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To Lead Lives Worthy

(a sermon for June 14, 2020, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6:24-29)

Since confession is good for the soul, it seems like now would be as good a time as any to tell you that one of the things that Lisa and I have been doing to pass the time in these days of quarantine is “binge-watching” old episodes of the television show Survivor.

Now, we’ve actually been watching that show off and on for the 20 years (!) it’s been on the air, but recently we’ve been re-watching the first few seasons from back in the early 2000’s and it has been… (please don’t judge!) not only entertaining but fascinating!  To begin with, those early seasons were more wholly focused on two “tribes” of people literally working to survive alone together on a south sea island: you got to see them struggle to make fire, battle the elements, build a shelter, eat bugs and beetle larvae (which my wife still can’t bring herself to watch!) and at the end of each episode vote off the weakest link until there’s one “sole” survivor, all the while wasting away to nothing and getting filthier by the day!  Back then there were no “hidden immunity idols,” nor an “Edge of Extinction” island as a way of staying in the game longer as is routine now, and the so called “reward challenge” often yielded little more than a bag of Doritos and a Mountain Dew!

In many ways Survivor is a very different show than what it was when it started; but what’s interesting is that from the beginning the basic premise has always been the same:  that you gather this group of people of vastly different backgrounds competing to “outwit, outplay and outlast” each other all for the sake of winning a million dollars; while at the same time, perhaps, maintaining their own personal integrity in the process.  And if you’ve ever watched Survivor, then you know what I’m talking about here:  every season, almost every episode there’s always some contestant who’s lamenting as to how they can actually lie to, lie about or otherwise manipulate a fellow contestant – some of whom they’ve actually grown rather close to out there in the wilderness – all for the sake of moving themselves further along in the game and closer to that million bucks.  Trust me here, folks, there ends up being a whole lot of generally “good” people who end up doing some really terrible things on Survivor!  And what gets me is that their reaction to this kind of behavior usually goes one of two ways: either they say, “well, it’s just a game, after all, not real life,” or else they confess that “At the end of all this I need to be able to look myself in the mirror,” and thus act accordingly.  And isn’t it interesting that – not always, mind you, but generally speaking – these aren’t the people who end up the sole survivor!  If the question asked on a show like this – and on countless other shows these days – is “what would you do for a million dollars,” the answer would seem to be, “almost anything!”

The real question, of course, is, “why?” Why do this; even for a million bucks, why would you ever diminish yourself, your character, your reputation and your integrity do this? Now, I understand that there’s a fair amount of fakery on these so-called “reality” shows, so I don’t want to overthink this, but I suppose that at heart the reason comes down to human nature; our inner yearning, to quote the Rev. Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, to “hit the jackpot… to [garner those] windfalls that give us more of what most people are after – fame, power, fortune” and even security.  It’s basically the same reason people buy lottery tickets or enter the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Giveaway; we want all of the benefits of that which we believe a million dollars will provide… even if ultimately, it won’t; or even if it’s not the true blessing we’re looking for!

Now, lest we think that this is a latter-day phenomenon of human life, consider the crowds from our gospel text this morning from John, who the day before had been well fed with a miraculous abundance of loaves and fishes and who were now actively seeking Jesus out, even following him eagerly all the way from Tiberias all the to Capernaum in boats, ostensibly to be nearer to Jesus and to hear more of his teaching.  But when they finally do find Jesus, he sees right through them, saying, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Or, if I might draw from The Message here, you’re “looking for me not because you see God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.” In other words, they figured they’d gotten one good meal, so why not another!  And in the process of looking for that next meal, to quote Thomas Long again, they’d confused “the difference between the hunger for a blessing and the lust for a jackpot.” 

And, friends, therein lies our confusion as well.  What Jesus makes clear in this passage is that he’s not about to be a short-order cook for the crowds at Capernaum, any more than our following Jesus is evef meant to be a means of wish fulfillment.  No, it goes much, much deeper than that.  “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but [work] for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  

Yes, these people had had their bellies filled in an amazing, miraculous way… but what Jesus was giving them was more than just perishable food that temporarily relieves a passing hunger; Jesus is offering up the nourishment of God, he food that feeds the soul and satisfies our deepest hunger.  And the beauty part is that it’s not even something that we have to earn, or win or “survive.”  It’s just given us as a gift… gracefully, lovingly, purposefully. “This is the work of God,” says Jesus, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

For each one of us as believers, you see, the most important question before us comes down not to what we’d do for a million dollars, but rather what we are willing to do for that which really matters.  How willing are we to work for the blessing rather than go for the jackpot?  Would we be willing to let go our grip of dependence upon all those things of this world and this life that will most certainly perish?  Are we willing to let go of all that so that we might grab ahold of the life that is true and abundant and eternal?  Are we willing to believe in something greater than ourselves, and then give over the whole of our hearts and lives to it?  Are we willing to renounce the need for windfall, or entitlement, or privilege for the sake of loving our neighbor – all our neighbors – as ourselves and as Christ as loved us?  Are we willing to lead lives worthy of the food we’ve been given, “the food that endures for eternal life?”

I’ve always been very fond of our second text for this morning, that portion from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes, “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”   And also, by the way, once again drawing from The Message version of these verses, “Mark that you do this… not in fits and starts, but pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert in noticing differences and quick at mending fences.”  I love this passage because it serves as a reminder not only that our calling as disciples is a marathon rather than a sprint – a lifetime commitment to working for the bread that endures – but because of that bread, the work provides its own reward.  So though we might wonder what would happen if we made it to that final “tribal council,” for fame, fortune and security, ultimately really doesn’t matter if we never win the million dollars; just as in the larger landscape of our lives ad living, it makes no difference if the other castaways stick with their alliance and vote us off the island.  What matters is how we “played the game,” so to speak, because we know in faith that there’s a greater place and better meal awaiting.  Strangely enough, friends, the great Frederick Buechner expresses this perfectly.  He writes, “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us.”

What matters is that our true home is ever and always going to be with God, beloved.  What matters is that the sum total of our lives will never to whatever fifteen minutes of fame we might have achieved along the way, but rather in how we were able to live lives worthy of all of God’s graceful gifts that have been bestowed upon us.  What matters in times of conflict and uncertainty is both that we stood up for justice and that we conducted ourselves after the manner of God’s whole peace – God’s shalom – and made that our intent and priority for the world.  What matters is that we love as Christ has loved us, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. What matters are the ways we “[speak] the truth in love, [growing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.”

I pray that this will be the vision that beckons to each and every one of us, beloved, “until all of us is come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

So might it be… and thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2020 in Discipleship, Epistles, Faith, Jesus, Paul, Sermon

 

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A Life Worthy

(a sermon for August 5, 2018, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16)

For every one of us, sooner or later there will come a moment in life – perhaps more than one moment (!) – in which all of a sudden you’ll pause, take a long look at everything that’s going on all around you, and then heave a sigh and wonder aloud, “How in the world did it ever come to this?”

Well, as you might imagine, I’m having one of those moments right about now!

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I don’t say this in any kind of negative fashion; in fact, just the opposite:  after all, in just two weeks, our beautiful daughter is getting married to a wonderful young man and they’re going to be building a life together; two months from tomorrow (!) our youngest son is doing the same “up in the county” with his bride; and you didn’t hear it from me, but I suspect it won’t be too much longer before our oldest son and his girlfriend follow suit! I’m pleased to report that by all indications all three of our adult children are leading happy lives, they have people they love and who love them, and they’ve each found vocations that they are passionate about; I ask you, how much more can a parent ask than that!  So let me just say, emphatically and joyfully, that things are going great these days for the Lowry family; and yet, I can’t help but wonder, “How in the world did it ever come to this?”

I mean, what are the odds?  Think of the variables involved here; consider what might or might not have happened had our circumstances had been different, even just a little?  What if we hadn’t come here to Concord and to East Church six years ago, or what if Sarah didn’t take that job at the dance studio here in town after college; which would likely mean she wouldn’t have been been invited to that little get-together with her co-worker that was also attended by a nice young man from Loudon!  For that matter, what if back on that fateful summer Zach hadn’t suddenly determined he really wanted to change his major to forest management and then, on what he now calls a whim, transfer to the University of Maine at Fort Kent, of all places!  How then would he have met Jessica; never mind his coming to know pretty much the entirety of the Allagash wilderness while working up there? And while we’re on the subject, what if Jake had not gone out to Montana and met the love of his life?  It staggers the imagination:  you make one choice rather than the other; you take a right turn when you might have gone left; a simple twist of fate, as it were, and everything could have been very different indeed! (Oy veh, to think about this can give you such a headache!)

But that’s not the way it happened, and that’s the point, isn’t it? What was true for them is true for all of us, you know; life has a way of unfolding in special and unique ways that we can never fully anticipate or appreciate when it’s happening.  Granted, there are choices to be made along the way, and there are moments when each one of us might well have chosen better or least more wisely (!); and yes, sometimes what happens can seem a whole lot like dumb luck!  But more than merely being the end result of a random series of happenstances, ultimately there’s a reason that it all comes to this; a reason that you and I come to those places where everything in life, as busy and as crazily spinning aaround as it so often seems to be, nonetheless just seems to come together as it should.

And I’m here to tell you this morning that that reason is God!

It happens because of God; the same God who from the very beginning has given us life not because we have done anything to deserve it or have subsequently made all the right choices to put things in motion, but because God loves us and by grace wants us to have a life that is in line with his purposes for us and for all creation. And so, in that regard, it is as Elizabeth Newman, professor of theology and ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary in Virginia, has written in an essay on Christian vocation, that we can no more decide “what to do” about our lives than we could have decided to be born.  “Rather,” she says, “just as our birth into this world, our unique creation, was an incredible gift from God, so is our vocation as Christians not a decision but a gift.”  In other words, all this “stuff” that constantly goes on all around us – the places where we dwell, the people who come into our lives, the challenges that we face and the blessings that make it all worthwhile – none of it happens because, accidentally or on purpose, we designed it to be that way; it all flows forth because we received it from the gracious hand of God who gave it all to us as a gift!

But lest we succumb to the notion that this is nothing but a matter of divinely inspired good fortune, understand there is great theological portent to this; in fact, at the very beginning of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul makes a point of saying that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love,” and that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.” (1:4-5) In other words, what God has done for the cosmos, God has done for the church, and what God has done for the church he does for you and for me; from the moment of our very creation, beloved, the life that is given by God’s grace has always been God’s plan.  And so then, even as we pause at the overwhelming wonder of it all, the question is not so much, “how did it come to this,” but rather, “what do we do about this?”

And that’s what our text this morning from Ephesians is all about.

We pick up our reading today in the 4th chapter of Paul’s epistle, which is actually quite a long way from those verses from the 1st chapter I just shared with you; in which Paul goes on in great detail as to the centrality of Christ not only to the life and mission of the church, but also its unity. Moreover, Paul says, our very identity – yours and mine – is rooted in the saving act of God in Jesus Christ.  And the common thread that runs through all of it is this truth that this is God’s good gift; that all is given to us by grace, and that we as believer haven’t attained or reached or otherwise brought upon ourselves anything that God hasn’t already “accomplish[ed] abundantly [in us] far more than all we can ask or imagine” (3:20) Up till this point in the Epistle, there have been three chapters’ worth of exhortations regarding the fullness of God, “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (3:19) and the power that’s at work within us – that is, the power at work within you and within me – because of that love.

But now, with the beginning of the 4th chapter, Paul finally moves away from reflecting on how such things happen to what we ought to be doing about it; and in truth, what Paul has to say here to those early Christians, and to us, is really quite direct and to the point, and actually, pretty simple:  “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  And what follows is a list of those qualities that are reflective of all that we’ve been given by God:  to live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another with love;” and to do that which maintains “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  In addition, there’s a lot said here about being part of that “one body and one Spirit,” and of making use of the spiritual gifts that we’ve been given so that we might “equip the saints for the work of ministry [and] for building up the body of Christ.”  And finally, there are very important words about staying true to our Christian doctrine and “speaking the truth in love” so that we might become “fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ. [The Message]

There’s a lot there, to be sure; but ultimately it all hearkens back to what God has already given us in this life and what he intends for for all of creation, and so as such it’s a worthy response; a worthy life that’s in line with what God seeks in and through us.  It’s one thing, after all, to sit back and marvel at all the many blessings of our lives or even to acknowledge the challenges that might come along with them; but it’s quite another to let those gifts and challenges be integrated into our calling as disciples of Christ; to have them nurture in us things like humility and gentleness, patience and forbearance, and above all love; to let what we’ve been given build up and bring forth unity, rather than tear down and divide.

Actually, you know, the word that Paul uses in regard to all this is that we need to “grow up,” or as it’s translated elsewhere, to be “fully mature adults.”  Incidentally, The Message takes it one very large step further in its translation:  “No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love – like Christ in everything.”  A bit scolding, I’ll admit, but the point is a good one:  that everything we’ve been given, all that we’re taught, every opportunity set before us is yet another way that we grow toward full spiritual maturity and move closer to truly living a life worthy of our calling as Christians; and the message here is that we really ought to get to it.

Understanding, of course, that what we’re talking about here is never a done deal; as Martin Luther once wrote, “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise.  We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.  The process is not yet finished but it is actively going on.  This is not the goal but it is the right road.  At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”  In other words, slowly but ever so surely, it’s happening if we will only let it; our incredible growth into Christ.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, in our worship we usually refer to these summer Sundays as those “after Pentecost.”  There are, however, many denominations and faith traditions that refer to these Sundays in the middle of the church year as being “in ordinary time.”  Frankly, it was a reference that always seemed a bit overly liturgical and “high church” for my taste, but recently I came across a quote from Sister Joan Chittister that might have changed my mind:  “It is in ‘ordinary time,’” Chittister writes, “that the really important things happen: our children grow up, our marriages and relationships grow older, our sense of life changes, our vision expands, our soul ripens;” this is, in fact, the season to simply marvel, give thanks for the gifts, and live our full lives out of this place of gratitude.

Well, I know what kind of “extra-ordinary” things the next couple of weeks of ordinary time is bringing our family; and I pray that you’ll have the same kind of experiences in your own lives as you live out these “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.”  May each of us truly marvel in the gifts of the Lord our God!  But more than this – whether it’s a family gathering somewhere, an early evening trip to go get some ice cream, a chance to have a conversation with an old friend over a glass of iced tea, or simply enjoying a magnificent sunrise – I pray that we’ll know from whence those gifts come, and strive to live a life worthy of our calling as Children of God.

And as we do, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2018 in Epistles, Family Stories, Life, Paul, Sermon

 

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