One of my commentaries had this to say about these opening verses
of Ephesians, “Immediately the letter plunges us into a cascade
of beauty and riches. Abundant blessings and glorious grace are
lavished upon us, for God’s own good pleasure.” In other
words, if Ephesians were a food, it might look something like this.
[Slide] I probably put on a couple pounds just selecting this slide.
Because every time I saw an image I liked, I had to keep looking
to see if there was something even better out there. [Slide Down]
That impulse is part of the concept of BEYOND. To consider not only
what we have right now, but to look for what is beyond what we currently
know, understand, realize, or imagine. Maybe something that is even
better than what we currently know or have. Clearly God is with
us right here, but I hope it is equally obvious that God is beyond
where we are, and we should be thinking about how to go beyond,
so that we can get to a new place where God is calling us to be.
So I want to ask you a question which you do not need to answer
out loud. In fact , it’s best if you don’t, because
I’ll tell you straight up, it’s a tricky question. But
please consider what your answer would be. Ready? Are you rich?
I can hear what you’re thinking. You are saying to yourselves,
“that depends what you mean by rich.” I told you it
was a tricky question. Are we talking about money, property, relationships,
health, salvation, what? Let me ask the question a slightly different
way and see if it makes any difference in your answer. Do you think
you’re rich? The first question implies that there’s
some objective, quantifiable amount -- of money, security, health,
whatever -- that if you cross that threshold, you are rich: if I
have $50,000 in a bank account, you’re rich. But the world
doesn’t work that way. It turns out the second question, which
is about how you feel about what you have is the way most of us
actually measure wealth: it is relative -- we see our wealth in
relationship to other people. In some parts of the world, $50,000
or its equivalent , is more than a family could imagine making or
spending in a lifetime, whereas in our part of the world, it might
be challenging to support a family for a year with that amount.
If you have more than your neighbors, you’re rich. If you
have less than your neighbors, you’re poor. Being rich has
a lot to do with whether we can get what we want, which has a whole
lot to do with what we want -- or what we think we ought to have.
Does that make sense? Because this passage which Sue read has a
lot to do with riches. I want to be clear, I am not going to be
preaching the prosperity gospel, a distortion of the Bible which
says if you just have enough faith, material blessings will come
your way: name it and claim it! call it and haul it! The riches
of grace are not a divine vending machine, where we put in our prayer
in the slot and get whatever we ask for. God wants something different
-- maybe even something better -- for us than that. God wants us
to be God’s children through Jesus Christ. This passage is
filled with the language of adoption and inheritance: verse 5 [God]
destined us for adoption, verse 11 in Christ we have also obtained
an inheritance, in verse 14 [the Holy Spirit] is the pledge of our
inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.
In verse 7 we encounter this wonderful phrase “the riches
of [Christ’s] grace,” or the riches of grace. The idea
of grace, which verse 7 defines as “redemption through Christ’s
blood and forgiveness of our trespasses” is woven into this
passage right along with the legal and financial ideas of adoption
and inheritance. Grace is neither a legal nor financial term: it
takes us beyond what is defined by human legal or financial expectations.
Grace changes the categories. Because of the grace of Jesus Christ
-- the way Christ forgave us and sacrificed himself to redeem our
lives from sin, means that we are no longer measured by what we
have -- money, education, good deeds, whatever -- we are measured
by what we are worth to Jesus Christ. If Christ gave his life for
us, that means we are worth a lot -- more than we can imagine--regardless
of how much we have or don’t have. The riches of grace are
what Christ has given to us: the gift of being worthy to be called
children of God, the gift of inheriting the kingdom which God has
been planning since the beginning of time -- since before the foundation
of the world. That grace has been lavished on us; given with abundance
and without reservation. The Holy Spirit with us is the pledge that
our inheritance, God’s promise, will one day be fully realized.
If you get nothing else from our study of Ephesians, I hope you
will hear, not only in an intellectual way, but an emotional way,
this sense of richness and abundance. It is good news -- it is the
best news -- we can hear. But even beyond that, if we believe in
the abundance of God, it a ffects the way we view ourselves and
how we interact with other people. You might think that the people
with the most money are the most generous, and those who have the
least are the least likely to share. Unfortunately, research doesn’t
bear that out. There are some super-wealthy people who are conspicuous
philanthropists, but in most cases, it’s still a very small
part of their income. People who have very little may not have much
to lose, but they are often the ones who understand the need to
share or pool resources. What is a much more reliable indicator
of generosity is our attitude toward what we have: do we have an
attitude of scarcity, or an attitude of abundance? We bump up against
this all the time -- in our families and in the church -- and people
are rarely consistent. Let me give you an example:
My mother grew up on a dairy farm in the years following the Great
Depression of the 1930’s. She recycles everything, including
water: rubber bands, grocery bags, pieces of twine. Scarcity, right?
When I was in school, she put in hours volunteering for the Parent
Teacher Association, went on countless field trips, made dozens
of cookies and other snacks, mended choir dresses, whatever. Abundance.
Most of us are some combination of those two, in ways which don’t
always make rational sense. We each need to know, not only in our
heads, but know in our hearts, in our very being, that we are of
immeasurable worth to God: not because of anything we have done,
but because God’s plan all along was for Jesus Christ to redeem
us and make us part of God’s family. God loves us with abundance
and with abandon: we have inherited the riches of grace. That deep
knowledge needs to take us beyond the rotten things we know about
ourselves, and the rotten things we suspect or know about other
people. Scarcity is a form of security; abundance is a form of risk.
What if there isn’t enough for me? What if we run out? These
are valid questions to ask, but I don’t think we are living
into the vision of the kingdom of God if our conversations stop
there. If our church planning becomes mostly or entirely focused
on ‘How can we preserve what we have?’ and we never
get to ‘What have we got to share?’ we have lost our
way. Two things which I can attest to personally: 1. I have never
regretted time or money which I have given to this congregation;
2. There has always been someone who is giving more than I do. We
have many things in our congregation and in our life together which
are worth preserving, but God is calling us beyond what we have
right now. God is calling us into the riches of grace: a place which
will be risky, because it is beyond what we currently know and understand.
In the coming week or so, I’d like you to consider two questions.
I’d be happy to hear your answers, and I don’t need
to tell them to anyone else. Feel free to invite me to where you
are so I can hear your answers in person. When was a time when you
knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were loved? And, what
represents abundance for you?