A Sermon Preached by Leslie Spatt
Where is our identity?
Whether this letter was actually written by St Paul or not – and there’s some scholarly opinion that it wasn’t – there’s no real doubt that Paul did preach in Ephesus and helped to build up the Christian presence in the city. As we work our way through it during the rest of the summer, hopefully we can get some insight of the life and concerns of one of the first significant groups to follow Jesus. They might even be still relevant to us today…
Ephesus in the time of St Paul was an important, vibrant city; a seaport and crossroads of trade and very rich, full of lots of different cultures and practices. There were many temptations for the probably fragile early Christian community set into this overwhelmingly Gentile, foreign cosmopolitan diversity. How to stick together and support each other? Where could they find their identity? How could they possibly live the kind of life that Paul said was essential, to be faithful to what Christ wanted them to be? What were they supposed to be? And what was expected of those who called themselves Christians. Did they have to isolate themselves from the world around them, wall themselves off, in order not to have to face those temptations; or could they learn to live as followers of Jesus alongside people who didn’t have much of anything in common with them apart from being human.
Last week Aaron said in his sermon “We are God’s children, for whom he cares infinitely. This is our identity.” Of course, this could also apply to the Ephesians who weren’t Christians, even if the concept of “one God” was something incomprehensible. Gentiles had many gods of all sorts – Greek, Roman, mystery cults worshipping snakes, fertility cults practising ritual sex. The devotion to the goddess Diana was big business in Ephesus, as we can see even today in the famous remains of the city architecture. So, what singled the Christians out as distinctive or different? What seemed quite odd was the idea that the one God actually loves and cared for humans and all creation, the love which is selfless and doesn’t expect any reward. And even more revolutionary, that this one God could be seen in a human form – a man, the Christian claimed, who reflected what God must be like, who died and was raised from the dead to live again. All rather absurd stuff to the Gentiles who said that nobody ever came back from the dead; and the gods needed constant sacrifices and gifts to keep them happy.
The Christian identity was to be part of a family sharing common values, where the aim was to draw closer to God; and be in a special relationship with God to help give life to the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached about. The glue transforming an assortment of individuals into a collective worshipping community, a way of life, and something distinct from anything else to be found in the world around them was their faith in Jesus as Lord, the Christ raised by God from the dead who would bring them into that special relationship. Jesus the human had died – and Christians collectively were now the body of Christ who had to do the actual work needed in a real, broken, damaged, imperfect world. A world which God loved, even with all its imperfections and imperfect humans; because God created it all and wanted it to be healed.
I suppose one way of saying it simply is: God wants us back. To live as we ought to, in a right relationship with God, each other and the whole of creation. This is a great deal of what Jesus was talking about – renewing our relationship with God, but a newer and better relationship than simply and unquestioningly obeying the letter of the Law of the Hebrew scriptures. When we look at and listen to Jesus as reported in the Gospels, to his teaching, his actions, his healing of not only physical symptoms but also healing of mental distress and broken desperate people, we can start to see what God might be like. When we listen to Jesus’s insistence on living according to the spirit of the Law – above all the very basic two primary laws of loving God with all our hearts and minds and beings, and loving our neighbour as ourselves – we can open ourselves to receiving this spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know Jesus better. And in that developing knowledge, to realise that our relationship with God is one of God’s complete unquestioning acceptance of who we are, as we are. We don’t have to be perfect in order to earn God’s love. God will love us even if we aren’t perfect. Especially if we aren’t perfect; because if we are – or think we are – then we don’t really need God any more, do we. We can just shut the door and our ears to what God might be calling us to do.
There’s lots of ways we could identify ourselves: sister, parent, friend, middle-aged, company executive, priest… All of these only single out one aspect of our total being. The only one which really covers all the bases is “child of God.” And, for us, “Christian.”
But in a way, we face the same sort of identity issues for us now as Christians as that early group in Ephesus. Is our way of staying faithful to our Christian calling to shut ourselves away from external temptations and influences, to ignore the very real fact that we, as a Christian community are set into a much larger world community which often doesn’t care one little bit about “what God wants us to be” or “how to follow Jesus”. A world which may be actively hostile to Christian principles, seen as damaging to the status quo or getting in the way of people trying to dominate and control. In our following Jesus we acknowledge that he is the one above all rule and authority and power and dominion, which some see as a threat to the existing structures of power and control.
Nobody ever said that being a follower of Jesus was easy. And the temptations for us might be to put up security fences and barriers by having only ‘people like us’ as friends, or rejecting anything which seems threatening, or which might disturb our faith. And certainly never admit to having doubts. But staying behind self-imposed fences would mean that we’re ignoring what we’ve been called to do – which is to be disciples, to help build the Kingdom of God, to show the often uncaring world around us that our way of following Jesus isn’t to simply keep our faith confined in church and surround ourselves with “people like us”. And not to take refuge in rigid doctrinal rules, uncritical acceptance of a literal meaning of what Scripture says instead of what Scripture means, or slavish obedience to manipulative religious leaders claiming that they alone have all the answers and that God will punish anyone who violates the rules. I don’t think that’s the sort of God that Jesus shows us.
Following Jesus and the way he teaches us is to dare to take risks, to live out our faith far beyond the boundaries of just our own like-minded friends or self-imposed safe fences. Who is our neighbour to love, for example. How do we love that neighbour: by perhaps listening to someone’s worries or grief without resenting the time it takes. Or by making sure that vulnerable people are getting the support they need by tackling the injustices of entrenched authority. Our faith might be in demonstrating how we love God by helping to mend and then protect creation, even though it may come at a personal cost or inconvenience to us.
This morning we baptise Walter and Conrad– and they will learn as they grow up as Christians that they are part of a much wider family than their own immediate one. They will have the love and support of their parents and godparents and also the community of Christian faith wherever they find themselves. Not just in a church building, but as part of God’s own family and knowing God’s unconditional love for them, whatever path their lives take. And while love, on a purely human level, can be difficult or absent, or even dangerous or destructive, God’s love is none of that. Even if they forget God, and we hope that they won’t, God will never forget them..
We are the church, the body of Christ. That’s also our identity as Christians, as well as being God’s children. We’ve been given the responsibility and work of helping our broken and imperfect world to see the glory of God reflected in Jesus. And, being children of God, it means that we will have the eyes of our hearts enlightened; not only given a love which nothing can take away but also given the important job of seeing what needs mending, needs bringing into agreement with what God wants for everything.
Our God, who is our Creator and reason for life, help us to serve you in all that we do.
Our God, who is our Redeemer and pattern for life, help us to serve you in all that we do
Our God, who is our Sustainer and giver of life, help us to serve you in all that we do
Our God, Trinity in Unity, bring us closer to you in love, that in our many and varied ministries we may share in your mission for the coming of the Kingdom.
©Leslie Spatt 2019