I once heard my colleague Jack Roeda compare going to church to visiting an opthamologist. After all, worshipers have a very hard time seeing what’s really going on. Six days a week we see much chaos.
We see a global pandemic shadowing our lives, racial injustice rattling our world and political turmoil roiling our countries. We some of our friends aging, moving away or dying. We see our homes’ value plummeting, job security wavering and retirement nest eggs shrinking.
We see young adults shoot each other on our streets. We see conflicts in Asia and the Middle East seem to stretch out interminably. We see famines, wildfires, hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes and other disasters wreak havoc in our world.
On top of all that, the media doesn’t just constantly call attention to that bad news. It also virtually assaults us with all sorts of dire warnings about the bad news that’s just around the corner.
What we see has consequences, because the things we see to seem to affect our behavior. So some behavioral scientists link excessive watching of, for example, televised (if simulated) sexual activity to elevated promiscuity. It’s almost as if teenagers who watch extramarital intimacy come to conclude that it’s normal and acceptable behavior.
Those who proclaim Ephesians 1 might invite our hearers to think about that in relation to all the trouble we naturally see in our world. If we assume that greed dominates our world, might we be more likely to lose hope? Might assuming that only sheer luck governs our world make us unlikely to trust that God rules over it?
Paul writes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to the Ephesian Christians who also see much chaos all around them. After all, they live in both the world and in God’s kingdom. What’s more, Ephesus is the capital of the pagan cult of Artemis.
Perhaps that partly explains the apostle’s gratitude that begins Ephesians 1. In it Paul gives thanks, after all, not only for the Ephesians’ faith, but also for their “love for all the saints” (15) that grows out of it. It stands in sharp contrast to the chaos that surrounds them.
Ephesians 1 serves as a good reminder, perhaps especially for Americans who are the season of Thanksgiving, that Christians’ prayers always focus on thanksgiving. While we sometimes race right to our intercessions and supplications for each other and ourselves, Reformed Christians profess that “prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us.”
In fact, prayers asking God for things without offering thanks to God easily deteriorate into what one scholar calls “gimme prayers.” When Christians focus on what we want instead of on what God wants and gives us, we evaluate our prayers on the basis of what we get rather than on God’s goodness.
Yet though Paul is clearly thankful to God for the Ephesians, he isn’t completely satisfied with them. The apostle prays that they’ll better see the full implications of the blessings God has given them.
Clearly, however, the Ephesians can’t see those connotations without help. We might think of it this way: at least initially you don’t even know that your vision is poor until someone tells you.
For example, neither my parents nor I knew that I needed eyeglasses until they took me to a baseball game at the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. When I couldn’t read its scoreboard, they knew something was wrong with my eyesight. Silly me! I’d always just assumed that scoreboards were supposed to be fuzzy.
In a slightly similar way, people naturally see power and luck as controlling our world. Christians can’t know that God reigns over it unless the Holy Spirit corrects our blurry vision. So Paul prays that God will open the eyes of the Ephesians’ hearts (18).
While the “eyes of our hearts” is a somewhat mysterious concept, it seems at least to refer to Christians’ minds that God needs to open for us to fully recognize God’s truth. What truth does Paul want his readers to recognize? He prays that we’ll recognize the “hope to which God has called us.” The apostle prays that we’ll see more than what we assume is going on around us.
He prays that Christians will come to recognize God’s holiness, as well as the freedom and peace for which God created us. The apostle also wants us to recognize both the suffering that may await us and the glory that surely awaits us.
So those whose heart’s eyes God has opened don’t live for the moment, ourselves or even just the people we like. God’s adopted sons and daughters also live to know, love and serve Jesus Christ and our neighbors, including even our enemies.
Paul also prays, however, that Christ’s followers will more fully see what verse 18 calls “the riches of” God’s “glorious inheritance in the saints.” God, after all, promises God’s sons and daughters an unimaginably glorious future.
So a colleague suggests that reading the gospel is in some ways like going to the reading of the will of a rich aunt who has died. The lawyer opens the will and tells you, “You’re going to inherit something so wonderful that I can hardly describe it for you.”
God, after all, promises that in the new creation, God’s dearly beloved people will see God. God also insists that when God’s adopted sons and daughters see the Lord, we’ll somehow be like the Lord. In the new heaven and earth, what’s more, God promises that we will share eternal joy with both God and each other.
Finally, Paul also prays that Jesus’ followers will learn to better see what verse 19 calls God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.” “That power,” the apostle adds in verse 19, “is like the working of his mighty strength.”
Of course, that may seem, in some ways, a bit like Clark Kent insisting he’s the strongest man in his world. Kent, whose alter ego was, of course, Superman, after all, looked like a mild reporter most of the time. God may, in a similar way, generally seem pretty tame. Even Christians don’t always recognize God’s incomparable power because God usually chooses to refrain from using all of it.
Yet God has periodically chosen to show us that immense power. God made all things, after all, simply by speaking God’s creative word. God also both raised Christ from the dead and elevated him to reign over all things, including Christ’s church.
Yet Christians sometimes become so busy with our daily lives that we spend most of our time and energy looking at the things around us instead of at Jesus Christ. We become so busy staying safe from this pandemic, working for racial justice and arguing about politics that we scarcely have the time and the energy to consider the gospel’s implications. On top of all that, some people and things seem so powerful that we can’t imagine God being any more powerful than them. So Jesus’ followers may need to learn to live a new way by “seeing” in a new way.
Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating book about neurological disorders entitled, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In it he describedf Christina, a 27 year-old who’d hardly been sick a day in her life.
The day before doctors scheduled her for gallbladder surgery, however, she became very unsteady on her feet and prone to dropping things. She eventually couldn’t stand unless she looked down at her feet. Christina’s hands also wandered unless she kept a very close eye on them. When she tried to stand up, her body just “gave way” on her.
Neurologically health people, even with our eyes closed, have a sense of where our arms and legs are. Our proprioceptors help us sense that we’re moving them, even when we don’t see them. Dr. Sacks, however, determined that Christina’s proprioceptors weren’t working well. She, after all, had no idea her limbs were moving unless she literally watched them.
My friend Scott Hoezee suggests that our Epistolary Lesson’s Apostle Paul might say that our spiritual proprioceptors don’t naturally work well either. While God is powerfully at work in our world, we’re born without any sense of that. It sometimes seems to us, as a result, as if God is entirely inactive.
Christina had to learn, in a sense, to see everything differently. She had to use her eyes in every situation where she could formerly rely on her senses. She needed to learn to watch her hands and feet, for instance, to make sure they were in the right place.
God’s Spirit equips God’s adopted children to do something similar spiritually. We learn to live by watching very carefully for God’s work in our world. Christians learn to look for signs of God’s power, faithfulness and love that aren’t always obvious to the untrained eye.
Of course, that requires reorientation, hard work and close attention. It also requires most of us to somehow slow down. Yet looking for and recognizing signs of God’s work alone allows us to, in Augustine’s words, live, move and have our being.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 22, 2020
Ephesians 1:15-23 Commentary