Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 3:3-14

            John 6:48-58

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today I want to look at just a few verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, verses which the Lectionary gives us to read and consider alongside the other passages we have already had read to us today. The letters you find at the end of the New Testament were written to encourage or cajole the earliest Christian communities which were springing up around the Roman Empire in the decades following the resurrection of Christ. They were written at a time when Christians were in a tiny minority, in a multicultural Empire in which Christians were often treated with disdain, disapproval or even open persecution. And I think that today they can speak to us with a new urgency and power, for as Christians living in Europe we also increasingly aware of being a minority in a culture which seems increasingly indifferent or even hostile. Like those first Christians we too are now in a minority. Perhaps, therefore, we can begin to learn from those letters which speak of the pressures and problems which come from being part of a minority faith.

For St Paul, his minority faith sometimes landed him in prison. Indeed wrote the letter to the Ephesians from prison: in this letter Paul calls himself ‘the prisoner of Jesus Christ’[1]; he says he is ‘a prisoner because I serve the Lord’[2]; and that he calls himself an ambassador of the Gospel, ‘even though now I am in prison’[3] . Yet even although he is imprisoned for his faith, the letter Paul writes from prison is surprisingly positive.

The theme of the letter is that in Jesus Christ, all things are gathered together. We live a broken world, says Paul. People are not united in love with one another, but easily become enemies. Even nature itself seems to be governed by struggle, species against species, the survival of the fittest. It is as if division is built into the very fabric of the universe. But Paul argues that God is changing all this. For God has a plan:

‘to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head’[4].

Through Christ, God is reconciling the irreconcilable. God makes sinners his special people. God is bringing Gentiles was well as Jews into his Church. In fact, all kinds of people- men and women, slaves and free- are now all part of God’s Church, which Paul calls ‘the body of Christ’, with each of them taking their part and contributing to the life of the Church. We are all unique, but in the Church we are united in Jesus Christ, just as one day the whole of creation will be united in Jesus Christ. These are the great themes of this letter, written from a prison cell by someone who might not seem to have much to be joyful or hopeful for.

We heard just a short passage from Ephesians today, but they are words worth pondering, for they are words of advice on how to live as Christians. Paul’s first piece of advice is:

‘be careful how you live’.

That is good advice to a small minority community. Minorities are always treated with suspicion. Because they are seen to be different from the majority, the majority watches them carefully.

I think it must be hard today to be a Muslim in this country. Because as a few Muslims have violent tendencies, the entire Muslim community tends to get tarred with the same brush. And the same is true of active Christians. The wickedness of some Christians tars the rest of us. For example: over the centuries, Christians did great things to look after children in need, children whom no-one else was interested in. But more recently reports of children being abused when they were supposed to be cared for by the Church have led many people to believe that religion has done nothing but harm to children. This is by no means, but for the enemies of Christ it is very convenient myth to spread.

Thus Paul’s advice: ‘be careful how you live’. Be careful how you live, because if you fall into disrepute, you might take the rest of the Church with you. And he also puts it more positively: ‘Make good use of every opportunity you have’. In other words, don’t just avoid mistakes, but do good things and be seen to be doing good for the sake of the Gospel. As Jesus said taught his followers,

‘your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven’[5].

And the opposite is also true. Where Christians spread only darkness, people see that as well, and they condemn the Gospel because of it.

Paul adds another thought, which helps us to see how we can live to Christian standards:

‘Don’t live like ignorant people, but like wise people’.

Paul is claiming here that wisdom is to be found, not where the world might find it, but in God. Paul, of course, knew the story of King Solomon, of how Solomon prayed for wisdom, above all, and how that was granted by God. But many people today simply do not understand what we mean when we say that God is the source of all wisdom. Our contemporaries have been fed the line that anything to with God is about irrational dogma, superstition, obfuscation. It is easy to convince people of that, because there is in much religion irrational dogma, superstition, and obfuscation. They may be seeking wisdom, but they look everywhere except towards God in their search for wisdom.

Paul can call upon Christians to live like wise people because he knows that people who live close to God are, in fact, close to the source of all wisdom. It is not the Christians who are irrational, but the rest of the world. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote that in many ways the Gospel he preached was apparently a foolish message. For he was going around the Roman Empire telling people that the death on a Roman gallows of an obscure Jewish teacher was the most important event in human history. Jews found that message offensive, and Gentiles found it ridiculous. But for Paul, it made sense in a way which defied logic. Paul said of the Christian message that it

‘is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’[6].

And so Paul can claim in the letter to the Ephesians that the wisdom by which Christians live is wiser than that the wisdom of the world around us. For the wisdom by which we live is God’s wisdom, which is a wisdom which is not (yet!) understood by those around us. Paul makes a comparison here between how Christians are meant to live, and how their contemporaries often lived. He writes:

‘Don’t be fools, then, but try to find out what the Lord wants you to do. Do not get drunk with wine, which will only ruin you; instead, be filled with the Spirit’.

I suppose many of us think that if we know anything about the ancient Romans, they enjoyed a good orgy! And here is Paul warning against such things. Is he just being a killjoy? Well, I enjoy a drink sometimes, and I’m sure many of you do as well. But we are all aware of the negative effects of overdoing it. And I continue to be puzzled about what has happened in our country over the last couple of decades, during which our politicians, who are, I am sure, mostly men and women who would like to be thought as rational people, introduced policies which, we were told, would make us ‘civilized’ drinkers. But these policies have had the effect of turning the streets of even small towns into no-go areas for many people in weekend nights, putting enormous pressure on accident and emergency departments, and causing unheard-of increases in alcohol-related crime and disease. Where, I ask myself, is the wisdom in all that? This is not just bad policy- it is also the symptom of a spiritual crisis.

For many people the world seems to be so bad that they prefer oblivion to anything else. But Paul is saying the Christians: avoid oblivion, avoid getting your mind so muddled with drink (or whatever). Instead, let God’s Spirit be at work in your mind. Try to hear what it is God is saying to you. Like Solomon, we are to try to share in God’s wisdom.

Paul might not have approved of Roman orgies (or, indeed, much of what happens in Inverness on a typical Saturday night). But he belonged to the Christian Church, and at the heart of the activities of the Christian Church is a gathering of people who come together to enjoy each other’s company and to eat and drink together. In the Gospels we constantly hear of Jesus being someone’s guest, staying at their houses and enjoying their food and drink. And then when he shared the Passover meal for the last time with his disciples, he gave it an entirely new meaning. Ever since, Christians have met together praise God for his goodness, to share the stories of Jesus, and to bring to God their deepest concerns in prayer. And often at the heart of that is the sharing of bread and wine, a way of remembering Jesus, whom Paul calls, ‘the wisdom of God’.

We’ll do that next Sunday, when we celebrate Holy Communion at the Old High Church. Communion is a different sort of feast from a Roman orgy or a night out on the tiles. For when we come close to Christ, as we do in Communion, we are do so not to befuddle our minds, as people do who abuse alcohol. Instead, it is as if, even when we don’t entirely understand it, we come close to God, the source of all true wisdom. When Jesus spoke of being the bread of life, people did not understand him- they grumbled, were scornful, they argued with him. For he did not fit into their way of thinking. They were prepared, at times, to say that he did say things which were full of wisdom. But they could not understand what he meant when he said, ‘I am the bread of life. You must eat my flesh and blood and truly have life within you. I offer you spiritual food and drink, which will bring you eternal life’. And, yes, these are hard things to understand. And if you have no interest in eternal life, if you would rather befuddle your mind instead of seeking divine wisdom, then you will never understand.

But when we Christians worship together, and perhaps especially when they share Communion together, something happens which seems to go beyond mere rationality. We are aware of being drawn together as a people. We are aware of coming closer to God. We are aware that we are getting in touch with a wisdom which is not of this world, but which is a wisdom better than the wisdom of this world.

Paul reckoned that those earliest Christians were living through ‘evil days’- who can blame him for saying so, when he was sitting in prison? So he recommends that Christians should be careful of how they are seen to be living, lest they gave their enemies ammunition to attack Christianity with. And we should make the most of whatever opportunities we have to make a positive impression for Christianity. We should try to be wise, and not ignorant. And in order to be wise, we need to try to walk closely with the source of wisdom. That means worshipping together with our fellow Christians, writes Paul:

‘sing hymns and psalms to the Lord with praise in your hearts. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father’[7].

That is what we do when we gather to share in worship, especially when we share bread and wine at the Lord’s supper.

When we worship together, we are drawn together and drawn to God through Jesus Christ. He was crushed by the Roman Empire, yet lives. He taught that we should love our neighbour, and his teaching has survived when the teaching of most the Roman philosophers has been forgotten. We remember that he was born in a stable in the reign of the Emperor Augustus- when Roman power was at its height- but we struggle to remember very much about the Emperor Augustus. And that he was crucified at the time when Pontius Pilate was Procurator of Judea is the only reason the name of Pontius Pilate has come down to us through history.

Paul’s message was that true wisdom was to be found in that man who had been crucified by Pilate. It was a message which troubled the Romans, and so sometimes it led to trouble- even prison- for these earliest Christians. For it upset Roman logic- how could a man put to death on a cross be the Saviour of the universe?

But the cross of Christ is wisdom which confounds the world’s wisdom, appealing not just to our minds but to our hearts. For we live in broken world. Too often our personal relations with one another break down. Even the relations between nations break down, threatening the peace. And above all we have broken the link to the Creator God who made us and loves us. Paul says that God in his wisdom plan for repairing our broken universe, and that Jesus Christ is at the heart of that plan. And so Paul could write from his prison cell: ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, always give thanks for everything to God the Father’.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] Ephesians 3.1

[2] Ephesians 4.1

[3] Ephesians 6.20

[4] Ephesians 1.10

[5] Matthew 5.16

[6] 1 Corinthians 1.24-25

[7] Ephesians 5.19