Ephesians 1: 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.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 predestined us for adoption to sonship 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. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. 11 In him we were also chosen, 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. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. 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.
So, what do I say whenever people tell me, “Jesus is cool; I get him. But church? What’s that about?” They may identify with the Jesus who ran the money changers out of the temple. But now the church looks to them like an assembly of money changers. Or they may tell me that they answered an altar call and accepted Jesus into their hearts when they were young. And now that that particular rite of passage is over and done with, and their name is on heaven’s guest list, why bother with church, when one could be golfing, fishing, duck hunting or football every weekend, all weekend long? Either way, church seems, at best, an odd after-thought, a loose and unnecessary addition to Jesus.
Those are not the only reasons people might ask the question, “Why church?” And it’s not like there are no valid questions or critiques about the ways we organize and do things. There’s plenty to point out when it comes to injustices or inconsistencies or worse, like the selective ways we may engage in politics, when it’s obvious that the real issue is our privilege, power and prestige in society. With recent clergy sex abuse scandals, it’s no wonder that even Christians should wonder, Why church?
But I am neither discounting nor discouraged about the church of Jesus Christ, this morning. For one thing, we’ve been here before. The Christians who first heard these words from Ephesians 1 were also wondering, “Why church?” For one thing, they also had their faults and failures, and their internal problems and divisions: mainly, over how Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, citizens and subjects, rich and poor might get along together in this new community. They also faced external challenges: as their society woke up to their existence, the church was not winning any popularity contests, either. Not when they confessed Christ as Lord, not when Caesar was supposed to be Lord.
Then, as now, if we try to answer the question, “Why church?” by pointing out only what church does for us, here and now, in ways that the world can understand and approve, that’s a losing battle, a fool’s errand. Today’s passage does not even go there. Paul does not say, “Church attendance will help you live the life you’ve always wanted,” or “Church will help you be more prosperous and well-adjusted to life in today’s society.”
Paul addresses the question, Why Church? from God’s perspective, not the world’s perspective. Paul’s vision of the church rests on what God wants, and what God has purposed, planned, chosen and predestined. That view of the church from God’s perspective is what inspires and encourages me about the church today, however messy things look at our level.
Late last November, just before the Christmas season, I touched on this very same question, from this same chapter of Ephesians. I said then that church exists because Christ still wants and seeks a body. The church is Christ’s body, through which he yet ministers in the world today.
Out of all the deep and complex words and phrases in Ephesians 1, I see two other reasons and purposes of God for the church of Jesus Christ. The Church exists 1) simply to be a people on whom God can bestow all his gifts of love, even to be a family to receive God’s love; and 2) because God wants a people who will return that love; to return it to God, and share it with others, by living “for the praise of God’s glory.”
As for the first reason, God wants a people on whom he can bestow his love, we may ask, Well, doesn’t God love everybody already? Of course. God is love. And all people experience this love simply by the gift of existence, by the beauties and blessings of God’s Creation, and all the other ways in which God calls and draws us toward himself. As Jesus said, “God sends his rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
But there are other ways that God wishes to show and bestow love on us, mentioned in today’s passage, ways and gifts which we must want and receive. They include the forgiveness of sins; adoption into God’s people, the family of Abraham, as joint heirs with Jesus. The greatest of these gifts and inheritances is the gift of God’s own Spirit. God is not going to force anyone to accept and receive those expressions of his love. We must choose to believe and receive them.
The people who do so are called “church.” Because God not only wants all persons to receive such expressions of his love, God wants a people who together will receive his love. That’s a hard distinction for us 21st Century Americans to grasp. We so think in terms of personal independence and of the unique, isolated individual self, that it’s hard for us to understand how God loves us and sees us in our groups and relationships, as well as in our unique, individual selves. But God looks at us and sees not only distinct, unique persons, God sees also the networks and connections and relationships between us. And God loves those connections and relationships, just as much as God loves the persons within these relationships. So, again, one reason for the church is because God wants a people, and not just persons, who together will willingly receive the fullness of his love.
The second reason for the existence of the church is that God wants a people, a family, to return his love, and share it with others, “for the praise of God’s glory.” That’s what I get from the phrase that we hear repeated three times in this passage, “for the praise of God’s glory.” That three-fold repetition means that the phrase is very important. That also means that if we are looking at church with only an eye for, “What’s in it for me?” and “How will church make my life better?” (hopefully it will) such self-interest alone won’t sustain our commitment to church through the hard times. Our membership and participation in the church must be about God’s glory, honor and blessing, before it is about our own glory, honor and blessing.
One major way that we act “for the praise of God’s glory” is in worship. Yes, praising God lifts our sights above and beyond the trials and trinkets of this life in this world. Worshiping God as the very source and goal of our existence affirms and celebrates our own existence as well. I know of no greater way to love and enjoy life than to adore and to thank the Source of our lives. But worship is finally not about us and how it makes us feel. Worship is “for the praise of God’s glory.”
And so also we pray and work for justice, mercy, reconciliation, even for food and shelter for the needy. That, too, can be satisfying, inspiring, and certainly educational for all who take part in such work. But for all the times that it feels like we’re not making any difference, there must be a deeper, more enduring reason to sustain our service. And so we serve, work and witness “for the praise of God’s glory.”
So also we serve each other in Christian Education, in committees of discernment, hospitality, finance and administration. And so we fellowship, in this building, in homes and around tables, in small groups, providing each other with companionship, comfort, counsel, support and accountability. It is increasingly all the more important that none be left out of our care, that no one be left alone to bear their burdens, in light of the beautiful young people we have lost of late to death by suicide. However much our fellowship and community do for us, it also works “for the praise of God’s glory.”
For how easily the quest for one’s own personal glory and status can creep in to the best of our actions and intentions; how subtly can fear, power struggles and competition creep in to our relationships. And the well of church relationships is poisoned as our activities are “for the praise of my own glory.” But Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds…. and glorify your Father in heaven.”
I hope that those two reasons of God for the church inspire and educate us today, as they do me. At the very least, they tell us to be attentive to the workings of God among us, as a group, as well as within us, individually. They tell us how precious and important we are not only to God, but how precious and important we are to each other. But however inspired we might feel about the church, or not, we know how precious and important the church is to God because of two high-powered, turbo-charged and controversial words which Paul uses in this passage for the church: “predestined” and “chosen.” In verse 5, we hear that “God predestined us for adoption into sonship with Jesus Christ.” In verse 11, we hear that we were “predestined according to the plan of the One who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” We also hear several times that God chose us, and that we were chosen” to be God’s adopted children.
We can read this passage in our typically Western, individualistic sense, asking, How does one personally get right with God? Then we might think that God simply chooses, or predestines some persons to be saved and live with him forever, and God chooses or predestines others to be lost, for reasons known only to God. And no mortal has any power, responsibility nor say-so in the matter at all.
But this passage is not addressing the question, “How does any one person get right with God?” and “Does anyone have any choice in the matter?” I believe that we do. This passage is answering ta different question, the question in the sermon title: Why church? That’s why all the personal pronouns are plural, “we,” not “me.” Not “you” only, alone, first person singular, but, “you plural” as in, “y’all” in Texas or “you lot” in Great Britain. This passage is telling us that God has chosen and predestined…..that there will be a people—not just persons, nor which persons—that there will be a people on whom he can freely bestow all the gifts of his love, and so make us, “holy and blameless in his sight.” That’s what God has chosen and predestined: that God will call forth and form a people, who, together, become a family sharing God’s Spirit, who look like Jesus, and are joint heirs with Jesus.
God’s choice and predestination in this passage work somewhat like that series of sports comedy movies from 30 years ago, which some of us may remember, about The Bad News Bears. They were a little league baseball team made up of all the kids whom the other teams didn’t want, or wouldn’t ever pick, not even last. So a coach decided to work with them, just because they wanted to play, and they showed up to play. And so they should play, they will play, the coach said. They included a wannabe pitcher who was too near-sighted to see home plate, a slow, clumsy, fumble-fingered catcher, and a first-base player who was terrified of any ball coming his way, among others without a lot of athletic potential or experience. Still, the coach chose, or predestined, that he would make of this unlikely lot a winning, championship team. He believed in their potential and their future as a winning team. That is how he worked with them. And that is what they became, despite a constant comic string of calamities, false starts, fights and failures.
Live, then, “for the praise of God’s glory,” because God, out of love, has chosen and predestined that there will be a people who will accept the fullness of his love, who will be made into a forever family, sharing God’s Spirit, transformed into the image of Jesus, in spite of all we have going against us. Live and love “for the praise of God’s glory,” because nothing can surprise God nor stop God from accomplishing his chosen, predestined purposes. For God already inhabits our future, and has already worked our sufferings, struggles and setbacks into his chosen and predestined purposes and plans. Like the coach of the Bad News Bears, God works with whoever shows up to make us who and what he wills. That’s how I understand those words, “chosen” and “predestined” in this passage.
Each one of us, personally, has received the high and holy honor of God’s calling to receive and to reflect the fullness of God’s love in Jesus Christ. God extends the same high and holy honor to us as a church, as this church, and to the whole church in all times and places. By the almighty love and power of God we can trust that there will always and forever be: 1) a people on whom God can bestow the fullness of his love; and 2) a people who will forever live and love “for the praise of God’s glory.” The name for that people is “church.” That is what enthuses and encourages me most about church: this church, and about the whole church of Jesus Christ. And that’s my answer today to the question, Why church?