Friday, July 13, 2012

Pentecost +7

I've heard it said that the way advertising – or at least effective advertising – works is by selling, not a product, but an image of the ideal self.  The product itself is important because sophisticated, intelligent, beautiful people use this, because the sort of people who drive this car or wear this particular brand of deodorant are attractive and discerning, and everyone they meet immediately recognises this about them.  The product itself is a code for success, actually you already need to be successful and smart and attractive even to be able to recognise how wonderful this product is, but guess what?? This product is YOU!!  You, in fact, are just the sort of person this product was designed for, and when you think about it, you wouldn't settle for anything less.

Something like that.  It works, because it sells you the secret self you've always yearned for.

Which brings me to the letter to the Ephesians.  Because this, in fact, is exactly what St Paul is doing in this morning's passage.  In, I hasten to add, a good way.

A couple of things before we start – firstly that most scholars agree that not all the letters that bear Paul's name were actually written by him, and Ephesians is one of the borderline cases.  For a start the language – the vocabulary and syntax – are just a bit different, and the ideas are just a bit different from the undisputed letters like Romans and Corinthians.  It might have been Paul, writing at a different time and in a different mood, or it might have been the next generation, one of Pauls' disciples or students writing in his name – which wasn't cheating, in the ancient world, this was standard practise if you wanted to honour the great thinker by ascribing to him what he would have said if he was still around.  And the other thing scholars argue about is whether this letter was really just intended for the Ephesian church – after all it is written in very general terms and there are no specific issues like we find in the letters to Corinth – or whether it was a sort of general circular letter in Paul's name intended to be read in all the churches.  In which case, it is also to us.

Ephesians is a 'big picture' letter, its themes are cosmic and universal.  The issues and challenges it speaks about are timeless and just as applicable to us as to the ancient church – how to live in the world of politics and domination, the competing and powerful messages of the culture around us, our own temptation to divide the world into 'us' and 'them', and our restless drive to understand what it all means – our own lives and the universe we live in.

St Paul, as one of our own contemporary Aussie advertisements used to say, is excited.  After the fairly standard opening greeting, the rest of it – verses 3 to 14 that we read this morning, just tumbles out, in one long garbled sentence.  His mind is rushing on faster than his pen can keep up. Even in our English translation, when the editors have divided it into proper grammatical sentences, you get the impression of a grand sweep of ideas, one flowing into another in a great long swoosh, describing nothing less than everything, the whole of time and space and then at the very end of the sentence, where we read up to this morning – you can almost hear him pause to draw breath – 'and you too.  You – who have come to believe – you are part of all this.  You fit into this vision of creation'.  St Paul is giving us a vision of ourselves, a vision that is way too big for petty divisions and small thinking, and he is saying – 'this is who you are. This is how you need to live'. And this one long sentence summarises the whole of the rest of the letter which is about inclusiveness, the inclusion of all people, of Gentiles and Jews – in this universe-long plan of God to bring together all of creation into unity in Christ.

We bless God, Paul tells us, because God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing – we praise God in other words because God blesses us with the spiritual basis to live with integrity and wholeness. And Paul puts these blessings into a context – in the heavenly places – in which God has also chosen us to live in Christ.  He seems to have in mind a sort of location or context for our lives - not the physical heavens, not the sky, but perhaps the sphere of spiritual power that underlies the universe and within which our own lives unfold.  To say it a bit differently - we have received God's blessing where life matters most, at the very centre of our own being and the life of all creation.

And then a metaphor from family life – from the profound to the familiar.  We have been adopted.  We are not left to fend for ourselves but we have been adopted into God's own family through the faithfulness and love of Christ.  Paul tells us that God's desire is that we should be lovers – that we should fall into love with the sort of love that we see demonstrated by Jesus. Paul pads that out a bit, telling us that Jesus' death is an atonement, it puts us right with God through the forgiveness of our sins, as an act of divine love.  But then while we struggle to comprehend that – and it is a doctrine that theologians today continue to argue and puzzle over, Paul draws an even wider circle.

In all humility, Paul calls it a mystery, but you get the sense that his mind is absorbed in a vision too grand for words.  Not just us, but all things are intended to be drawn together, the whole of the created order comes to its fulfilment in Christ.  The whole of the universe, galaxies and stars and planets, rock and twig, bird, beast and flower, the whole lot - and you and me – the whole thing holds together and has a direction and a purpose, and comes together at the end of all things in Christ.  He is speaking, of course, poetically and symbolically rather than scientifically – we might rephrase this a bit by saying that it is God's love that is the basis for the whole of creation, and it is in God's love made known in Jesus that the whole of creation finds its meaning and destination.

It is a mystery.  You might have heard me speak before of the Higgs boson, the theoretical particle that physicists for decades now have believed must exist in order to make sense of the laws of physics that we more or less take for granted because if they didn't work then everything would fall apart.  In fact I spoke of this just last Christmas, when I likened the search for the Higgs boson to the spiritual search for what makes sense of our own lives.  And just last week we heard that scientists have confirmed the existence of this mysterious particle through experiments conducted deep under the Swiss Alps in the large halon collider.  Physics, it seems, moves ever closer to poetry and the language of mysticism, hypothesising and now confirming the existence of what they called the God-particle which draws all things together.  This discovery, of course, opens up a whole new range of further questions and mysteries for scientists, but the point is just this – that as the quest to understand the physical universe moves forward what we begin to realise is that everything that is, is connected, that our own lives are set in the context of everything that is, and that the origins and final destination even of the universe itself are lost in mystery.

St Paul has taken us to the edges of human understanding.  But then he brings us back.  And you too, he tells us, are an integral part of this.  You have a share, you have inherited a front row seat in the grand mystery of creation.  The master advertising guru, St Paul has revealed a vision of our own selves that is bigger than, let's face it, our sometimes small and narrow lives would ever have led us to suspect.  This is who you are, he is telling us, participants in, perhaps even the centrepiece of, a cosmic drama of inclusiveness.

He's sold us.  We want this, we want a vision of our own selves that affirms, not only that we are going somewhere, but that everything in all of creation matters because the destination of all things is Christ.  This is a vision of our own lives that says we matter, that we are intended from the very beginning and enticed all through our lives into the heart of love that lies at the centre of everything that is.  Yes, I'll buy that version of myself.


There's always a but, and St Paul is just starting to get to his.  The next few weeks, in lectionary time, we start to unpack the consequences for us of accepting this wonderful interpretation of what it means to be created in God's love but for now – just notice the pronouns that St Paul has started to use, at the end of today's reading.  'We', he tells us – 'we who were the first to believe'.  And the  - 'you also' – 'you who believed when you heard the word of truth'.  Yes, 'we' are the author himself and Jewish Christians, the first to hear and believe. 'You' – are us, the rest of us, Gentile Christians whose faith is second order, who have come to faith by hearing and believing the word brought to us through the faithfulness of others.  'We' – the people of God's original covenant – have always had a place, if we chose to take it up.  The good news is that this cosmic vision of a universe underpinned by love is too all-encompassing to leave anything out.  Both 'we' and 'you' now share a common inheritance.  And the theme of the letter to the Ephesians is set.

If who we are – Aussie, Indian, Korean, Chinese, Iranian, Zimbabwean, Nigerian, Eritrean – if the essence of who we are is built into the design of a universe that follows the logic of inclusiveness and cohesion – then our petty divisions collapse.  Our divided languages and cultures don't matter – we have experienced this, right here, in our parish, haven't we? What unites us is bigger than everything we invent to divide ourselves from each other.  You see it now? St Paul has sold us a vision of ourselves that has to lead to a way of living that is more generous and inclusive.  Tune in again next week!