Ephesians 1 : Die Well

This sermon was delivered on the 3rd of November 2019 during a Sung Eucharist at St Mary’s Diss for All Saints Day. Readings: Ephesians 1:11-end , Luke 6:20-31.

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Somehow it is now November. Last week the clocks returned to Greenwich Mean Time, the temperature now carries a distinct chilliness and, of course, the evenings are growing darker day by day. It only seems like just the other week that I was here celebrating my first mass amongst you as a newly ordained priest and yet time does as it does and continues it’s steady march onwards through the cycle of seasons bringing us now through All Hallows Eve and on to first all Saints Day and All Souls day; days on which we, the Church, would do well to take stock of our true context in time as Christians in the 21st Century. 

On the one hand we have all of the common questions that each generation must process and reflect on as culture and society change in their many and varied ways. Some of these changes are no doubt positive; with advances in medicine and technology enabling both improved health, communication and access to information. Some are less positive, such as the strong sense of division which has permeated not just our own country but also, it would seem, around the world. Along with the obvious political divides the moral landscape has shifted drastically, with as yet unrealised implications. One person I spoke to the other day described the world as having become “topsy turvey” and I couldn’t really disagree with them.

These questions are the questions which we are living our way through. They will continue to have an impact on our lives and the life of the Church in the 21st Century even as new and different changes and questions arise. 

Yet to focus on these questions limits our gaze to our own lifetimes. Which, as full and rich as they may have been, are but as leaves on trees which grow green, and glow a rusted orange before the wind scatters them to return to the ground. 

Widening our gaze involves the uncomfortable acknowledgement of our own mortality, a mortality which we are made most aware of when those whom we love deeply – parents, spouses, children, friends – pass from life into death. We who live on remember them, and in turn shall one day be remembered. 

And this is what All Saints and All Soul’s days do for us: They offer us an opportunity to look beyond ourselves both to those who have come before and to those who will come after us.

The history of the Church as she has lived through this world is a history of dying well. Of course, some lived well. Some wrote books which have shaped nations, while others have fought wars which defended or determined the fate those nations. Kings have ruled and taxed people. People have lived in places which they have filled with love, laughter and trade, and those places have become living monuments to those who have lived, worked and died there just as we continue to so do today. 

But the history of the Church, that is the body of Christ militant here on earth, has always been that of seeking to die well. For some that has meant martyrdom; to die refusing to renounce Christ. Whether it be Stephen in Acts, Polycarp in the second century, Cranmer, Wycliffe and Ridley in the 16th century or the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded on the beach by ISIS 4 years ago, martyrdom has persistently remained a possibility for the Christian.

It is unlikely to be a reality for those of us gathered here this morning, but for many of our brothers and sisters across the world the simple act of heading to Church to pray and worship on a Sunday morning is to risk having stones thrown at them, being beaten with sticks – or much worse. 

 Nevertheless, we too shall die in our own ways. The question is how shall we die well? 

To die well is to complete our baptismal unification with Christ; that is, having passed through the waters of baptism we have been joined by the Holy Spirit into all that Christ is – his incarnate life, the Lord our God living amongst us as one of us, who died for us upon the cross and was resurrected as the living promise of the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. This is the promise of baptism, that living we share in the life of the one who lives beyond death. Dying, then, we share in his death and so enter his care in the sure and certain hope of our bodily resurrection which shall come on the last day. 

For the Christian, this is then a question of confidence, and the source of our confidence.

In our Gospel reading from Luke we heard first the blessings, and then the woes. First three blessings, for the poor, the hungry, and those who weep; that they shall have the Kingdom of God, that they shall be filled, and that they shall laugh. Then the three woes, which are mirror opposites. The rich, the full and the laughing; who shall gain nothing, become hungry, and will mourn and weep.

Each is followed by a comparison with the prophets and false prophets; the prophets, Jesus tells us, were reviled, while the false prophets were praised.

The contrast presents to us a choice.

Will we trust in ourselves, or in God for the things which matter?

It can be tempting to think that we’ve earned or worse that we deserve a good life. It can be tempting to think that we have blessed ourselves. If that is the case then really we worship ourselves and our confidence is based on nothing more than our own abilities. And at the end of the day, when we have been placed into our graves, can we raise ourselves to life again? 

 In Deuteronomy God places before us a choice, choose God and he shall give you life and blessings. Choose to fend for yourself and all you deny his blessings and instead of life shall recieve death.

You might be thinking to yourself, “I hear you Samuel, and it’s not that I disagree with you, but sometimes it’s not easy to have confidence in God; to believe that he really loves even me.”

If that is you then trust me you’re not alone.

Sometimes it can be easy for a sermon to be eloquent and yet fall flat. It’s one thing to repeat the blessings in Luke, to say “Blessed are you who weep now” but the truth is that weeping is exhausting. Your face aches, your heart hurts and the sense of being alone is hard to put into words. Crying at 2 o’clock in the morning doesn’t feel much like a blessing.

 And I’m quite sure that Jesus knows exactly how that feels. He stood there looking at Jerusalem and wept because the people of that city didn’t understand that God was with them. On another occasion he stood with Mary and Martha by the tomb of Lazarus and wept with the grief which we feel for our own friends whose graves we’ve stood by.

The blessings of God are not hollow words which mask difficult situations. 

They are God pledging himself to be with us in those difficult situations. The blessing which I/Tony shall give at the end of this service isn’t simply a nice thing to say at the end of the service. It’s a promise that wherever you go, whatever circumstances you find yourself in after you’ve left this building and gone out into your life, Jesus will be with you by the presence of His Holy Spirit. 

This is what Paul is trying to convey in our reading from Ephesians. We heard only from verse 11 to the end of the chapter, but I would encourage you to read the whole of Ephesisans 1 as far as chapter 2 verse 10 because when you read those 31 verses you read Paul’s passionate articulation of the Gospel, of the reality of the promises of the Gospel and the confidence which we can have about Jesus, and through Jesus our salvation from death and sin to eternal life. 

He begins by saying “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”. This is the foundation of our confidence in the Gospel, that God, our heavenly father, has blessed us with all the blessings of the heavenly places in Christ. 

Paul says that in love God chose us before the foundation of the world, he destined us to be adopted as his children; brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. In Jesus we have redemption through his blood shed on the cross, he has forgiven our trespasses because of the riches of his grace that he has lavished upon us – lavished, the generosity is exuberantly overflowing. 

Because we are adopted as children of God, as brothers and sisters together with Jesus Christ all that is his as the son of God is an inheritance which we shall share. That is, the Gospel into which we have been baptised is the sharing of that life which lives beyond the power of death which touches us and those we love as it touched Christ. 

Paul spends time simply revelling in the glorious reality that Jesus truly is God, that he definitely died and most certainly has risen again and that by the love and power of God the Father he does mighty works of immeasurable greatness for all the saints – that is, all those whom he has marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. 

Paul says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; this is the gift of God.

This is encouraging. Deeply encouraging. When we try and trust in our own abilities we can wonder where on earth can we find the strength to cope, to carry on. Well Paul says that that strength came to earth in the person of Jesus, that it is through what Jesus has done for us that we, trusting in the kindness of God shown to us in Christ Jesus, can not just endure through the hard times but live well in them and, at the end, die trusting in the promises of Christ. 

And just in case you’re tempted to think that this is all well and good for other people. That it worked for the early church and for Paul but we’re living today and now and things are hard, let me highlight for you Paul’s prayer which you have heard read in our reading today. 

Paul prays: 

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 amongst the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the greatness of his power. 

What a prayer, and today this is my prayer for each of you. That you may hear the Gospel and know within your hearts that God loves you and God is with you. 

On all saints day we remember that united as the Church we are united with all those who have died in the love of Christ. When we come forward to receive the bread and wine, we come forward into the presence of God’s divine majesty. As we do so, we are united with all believers throughout the ages, past, present, and, I believe, future.  Some of those have names we know from our history books. Some of those we can name as our loved ones. And a great many of those may well have been forgotten to the world but are known and loved by name and spirit as the precious children of God. 

As for us, in this topsy turvey world, how then are we to continue the story of the Church as we also seek to die well?

We do so by placing our confidence in the kindness of the God who blesses those who mourn, who mourns alongside us even as he love brings us through the power of death to share in his most blessed and eternal life. Amen.