18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Often, when I come up with sermon titles, I do it maybe weeks or even months ahead of time. I base them on a preliminary study of the Scripture lesson, what I discern might be something God is trying to say to us through it, and something hopefully clever that gives a hint about what the message will be about. But then sometimes, somewhere along the line, the Spirit changes things on me; sometimes at the last minute. With that in mind, you can make the following correction to your bulletin: the actual title of this sermon is “Therefore.” [The original title was “The Adult Table,” because I was drawn to the maturity theme of vv. 11-16. Clearly, God had other plans.]
I like the word “therefore.” It sounds a little silly to use “therefore” in casual conversations, but it’s a good word. Maybe we should throw it into sentences like, “My wife came home from her trip on Saturday, therefore, I spent most of Friday cleaning the house.” It’s kind of an old timey word, so we use words like “so” instead; but wouldn’t “therefore” have sounded just a bit more classy? Seems like the only time I regularly run into the word “therefore” is in the Bible, especially in the letters of Paul.
It’s right there in the beginning of our reading today, where Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” I had a professor in seminary that used to say a thing that maybe you’ve heard before too: when you see a “therefore,” find out that the “therefore” is there-for. It’s a cute little pneumonic, but it reminds us that context is important; “therefore” tells us that this is a continuation of something else. The thing before us is a result of something that came before it; so we ought to look into what that was.
We will, of course, explore the context of what Paul is saying in a moment, but something related to that comes to mind: we are a “therefore” in this world. Do you ever think about that? I hadn’t, really; that’s why the title got changed. We, who have received the boundless grace of our Risen Savior are now a “therefore” in this world. Something has set a context for our very lives; something has come before our being here today, together. That, of course, is the dying and rising of Jesus. We are, therefore, set free in this world to live the lives we are saved and called to live. As we are sent into this world, the question we must keep asking ourselves is, as you might expect: what are we therefore there for?
So what is the context of Paul’s “therefore”? As the Book of Ephesians enters what is its second half, this “therefore” actually refers to everything that comes before it. This is common in Paul’s writing style; you’ll find this kind of thing in most of his letters. Whether he’s writing to help a church with some sort of crisis or he’s just writing (as he is in Ephesians) to help a church be the church, he usually follows the same pattern. In the first part of the book, he proclaims and teaches the Good News through Jesus Christ alone; and then in the second part, he talks about what you might want to do with this very Good News. As we’ve talked about in this series, the first three chapters are all about God. It is God who loves us more than we can imagine. It is God who has, in Jesus, reconciled us back to God, and not ever anything we could have done to earn it. It is God, who calls us into a new eternal family. And it is God’s Spirit that is always present with us to lead us, to strengthen us, and to remind us of our eternal hope. Three chapters about the abundant, unfathomable grace and love of God; and then three chapters, beginning with chapter four, about what to do with that gift we’ve received. It turns out, these final chapters of Ephesians are really what the book is about. That is, again, Paul’s style: the ending, practical part is the point Paul is getting at and the first, theological part is the argument for it.
This sermon, by the way, the end of this series on Ephesians. If this seems like an abrupt place to stop, rest assured, it is on purpose. We end here, for a couple of reasons. You can think of the first reason like this: remember when you were young and still in school? Do you remember wondering during class sometimes: will this be on the test? It’s as if, you’re about to take a test, say, on the Revolutionary War. You know very well that this test is only going to be about the names of the central figures, the names of the important places, and the dates when important things happened. It’s a memorization test. But then in the class before the test, your teacher keeps going on about the theologians and philosophers who shaped the minds of the founding fathers; about the economic and political climates of the day. Nothing that is helpful for remembering names and dates. None of that is going to help you choose between right and wrong answers on a test. But then again, that information might be helpful to those who want to be responsible members of a democratic society. That is a different kind of test; that is a big picture kind of test. In the big picture, the dates and names are not nearly as important as the influences and the reasons; but even in faith we do lose sight of the big picture sometimes.
Sometimes we read the letters of Paul and we get hung up on “part two.” We read Paul’s instructions about what it means to live as a faithful follower of Jesus as if they are like names and dates to be memorized. I can’t help but imagine how annoyed Paul, a reformed Pharisee, would have been with us in that. He spends half a book talking about the free life and grace that we’ve received in Jesus alone, and we focus on the last part like they are rules to follow.
So we’re stopping the series here, before we can get too distracted; before we start telling each other about how wives and husbands and children ought to treat each other. And besides, in our reading today Paul shows us all we need to know. “Lead a life,” Paul says, “worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Simple. It’s good to keep it simple, even if rubs against our urges to have rules.
Speaking of which, I’ve been trying to brainwash you lately. You may not have noticed because I do try to keep my mind control subtle; but today I’m done being subtle. Throughout this series, I’ve been throwing a phrase in every week (often several times) in the hopes that it will get stuck in your head like a catchy tune. My hope is that, as you hear this phrase repeated again and again, the Spirit will stir something in you like it has been stirred in me. My hope is that this simple phrase will sound to you as a fitting description of who we are. That we, as a church, are a people who simply seek and serve Jesus. Simple: we seek and we serve Jesus. I see that as an adequate and accurate description of our mission. We may not need it embroidered on our shirts, but we should probably write it down somewhere: we are a church that seeks and serves Jesus.
We seek Jesus in the ways you’d expect: in our study of Scripture, in our prayers, in our worship, and in our fellowship; and then we serve. The serving is the “therefore” part. The seeking sets a context for, simply put, everything we do to “Live a life worthy.” It’s everything we do, as a gathered people of God, that proclaims and embodies God’s love. You know, all of those things we wear our shirts to. It is everything we do as faithful followers of Jesus even throughout our lives. We serve Jesus as we make every effort to maintain our unity in the Spirit. We serve him as we use the gifts that we have been given as a church and throughout our lives. We serve him as we lovingly speak the Truth to one another and to the world around us. We serve him as we recognize and care for our Savior’s Body, here in this place.
Being the church that Jesus calls us to be is deceptively simple: we simply strive to seek and serve Jesus. But of course, it isn’t always that simple is it? That’s why we return to this Table again and again. Here we are reminded of the “therefore” that shapes what we do and who we are. Here we remember the Savior who gave of his body and his blood, so that we might, therefore, be his Body in this world.
Remembering the love, the mercy, and the life eternal that gathers us here, let us, therefore, live lives that indeed are worthy of the calling to which we have been called.