. It is the self-giving of our redeeming Maker.
So great was this dying and rising of Jesus that it acts as a unifying event for all creation for all time, says Paul. It links our life and world with God's higher creation. It ends the distance and the separation in our minds when we think of God. It balances our knowledge of space and time. It makes sense of our consciousness, feelings and experience – and – of our temporality – our years on earth – or dying and leaving. Paul says And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit'. Your living faith, what you know and understand and believe of Jesus Christ is the proof of your salvation. Paul calls it the deposit here on earth for the complete thing to be given in heaven. The redemption fully worked out is eternal life in the presence of the Lord. All this says Paul is for the honour and glory of God. This is something to lift our hearts and make us rejoice.
Stephen Fry the actor was recently asked what he would say to God if he died and had to confront him. Fry said he would tell him: “
'How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?' Pressed over how he would react if he was locked outside the pearly gates, Fry says: 'I would say: ‘bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’ 'Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?' Fry then launched an another attack on all seeing, all knowing God creator. 'Yes, the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole life-cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. 'It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion'.
This is a man who as a homosexual has recently undertaken a supposed marriage to a pretty young man of 27, 30 years his junior. He had forced him to drive an Aston Martin at speed and made him take the points on his licence when caught. Fry has had mental health issues throughout his life and is now described as 'bipolar'. Might this be because of his chosen lifestyle? There is the contrast. Fry was not asked 'And what would you say to Jesus if you met him?'. His answer would have had to be different. Our knowledge of God is through and from and by Jesus. It is saving knowledge and it is redeeming knowledge of the nature of God as love. We are his people and we are called to worship him and witness for him all our days.