17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Like many of you, I suppose, I have more technology in my car than I had in my entire house growing up. I mean, just the CD player alone, but the computers are faster than the ones that put people on the moon! It has things like a USB port and Blue Tooth so I can add technology to my technology. My car has a device built into the dashboard that connects it to satellites in space; in space! I can plug in an address of anywhere in North America (Canada, US, Mexico), and this device will plot the most direct route to that exact spot. Not only that, it will show me on a map, right there on the dashboard, a blue line that connects where I am to where I’m going! Not only that, if I miss a turn for some reason, it will either figure out the best way to get back to my route, or it will figure out a completely new route! Not only that, I don’t even have to look at the map. There is a calm, woman’s voice that comes on to tell me what my next turn is and far until I have to make that turn. And not only that, this device will show me how far I have yet to go until I make my destination and about what time I’ll get there.
I don’t know if it’s such technological advancements or if it’s just our human nature, but I think sometimes we expect the same service in our life together in Christ. I believe Jesus has called me to help lead His Church, but I can tell you: He did not give me a Church Leadership GPS. I think the other Elders in this church would tell you the same. I’ve heard the Bible referred to by things like “roadmap for life.” It’s pleasant imagery, but it’s not exactly true. If anything, it’s more like a compass: it will tell you which way is north; but you still need to figure out your way through the forest. Don’t get me wrong, the Bible does help with that too, just not as directly as we’d like; God does not guide us turn-for-turn. The Bible does, however, remind and point us toward the One who can help and guide us. The Bible reminds us today that, by the Spirit of our Risen Savior, we have access to a source of strength and insight that is beyond all we could ask or imagine. All we need to do, then, is to remember to ask and imagine.
Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived an emperor named Constantine. He is remembered in a variety of ways, as history often does, depending on who is doing the remembering. He ruled from 306 AD to 377 and he’s generally remembered for bringing stability and religious tolerance to the Roman Empire. Christians remember him fondly for this: it was Constantine who officially ended the state persecution of the followers of Jesus, allowing the faith to freely travel to the ends of the known world. That’s the good news. The bad news (possibly) is that he didn’t stop there.
His mother was a follower of Jesus (many think Constantine was one too), which might explain why he seemed to show our faith a certain favoritism. In fact, he did quite a lot to not only legitimize Christianity, he also did quite a bit to get us organized too. You may have heard of the Council of Nicaea, where the Nicene Creed comes from. Here, they had long discussions about “orthodoxy;” which beliefs about Jesus were in and which ones were out. Because of what Constantine started, about 55 years later, Christianity would be declared the official state religion of the entire Roman Empire.
Now, I go back and forth about whether or not this was a good idea. On the one hand, we weren’t being arrested anymore, we weren’t having our property confiscated, we weren’t being fed to lions and such; so there is a positive side. The Roman Empire provided an opportunity for the easy spread of the Good News to most of the world; an even more positive side, I suppose. But as we find ourselves today in a world that is increasingly suspicious and even hostile toward the institutionalized Christianity, I wonder if the last almost-1700 years have properly prepared us for this moment. Do we even remember how to be the church when we are not the dominant faith? Don’t get too worked up just yet: we’re still “top of the charts” worldwide; but we also lose ground every day. Ours is not the state religion it once was. Even if you like to believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, you have to face the fact that it isn’t anymore. Do we remember how to be the church without also being an institution?
You may have noticed, throughout this study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I’ve been pointing out that it was written well before Constantine; probably around 60 AD, so around 250 years before Constantine. I think, as we read this book, that it’s important for us to remember this point. Paul is writing to a church before it was anything like an institution. He’s writing to a church just trying to be the church: followers of Jesus, who are simply striving to seek and serve Jesus. He is writing to the church before it was the dominant religion in the world; and perhaps he has something to teach us that is more important than being a dominating institution.
Our reading this morning begins with the words, "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name." Before the church was “organized,” before it started thinking it had all the answers, before it was an institution, it followed Paul’s lead and prayed for God’s guidance. Paul prayed that we might be strengthened by the Spirit; that Jesus might abide with us as we are rooted and grounded in his love. He prayed that we might have an understanding of God’s love that comes from God alone. Indeed, he prayed that we might be filled with all the fullness of God. He prayed because he knew that we can only get ourselves so far, but by the power of God, at work in us, we can do “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
At our Friday morning men’s group, we talked a bit this week about worship. We decided that people seem to seek two extremes in worship. There are those who seek the experience of God. These are your more-Pentecostal types. For them, a “successful” worship experience is determined by how it made them feel the presence of God. And then there are those who seek the knowledge of God. These are folks who, to be honest, are a lot more like me. For them, a “successful” worship experience is determined by how it made them think; what they learned about God. I think we agreed on Friday that neither extreme is really what worship ought to be about, but more a blending of the two. Good worship is marked by a deeper knowledge of God, but in the way that Paul talks about today: through the experience of God’s presence with us; a presence that teaches us things that goes beyond what we might come to intellectually. In other words, if our goal, as we seek and serve Jesus, is first to be strengthened and led by the Spirit, the decisions we make together, might surprise us. The things we find ourselves called to do and be, might or might not be things we’d come to on our own.
For example, we have a decision to make in a little bit. We’ve called a Congregational Meeting to answer a question, so we’re going to take a vote (as good Presbyterians should). Honestly, I have no horse in this race: as moderator, I wouldn’t vote even if I had strong opinions one way or another, but I don’t. But as members of this congregation, you not only get a voice and a vote, you are obligated to make a choice: yea or nay, it’s up to you. But let’s talk about that choice: is it a choice between making a right decision or a wrong decision, or is it something else? As we seek to be the church that our Savior calls us to be, Paul reminds us that there is a different, more important question to be answered. Beyond making decisions that make sense to us intellectually, beyond making decisions that feel right, today we are challenged to ask, “How can we seek the will of God in this? What does God want us to do? What do we imagine God will accomplish through whatever decision we come to today?”
Today’s vote may not be the most important vote we ever take, but it is certainly good practice. As we strive to be the Christ’s Church in this world, let us first seek his Spirit’s presence as we pray. And as we pray, may we see the glory of him who, by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.