15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph. 1: 15-23)
In one of the reviews of a worship service that Worship Commission and Jana and I got this year, the reviewer included a few questions for future sermons to address, like this one: “What am I here for?” I take that to mean not, “What am I doing in this church?” but, “What is the purpose, or meaning, of my existence?” Now I don’t know who the respondents are, which hopefully makes it easier to fill those out. And thank you, by the way, to everyone who has ever filled one out. And thank you, also, whoever you are for that particular question. Now that you have asked: “Why am I here?” let’s get to it. The Bible passage we just heard answers that question, plus another, related one that naturally follows, and which I hope to address: “Why are we here?” By “we” I mean the church. What’s the church for?
That question, “Why am I here?” may just be the most important question in our lives, because if we don’t have a solid answer of our own, someone else will try to give us one. A bad one, an answer that serves them better than it serves us. Eighty years ago, Hitler and the Nazis told millions of German men that the purpose of their existence was to kill and even to die for folk, Fatherland and Fuhrer. And millions of them ate it up. Today, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are saying something similar, and are still finding people to swallow it, hook, line and sinker. So we’d better have an answer to that question, Why am I here? before the wrong people convince us of a reason that does us more harm than good.
And it had better be a reason that stands the tests of time and the struggles and setbacks of life. Like those which some very good people endured, whom I got to know when I played in the second fiddle section of a suburban Community Orchestra in the Detroit Metro area, back in 1991. There are a lot of nice folks and talented musicians in such small community orchestras. But don’t give up your day job if you join. You only get paid enough to buy the gas that gets you to and from rehearsals and performances. Mostly it’s your friends and family members who show up for concerts and tell you how great you were. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a major record label recording contract, either. Such an orchestra is best enjoyed as a hobby. You do it for love of music and of friends.
But for some of the musicians, and for the conductor of that orchestra, I came to understand that they saw the community orchestra as only a place holder, or a stepping stone on the way to a major, world class, professional Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which our amateur Community Orchestra most definitely was not. Now, trying to work your way up to the DSO is a good professional goal. But for some people, it was more than a goal. It was their god. A god who demanded everything by way of sacrifice, and almost always gave nothing in return. So in place of appreciation for what wonderful things we already had, there was so much anxiety and perfectionism before our concerts, and so much disappointment and negativity afterwards, even about their own playing, when I thought they did great.
I can sympathize. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, talent or skill that many of those fellow musicians never made it to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. There were only so many spots open for audition each year, and the competition for each one is tooth and claw. For no fault of their own, they could never afford a $50,000 instrument. Or when they were young, their parents couldn’t afford to send them to the right summer high school music camp to meet the right university talent scouts and audition for the right conservatory. Or they had a head cold when they did get to audition, and they flubbed it. Similar setbacks happen, unfairly, undeservedly, to even the best athletes, scholars, business entrepreneurs, farmers, and others, for reasons beyond our control, like physical or mental illness, the economy, accidents, injustice, family emergencies, and more. Everyone we meet is the survivor of some setback or frustration, including ourselves. We need then an answer to that question, What am I here for? that stands the tests of time and which survives the trials, struggles, sufferings and setbacks of life, and the deaths of our dreams, a meaning and reason for life which doesn’t depend on what we or the world call “success.”
Here’s the answer that today’s Bible text gives to that question, “What am I here for?” It’s slightly different from the ones we Christians usually give. Usually we offer an answer like the Great Commandment, which Jesus made out of two Old Testament commandments as an answer: I am here, “To love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself.” Based on that is a similar answer from the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Churches. It says, that our “chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.” I like those answers. Not only are those answers biblical and Christ-like, they can immunize us against all the other false and destructive messages always coming our way.
But today’s passage takes us one step before and behind the usual answers to the question, “What am I here for?” It tell us why one should love God and neighbor, even, what God wants for us before it tells us what God wants from us. It tells us not what we must do for God, but what God wants to do for us. And it assures us that, whatever happens to the dreams we may have for this life, God has an eternal dream or desire for each of us that nothing can hinder nor destroy, that we can only either accept or reject. Simply put, each one of us exists simply so that God can bestow his love on us, perfectly, infinitely and eternally. Each of us exists, by the overflowing love of God, just to be the object and the recipient of God’s love. That’s it. Get that down, and everything else falls in place.
But a word of warning is in order. We mortals typically have ideas about how God should love us that are different from how God loves us. Have you ever prayed for God to make you win the lottery? Or to make you the most popular kid in school? Or to make the person you were attracted to attracted to you? Or to give you an easy, prosperous life, in which all your wishes come true? With no health problems, perfect skin and perfect teeth? If that worked and you got every material and social blessing that you ever dreamed of and prayed for, then billions of people around the world would like to know your secret. Most of the time, however, we live most of our lives in our own personal Plan B, C or D, like my comrades who may never have made it out of that suburban community orchestra into the DSO. I hope they still found great joy making music even while they were doing their day jobs and loving their families and friends.
So how does God love us? Basically, by giving us not stuff, but by giving us himself. God giving us God, that’s what these blessings for which Paul prayed amount to: 1) God shares himself with us through his Holy Spirit. Paul prays that “God may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” That’s God’s own Spirit, the Holy Spirit. This is so that, 2) in verse 17, “you may know God better,” and so have “A relationship of familiarity and spiritual intimacy with God.” So not only does our Creator God want us to know why He put us here, not only does God want us to know truth about himself, not only does God wants us to know what to do for him, God wants us to know himself; 3) God also wants us, in verse 18, to “know the hope to which he has called you.” So whatever the setback we are enduring and undergoing, God wants to give us hope in it and through it. 4) In effect, God wants to love us in all the ways he loves Jesus, the Son, and so make us joint-heirs of “the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.” This is not just a future thing. 5) Working already on our behalf, to give us hope, is “his incomparably great power for us who believe,” It is the same power which “God exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” In other words, God wants to love us by giving us here and now a true and invincible hope and resurrection foretastes of all the good and better things to come, when God accomplishes his Plan A for us. All these gifts from God amount to having a relationship with God, to knowing God, personally, rather than just knowing about God, or just knowing about God’s will.
Our own denomination’s Confession of Faith In A Mennonite Perspective takes this same tack when it says, in Article 6: “Human beings have been made for relationship with God, to live in peace with each other, and to take care of the rest of creation.” And so our Confession follows Paul’s lead in Ephesians 1; it tells us what God wants for us—a loving relationship with God– before it gets around to saying what God wants from us: peace with each other, and to take care of Creation. Because we can’t do the second, making peace with others and creation, without the first: a relationship with God.
That answer to the question, Why am I here?– for God to bestow his love upon me in all these ways– can also better stand the tests and troubles, setbacks and struggles of this life. Because it’s not about what we do, achieve, accomplish, accumulate or experience; it’s about who we are—God’s beloved—and whose we are: God’s beloved. That’s why Jesus commands us to love our enemies, and anyone else we might find hard to love. Not because it’s a fool-proof automatic shortcut to making the world better and bringing about progress, although anything has to work better than war, weapons, conquest and killing. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for them because what is true for us is just as true for them: they also live, they also are here, nor to be targets for our fear, our hate, our drones and bombs, but for God to love them. And it may well be that God wants to make known his love for them through us.
That answer to why we are here also says much about others whom the world discounts and despises. There are illegal actions, but there are no illegal persons. There are illegitimate behaviors, but no illegitimate children. That phrase cannot disappear too soon from our language.
It also says much about those whom the world is edging ever closer to treating as burdensome, dispensable and expendable, especially people at both ends of the life span, the unborn, and the terminally ill, and most frail and elderly, who may require constant care 24/7. When they remember how active, productive, helpful they once were to family, church and community, they may wonder why God has not brought them home yet. Or those with chronic conditions, or with major disabilities in body or mind, which, at some point, is pretty much everybody. But there’s a reason we are called “human beings,” and not “human doings.” So whenever anyone asks, “What’s the good of my existence anymore?” or “What’s the good of their existence anymore?” let’s dare to say that just being here just to be loved, by God and by us, is a supremely good reason. In fact, it’s God’s reason.
Answer that question first—What does God want for me?—and the next thing will come more readily and easily—What does God want from me? What am I supposed to do with my life?” Open our hearts to accept and receive God’s love, and it will want to flow through us to others. Anything we might do for God will then be a result of God’s love for us, and not a frenzied, anxious effort to earn God’s love.
Such a reason and meaning for living will also stand the tests and trials of life, even the deaths of our dreams… even the deaths of our bodies. That’s the testimony of this anonymous poem that was first published in a newspaper during our country’s Civil War:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.
The very things that made the unknown author of this testimony feel blessed and beloved in spite of his or her sufferings and setbacks are the very things for which Paul prays in today’s passage, the very riches which God wants for us: a growing, deepening relationship with God which gives us dignity and hope, come what may, and which makes us joint heirs with Jesus of all that his Heavenly Father bestowed on him in love. So again, to answer that first question, Why am I here? Why are you here? Just to be loved by God, in the relational, eternal and unconditional ways God wants to love us, as much and as though we were Jesus, the Beloved Son.
Because that’s how God sees us and loves us: as Jesus, and through the eyes of Jesus. Which brings me to the second question that this passage answers, and that many people ask, especially the young: Why Church? What’s the church for? Why should I care about church, let alone attend or join one? People often tell me, “Jesus is cool. I believe in him, or at least, I believe in what he taught. But why have anything to do with the conflicted, confused, crazy, imperfect people who claim his name and make up every church? The answer to that question is in verse 22. The J.B. Phillips translation makes it most clear: “for the Church is Christ’s body, and in that body lives fully the one who fills the whole wide universe.”
So, why church? Because the infinite and eternal God who became flesh and dwelt among us bodily, as Jesus, still wants and seeks to live and love and work through human bodies here and now. Yes, even in the bodies of us conflicted, confused, crazy, struggling and sinful people, including yours truly, who make up our differing and divided churches, none of which have it all down right. A saint from the 16th Century, Teresa of Avila, put it this way: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.”
But being Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and body of love to others is not a do-it-yourself project. Nor, finally, is accepting and receiving God’s love a do-it-yourself project. Accepting and receiving the love for which God made us is a personal decision, but it can never remain private. That’s why we need each other in order to be the body of Christ. And that’s why we need each other in order to live out the reason for why we are here: simply so that God can love us.