Delivered at First Christian Church on July 16, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.
This is the last Sunday that First Christian Church will be without their pastor, Mary Jane Button-Harrison. She’s been on a three-month sabbatical, or process of clergy renewal, after about a dozen years of ministry in this church (and about 10 before that). When she left, she went straight to Plum Village in France, the home of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hahn. From there she went to a series of other spiritual homes to focus on the concepts of boundaries and belonging. Over the last week she has started to write about what she’s learned, on her website and Facebook page.
Ames UCC’s own Minister for Families and Children, Pr. Hannah Hannover, is also on sabbatical, after ten years at our church. She’s using the time to renew her faith and understand whether she is called to ordination into the national church in addition to being licensed to our local church.
And I’ve just had a month off from preaching thanks to vacation and these joint services.
All of this has given me room and reason to think about the dynamic of pastor and congregation. What is a church without her pastor? What is a pastor without her church? How does faith happen in the mix?
Today we have a kind of blog post, a letter from Paul to the church in Ephesus, to help in our wonderings.
I should clear up, though, that Paul did not write it and it was not for the Ephesians. There is plenty of evidence that someone other than the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles wrote this letter and that originally it had no specific recipient.
For example, it is missing the core phrases that Paul uses over and over in the “undisputed letters” but it does include phrases he never uses elsewhere. The letter isn’t trying to solve a local Ephesian problem. Think about Galatians, by contrast, where Paul is trying to fix a growing divide within the church. Lastly, the reference to Ephesus only appears in later, or newer, manuscripts. It was most likely a sermon passed between different church communities in Asia Minor. Scholars suggest that the use of Paul’s name and a location were included as time went on, in order to give it more authority.
I don’t think that, after so many centuries of Christian cultural hegemony, we can fathom what it would have been like to be a seeker of Jesus Christ when Christianity wasn’t even a religion. Here we have a whole Bible that has been vetted and sanctioned, generations of clergy and laity to lead the way. But when the doctrines and holidays that we take for granted, that we lean on to get through our days and lives, were still in formation, what did they do? Who told them what was right? What was the process for making sure that person was telling them what was right in the right way?
How did they come to have faith?
Our reading today gives part of an answer.
What we heard was the first half of the first chapter. This first half is the author’s theological anthropology, meaning his understanding or theory of the relationship between God and humanity. For him, in this relationship God is like a parent and Jesus is like a son. The rest of us are fellow children who have been adopted through a process that was and is Jesus’ ministry, mystery, and Spirited presence.
The second half of this first chapter, which we did not hear, includes a prayer:
15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Giver of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of God’s great power.
I think there’s something important in that pairing of theory and prayer, something that might help answer my questions about churches and pastors and all of our questions about faith. Namely, how do I get some, how do I get more, and why does it sometimes wane?
MISSING AND INCLUDED
First, look at what is missing. Nowhere in this first chapter or in the letter as a whole does this Paul ever even try to substantiate his claims. Good theories are supported, if not proved, by good evidence. But this letter offers no backing to this Paul’s claims about God and Christ.
The letter is missing Jesus’ birth narrative, it is missing the healing and feasting stories; it is missing Jesus’ interpretation of the 10 Commandments, and his setting of God’s table. It is only because we know the Easter story from elsewhere, that we know what this Paul is referencing when he talks about blood.
This Paul may have had many reasons to not reiterate all of those: Maybe the letter’s recipients have them recorded elsewhere, maybe they already have them memorized, maybe there just wasn’t enough ink.
What can Biblical archeology tell us? Well, we could easily spend the next two hours discussing the research on the formation of the Biblical canon and early evangelism. For me, that would be kind of fun.
But I think it would also be a dodge, an intellectual dalliance that would allow us to avoid what the letter does include: prayer.
In the space he has available to write, this Paul skips the stories but does include an exuberant prayer of thanksgiving, love, hope, and devotion. He gives a lengthy prayer celebrating the reports of faith and the praying that even more riches from that faith may yet come: more wisdom and more revelation and more hope and more moments of experiencing God’s holy power.
FAITH, CHURCH, PASTORS
So, in the earliest of days, we have evidence of theology followed by prayer. This Paul theorizes that Jesus Christ is the source of our salvation. But who is responsible for our faith in that supposition? We are, with God.
All of the theology in the world will be empty without prayer. And prayer, the individual and corporate conversations we have with God are the only way for that theology to take root and blossom into faith.
This is why, even when this Paul was away from his audience, even when Prs. Mary Jane and Pr. Hannah and I are away, these churches and our churches have not only held steady, but grown in faith. It is because you have not just learned the lessons you called us to teach, but because you have taken them to God in prayer. What a joy!
Maybe there’s also a lesson for pastors here: Regardless of our job descriptions, there is no greater joy in ministry than witnessing others enter into relationship with God. So on behalf of Prs. Mary Jane and Hannah, I say thank you. Thank you for letting us be your witnesses. Thank you for showing up, week in and week out to be witness to each other.
Let us pray together and in our own hearts that each of us, that all people, no matter the theology or religion, will be emboldened this day to take another step toward God, will take that first step of trusting that God is listening.
God, who chooses creation to know holiness and bask in God’s love. God, who wants to bring us back from the gossip, resentment, self-centeredness, and failure to take responsibility for our own souls and each others’ bodies, which drives us so far away.
God, who even when we do not want to hear that invitation to return, crowns our heads in grace, drapes necklaces and robes and belts of grace on our body. We are given so much love from God that, when we at last make the choice to come home, we may at first struggle to lift our arms in praise, surprised by our sudden awareness of God’s already and ever-presence in our very being.