St Paul and the Divine Plan

A Sermon for Proper 10(15)B

Copyright (C) 2003 by Abigail Ann Young

In today's epistle, Paul takes us behind the scenes into the mind of God, at least as Paul sees it, to unveil part of God's plan -- the part which centres on Jesus and his saving work. Paul had not always had this 'take' on Jesus -- in his earlier days, he thought that what the newly formed church believed about Jesus' life and work, and its effect on people's lives, was dangerous and wrong. So far from lifting up the corner of a veil to show a part -- even a tiny part -- of God's will, Paul thought that Christians like Stephen were blaspheming against God. Their reading of the Scriptures and Israel's history distorted the truth and insulted Israel's God. Paul wanted to stop them and their teaching at any cost.

Well, we know how that came out! Paul encountered the risen Christ while on his way to Damascus to persecute the new Christian community there -- for a short while he lost his outward sight but seems to have gained a sharp new inner sight that never left him and the even greater gift of being able to communicate what he had seen and heard to others. Here in Ephesians, he uses what may be a quotation from a hymn, or part of a liturgy, to talk about the sheer immensity of what God has done through Jesus, not just in individual lives, but across time and space.

This divine plan, which Paul readily acknowledges is a mystery and so not fully accessible to us, will ultimately (how and when we don't know) mean the gathering up of everything in Christ. But in the meantime, in the here and now, it can be seen not in the affairs of nations, as had been the case when Israel's prophets spoke about the divine plan in the terrible days that preceded the loss of their land and their freedom and the destruction of God's Temple, but in the lives of individual Christians.

This plan, unfolding from the beginning of time, is concerned not with kings or even with apostles only, but with all Christians, with everyone who has heard the gospel and believed in Jesus -- which means us as much as those for whom Paul was first writing. Think about it for a minute -- God has a plan, has had a plan in fact from Day One, and the object of that plan includes your baptism and mine, our life of faith. The New Testament drives home this message in a variety of ways -- the sparrow's fall, the lilies of the field -- but none hits me harder than the idea that my own personal salvation could be part of a plan that's existed from the beginning of time or that my own Damascus was as much a part of God's plan as Paul's was. Fortunately for the dangers of swollen self-esteem, that's not all that the plan is about, but it's part of it. That you and I are that important to God is worth spending a few moments thinking about.

This plan is God's purpose, Paul tells us, and God accomplishes what he sets out to do according to his counsel and will. So what is the plan? Paul tells us four things about it, beyond its culmination in the time what all things will be summed up in Jesus: first, we are redeemed through Jesus' blood, that is, through the saving work that he finished with his obedient death and his Father certified and acknowledged by raising him from the dead. Second, we are forgiven through the richness of the grace lavished on us -- no grudging forgiveness here! If the Lord loves a cheerful giver, as Paul also tells us in another context, it must be because he is such a cheerful giver himself, lavishing us with forgiveness and favour and love. Third, all this is our inheritance, a lasting bequest that will carry us through to salvation as part of God's family in this world and beyond. And fourth, part of the plan is that we should know about it -- we are not puppets going through someone else's motions to their design. Rather, because God loves us so much, he is sharing the knowledge of some of his plan with us, so that we may by grace be co-workers with him in bringing everything to completion in, as Paul says, the fullness of time.

Clearly Paul is telling us about all this not merely to let us in on a cool bit of intellectual growth. This is no cosmic F.Y.I. memo to the church. Just knowing isn't enough. For us as individuals, a lot depends on how we respond to the plan -- as a student and as a young man, Saul responded to his understanding of God's plan as revealed in the prophets by rejecting Jesus and all his followers said about him and his work in their lives and by trying to root out their blasphemies and destroy them. In our gospel reading, we heard about the death of John the Baptist, God's last great prophet before the plan began its open outworking in Jesus' ministry. When John's ministry led him to confront King Herod and his sinful life, Herod responded by imprisoning him and killing him for a whim. Unlike King Ashuereus, who answered Esther's plea at a banquet with life, Herod answers Herodias' with death. Then he reacts to Jesus, to God's presence in our world, with superstition and fear, seeing him as John the Baptist come back to haunt him. So it's possible to see part of the plan at work all around you and be blind to it.

Michal too, in our Old Testament reading, was unmoved by being in the presence of God and his plan. All the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, the book of Samuel tells us, gathered to take part in bring the ark of the Covenant, God's presence in the midst of his people, into Jerusalem, their new capitol. They escorted it into the city with rejoicing, shouting, dancing, blowing on trumpets, and similar undignified pursuits. King David himself danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing nothing but a linen ephod. But one person is conspicuous by her absence from this picture: Michal, Saul's daughter and Jonathan's sister, is not there. She is looking on from her window with scorn and disapproval. She sees David's extreme joy and despises him for its expression. So even an awareness of God's presence is not enough.

So why does Paul tell us about God's plan? How does God want us to live our lives, now that we know about the plan? Paul puts the whole plan into a context of blessing: he begins, 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ'. He says that all of this plan is working to the praise of God's glory, and he says that we are now to live to the praise of God's glory. How do we do that?

The Psalmist says that those who will stand in God's holy place will be those with clean hands and pure hearts, those who do not seek what is false, those who do not swear deceitfully. That's a tall order! But we know, because we know of the Father's plan, that the Father has gifted us lavishly with his grace and that he has destined us to be holy and blameless before him in love. So in that knowledge and with faith in God's grace, let us strive live our lives in love, with clean hearts and pure hands. May we imitate David in his dance of joy, however undignified and unkingly, and not Michal in ignoring God's presence and scorning those who rejoice in it instead. May we imitate Paul himself, who changed his whole life in response to God's presence when God broke into his life to make him understand the divine plan, rather than Herod who struck out in superstition and fear against what challenged him in his sins. May we strive to be like John the Baptist and promote our part of the divine plan even though we can't see it all and likely won't live to see it all fulfilled.