"ALL" - Ephesians 1:3-14
In my recent week off, I read another book by thoughtful and well-known preacher, writer, and podcaster – Rob Bell. You may recall other books of his that I have read and referenced. He has several very good ones. Bell’s most recent book is entitled, What Is the Bible? – how an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories can transform the way you think and feel about everything.
Now, you might be thinking, why would I be interested enough to read a book entitled, What Is the Bible? I do, indeed, have two masters’ degrees and a doctorate that all included significant study of the Bible. I have over-flowing bookshelves in my study, mostly with books related to the Bible and theology. This title – “What is the Bible?” - seems so basic, so elementary.
But I found Bell’s book to be – like his other books - most provocative, most helpful, even quite inspiring.
He begins one chapter like this: “What is the best question to ask when you’re reading the Bible?” And here it is: “why did people find this important to write down?” When we start with that question, we open ourselves to answers that really might change our lives – give us a glimpse of God’s steadfast love and joy, give us a sense of our identity as God’s beloved people, give us a fresh purpose in which to live as God’s people – loving and serving.
Then there is a second GOOD question – “why did this passage endure?” Or put another way: why is it still around, thousands of years later? Why did people preserve and protect this piece of literature? What does this passage teach us abut what it means to be alive, here, in the world, now? And the answer is – this passage speaks to our human experience. There is a message here about important things. For example, the prayers and poems of the Psalms have endured because they speak something true about our hearts and minds, hopes and dreams, feelings and desires. They name everything that’s inside of us. They give language to the human condition – praise and thanks, angst and anger, confusion and despair, joy and sorrow. The Psalms show us what a healthy spiritual life looks like. The Psalms give words to the human condition. If you don’t drag it up and give it words, then it’s buried down in our being somewhere. And it will come out in other ways. You keep it all bottled up and you will be miserable. The passages endure because they help us live – live fully, live with God, live in God’s world (see Bell, What Is the Bible, pages 293 and 301).
There are the creation stories and they remind us that life comes from God and is sustained by God. There are the prophets, who remind us what God hates and what God demands: “I cannot bear your worthless assemblies” as Isaiah conveys. “I hate how you trample the needy,” as Amos says. Micah calls out “those who covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them.” Why did people write this down, and why have they endured? They speak truth to power. They name injustice and oppression. They remind us how to live. These messages, these stories were written, and they endure, because they are about what it means to be human, what is means to belong to God, and to live in God’s world.
Perhaps you can see why I found this book to be fresh, provocative, and helpful.
So let’s turn now to a particular passage – the one for today – from Ephesians, chapter 1. Look and listen as I read it aloud:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So why was this written? And why has this passage endured?
This opening section of Ephesians is a blessing to God for all God’s blessings to us in Christ. In the Greek text, this whole paragraph is actually one long, running sentence. Each phrase is loosely connected to the next one. And what unfolds is a literary tone that intends to fill our hearts and lives with the Truth – capital “T” TRUTH. Blessed be God who has blessed us so much!
When we get to living life, it is easy to get covered up with life and forget the blessings. As you have heard me say before, our greatest sin, our biggest challenge is not something we do or do not do. Our greatest sin, our biggest challenge is that we FORGET! We forget about God’s boundless and steadfast love that covers us. We forget that we have been chosen before the foundation of the world to be God’s beloved children, that God looks upon us and sees us – because of Christ – holy and blameless, so adored. We forget that we are God’s children. We have been redeemed from anything that can separate us from God. We have a destiny – no matter what happens to us – our destiny is with God. All of this is laid out in the flowing litany of this paragraph.
So why is this passage important? Why was it written down and preserved? Because this run-on sentence - this long paragraph of clauses that flow from one another - conveys the very essence of the Gospel – TRUTH for our lives. Nearly every phrase evokes a classic Christian doctrine. God creates and rules the world. God chooses us in love, adopts us as God’s children, bears with us, forgives us, calls us to life and purposes with and for God. This is such a rich and wonderful passage.
And right in the middle of this wonderful passage is a truth that deserves special attention today. It is verses 9 and 10. Take a look.
With all wisdom and insight 9God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
What I want to focus on is that phrase – “gather up all things.”
Did you catch that? God – in the fullness of time – intends to gather up ALL THINGS. The phrase – “all things” is the word “pas” in Greek, and it translates, literally, . . . “all things.” (You might have thought it was going to be something more subtle or profound; instead, it’s exactly what it appears – ALL THINGS.) God – in the fullness of time – intends to gather upALL THINGS. It is also translated – God is going to bring unity to ALL THINGS. Or God is going to sum up all things, or recapitulate all things, or bring ALL THINGS together.
This is a very big deal – a big Truth to understand as people of faith. It means just as God creates the world, God completes all things. Just as God chooses us, loves us, forgives us, has purposes for our lives, God also brings unity to all things, gathers up all things. In the fullness of time, everything is going to be made right by and with God.
Here is a way to think about this. Last week, as many of you know, Ginger and I were with our kids, and their kids, for a week at the beach. We love being with our loved ones. And when we are together – as you could guess – we recall memorable stories from our family life. For some reason this summer, several of the stories related to family camping trips. We had to re-tell the stories. And as often is the case, when you re-tell stories, what were the very worst parts – the scary, the nasty parts – get most of the attention in the re-telling. And they often become the best parts.
The story we re-told happened nearly 20 years ago when our kids were much younger. We were camping in a campground in upstate New York on our way to Niagara Falls and into Canada. Ginger was with the girls in the campground bathroom. Sandy and I were at our camping spot. It was dark. We had finished dinner. We were winding down the evening, getting ready to get into our sleeping bags. Then, . . . a skunk came directly into our campsite.
This situation immediately generated both fear and confusion. What . . . do . . . .you . . . do?
We certainly did not want to alarm the skunk and have everything on our trip sprayed with his odor. That would ruin our whole week: our tent and its contents, our clothes, our car, our entire trip. He was sniffing the tent, sniffing around the picnic table area, going under the car. If we startled the thing, he would spray us. If we left him alone, he might stay the whole night. If we tried to coax him out of there, who knows what would happen? As our fears rose, we tried to keep our distance. As our concern increased, well, . . . we figured we had to do something.
This whole time, Ginger and the girls were still in the bathroom, oblivious to this scene of the skunk taking over our campground. This was terrible. Then I got the idea that maybe, from a distance, I could blow the horn on the car, which just might be enough to get the skunk to move along without any damage. So I got the key and pushed the alarm button – the horn screamed – “whio, whio, whio.” And I am just sure our tent, our car, our clothes, are all going to be sprayed. The horn kept going. . . . .
And eventually, thankfully . . . the skunk wandered off, . . . without any harm to us or him.
It was a frightening evening. But you know what? When we tell the story now, it is less about the skunk and the fears. It is a humorous story about Ginger and the girls in the bathroom wondering what idiot in the campground was letting his car alarm ruin the quiet of the evening. The scary moments with the skunk are seen in a new light. The fears and concerns are enfolded, recapitulated, gathered up. Nothing is forgotten, . . . but everything is seen differently.
This is what it means – God is going to bring unity, gather up, redeem, ALL THINGS. All things will be seen in a new light.
One camping story leads to another. When our son was just a few months hold, we spent the summer in New Hampshire where I was doing graduate school. We were in a campground lying in our tent – Ginger and I, with our four-month-old baby lying between us.
There were warnings about bears all around the campground. And sure enough, that night, a big bear made his way through the campground and was breathing heavily right beside my head – a thin piece of nylon tent separating the bear from us and our baby. The guy in the camping spot next to us saw the bear and started yelling, bagging pots, throwing bottles to scare the bear away. We just laid in the tent – totally afraid and basically defense-less - while the bear lingered right next to us, rumbled around our area, before moving along. Again, a fearful and frightening night: one paw swipe and he is in our tent.
But when we tell the story now, it is less about the fear and more about the experience. ALL THINGS have been gathered up in a new way, transformed in our thinking. ALL things are brought to unity.
This is what God is always about. In the fullness of time, God will gather up – bring to unity, make things right – ALL THINGS. This is what God is up to. This is what God promises. This is what brings pleasure and joy to God. God’s care prevails over ALL things. This is what we trust – and live into. In the fullness of time, ALL THINGS will be seen in a new light, in God’s light, redeemed, made whole. There will be a retelling, a restoring, a reconciling, a renewing. ALL things.
This is the promise of the gospel. This is the promise of the Bible. Do you see and hear how important this is?
This means that mess of the world will be gathered up by God. ALL things. God is in charge. All things in heaven and on earth – gathered up. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The tensions with N. Korea . . . and Russia . . . and the environment? ALL things will be made right.
The difficulties of Richmond Public Schools, . . . and the problems in public housing, including too many gun deaths? ALL things.
Racism? . . . Really? ALL things.
Your broken heart about your child, . . . or something else? ALL things will be brought to unity, to wholeness.
Your ongoing battle- with depression, . . . or heart disease, . . . or cancer? ALL things will be gathered up in God’s love.
Fractured relationships? Shameful memories? ALL things.
ALL things. . . . ALL things. . . . ALL things.
Isn’t this wonderful? It is so easy to miss. It is like Rob Bell says: “if you were stuck in a hotel in Des Moines in February and you took out one of those Gideon Bibles from the drawer in the nightstand and you opened it randomly to the first chapter of Ephesians and you read that long first sentence about God bringing unity to ALL things, you’d probably, like everyone else, skip right over it, wondering what the writer was going on about and hoping that the next part might be more interesting or understandable. (see R. Bell, What Is the Bible, p. 40-46)
But then you slow down . . .and think about it, . . . let it sink in, and you realize how powerful and provocative and profound it really is. Indeed, ALL things gathered up - it just might make us feel alive – alive to God’s love, alive to living as God’s people, alive to loving God and loving others.
May it be so. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: O Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. And mold us more and more by your Spirit in the ways of faith, hope, and love, following Jesus. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on July 9, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.