The weekend following Christmas our family made a trip to the Smoky Mountains. My wife planned the trip last summer, making reservations and securing a place large enough to accommodate eight adults. As you know we had about ten inches of snow on Christmas and we weren’t positive that the roads would be clear enough to enable us to get out of Ohio. But, we were determined and snow and ice would not prevent us from the post-Christmas trip we had looked forward to. We were “destined” to go.
In this chapter Paul told the Church at Ephesus that that they were destined also, only he said they were “destined in love.” They were on a trip too, so to speak, a post-Christmas activity that required them to live a life of love. They had been selected and so designated because of who they were. The church at Ephesus was not like most churches. It was a church without conflict. There were no pressing issues or problems. In fact it was one of the Apostle Paul’s most successful missions. To be “destined in love” is to be people who are committed to making love their number one priority.
We live in a culture where people or groups are judged by how successful they are. Winning and notoriety are more important values than acts of love. Like most of you I am an Ohio State football fan. I must say that I was disappointed that Clarrett didn’t have the opportunity to return home to attend his best friends funeral prior to the “big game.” What happened last week was typical of how our culture values winning and success as opposed to love and compassion.
You may not be a fan of Beethoven. He wasn’t know for his social grace. Because of his deafness, he found conversation difficult and humiliating. When he heard of the death of a friend’s son, Beethoven hurried to the house, overcome with grief. He had no words of comfort to offer. But he saw a piano in the room. For the next half hour he played the piano, pouring out his emotions in the most eloquent way he could. When he finished playing he left. The friend later remarked that no one else’s visit had meant so much. (from More Stories for the Heart, by Alice Gray) I think that if the folks at Ohio State had found a way to send Clarrett back to Ohio for his friend’s funeral would have truly made them a genuine champion.
I had a conversation recently with a man who was telling me about Willow Creek Church in Chicago. They have over 5,000 worshippers on Sunday so they are building a larger sanctuary. He was impressed by the large numbers. Many are judging the economy on whether or not the stock market will go up this year. Many of you are judged on how productive you are in the workplace. Paul didn’t say we are destined to be “successful, prosperous or bigger.” Paul says we are destined to be people who love. Love is our aim and how loving we are is how we will be judged.
The church at Ephesus was a faithful church, a church Paul could count on. It was the “crown jewel” of the churches in Asia Minor. But, even the faithful need to be reminded of the essential elements of the faith now and then. They are after all, still human, capable of making mistakes and forgetting what they are about. Paul was attempting to raise the conscious level of the believers, and summarizing what it meant to be the true church of God.
The letter begins with a message about God’s grace. What better way to begin a new year than to hear a word about the grace of God. The message is mostly about what God does, not what the faithful do. Grace is a free gift, not something we have to earn or purchase. We are the beneficiaries of grace because what Christ did for us, not anything we did for ourselves.
When we arrived at out designation in Pigeon Forge last Thursday we stopped by the rental office to pick up our key. The clerk told us that our reservation was for 2003, not 2002. We had just traveled over 400 miles and were tired and eager to settle in our cabin in the mountains. The thought of going to a motel or returning home was not in our plans. Needless to say we were a bit confused since we were certain we had indicated we wanted to stay there this season. The clerk, however was very gracious and said she would talk with the manager to see what they could do for us. Fortunately they were able to put us up for 2 of the 3 nights in a more expensive cabin. They also said they would not charge us the difference. As far as we were concerned the grace of God was upon us.
I believe Paul was reminding the folks at Ephesus that no matter how intentional we are about doing the right thing or how loving we are, we are still dependent on the grace of God. Often times our pride gets in the way. Unfortunately, society teaches us to be self reliant. We are taught to believe that being dependent on others is bad or even immoral. We are taught to be in control, make your own breaks, and take care of number one. The church at Ephesus was doing so well they were vulnerable to the idea that they didn’t need anyone else. The very fact that this letter was directed to them is a reminder that even the “most successful” still need to hear that they can’t always act alone.
Paul also spoke of forgiveness. Last year has ended. It is over, finished. We cannot turn the clock back and undo anything that was done. It is history. We have no choice but to live in the new year. The same is true for our failures, our mistakes, our sins. Because of God’s free grace we do not have to live with guilt, with shame, or with feelings of condemnation. We are forgiven. We can look to the year 2003 with a clean slate.
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Speaking of football, Billy Graham once told a story about the 1929 Rose Bowl. Georgia Tech played the University of California that year. In the game a player recovered a fumble, but became confused and ran the wrong way. A teammate tackled him just before he would have scored a touchdown for the other team. At halftime all of the players went into the dressing room and sat down, wondering what the coach would say. The young man sat by himself, put a towel over his head and cried.
When the team was ready to go back onto the field for the second half, the coach stunned the team by announcing that all of the same players who started the first half would be starting the second, including the young many who ran the wrong way. The players headed back to the field except for the young man who would not budge. The coached called him to come but he said, “Coach, I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you. I’ve disgraced the University of California. I can’t face that crowd in the stadium again.” The coach put his hand on the player’s shoulder and said, “Get up and go back in. The game is only half over.”
Our lives are not over either. God forgives us for our mistakes even for the times we have gone in the wrong direction. Besides being persons who are forgiven, we are to be people who are united. Paul’s message also addresses the importance of being bound together, “to unite all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s purpose for us as a church is to work as a team.
A colleague of mine became seriously ill the week of Christmas. That meant he was unable to deliver the Christmas Eve message. He was not able to make his contribution to the monthly newsletter. During the same week there were two deaths in the church which meant someone else would have to officiate. The good news is that he has an associate pastor who could perform these duties in his absence. The associate pastor was hired just a few months prior. Not everyone in the church was in favor of hiring an associate pastor. Through that event the congregation discovered the wisdom of expanding their team of ministry.
There are times when we have to let go of our pride and allow others to do our work for us. I know that for my friend that was not easy. He had to make concessions and be a team player. Unity in the church is an essential element of our faith. The reason churches fail is because a small minority want their own way. Or, a church fails to connect with the larger community, thus preventing them from developing relationships beyond themselves. To be “destined in love” is to share together the mission and ministry of the church.
The Church at Ephesus could not stand alone. They needed this message to guard them from total self reliance. By reminding them that God’s grace was freely given they were reminded that one of the very reasons they were a faithful community was because of what God did, not what they did for themselves. People of faith are to live “to the praise of God’s glorious grace.” God wants us to live with a thankful heart, in praise for all God has done and is doing.
We are not a club. We are not a business. We are a community of believers who share one common denominator. We are all redeemed and “destined in love.” We are a gathering of people who are all different. We are people who at sometime or another “have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But, the glue that holds us together is grace.
It is a costly gift, yet free to us. And although we feel unworthy we are still loved. We are not the church because we have performed well. We are not the church because we are respectable citizens. We are the church because we freely accept the grace of God and are free to pass it on.
Copyright 2003, Keith Wagner. Used by permission.