Like An Ocean

Read Ephesians 3:14-19

When I was a young boy growing up in the church, there was a song which we often sang during Sunday School opening gatherings, “Peace Like a River.” One of the verses in the song says, “I’ve got love like an ocean.” I would sometimes ponder what that amount of love might be like. I always came to the conclusion that it was love which was boundless. Even though at that age I had never actually been to an ocean, I had seen images on television so the idea that you could not see the other side of the ocean from the beach upon which you stood gave me the boundless image. The image of wave after wave hitting the beach and rocks also created for me the endless waves of love coming upon me.

At the conclusion of the part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians which we read from today, Paul speaks about praying for them. In his prayer, Paul says that since the people are rooted and established in love, he asks that they be able to understand how wide, long, and deep Jesus’s love is for them. This love goes beyond their knowledge. He also indicates that this love is the full essence of God.

Reading what Paul tells the Ephesians brings to mind the images from my childhood Sunday School song. Taking hold of such a boundless love seems impossible. Realizing the vastness of this love brings an overwhelming sense of acceptance, security and great joy. Imaging Christ’s love lapping over one’s self over and over provides comfort and warmth.  May you come to the understanding of Christ’s love for you being like an ocean!

Lord’s Prayer – Part 8

Read Matthew 6:9b-13

Today’s phrase from the Lord’s Prayer which we will look at is a continuation of the petition from yesterday. In this petition, the Lord is seeking from God forgiveness for sin. We know that Jesus is not in need of forgiveness but is providing a model prayer for his disciples who do need forgiveness.

The phrase for today places a caveat on the request for forgiveness. This caveat is “as we forgive our debtors.”

Most often this is interpreted to mean that God should forgive our sin in the same manner which we forgive others. This interpretation creates a problem. The problem is that this would place God in a situation dependent upon our actions and behaviors. God is not dependent upon humans in any way and does not respond as humans respond. Evidence of this is found in places throughout Scripture. In the story of Jonah God is prepared to forgive Nineveh which angers Jonah because he wants Nineveh punished. God shows Jonah that God’s choice to forgive or not to forgive is not linked to Jonah’s choices. (Jonah 3:10-4:11) God also declares, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”(Isaiah 55:8) Stephen reminds us of God’s independence from human actions when he says, “However, the Most High does not live in houser made by human hands.”(Acts 7:48)

If we do not interpret this phrase to be a link between our actions and God’s actions, we must look at it differently. Jesus appears to be expressing the importance of our forgiveness of others. One possible translation of the Greek word translated here “as” is “because.” The sense maybe that Jesus is telling us our reason for forgiving others is that we have been forgiven by God. This interpretation is supported by other Scripture. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32) “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone, forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13) Luke’s version of this prayer also lends support. “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:4).

In including this phrase in the prayer, Jesus calls upon us to remember that by requesting and accepting God’s forgiveness, we are to extend forgiveness to others in gratitude.

New Life

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:1-10 (NIV)

Spring is a wonderful time of year because of all the new life which surrounds us. During winter the fields lay fallow, trees are barren of leaves, and grass, along with other plants, become brown. It is easy to perceive everything as being dead. With the arrival of spring flowering plants shoot out of the ground, buds which will burst out as leaves on the trees, and the green color returning to the grass and plants signal that life now exists where death seemed to reign.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus with words about death and life. In our sins and transgressions we were dead. We followed the ways of the world and the spirit of disobedience. But God made us alive in Christ because God loves us. God has raised us to the heavenly realms where we sit with Christ. This is grace which has saved us. We have been created and prepared by God to do good works in Christ. In Christ, what was perceived as dead is truly alive.

Like creation gets a new life in the spring, we are given new life. We can put behind us those behaviors of our past which were killing our spirits. Because of God’s love for each one of us, we were not left in death but instead we have been resurrected into a new life. With new life, new opportunities exist. There are opportunities to serve others, establish mutually nourishing relationships, and discover the wonders of God’s love and grace. Embrace this new life given to you in Jesus Christ.

Behavior Guidelines

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NIV)

Human relationships can be challenging. Our behaviors toward one another are not always positive in nature. At times, our self-centeredness, greed, and anger can prompt us to act in ways which are harmful towards others. These behaviors create a negative environment for all people. Our society has developed rules and laws to manage the most destructive of these behaviors. Throughout civilizations and religions in all of recorded history, there have been acceptable and unacceptable ways to behave and interact with one another.

In the letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul writes about the behaviors which are acceptable and unacceptable among followers of Christ. He provides a list of unacceptable behaviors with contrast behaviors scattered within the list. Some of the unacceptable behaviors are found in the commandments which God gave the Israelites through Moses. Clearly there is instruction here in regard to building one another up and not tearing one another down. Attitudes are addressed here as well. Attitudes lead to actions.

As we consider how we interact with one another, Paul’s instructions are beneficial in guiding us. Lying to one another, being angry, slandering others, expressing rage are seen too often in our public discourse and among neighbors. These happen as well in communities of faith. Paul tells us that we are no longer to engage in these behaviors. We are not to cause grief for the Holy Spirit by behaving in these ways. Instead, we are to practice kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and building one another up.

Armor of God

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:10-17 (NIV)

Football players experience powerful hits to their bodies during a game. These hits come from other players, from their attempts to prevent opponents from advancing, and from hitting the ground in the course of play. Because of all of this hitting, protective gear has been developed to reduce injury to the player’s body. Advancements in the development of this gear have reduced injury and lasting damage but there still is a need for more improvements in this area. Helmets, shoulder pads, leg pads and specialized pads all play an important role in protecting the player.

Paul talks about the importance of protection in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He speaks to them about putting on the armor of God. Often when we hear about armor, we think in terms of battle and offensive attack. Paul is not intending an offensive here but rather a defensive stance. He describes God’s armor as the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes/sandals of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. It is important to note that all of these items find their origins with God. None of the armor pieces are forged by human effort but are gifts from God. They are designed to protect the wearer from a spiritual attack, not an attack by humans. The enemy is a spiritual force, humans are not the enemy.

Like a football player, we cannot expect to wage a battle without proper protection. The belt of truth holds us together. When truth surrounds us, we have stability. Christ has given to us the righteousness which we use as our breastplate. This righteousness protects our heart from being attacked. The footwear which provides a firm foundation for us is found in the good news of Scripture. Our faith in the Lord allows us to fend off the attacks aimed at us. The knowledge that we are saved from a sinful nature defends our minds and thoughts from becoming negative. Through the Spirit, we are able to slice through our bindings and the confusion of the world.

Every day put on the armor given to you by the God who loves you beyond comparison. When you do, your defense against all which is evil will be strengthened in ways only possible with our Lord.

Living the Calling

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
    he took many captives
    and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:1-16 (NIV)

At Christmas time, one of my favorite holiday classics is “It’s A Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart. The message of this movie is important for each of us to hear on a regular basis. Stewart’s character, George Bailey, learns that if he had not lived, the world would be in a much worse situation. His contributions to the world have made positive impacts on many lives within his community. George had a position to fill which benefited individuals, families, and the community as a whole. The additional message from the movie is that when a community joins together, amazing outcomes are possible.

Paul’s message in today’s passage is one which Clarence, the angel, demonstrated to George Bailey in the movie. Paul tells us to live a life which is worthy of our calling, our calling as children of the one God. We achieve this by striving for unity within the Spirit, requiring us to humble ourselves, be patient, and bear with each other. In addition to striving for unity, we are to mature in our faith. Jesus has given us apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to aid in our maturing. Third, Paul states that as members of the body of Christ, each of us are to do our part (like George Bailey) to grow and build up the community of faith.

During a time of difficulty and an uncertain future, George Bailey thought the world would be much better if he were no longer alive. There may be times when we have similar thoughts. George learned that these thoughts were wrong. He found that he had a calling in life into which he must live in a worthy way. No one else was given this unique calling. Each of us is the same. We each have a part for which we are chosen in the community. We must use our position to create unity. We must mature in our faith so that we understand our call and community better.

One Household

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2:11-22

One of the recurring themes of human history is division. Looking through the annals of history it is like watching the waves of the sea. One group of humans separate from another group for a number of reasons. There are times of deliberate breaking away, while at other times it is not by choice but out of necessity. These divisions can occur for philosophical or religious reasons. Practical reasons like a need for space or access to resources being depleted due to the group’s size may cause separation. Then we see groups reunite because the original impetus to divide is altered or no longer exists. The pattern continues indefinitely, apart then together then apart once again. Currently in our country there has been a growing division of our citizens. Calls to reunite are growing stronger. Only history will be able to determine which trend will prevail.

In the letter to the believers in Ephesus, we hear about the reuniting of two groups. A majority of the Ephesian believers were Gentiles, or non-Jewish. Paul writes to them declaring that in Jesus Christ the barriers between Jews and Gentiles are removed. While they had lived separately over thousands of years, Jesus has reunited them into one house. All are fully children of God’s covenant with the people. Every person has full access to the Father, Son and Spirit. The binding together of all people, accomplished by Christ, created one household.

Paul’s words make it sound so simple. Clearly God views us as one people. Yet we continue to see divisions of nationalities, races, philosophical ideals, faith and religious concepts, and political views. Is it possible to achieve a sustained sense of being one people? Yes, in some areas of our lives but not completely at this point. Is there notvalue in diversity? Absolutely! But like a jigsaw puzzle which has diverse pieces when connected together creates one picture, diverse people connected can create one people. God is our connection.  Jesus did not intend to make everyone the same. Jesus provided the avenue for us to understand that while we have differences, we are one people, one household, one redeemed collection of God’s covenant people.

What Must I Do

What must I do?

This question is often asked by someone who is trying to earn something or be allowed something. In the context of a classroom setting, the question is usually asked by a student when speaking with the teacher of a course in an attempt to determine how to achieve a certain grade. If the question is asked in a work setting, the employee may be wanting a pay raise or a promotion. When the question is raised in a faith setting, the one asking is usually seeking favor or a reward from a deity. An example of this is found in the Gospel of Mark.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17

This approach is based on the understanding that works earn favor with God and thus rewards. Humans have come to believe that rewards and punishments meted out by a deity or deities is the way to understand how life is experienced. If you have done something pleasing for (fill in here the name of a god or gods of your choice) then you will be rewarded in such ways as a bountiful crop, wealth, fame, good health, a supportive spouse, a wonderful house, and the list can go on based on desires. Naturally, the opposite is true. If you cause displeasure then you will be punished with natural disasters, poverty, hunger, illness, hatred, abandonment, and again the list can grow. This provides answers to two questions, “How did that person acquire that?” and “Why did this happen to me?” The viewpoint is reinforced by our encounters with other humans and their responses to us.

In theology this viewpoint is often summarized in the phrase, works-based faith. Throughout the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures this was the guiding force which led to rules being implemented to aid individuals in navigating away from displeasing the gods and toward bringing pleasure to the gods.

Faith alone

Jesus in his teachings gave us a new understanding which the Apostle Paul would spend most of his life trying to help people understand. This new understanding is that finding favor with God has NOTHING to do with our works but instead with our belief in the relationship we have with God.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Mark 10:27

Jesus was responding to the question quoted above. After Jesus gave the man a task which he was unwilling to complete, the man went away feeling defeated and unable to gain the reward which he sought. Seeing and hearing the interaction between the man and Jesus, the disciples also felt it would be impossible for them to receive salvation. Jesus’ response basically says that they are correct in their observation yet adds the “but” which changes the perspective and upends a whole way of thinking.

The first thing to note here is that the “doer” has changed here. Instead of the person doing what it takes to make something possible, God is the one who makes something possible. In this particular situation it is salvation. Now the focus is on God and not on the person.

The truth is that no one has to earn God’s favor. Every person already has God’s favor. Both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Testament of the New Covenant, the reader/hearer is told of the love which God has for each creature that God created. This love was present even before the person came into existence. Our works, positive or negative, cannot take this love, this favor away from us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Works are not the way we receive God’s love and favor because they have already been freely given to us. (This is the concept of grace which I will discuss in a future post.) We need to change the way in which we think. Instead of thinking about how I can achieve the reward of God, I need to realize that I already have it because God has already given to it to me. I need to believe this is true. As Paul states the idea:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

A different way to live

Living by faith changes what we do and why we do it. We are no longer living a performance-based life. Our worth, our success, our purpose is not based on the work that we do. (Sorry to those with a true Puritan background.) Instead, all these items find their basis in the fact that we are favored, loved, by God. We live in a manner which shows we believe this fact.

Our belief in this fact leads us to respond, a response of gratitude. Living a life of gratitude obtained by our faith directs our actions. We care for the well-being of other individuals not because it will earn us anything from God but a way is available for us to express our gratitude to God. We give of our time, money, and skills not because it earns us anything but because the giving is an act of gratitude. We strive to follow Jesus’ teachings and to learn more about them as an expression of gratitude not to gain some reward.

The answer

I hope that by now you have gained understanding into the first question which started this post. The answer is NOTHING. There is nothing you must do. You already have the favor of God and all the rewards which God’s love provides. Anything which you do you are doing as a response to living in God’s favor.