A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 21st July 2019
What does the future hold? Perhaps more than ever in my lifetime, that question is less certain than ever. Maybe I’m over-stating the case – my early years were spent living in the shadow of the threat of nuclear conflict during the Cold War, but I was too young to notice or care. Although we might guess who the next Prime Minister will be in the coming days, what lies beyond that, what lies beyond October 31st, and what lies ahead politically and economically, and perhaps even culturally, is much less clear than it has ever been.
The future is a mystery, and we are people who have become uncomfortable with mystery. Mysteries trouble us, confound us, and need to be solved. We want answers and we think we’re good at them. Look at our human history, we say. It is a testament to solving mysteries. Look at the moon landings, look at all the technological advancements.
There was a time, when the wind blew where it chose, we heard the sound of it, but we didn’t know where it came from or where it was going (that’s a quote from John’s Gospel, by the way). But, now, the Met Office App will tell me there’s a high-pressure system building over France that is pushing cooler weather our way. We know where the wind comes from now. The mystery is solved!
There was a time that at the moment of birth there was a shout of surprise, “Ohhh! It’s a girl!” But now the ultrasound lets us in on what colour to paint the nursery way advance. We are no longer formed in secret in our mothers’ wombs (that’s a quote from Psalm 139, by the way). Now we know. Mystery solved.
Solving mysteries is what we do well. But if there’s one that cannot be solved, we become an anxious people. We lay awake at night, we bite our nails, we worry.
In his bestselling book, Stumbling on Happiness, the psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains how the future is a mystery, wildly uncontrollable, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to control it. When it comes to the future, human beings merely create in our minds what Gilbert called an illusion of foresight. We believe we can see and control the future, and so we set appointments, we save for retirement, we get our itineraries in order. But the future has other plans. So it is that our appointments run into the flu bug, our retirement dreams are hosted by a pension scheme that’s a scam. And even though the itinerary says destination “Alicante,” the plane landed in the Lisbon. According to Gilbert, we imagine the future poorly, so the terribly frustrating reality of life is that we have no control and the future is and will always be for us a worry of a mystery.
Unless…unless you are with Christ. The writer of Ephesians believes strongly that the future is no longer a mystery, for it has been revealed. He wants to show us our future and so like the ghost of a Dickens’ Christmas classic, he grabs us by the hand and pulls us into the future, stopping at our graves and greeting us with those inspiring words, “You were dead….” And then he reads our obituary–it’s not very flattering. Listen: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air …the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses…by nature children of wrath….”
Well, thank you, Paul. Nice of you to say. You have us sounding completely irredeemable, much like an obituary that ran in a Los Angeles newspaper. “Dolores,” it said, “had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. Her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing. There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family she spent a lifetime tearing apart.”
Whoever wrote that obituary for Dolores must have consulted Paul – no highlights, just low lights – no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Paul, however, leaves us little time to question or cry; with the obituary read, he pulls away from the grave news and towards the great news: For those who have no redeeming qualities, God has “raised us up, and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. So that in the ages to come, he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”.
You see, the wonder of this text is that Paul has allowed us to penetrate the future. Not the future that tells us whether we’ll have enough to retire, but, rather, a far more encompassing future. Paul sees that God “has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
To our broken, damaged, ever-failing selves, we have one certain gift: the gift of God’s grace! This grace of our Lord Jesus Christ gathers up our sins, our failures, our pains, our brokenness, our pasts, our presents, and our great illusions of future foresight into the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is huge – so huge that many cannot seem to fathom its size and scope. That amazing work of Christ, about which Paul wrote in one continuous Greek sentence in the opening section of Chapter 1 of Ephesians, meets us in all our human brokenness and all our false hopes, and raises us up.
Instead they shrink it and trim it, preaching and proclaiming that God isn’t gathering up “all things,” just “some” things. You know, the more righteous of this world! The more pure of this world! The things that look right and behave correctly and have some redeeming qualities about them.
Some of you, like me, will have grown up on the Star Trek films. Do you remember the one about the Genesis device? Genesis was a torpedo which, although it destroyed, was built to make a new creation. Launched into a moon, Genesis would explode with terrifying power, wiping out everything that was there. But this was only the beginning, as Genesis would simultaneously take up all the molecules and atoms from the destruction and reassemble them into pre-programmed new life forms. The Genesis wave would sweep over the moon, and a wall of fire would eat up everything, only to be followed by a wave of renewal as grass, lakes, mountains and flowers emerged.
This seems to be what Paul means by the work of grace: when grace explodes in our hearts, it changes something that has been sinful into something sacred. But it doesn’t just wipe away the rubbish of past life, it also begins a transformation into actions of live, joy, peace, kindness, mercy, “the good works which God prepared in advance for us to do”, as Paul puts it in verse 10.
Now, let me offer a thought about what this all means about what the future holds. I don’t think that Paul wants to offer us a complete blueprint for the future; he certainly doesn’t duck the challenges of living as a Christian in the world. I could preach another sermon on this passage, as many would do, about the fact that our struggle with sin is not yet finished. Grace means a new tendency, a new direction in life, but it does not mean perfection. We continue to struggle with sin, we continue to receive forgiveness. But that’s for another sermon.
No, what Paul is inviting us to know, above everything else, in his story of amazing grace, is that, whatever the future holds, we are Christ’s and Christ is ours. We belong to him, for ever. I have to confess that, the older I get, the less interested I am in speculating about what heaven is like. When I was selected for ordination, we all had to lead a discussion group, and one of our number was asked to lead a discussion on the subject, “Will my cat be in heaven?” It’s an interesting speculation, and it is one with some pastoral significance, because some people love their pets like children. But it is ultimately something of a mystery, that annoying, uncomfortable word, that reminds us that we cannot know everything. Even Paul elsewhere tries to explain to bereaved Christians what happens to those Christians who have died before the Lord returns. But, in the face of such mystery, Paul and the Christian faith has really just one thing to say to it all, and that is that we belong to Jesus Christ, we are incorporated into his life, and that the resurrection life he has been given by his Father is a life we already know, and is a life we will know eternally. This is known as the doctrine of assurance. Whatever the future brings, we are held by Christ and in Christ. Trust him, have faith in him, and all will be well.
There are, sadly, many Christians who are anxious about the future. Frightened Christians are dangerous Christians because, without assurance, we seek faith in other solutions: wealth, power, demagogic political leaders. We sing that song In Christ alone my hope is found, don’t we? It’s a song about where our allegiance truly lies. Who do you trust in? None of those false gods perhaps, but in your own ability to control and shape your future. The philosopher Voltaire in Candide, concludes with such advice: il faut cultiver notre jardin. We must cultivate our garden, retreat into a simple life, look after our own. It’s as false a god as wealth, power and Donald Trump’s dangerous rhetoric.
Instead, to know Christ, to know his grace and to trust in him for our future is truly liberating. Set free from anxiety about the future, set free from the false gods and our desire to control, instead we can do what we have been made for: “We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” The true gift of grace is the freedom from anxiety to be the people we have been made to be: people made to bring God’s life, love, justice and mercy to others.