February 1, 2009

The Church: The Masterpiece of God
“The Church: Adopted by God”
Ephesians 1:3-14

I remember how excited I was when, during my freshman year in college, I called my parents and told them for the first time about Deb. I ran on and on about her, telling Mom and Dad where she was from, what she looked like, things she was interested in, and, in general, what kind of girl she was. From how my father responded, I quickly realized that I was flooding them with words. “Come up for air, Son,” he suggested. “Catch your breath and tell us about her.”

I almost wanted to say the same thing to Paul as I read through this section of Ephesians this past week. He is clearly excited—no doubt about that. For one thing, he skips the pleasantries that normally appear in his letters following his introductory greetings. Paul, for example, typically either offers thanks for the people to whom he is writing or reminds them that he is praying for them. Not here. For another thing, Paul’s words come at us in this passage like the scenes of a movie played at a greatly accelerated speed. Paul is, in fact, so enthusiastic that, in Greek, these twelve verses make up only one sentence! One sentence. “Catch your breath, Paul. Slow down and tell us what is on your mind.” But what is he so excited about?

Here in Ephesians, Paul doesn’t so much deal with specific cultural or theological issues like he does in his other epistles, issues that plagued one congregation but not necessarily another. Issues like eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols or what to do when someone speaks in tongues in the middle of the worship service. Instead, he lays out his overall vision for the church and the Christian life. In this vision, Paul discusses such things as unity within the body, gifts that God gives to the church, healthy relationships and spiritual warfare. But before Paul can even begin to talk about these and other important matters, he must first be sure of one thing; that his readers have a healthy understanding of God. It is as though Paul is stating here one foundational principle out of which everything else flows. And that principle is this: As individuals, your spiritual life and mine can rise no higher than our view of God will allow. As a church, our collective spiritual life can rise no higher than our view of God will allow. If we serve a small God, we’ll have a small faith. If we serve an angry God, we’ll have a neurotic faith. If we serve a God who gives us everything that we want, we’ll have a self-centered faith. If we serve a God who is abstract and non-relational, we’ll have an intellectual faith. If we serve a God who is far removed from everyday life, we’ll have a powerless faith. But if we serve a God who loves us, forgives us and transforms us to be more than we ever thought possible, we’ll have a living, growing and vibrant faith. Our spiritual lives, once again, can rise no higher than our view of God will allow.

So that’s where Paul begins with God. He understands that everything his readers will ultimately believe and do comes back in a significant way to this single item. What do we believe about God? And as both a human being who is himself on a spiritual journey as well as a pastor who talks with a lot of people week after week, I think Paul’s right. Again and again, so many of us trip over our misconceptions of God. There are many such misconceptions, some of which I alluded to just a moment ago. But in my experience, three nagging misconceptions about God keep cropping up that prevent us from getting past first base spiritually. The first misconception: God doesn’t do anything. The second misconception: God isn’t relational. And the third misconception: God doesn’t care about people like me. It’s a funny thing. Paul seems to have just those misconceptions in mind as he excitedly blurts out this magnificent, run-on sentence! Apparently, certain things never change.

The first misconception: God doesn’t do anything. He’s not directly involved, either in our own individual lives, the life of our community, or the flow of human history. Time marches on, the world goes about its business, people get sick and die, nations go to war, the sun rises and sets, and God either minds his own business or lacks the ability to intervene. God doesn’t do anything.

Paul’s God does. In fact, if you examine the progression of Paul’s thought in this passage, you’ll notice rather quickly that God has been intimately involved in “human affairs” since before the world itself began. Can you see a certain chronological arrangement here? In vv. 3-6, Paul outlines God’s acts in the past. God, who in his inexhaustible wisdom knew in advance that the world would fall apart, set in motion a great plan that would ultimately put everything back together again. Before the dawn of time, he chose those of us who now make up his church to be his adopted children (v. 5). He chose us, not at the exclusion of others, but so that in part through our witness the entire world might one day be gathered up again in his arms (v. 10).

In vv. 7-12, we read about God’s activities in the present. Whether we always realize it or not, God’s plan continues to move ahead in high gear. At this very moment, God through Christ is redeeming, forgiving and lavishing his loving grace upon people all over the world. Someone in Africa is coming to faith right now. A young person in North America is sensing a call into the ministry right now. A dying person in Asia is aware of God’s presence right now. A hard-hearted person in Europe is asking for forgiveness right now.

And in vv. 13-14, Paul assures us that God will continue acting throughout all of time. God has, Paul points out, given his people the Holy Spirit as a pledge—a sign—to confirm in our hearts and minds that we will without a doubt receive an eternal inheritance. As we move through the ups and downs of life, the Spirit nudges us and encourages us that we are not alone and that we are on the right track. God doesn’t do anything? Paul’s God does.

The second misconception: God does not relate. He is not personal. He is not genuinely knowable. He is, at best, an impersonal force, the ground of all being, the eternal principle, the mysterious other. God has been called these and any other number of things over the years, and it is undeniably true that all human language inevitably comes up short when used to talk about God. How can you begin to capture God in mortal language?

At the same time, however, it can’t be overlooked that Paul, not to mention other biblical writers as well as Jesus himself, uses personal images with alarming regularity to describe the one we call God. Here in Ephesians 1:3-14 alone, the language of family and relationships runs throughout. God is our father and we are his children. God blesses, chooses, plans, adopts, redeems, provides and forgives. God likewise welcomes his people into the inner recesses of his own heart and mind—he “made known…the mystery of his will (v. 9).” God isn’t personal? He does not relate to people like you and me? Paul’s God does.

And the third misconception: God does not care. He does not care about the world. He does not care about the church. He does not care about you and me. At best, he is indifferent. At worst, he is unloving, unkind, unforgiving and totally impossible to please. God just doesn’t care. Paul’s God does.

Just sit for a moment with some of the adjectives and phrases that Paul uses here when he talks about God:
…who has blessed us in Christ (v. 3)
…he chose us…to be holy and blameless before him in love (v. 4)
…he destined us for adoption as his children (v. 5)
…according to the good pleasure of his will (v. 5)
…his glorious grace that he freely bestowed (v. 6)
…the riches of his grace that he lavished on us (vv. 7-8)
...so that we…might live for the praise of his glory (v. 12)
…the pledge of our inheritance (v. 14)
What do you think? Does that sound like a God who does not care about all that he has made? Does that sound like a God who does not care about his church? Does that sound like a God who does not care about people like you and me? God doesn’t care about us? Paul’s God does.

As Paul ends his blessing in v. 2 and moves into the body of his letter, there is a great deal that he wants to write about, a lot of stuff to cover. But first things first. And what comes first? God. Paul, who once believed in a legalistic God that could be pleased only by following a rigid set of rules meticulously, a God who sent him from place to place in order to kill the followers of Jesus, a God who lived on in traditions rather than human hearts, that same Paul now describing a God like this. He can hardly get the words out! He is even more excited to tell his readers about the great God that he met than I was years ago to tell my parents about Deb. His view of God has been transformed, and so has his life.

What is your God like? I’ve talked to a lot of you over the years. Some of you serve a God who doesn’t do anything. Perhaps you want him to, but he seems to be nowhere to be found. Or maybe you have your life so neatly organized and controlled that you wouldn’t recognize an act of God on your behalf if he came right up to you and stared you in the face. Some of you serve a God who doesn’t relate to you personally. Whatever you believe is all upstairs. Some of you serve a God who doesn’t care very much. You can’t please him. He loves bringing up, over and over again, all of the dirt of the past. What is your God like?

Let me repeat this singularly important principle: Your spiritual life can rise no higher than your view of God will allow. My spiritual life can rise no higher than my view of God will allow. Our spiritual life as a church can rise no higher than our view of God will allow. And if, like Paul, we discard our age-old misconceptions of God and experience this God who is deeply involved in human history, this God who relates to people like you and me personally, and this God who cares about us and his church more than words can say, our lives will literally be turned upside down.

Here’s what I want you to do this week. Read through this passage in Ephesians at least once every day. Read it in multiple translations if you can. And as you do, list your own unhealthy ideas about God that don’t seem to fit in with Paul’s description. As they come to your mind, deny their validity and set them aside. At the same time, allow Paul’s wonderful picture of God to transform your own heart and mind. Remember, our lives can rise no higher than our views of God will allow.