Sunday, November 3, 2013


(Ephesians 1: 11-23)

I wonder how many people here know that Thursday this week (31st October) was Reformation Day. It’s not called that in the Church of England calendar. It’s officially the festival of Martin Luther – the German monk whose protests against the Church of Rome in the 16th century sparked off the Protestant movement. But in the Protestant churches of continental Europe and the USA, Reformation Day is a major event, and in parts of America it offers a lively alternative to the big secular spookfest that is Halloween.

Here in the Church of England (and Chichester Diocese in particular) the historical Reformation (with a capital R) has not been seen as quite such an unalloyed blessing. But Anglicans of every persuasion can join together in celebrating the theme of reformation and renewal as ongoing processes in the church and in individual lives. It’s a time to think about the changes God is able to bring about in us through the Gospel and inner work of the Holy Spirit.

This reflection on inner transformation is timely, because it helps prepare us for the deeper meditations of All Saints and All Souls that we have been observing since the beginning of November. Firstly, this is a time when the worldwide church thinks about itself and its place in history. Some find it helpful to meditate on the difference between the church as we see it (sometimes referred to as the Church Militant) - struggling with persecution, apathy and its own internal human failings - and the church as God sees it: the triumphant and resplendent bride of Christ. But more importantly for us here today, the conjoined festivals of All Saints and All Souls provide an opportunity to bring those loved ones who are no longer with us reverently, affectionately and prayerfully to mind.

When St. Paul wrote to reassure and encourage the Christian community he had planted in Ephesus, he addressed both aspects - the struggling church and the problem of human suffering and loss. There’s not time to go through this morning’s entire reading from the letter to the Ephesians, but we can look at the centrepiece of Paul’s exhortation: the concise and eloquent prayer in which he asks God to give his people a deeper understanding of just what they have inherited as members of the Church of Jesus Christ:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know (1) the hope to which he has called you, (2) the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and (3) his incomparably great power for us who believe.” There are three things there that Paul prays for God to implant firmly in people’s minds. Let’s look at each of them in turn and apply them to our own situation.

Firstly, Paul wants us to know the hope to which God has called us. Now "hope" may sound a bit wishy-washy, but that’s just the way we tend to use the word in modern English - for a vague wish that is probably going to end in disappointment: "I hope it doesn’t rain at the weekend," or "I hope your Auntie Mabel isn’t coming for Christmas dinner again." But the word the Bible writers use indicates something quite different: When they talk about hope, they mean a confident expectation based on past experience. And in the case of God, past experience shows that he is unfailingly faithful to his promises in Scripture. God never promises that we will not suffer tragedy or loss, and when it happens, he never promises that it won’t hurt. On the contrary, God himself in the person of Jesus weeps when confronted with the death of his friend Lazarus. And yet God does promise comfort. He does promise that we will eventually come to discern and rejoice in his wisdom. Above all, he promises that all things will work together for good in the lives of those who trust him; he promises that good can ultimately come of tragedy, even as it did for humanity in the aftermath of Jesus’ own suffering and death. So, in summary, Paul wants us to know the confident hope to which God has called us.

Secondly, Paul wants us to know the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in us, his holy people. Getting to grips with their inheritance was crucial for the Ephesian Christians he was writing to, because so many of them were Gentiles who had come into the Church with no awareness of the hundreds of years of God’s gracious dealings with the nation of Israel before them. Put simply, they didn’t know God’s track record: all the love he’d shown to his people, the crises he’d faithfully brought them through. And we too, regularly, blind ourselves to God’s track record by ignoring our inheritance as the church. It’s easy to miss the relevance of Christian art, music and  writing to our modern lives. But if we do set aside all that: the stories of saints and martyrs, the poetry and paintings, the music, the philosophical and devotional writings - we cut ourselves off from the testimony our ancestors have left behind to the saving and live-giving activity of God down through the ages. By ignoring the riches of this glorious inheritance, we impoverish and weaken ourselves when it comes to dealing with adversity and loss. But to look on the positive side, we need do no more than scratch the surface of that inheritance to find overwhelming evidence of God’s faithfulness in transforming the direst of situations.

Thirdly and finally, having reminded us of the hope to which we’ve been called and the riches of our inheritance, Paul wants us to know God’s incomparably great power for us who believe. And he goes on to characterise and give the measure of that power. Imagine, he says, the kind of awesome power it took to raise the crucified Jesus from the dead and seat him in Lordship over the universe. That, he says, is the same power God exerts in the lives of those who believe: to renew them, give them new life, reconstruct them when life’s adversity has left them feeling destroyed. If the horrific suffering and death of Jesus - the very creator of the universe - can be the gateway to new life and hope, is there any situation imaginable that can’t be rescued from despair by the working of that same resurrection power?

In conclusion, while nothing can assuage the grief of those who have lost a loved one, we in the worldwide Christian family have this season of reflection every autumn. We try to turn our backs on the cheap, commercial flurry of monster costumes and fireworks, and to focus on the real meaning of death and loss and hope and new life. We give thanks for those we have loved and see no more. We meditate on the hope to which God has called us. We embrace the God’s promises in Scripture and the astonishing faithfulness to which the cultural inheritance of the church bears witness. And we await the reworking in our own lives of the mighty resurrection power that brought Jesus back from the dead to place him in sovereignty over the universe that was created through him. 

This afternoon at 4.00pm, there will be a service here in church at which we remember our departed loved ones by name, and we hope many will come to share the celebration of their memory. But in the meantime, whether you are still grieving the loss of loved ones, or are now at a stage where you can give thanks with peace in your heart for all they meant to you, you can be assured that across the world right at this moment there are millions of Christians standing alongside you in prayer….   

Let’s bow our heads in a prayer of our own….

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