Well, I have to admit that it’s funny standing up here this morning for my first Sunday morning sermon since August! Obviously, you’ll now be used to the high production qualities that we enjoyed in the Alpha series that you’ll be expecting the same thing. Well, I’m delighted to say that I too will be jetting off to far flung places in the world to bring you our sermons – I checked with Graham and he said there was enough space in the budget, so I thought Hawaii would be a good place to start!
Actually, we’re going to go to Ephesus, as this is the location of our series this term. Until Easter we are going to explore St Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in and around Ephesus.
Ephesus was an ancient Greek city on the Mediterranean coast in modern day Turkey with a long history. By the time of Paul’s letter, was a major city of the Roman empire – it was the capital of the province of Asia, important commercially and administratively. If you were to visit now, you’d see some spectacular ruins, including a theatre with a seating capacity of 24,00 – bigger than the O2 arena in London.
Additionally, the city of Ephesus was known as a center of pagan worship as the Temple of the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman goddess Diana), considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was located just outside of the city limits. As such, people from across the region traveled to Ephesus to visit the Temple and an industry of blacksmiths served them by creating trinkets and statues of the goddess. Additionally, Ephesus was home to a large community of Jews who had a synagogue in the city.
St Paul visited Ephesus briefly once during what was known as his 2nd missionary journey, and then returned, spending at least 2 years there, establishing a church community and made one final visit to the city after travelling to Macedonia and Greece. You can read about this in Acts 18-20, where Luke records the more headline-grabbing stuff, such as the riots Paul got himself mixed up in. He definitely experience hostility from some of the people who lived there, so it’s possible that Paul spent time in prison here.
So, Paul was writing to a community he knew well, perhaps better than many other churches he wrote to, but some have noted that it seems quite an impersonal letter, so it’s likely that it was a circular letter meant for the church in Ephesus as well as a number of congregations in the surrounding area.
We think the letter was written between ad 60-62, while Paul was in prison in Rome, along with Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Given his circumstances, given that he was unceetrain of his furture, that he would never know freedom, you’d expect the letters to be dark and depressing even, and yet, in Ephesians, we hace some of the most extraordinary words ecer written. American Baptist theologian, W. O. Carver described the Book of Ephesians as “the greatest piece of writing in all history” and English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it “the divinest composition of man”.
As Tom Wright comments,
[Paul’s] own personal circumstances make these especially poignant, and give us a portrait of a man facing huge difficulties and hardships and coming through with his faith and hope unscathed. But what he has to say to young churches … is even more impressive. Already, within 30 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul has worked out a wonderful, many-colored picture of what Jesus achieved, of God’s worldwide plan, and how it all works out in the lives of ordinary people.”
So, with that in mind, let’s dive into the text and find out what God has to say to us this morning through Ephesians 1:1-14.
N – could you come up and read to us, please?
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To God’s holy people in Allesley Park and Whoberley, the faithful in Christ Jesus:
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s imagine this letter has been written for us to hear today. Let’s delve into its riches. Let’s hear ourselves being addressed as God’s holy people – God’s saints – those who have been faithful – or, at least, those who have sought to stay faithful even when it’s hard. God sees and knows just how hard we find it, and he honours the fact we stay the course.
May you know that God’s grace and peace is available to you – given as a gift from God who knows you, made you and sent his son Jesus to die for you.
After this greeting, St Paul begins his letter with the most extraordinary burst of praise.
Before I begin it’s worth saying that this is such a deep passage that I will only be able to scratch the surface. When looking at sermons on Ephesians online, there were some that covered this passage in 3 weeks, each sermon 40 minutes long. Don’t worry, I won’t do that to you!
If you want a one-line summary of this week’s talk, it’s simply this – Reasons to worship. As we are about to discover, there are many reasons for us to worship and praise God, no matter our circumstances.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Firstly, we are reminded of whom we worship. We have a God who is personal and close to us. As Tom Wright comments, “He is the true God, who … is the father of the Lord Jesus, the king, the Messiah. He is not the same as the gods and goddesses of the pagan world. He isn’t just a divine force, a vague influence or energy loosely known as ‘the sacred’. He is the God who made the world, and who has now made himself known in and through Jesus.”
So, we worship God, because of who he is. He is the creator, sustainer and Saviour. That alone should give us cause to praise.
Then, we praise him for what he has done for us …
[He] has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Well, we might object – how can Paul possibly say that when he is holed up in prison? How can you say you’ve been blessed when you’ve been imprisoned? How can you say I’ve been blessed in every possible way when I’m experiencing this sickness, this grief, this hardship? Blessed? You must be kidding!
Hang on, Paul says, let me count the ways God has blessed us through Jesus. …
Firstly, he has chosen us …
4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he[b] predestined us for adoption to sonship[c] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
Thanks to Jesus, we have been adopted in God’s family. Even before we were born, before the earth was formed and made, he chose us to be in relationship with him. We have become his heirs. Heirs to the promise of eternal life with God in heaven, but also heirs to the promise of knowing God’s presence with us each and every day. Immanuel – God is with us – all the time – he will never leave or forsake us. God is for us. Our Father who loves us.
Secondly, God has made us “holy and blameless”. Our sins have been wiped away. We are redeemed, forgiven and set free. No matter how far we have strayed, how long it’s been since we spent time in God’s presence, he seeks us, he longs to restore us to full relationship with him – all thanks to the love and forgiveness that’s been poured out to us in Jesus. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins (v.7).
All of this is thanks to the grace of God that’s been poured over us. It’s not anything to do with our worthiness or otherwise. God loves us, because he loves us, because he loves us. As I’ve quoted many times before, there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less. It’s God’s free gift to us. It was free, but very costly. It cost Jesus his life, freely given for us.
Thirdly, we’ve been chosen for a purpose
11 In him we were also chosen,[e] having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
Just think … our lives, that may seem insignificant and frustrating, have been imbued with a great significance. We can live for the praise of his glory – just by our quiet day-to-day faithfulness.
I’m reminded of the well-known story of the starfish. An old man was walking on a beach strewn with starfish washed up by a storm. A little boy was picking up the stranded starfish one by one and tossing them back into the sea. The old man smiled indulgently and said, “You’re wasting your time, child. There are so many doomed starfish on this beach. You can’t save them all. What difference will it make to save a few of them?” The little boy looked at the starfish in his hand, and as he sent it sailing toward the water, he replied, “It will make a difference to that one.”
We may not feel we can make a huge difference in the world, but I can guarantee there are people for whom you can make the world of difference.
And, in case we feel daunted by this expectation that we will live to the praise of God’s glory, he hasn’t left us alone.
13 When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
God has given us the incredible gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell within us, to help us become all that God is calling us to do and be.
Why should we worship – there are a litany of reasons. God has done so much for us – to briefly recap, he has chosen us, made us his children, forgiven and saved us, and given us the gift of his Spirit – his presence living and dwelling within us. God has done it all – for us – all in and through Jesus.
Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t God good?!
May our lives be lives of worship today and every day, for whatever we’re facing, nothing can change what God has done.
Before I close, I want to play a clip from Gavin Calver, the director of the Evangelical Alliance, who tells a story of how he had to choose praise even when facing an extraordinarily difficult time in his life.
Clip – 4 minutes
Finally, let’s hear from Tom Wright once more,
“As we read Ephesians today, to be strengthened and encouraged as Christians for the new tasks that lie ahead, we should remember that all genuine Christian life
and action flows out of worship. True worship of the true God cannot help telling and retelling, with joy and amazement, the story of what this God has done in Jesus the Messiah. Enjoy the view. You won’t get a better one.”