A sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 by Nathan Nettleton, 10th July 1994
Our lives give glory to God, through our stories and experiences.
Big word for the day - "symbiosis". Symbiosis means that two things live in a mutually advantageous relationship with one another. Both in some way depend on the other. One of my favourite examples of symbiosis is the clown fish and the sea anenome. Sea anenomes are usually poisonous to any fish that comes into contact with them. Fish that touch their tentacles are stung, paralysed and eaten. But for some reason they make an exception for clown fish. Clown fish can swim around in complete safety among the waving tentacles of the anenome. Now the advantage of this for the clown fish is quite obvious. As long as it is among the tentacles of the anenome, it is safe from other predators, because no-one else can take the risk of coming in to get them. It can be really cute to watch them. At the slightest threat of danger, the clown fish dive into the anenome, and you see then wriggling in like a person snuggling into a warm doona.
What the anenome gets out of the relationship is not so obvious. In fact scientists are not 100% sure, but there are two main theories that each have a fair bit of evidence, and may possibly both be true. The first is that the clown fish often drop bits of food gathered elsewhere into the anenome, thus feeding it. And the other is that the clown fish may at times deliberately lure other fish into the reach of the anenome, thus helping it catch its own live food. Although there is some doubt, scientists are sure that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the clown fish and the anenome and that they both offer something to the other.
I want to explore with you this morning the possibility that our relationship with God is a bit like that. We are perhaps accustomed to thinking about the things that God does for us, and the ways in which we depend on God, and we are going to look at those things in a moment, but I think that our reading from Ephesians may also raise the possibility that God needs us too, and we'll see if we can make some sense of that.
The obvious theme in our reading is all the things we have to praise God for, the ways in which we benefit from our relationship with God, and therefore owe God a debt of gratitude. In fact the passage focusses so exclusively on all the great things that God has done, that God is actually the subject of every verb in it. And for those like me who struggle a bit with grammar, that means that God is the doer of every action that is mentioned in this reading. We don't do anything in this account. This is not one of those readings where I can get up and say the bible says we should be doing this and the bible says we should be doing that. In this passage it doesn't say that we should be doing anything, it just praises God for all the things that God has done and is doing for us.
It can actually be a bit hard for us to take. We live in a do-it-yourself society. Walk into any bookshop and have a look at the do-it-yourself, or self-help sections and you'll know what I mean. The marketers have worked out that there is a lot of money to be made tapping into people's desire for independence and self-reliance. We don't like to have to depend on someone else to do anything for us, especially if it is all one way and they don't need anything from us. So this first passage in Ephesians, no matter how excited and enthusiastic it is, may not make us entirely comfortable. But let's have a look anyway at what it says God has done for us.
First we are told that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. Now we could probably spend hours talking about what that means but we'll keep it brief. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes love, faith and hope as the three spiritual blessings that never come to an end, and the greatest he says is love. So perhaps we could assume that these would be the sort of things the author has in mind here. We might justifiably want to add peace, mercy, endurance, joy, or perhaps a few others, but whatever we see as being included, the writer is clearly saying that these things come to us from God and it is God who should get the credit for them.
Then we are told that God has chosen us to be holy and blameless in love. Not only that but we were chosen before we even existed, in fact before anything existed. God chose you to be holy and blameless in love and to be adopted as a child of God. It is kind of like being born into really privileged circumstances - you've got it all on a plate. It doesn't mean you can't mess it up, but it means that you've really got the odds stacked in your favour from the word "go." I used to work for a bloke who was born with everything on a plate, or with a silver spoon in his mouth as they say. The guy was an idiot and if he hadn't been born with a silver spoon in his mouth I reckon he'd have probably starved to death, but he had all this money and everything and it didn't seem to matter how stupid and uninformed some of his decisions were the money kept making more money. Some people in that situation do go broke but you probably have to try harder to make a mess of it if you start from a position of advantage. So too for us. God chose us and destined us for every good thing and so the odds are in our favour and you'll have to work pretty hard at it if you want to miss out.
"In Christ we have redemption and forgiveness, according to the riches of grace lavished on us." It's a great work "lavished", I like it, and especially when you couple it with the word grace. The best definition of the concept of grace I ever heard was that it was extravagantly generous love. So the idea of having God's extravagantly generous love lavished on us is rather overwhelming and I don't know about you but it's not an opportunity I'm going to turn down. In that extravagantly generous love we have redemption and forgiveness for sins. God's extravagant love for us is willing to overlook anything and everything in our pasts. If we will let it go, so will God. And redemption. Unfortunately it's one of those words which tends to become hollow jargon in the churches, but its a great thing. I asked people at the House of Hope once what they thought it meant, and they had no trouble at all, because in their world it has a common secular meaning. Quick as a flash a bloke said, "It's when you go down to the pawn shop and buy back something you gave up." Brilliant. God goes down to the pawn shop and bails us out. It costs God something, but God pays willingly because to God, we are worth it. Sounds like lavishing extravagantly generous love to me.
And then, in case that's not enough, God gives as a share in the future, an inheritance, a promised place of importance in the fulfilling of God's intention for the whole of creation. And as a down payment, or a first taste of this future, we are given the presence of the Holy Spirit of God here and now. Just as we will eventually enjoy the unimpeded presence of God, so we can now already experience the reality of the presence of God. This, says the writer, is the guarantee of our full restoration as God's people.
All of this is God's doing. Like the watch in the pawn shop, we can't buy ourselves back. We can't give ourselves the Holy Spirit. We can't promise ourselves a share in God's future plans. God alone can do any of these things, and it is only in God's extravagantly generous love that they are done. And it is on that basis that the writer says over and over, blessed be God, God be praised, to God's praise and glory, to the praise of God's grace, we live for the praise of God's glory. Like most Australians I cringe a bit at that sort of language because we are one of the great understating peoples of the world. We are not given to using extravagant language to praise anything, except maybe football. But this gushing enthusiastic praise language comes naturally to the writer of Ephesians, and in the face of the experience of God's lavishing of extravagantly generous love it seems appropriate.
I think we can perhaps personalise this list of reasons for praising God. The writer had his experiences of God's love and we have ours. Most of us can tell of experiences where God has acted in ways that have made us aware of God's love and our reliance on God. For me the most dramatic was one which most of you will have read written up in this month's Baptist Witness. It was at the time of the break up of my first marriage when God met me in ways which not only saved me from falling apart completely, but which became the source of the most positive personal growth in my whole life.
There is much that we need God for, and of course there is much more that we haven't said that we could have said. What about God's dependence on us? Are there ways in which it can be honestly said that God needs us? This question would have been considered heretical once upon a time. There used to be a doctrine called the impassability of God, which said that nothing could affect God in any way, and therefore God had to be seen as completely self sufficient and not needing anyone for anything. That doctrine has fallen into disrepute now, mainly because of a bloke called Jesus of Nazareth who showed us just how much God had invested in what went on on earth and how strongly God felt about what happens in our lives. It sort of showed the theory to be a lot of bunk, although it would be true to say that it has taken us a fair while to catch on. We still don't think much about what God needs from us.
Suggesting that God might have needs doesnt detract from anything we said about God before. It doesn't make God out to be some sort of cosmic wimp hanging out to see what we're going to do. All of this is still evidence of God's extravagantly generous love for us. God did not have to become vulnerable to us, but God has chosen to become vulnerable to us, and the choice is irrevocable. It is only in the grace that God has lavished upon us that we were created in the image of God and invited into partnership with God in the creation and resurrection of the world. All this in fact adds up to more and more evidence of God's overwhelming grace and becomes more and more reason for us to join with the writer in expressing exuberant praise. The God of the universe, the creator of the cosmos, the life-giver of all, has not only invited us into relationship, but has decided to make each of us so special, and so crucial to the fulfilment of the divine plan, that God will suffer hurt and frustration and incompleteness if we do not respond and give ourselves to God in that intimate and mutual relationship.
I don't know if you've ever compared yourself to a clown fish before, but I reckon you can this morning. Just as the clown fish dives for safety into the protective arms of the anenome, so you and I can dive for safety into the loving and protective arms of the God who lavishes gracious love on us. But like the anenome, God needs us too, and will suffer if we remove ourselves from that relationship. God has given you the gift of an intimate relationship with the giver of all life and love. God asks in return the gift of an intimate relationship with you.