Mystery! There is so much about faith that is a mystery! Not a mystery that we can solve – like an Agatha Christie Novel. Often we are left with questions and puzzles. We can speculate, search for answers, maybe come to some conclusions - but there are some aspects of what we believe that will continue to remain a mystery. Sometimes we need to stay with the uncertainty, and that can feel uncomfortable – especially if you are someone who likes clarity and everything boxed off. I wonder, how comfortable are you with uncertainty? Maybe how we understand and encounter God is influenced by how much mystery we can bear?
As humans we seem to love mysteries and puzzles – there are so many books and TV programmes based on puzzles to be solved whether it is a detective series, crime drama or even the latest soap or drama – what is going to happen next, how will the characters solve their dilemma? Having a mystery gives our brains something to wrestle with – it means we need to engage, to challenge our assumptions, to change our perspective when we discover something new, to engage deeper and deeper.
How does the hymn go 'we have a faith that is steadfast and certain' – but we don't absolutely understand. As we journey forward we need to continue to hope, to wonder, to trust. Sometimes we put our trust in aspects of our faith that are familiar, we invest in what we know, what we prefer, but in times like these when we for example we are unable to worship in the way we do normally so much is challenged.
For the next few weeks we are going to use the book of Ephesians to help us to focus our reflections – it will give our brains something to wrestle with! We are going to think about our faith journey, what does it mean to be a child of God, to be Gods people, what about the church building, what is the body of Christ, how can Gods light shine in our community?
Given the challenges we have been facing and as we enter this new season - we need to rediscover what it means to be church. The impact of Covid 19 and the limitations on how we can meet mean that we need to rethink how we do church, or how we be church or how we are church. The crisis has shaken us up – we can't meet as we used to. Our worship looks different, it feels different. Some folk are keen to get back to what we used to do – but at the moment that is impossible. I think we need to just focus on now and work out what we can do – and let the future unfold.
At the beginning of lockdown back in March and April we tried to hit the ground running and find ways to link people together, by ringing each other, by linking on line. We found ways of worshipping using Facebook Live. Now that the restrictions have eased we need to find new ways of encountering God together. On Monday 7th the PCC agreed to find ways to open the building to return to worship, as I sit here on Wednesday 9th September reflecting what to share with you on Sunday the government is bringing out new guidelines saying only up to six people can meet socially either indoors or outdoors. Be warned that any arrangements that we make are liable to be subject to change at short notice! We need to be flexible and respond to where we are! We will be sending invitations to people whose home addresses and email addresses we have and we will put something on the website about how we intend to open – following a thorough risk assessment!
How do we make sense of these times ? How can we be church in these uncertain and changing times?
Well for the next few weeks we are going to read some sections of the Book of Ephesians. Its a new testament book. The book of Ephesians begins with a mystery – because we are not absolutely sure who wrote it - some people feel sure that Paul wrote the letter, others suggest it was written by an associate of his. Another question is whether it was written from Ephesus, or to the people of Ephesus or it could have been a circular– to go to a number of churches.
It is highly probable that is was written to read out loud. Id encourage you to read part of the first chapter now. As you listen see what word or phrase speaks to you today.
Ephesians 1 3-14
Praise for Spiritual Blessings in Christ
3 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. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[b] predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he[d] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen,[e] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 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, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
I wonder what word or phrase stuck with you? – you might like to read the passage or rewind and listen to it being read again. It is a great overview of our faith.
One of the things that has been lost in translation is that the style of this letter is different from the other letters as it the writing has snatches of liturgy, perhaps a hymn, a creed, a prayer – sentences that would be familiar to the listeners from other contexts. The writer is reminding the listeners of what they know – it is written to jews who are making sense of their new faith in Christ. In one sense there is nothing new but this is perhaps a fresh way of saying it. A refresh. A reboot! A re-imagining of faith. This is timely for us as we must wonder about what shape church can be as we look ahead to the next seasons of Autumn and Winter. As I have been preparing this reflection I have had hymns and songs come into my head too. I wonder when you are thinking about hope, about being chosen, about being sealed in the spirit – I wonder if there are bible verses or songs that come to your mind. 'Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me' has been dancing on my brain, throughout this reflection.
One of the lectionary readings today is from the exodus journey of the Israelites its Exodus chapter 14 from verse 19. Its an amazing section that describes the angel of God going ahead of the people and the Lord in the pillar of cloud behind them, the Israelites are being pursued – but God is both ahead and behind them. The angel and the pillar change places – the cloud lights the way ahead. The people are saved. Maybe this is what we are looking for at the moment a sense that God is before us and behind us? Leading us and protecting us. Showing us the way forward into uncertain territory and shielding us from the past. There are similar themes in the passage from Ephesians – this section is an act of worship – a prayer. Our Christian life flows out of our worship
Tom wright sums this up by saying --- 'True worship of the true God cannot help telling and retelling with joy and amazement the story of what this God has done in Jesus the messiah'
this section is s a prayer that tells us what God has done through Jesus.
Listen to the themes in the prayer:
we are blessed
we are chosen
we are foreordained
we have grace poured upon us
we are redeemed
we are part of his plan
we have an inheritance in him
our hope is upon God
and we are sealed by the Holy Spirit
The writer, who may or may not be Paul gives us an overview of of the divine plan. Can we trust that plan? Can we seek God amidst the uncertainty? Are we prepared to stay with the uncertainty and trust that God is with us – before us and behind us? Sometimes it is difficult to see what is happening at the time. As you look back to where you have been I wonder can you see Gods hand on your life? What is your faith story?
One of the things that I would like to pick up from the Ephesians passage is that as a child of God you are chosen, adopted. The NIV says we are adopted as sons, the NRSV describes adopted as children. This is a powerful message – this is about a full inheritance – not a second cousin twice removed, not a servant, but a child that will be treated in the same way as any other children in the household. In the Jewish culture this was very powerful – this meant to given all the privileges and respect that being a birth child gives – no exception. I recall reading instances where a family servant or a slaves was adopted into the family and given the full birthrights that would be afforded to a birth child – it is a significant thing and taken very seriously. It is not a glib comment – that you are like a child of God – you are fully adopted.
Do you feel that you are a child of God? What does being a child of God mean to you? You are adopted – fully part of the family – no-one is on the periphery or not good enough.
And the inheritance – we tend to think of that as something of monetary value but in the time of Ephesians an inheritance was more likely to be the family land – the land that the Israelites were walking towards. This is about your living, the continuance of your well being – having somewhere to belong. All of this is given to you. You are a child of God, fully accepted – just as you are. You have a place to belong, an inheritance – your future is secure – because God is before you and behind you.
A mystery, yes but a story of promise of hope. A life-line in uncertain times.
I wonder what story you are telling through your life, through your actions, through how you are in Christ.
If you would like to delve deeper into Ephesians you might like to buy a commentary to help you read and understand the text. There are quite a few available, one that is accessible and reasonably priced is the Tom Wright Paul for Everyone text.
Id like to leave you with some Questions to ponder:
What does it mean to you to be called a child of God?
What is your faith story? Can you look back and
Is there someone that you could share something of your faith story with?