Just a few days ago, one of my best friends, Will, texted me out of the blue and asked “Of all the popular saints, which one is your favorite?” I pretty quickly thought of St. Francis. He was born to a wealthy family and led a pretty indulgent life. Without giving you a whole summary of his life, he ended up renouncing his family’s wealth, gave up his inheritance and chose a life of poverty for the sake of Christ.
There are so many saints and Christian teachers that we admire and find encouragement from, each of them with their own unique story of faithfulness to God that has brought them to be considered a spiritual hero. And while we often put these saints on a pedestal, what I find myself being reminded of is that these great saints are really no different than us, no more special and no more holy than you and me. Just faithful followers who answered God’s call, who in a moment of encounter with God stepped out in faith and did something different … or chose a new way to live going forward.
I think this might be some of what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul uses the first few chapters of the letter to talk about the beauty and grandeur of the Gospel; how Jesus Christ has delivered us from death to life and brought forth salvation to the whole world. The final chapters, which is where our lectionary reading for the day comes from, is primarily focused on how the gospel of Jesus Christ changes every part of how we live in the world.
But back pedaling a bit, in Ephesians 4, Paul reminds the Gentile Christians to “put away your former way of life, your old self, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, [which is] created according to the likeness of God [pause] in true righteousness and holiness.” He follows up with some pretty direct demands (as we have been hearing about the past few weeks), as to what the old self looks like and how the new self, the person reborn in God, is to live and act in the world. What really strikes me about chapters 4 and 5 is how Paul reveals an alternative vision for what we Christians should consider “the good life.” He so vividly describes what I can only call the ultimate reality in which Jesus Christ is in all things, of all things, and at the center of all things.
When we follow Jesus, when we abide in his love, he invites us to participate in this new reality, God’s reality, in which we are being made new and the way we see the world is made new. That old self with all its misguided desires for love is being reshaped to seek the kind of love and life that lasts. It’s like taking off the proverbial rose colored glasses and seeing the world for what it really is —but in this case it’s actually very good — taking off the glasses and seeing our world and all the brokenness within it being redeemed by Jesus.
When as Christians we begin to live with the knowledge that God’s reality is pressing down on us and all around us, the old ways of living just don’t work. The only kind of life, the eternal kind of life, is one that is molded in the likeness and characteristics of Jesus Christ. And being made like Jesus is a process that will take our whole lives and will require a lot of help.
With the power of the Holy Spirit and in a community of believers, we have the sacraments to help us along the way. In Christ, we participate in a new reality and the sacraments are the outward and physical signs of the inward and spiritual grace gifted to us by God. The sacraments are tangible signs of God’s reality. They are like landmarks in our Christian life; rituals, practices, and sustenance to return to time and time again to remind us of who we are, to whom we belong to, and to remind us that eternal life is already here but not fully here yet.
And in today’s Gospel, Jesus says that in his body and blood is where we find our life. In his body is the food for our souls and his blood the drink that quenches our deepest desires. When we take Eucharist, we eat his flesh and drink his blood. We become one with God and God becomes one with us, and in the process, the Spirit chips away at that old self and we are reminded of this heavenly reality that we partake in. We are reminded that apart from God we can do nothing, that it is in God alone that we live, and move, and have our being.
But joining in God’s reality, shedding off that old self and allowing Jesus to make us more like him comes with its own set of dangers. I’m not sure there is any person who has encountered the living God and walked away unscathed. Like so many of our favorite saints, Jesus makes spiritual and material demands on our life that we often want to reject. I don’t imagine that renouncing his wealth and giving up his inheritance was an easy thing for St. Francis to do, but I wonder if it’s the only thing he could do. When God comes knocking on our door and whispers to our hearts about something we need to do, whether it’s about re-evaluating your relationship to your phone, changing your job, or re-thinking your financial priorities, can we ever really say no? But the fact of the matter is that God’s call is always wrapped up in our good. It might hurt a lot, but if it is really of God, it will always be liberating, healing, and pointing us back to Christ.
So what does God want to make new in you? Where is the Holy Spirit’s transforming love stirring within you? And maybe even a better question, or at least the one that is always the signal for me, what is the thing I have been avoiding? Where does God’s knocking seem to ask something from me that is going to cost me power, influence, or popularity?
God’s call for transformation is unique to each of us and throughout our lives it will change and be something different. While God’s call looks different for us all, there are attributes to a Gospel centered life that remain the same: laying down your life for the sake of others, healing the sick, being among and caring for the oppressed, and proclaiming Hope in a weary and anxious world. How each of us is called to show up in this new reality, to live in eternal life now, will look different for all of us … but it must always look like Jesus.
Ephesians 1 verses 17-19 is a powerful little prayer that really moved me as I was preparing for this sermon. I hope that you will write this down, that you will pray with these verses in the weeks to come. Use these verses to pray for our church, to pray for one another, and to pray for yourself. It’s the kind of powerful encouragement that if you take one thing away from this sermon let it be this.
Ephesians 1:17-19 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so 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, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power … Amen.
Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021
St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS