From July 12 - August 30 (excepting 8/23), Pastor Guagenti preached on the book of Ephesians.

The reading for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost:  Ephesians 1:3-14.

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Rock that is higher than us.  Amen.

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.

The apostle who wrote these words, Paul of Tarsus, knew many different places.  He began his life a Jew among Jews, not wanting to stray far from the holy place, Jerusalem.  But when he writes his letter to the Ephesians, he is a prisoner in Rome, far from the Promised Land, but nearer to His God.

How does a man in prison in a city he had not visited as a free man not only praise God, but say that this, too, must be part of God’s good plan?  How does a man stripped of everything he had go on and on about the wondrous inheritance we have in Christ? 

This Sunday, and for the next few weeks, we have the opportunity to hear together and consider St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.  It is a beautiful testimony to God’s grace among His people.

Since, we’ll be focusing on this book in the sermon the next few weeks, let’s set the context.  Paul was the rare apostle who did not follow Jesus during Jesus’ time before His crucifixion.  In fact, while Jesus was preaching, Paul was a rising star among the scribes and Pharisees who plotted Jesus’ death.

After Jesus died and rose again, Peter, James, John, and all the Twelve preached that Jesus’ death forgave sins and His life before God granted the baptized the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Paul and many of the Jewish leaders believed this was blasphemy.  Paul acquired authority to arrest and even stone Christians for blasphemy.  When the first believer died for faith in Jesus, Paul was there giving support to the stoning of St. Stephen.

But on the road to Damascus, pursuing other Christians, Paul had a vision.  He saw and heard Jesus.  He realized what he was doing was wrong.  He repented.  A little later, a Christian came to Paul, healed him, heard his confession of faith and baptized him.  The man who once tried to kill Christians had become a Christian.

Paul settled into the church in Antioch, but when that church heard the call to send out missionaries into Asia and Greece, Paul was one of the men sent.  He became a man without an earthly home, moving farther and farther away from his old homes. 

Though he went to many different cities, his pattern of preaching was the same.  He would go first to the synagogue in a city, the place where Jews gathered to hear the Hebrew Scriptures.  And he would tell the Jews there about Jesus.  The immediate response would be interest.  To hear about the prophet Jesus was one thing, but to hear about him from someone like Paul was a real scoop.  Who else had been on both sides of the controversy like Paul?

As Paul would preach, it became clear to the Jews in the synagogue, this isn’t just idle gossip.  Paul was teaching that God had made a marriage between heaven and earth, that in Jesus, the heavens pitched their tent in our own realm.  If Paul was right, it was a whole new world.  If Paul was wrong, he was a blasphemer.  Eventually, the disagreement would hit a boiling point.  Sometimes, Paul could preach in the synagogue for a few weeks before tensions boiled over.  When Paul came to Ephesus for the first time, he found a home in the synagogue for three months.  Acts 19:9 records of the end of these three months, “But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, Paul withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.  This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”

Going to the Greeks was a radical step.  We’ll talk more about this next week.  For now, hear this.  God was doing amazing things.  He sent His Son to make Him a man.  He took a body that was dead and not only made Him alive but sat His Son down at His right hand.  He took another man who was His enemy and made Him a preacher of peace.  He took peoples that were far apart, Jews and Gentiles, and He brought them together.  This was what Paul was now living.  He found himself caught up in God’s plan, a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

The Paul who once had tried to kill Christians for the sake of a building in Jerusalem had learned not to hold too tightly to his own plans.  After all, even Jesus had said, essentially, not what I plan but what you plan, Father.  You see this in the chapters of Acts where Paul comes to Ephesus.  For so long before Ephesus, Paul had gone from one city to another.  He was in a groove, starting churches, moving on, coming back, checking on the churches.  Each circuit took him closer and closer to Rome, the center of the world they knew.

But when Paul came to Ephesus, the plan, God’s plan, changed.  Paul stayed.  Instead of facing imprisonment, beatings, and rejection, Paul became famous for miracle-working.  People would take handkerchiefs touched by Paul to the sick and they would heal people.  Paul really wanted to get to Rome, but he stayed in Ephesus for three years.  Luke says of this time, “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”

Finally, Paul set out once more, saying he must see Rome.  But the plan to get to Rome was not going to be the way Paul expected.  While he started heading west, God made him take a U-turn.  You can read the details in Acts.  Just as it had for Jesus, God’s plan led to Jerusalem, where Paul knew opposition would be fiercest.

As Paul was heading back to Jerusalem he called to him the elders from Ephesus.  They were clearly important to him.  You get the sense that Paul was afraid that if he actually went back into Ephesus, he wouldn’t be able to leave.  So he bypasses Ephesus but calls the elders to him.  And he tells them, “I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonments and afflictions await me.”

Indeed, Paul was arrested, and for years he just waited in jail.  But it was that arrest that led to him being taken to Rome on appeal.  It was from Rome, finally, that Paul writes the epistle to the Ephesians.  It was there Paul wrote, “In love God predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

This was Paul’s faith in action.  From the darkness of prison, Paul saw God’s loving plan.  Separated from the congregation he cherished, he still celebrated with them through the Word.  In this letter to the Ephesians, the Holy Spirit invites us to join in this same faith and celebration.  In each of our own lives, we are some place not as we planned.  It may not feel like prison, and we may not feel as cut off from beloved family as Paul felt separated from his Ephesian brothers and sisters, but then again you might.  Whatever darkness and frustration you are facing, God is working all things together for good for those who love and serve Him.  He is doing this for you right now.  Paul asks you to look for it right now.

This is the key for Paul’s writing about predestination in our reading this morning.  Some teachers describe predestination as if God was far off, picking winners and losers as if from a hat.  This is not at all what the Bible says.  For Paul, for the church, predestination is God’s intimate planning in our lives, taking what others mean for ill and making it good.  Paul says predestination is done in love.

It made me think about the elaborate proposals guys sometimes think up when they have found the lady they want to marry.  You know how guys hide rings in oysters or plan a whole day to bring back memories from their time dating.  One man threw a rooftop party for his girlfriend and some of their friends.  He stood on the ledge of the building and began his speech.  He asked his friend to throw him the ring, but the friend’s aim was off to the side.  Reaching for the ring, the man reached too far and plummeted over the side.  His would-be fiancée screamed and ran to the ledge.  There she saw, several stories below, an inflated cushion, and the words printed out “Will you marry me?”

I found that video in an article about the ten worst marriage proposals, so I guess it was a bad idea.  But in marriages, if not in most proposals, we learn about love from both the better and the worse.  And Paul describes God’s plan as a marriage, the uniting of all things in Jesus, the Beloved, things in heaven and things on earth.  So our faith looks for God’s plan to be found not just in clouds and harps but in the very earthy things like prisons.   Our faith, after all, is centered on a cross, a device of cruelest torture and capital punishment, and yet the device God used to save the world and defeat death.

In that same article, most of the other worst marriage proposals were videos of people being brutally rejected.  Guys propose at sporting events on jumbotrons and then after hearing the devastating “No” hear a crowd booing.  I say God’s predestination, his plan of love, is like a proposal because it calls for a response.  It calls for us to say, “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.

The reading for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost:  Ephesians 2:11-22.

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from our peace on earth, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.

I think of all the things in the Bible, the part we least appreciate is what it meant for Jesus to live and die for us.  But after that, the part we next least appreciate is probably how hard it was for Jews and Gentiles to come together into one church.  Jews who lived outside of Judea, like those in Ephesus, were looked down on by everyone. 

You know what it’s like for a mom to ask her adult son why he lives so far away, right?  Well imagine that mom had Bible verses on her side that said her son was a sinner for living among Gentiles.  The Bible says you’re supposed to come back to Jerusalem for every festival, but we’re lucky if we see you once a year!  A lot of Jews who moved out of Judea just stopped being Jews.  But the ones who kept going to synagogue had a cloud of guilt hanging over them.  They knew they were supposed to be better than they were.

But that’s just one side of it.  The Gentiles they lived among thought the Jews followed absurd rules.  Jews were restricted by those rules from important places and idolatrous festivals where all the other Gentiles socialized.  So, Jews lived among the Ephesians and Corinthians and Romans, but as strangers in a strange land.  And any time a Gentile would show interest in Jewish religion, the Jew would have to say, well, this God created you, too, but if you want to be one of His children, you have to be Jewish like me.

Jews called the Gentiles “the uncircumcision.”  That didn’t just mean Gentiles were uncut.  Circumcision was, to the Jews, a symbol of cleanliness.  To be the uncircumcision meant to be unclean, not physically but at the core of your person.  That’s why Jewish moms back in Judea held such a trump card when telling their kids to move back home.  To live amongst the unclean was like living in a fallout zone.

Now imagine this hostility simmering under every interaction.  Jews were not only unwanted immigrants, but proud intruders, who thought their heritage was better than everyone else.  Gentiles expected Jews to be insufferably self-righteous, aloof, and awkward.  Jews expected Gentiles to be boorish, corrupted, and corrupting.  They both lived down to each other’s expectations.  This was the background for any single Jew and any single Gentile to try and interact.  Throw in our human tendency to selfishness and you get what Paul described:  a dividing wall of hostility.

Ancient Jews and Gentiles are not the only people who live with a wall of hostility.  Humanity comes up with all sorts of absurd reasons to create walls of hostility.  Some have said it’s okay to disrespect people because of the color of their skin.  Some have said it’s okay to disrespect people because who their parents are.  Some have said it’s okay to disrespect people if they speak a different language.  Some have said it’s okay to disrespect people with an extra chromosome.  Some have said it’s okay to disrespect people when they are old and slower.  Some have said it’s okay to disrespect people if they aren’t yet born.  Some have said it’s okay to disrespect people if they disagree with a more enlightened world view.

We say that everyone is created in the image of God, deserving of not only respect, but love.  We say every one of us is a sinner, and therefore contemptible in some way, but washed clean by the blood of Christ, and therefore adorable in the most important way.  We say there is no one so bad in your life that you cannot find a way to love them.

But let’s step back for a minute and talk about how walls of hostility are built.  Note what Paul says about how the walls of hostility come down, by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances.  Communities build insular identities through commandments and ordinances.  These ordinances build the walls that say, “we’re on a team and they are off the team.”  When Ephesus was full of rich, tasty lamb meat fresh from the sacrifices to the goddess Artemis, and the whole town celebrated together, the Jews stood aside and refused to buy any meat in the markets.  They were not on Artemis’ team. 

These ordinances are laws that are easier to keep than the hard laws of loving your neighbor and loving God.  You tell me to love my neighbor all the time no matter what he does and this seems impossible.  You tell me, on the other hand, that I can be righteous if I avoid eating a certain food or sign a petition or wear a certain type of clothes or post something on facebook, well those things I can definitely do.  So we see certin pat each other on the back clubs forming with a weak sauce righteousness all over the place. 

There are those who are righteous because they only eat organic.  There are those who are righteous because they were always against this or that war.  There are those who are righteous because they’ve never touched any fabric with Confederate insignia.  There are those who are righteous because they’ve rainbowed their profile.

Now you might say, Pastor, are you telling me not to eat organic?  Never- the Church doesn’t traffic in righteousness by ordinances.  The righteousness the church has to give is much more precious.  The righteousness Jesus offers in His church has the weight of God’s own glory. 

The problem with the weak sauce righteousness and the way you know it for what it is, is that it always, always looks down on the neighbor.  It builds the walls of hostility.  See you can be against a war and respect those who disagree and pray for soldiers and families whose intention is to protect you.  That’s fine.  That’s not a problem.  Or you can be against a war and only listen to people who agree with you and deride everyone who disagrees with you.  That’s the petty righteousness of ordinances.  That fake righteousness will come tumbling down in the judgment before Jesus.  Not a straw of it will stand. 

And, of course, it works both ways.  You can be for a war and respect those who think we ought not fight it.  Or you can be for it and think your patriotism makes you better than the supposed cowards who oppose the war.  You can eat a certain diet because you think it’s healthy for you.  Or you can act like your diet makes you better than people who eat differently.

Throughout all this, I’ve told you the church has a much better righteousness to offer.  See the reason we flee to the petty righteousness of ordinances is because deep down we all know we have failed life’s big tests.  We know we have not loved God as much as He deserves.  We may have loved the neighbors that are good to us, but even them, we’ve let down too often.

So we hope to make up for the big F on the biggest test by getting graded on a curve on a make-up test that looks much easier.  The problem- besides the fact that we’re imagining a make-up test that God doesn’t give- is that trying to pretend we’re righteous on a curve attacks our neighbor, which is the thing we were failing at in the first place.

Thank God, Jesus gives us a better way.  He abolishes the test.  When He lived, all His neighbors told Him He was failing.  And He didn’t fight them on it.  The Jewish lawyers said He broke the most important ordinances.  Pilate wasn’t as adamant, but when the Gentile governor gave Jesus a way out and Jesus wouldn’t take it, he washed his hands of him and allowed the verdict of failure to fall.

Even then, Jesus was uniting Jew and Gentile.  He united them in their guilty verdicts upon Him.  But He was taking their guilt on Him.  He was taking our failures.  He was pulling down with Him every petty ordinance to make a new righteousness, a free one, a righteousness of grace and mercy.

Jesus died for us, an act of love for us and trust in His Father.  He aced the test, even as He took the world’s public grade of failure.  So, we also, if we want to break down the walls of hostility, we’ll need to fail a lot of petty ordinance tests.

In the ancient world, a great test of righteousness came by who you ate with.  Pious Jews would never sit at the same table as Gentiles.  So, when Jews and Gentiles drank from the same cup, the cup of the Lord’s redeeming blood, it was an awesome, glorious moment.  The Jews who did that were thought by some to have failed a test.  But Jesus was making a new man, where there had been two, declaring peace.

When we come together at the table, it’s still an awesome moment.  We kneel next to one another and we see Jesus give Himself totally to our neighbor.  We see what defines that neighbor.  That neighbor may vote different than I do, so the world tells me to disrespect him.  But that’s not what I see.  That neighbor may actually hurt me.  But that’s not what I see.  I see all his sins washed clean in the blood he drinks.  I see him made utterly, perfectly righteous.  And then I see that Jesus is offering the same thing to me.  It is an awesome moment.  And it’s almost here.

Paul says, So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.  In Christ, you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.  You are being built together.  Don’t just see your neighbor, brothers and sisters.  Cling to one another.  Make space in your lives for the Spirit to build you.  This isn’t a new ordinance.  This is only the eternal invitation.  Heaven will be God’s perfect building up of us all in love.  But why wait? Amen.

The reading for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Epheisans 3:14-21.

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

According to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

When the Jewish Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, they dared not put Him to death on their own authority.  So they took Him to Pilate.  They begged the Roman governor to do their dirty work.

Decades later, when Paul returned to Jerusalem, things weren’t as organized.  Paul was dragged out of the temple.  A mob formed, beating Paul.  Roman soldiers came and arrested Paul, saving him temporarily.  Paul was allowed to address the crowds, but his testimony for Jesus only incited the crowds again.  So Paul was taken to be examined by flogging.  When they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul asked if it was lawful for them to whip a Roman citizen.

It was a staggering turn.  Paul was a Roman citizen***.  He shouldn’t be treated like this.  Roman justice was different for citizens than for those who were simply conquered tax payers.  So Paul’s case, rather than being decided by the mob, started to work its way up the Roman ladder, all the way to Caesar back in Rome.

So Paul was in Roman captivity when he wrote Ephesians.  His Roman citizenship had kept him alive but it was also keeping him locked up.

Throughout his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives thanks for a different kind of citizenship, the kind won for him by Jesus.  Last week, we heard how this citizenship is offered to all, how it breaks down the walls of hostility raised by other nations and laws.  Now, in chapter 3, Paul speaks of his prayers.  He does so in a way that continues the theme of citizenship.

Ephesians 3:14 says For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.  There are a couple of things about this passage that keep us from seeing the political undertones.  First, most of us don’t read Greek, so we don’t hear the pun.  Father in Greek is Pater.  What we hear translated as every family is pasa patria.  But patria could be translated more broadly, not just as families, as nations.  Indeed, Caesar was called the Pater patria.

Paul was in prison because of an appeal to Caesar, and he was saying that ruler he really bows before is not Caesar but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  That’s the other part of this.  Kneeling is a fairly common posture for prayer in English speaking lands.  But Jews usually stood to pray.  Kneeling was more of a sign of begging than a Jew usually connected to prayer.

Caesar brought nations to their knees.  He could call himself father of nations because he conquered them.  But it was the kingdom of Jesus, the kingdom that came through cross bearing, submission, and prayer, that really brought down walls of hostility, really brought peace, really answered the pleas of her citizens.  And the kingdom of the Christ has, of course, out-lived Caesar’s kingdom.

So Paul took the image that his opponents had in their mind- Paul alive only because he begged before Caesar Pater Patria and he flipped it.  Paul lived for the Father of all nations, the God who promised Abraham that through Isaac all nations would be blessed.

This brings us to a question we must ask ourselves.  Who are we on our knees before?  Who do we trust more than anyone else?  Who do we call upon in times of trouble?

I suggest that the place you first turn for help is likely to be the thing or person you trust the most, or the thing or person that is most important to you.  How far down the list for you is God?  Is God kept behind a class case with the words, “Only break in emergency”?

Most people don’t treat friends this way.  If you’re close friends, when there are troubles, even small things, you tell them.  They advise or help as best they can.

So we should pray.  God cares about us.  He is a certain source of help.  We are not just citizens in His kingdom.  This is why patria is translated family in our reading.  We are members of His family.  Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father.”

Think about Paul’s situation.  He may have died in Jerusalem had he not made use of his Roman citizenship.  But he played that card and it got him to Rome, not to beg of Caesar but to preach to Caesar’s own family.  You are a citizen- more than a citizen- a family member of the Lord of all nations.  How could anyone leave this behind unbroken glass unused?

Paul’s prayer, indeed, is that we would make full use of our faith, that we would be rooted and grounded in love, that we wouldn’t just catch a bare patch of God’s love but would come to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.  This is faith grasping love.  Through this faith, we are filled with all the fullness of God.

It’s a common complaint, “Why should I pray?  God already knows what I want and what I need anyway”?  I had more sympathy for this complaint before I was a father myself.  Now I know that there are all sorts of things my kids have only because they asked.  They asked and I like them to be pleased, so I give.  Not always, of course.  I do know better what they need and what is good for them.  But I would not be putting on TV the cartoon Paw Patrol so often without being asked.

Praying to God is not exactly like a child asking a dad for ice cream after dinner, but it’s closer than you think.  When Jesus is teaching about prayer in Luke 11, he says, If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

We should see prayer as speaking to someone we trust to love us and be generous to us.  The reason we think prayer can’t be like that is because we have the wrong idea about true generosity.  Jesus says the Father gives the Holy Spirit.  Paul in Ephesians 3 says that the Father is him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask of think, according to the power at work within us.  The power at work within us is, again, the Holy Spirit.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for a physical healing or for some extra money.  Ask.  Ask away.  But don’t stop there.

When we pray, we should follow Paul’s example and praise God.  We should tell Him why we love Him.

We don’t have to do that to butter Him up.  He knows His own goodness far better than we do.  Neither, in God, is there any false modesty nor puffed up pride.  God alone truly knows Himself.

We praise like a person feeling their way through the dark, words moving up like hands to find the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love.  Paul says that the love of Christ surpasses knowledge, so we don’t expect to find that end point where we can say that God’s love stops.

And that’s why we also never stop asking in prayer.  If God would not stop at giving His own Son, if we can’t find the end point of His grace, the reaching in prayer is a wonderful treasure hunt.  We may not get the healing or the extra money, but persisting, the hand of prayer reaches and touches the Spirit, praying within us, with us, for us.

Brothers and sisters, you’ve heard about prayer this morning.  Now is the time to pray.  For we are not reaching out alone.  As hands reach out to pray, seeking the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love, we find each other’s hands as well.   And in that gift, too, there is our Father’s love, continuing to break the walls of hostility.  Amen.

The reading for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost:  Ephesians 4:1-16.

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

You were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

We have one Lord, yet our God is three persons.  We have one faith, yet where David’s faith enabled him to slay a giant, it was the same faith that enabled Abraham to offer to sacrifice his own son.  We have one baptism, sins washed clean in the Nile, the Rhine, and the Thames.  We have one Father; He answers prayers from children who speak Tegalic, Russian, and Portugese.

Unity is not uniformity.  In fact, uniformity is often forced as a poor substitute for unity.

What do I mean by forced uniformity?  We know what a uniform is.  We see them most often in sports today.  I am also wearing a uniform that marks me as a preacher of the Gospel of forgiveness.  These uniforms aren’t forced; we choose to show what team we’re on.  Forced uniformity is like when the step-sisters try to cram their feet into Cinderella’s slipper.  Forced uniformity comes when a tyrant makes everyone under his rule in one political party.

The early Christian churches faced down one attempt to force uniformity into Jesus’ church.  The Apostle Paul was an important voice in the church’s defense.  Some Christians argued that all followers of Jesus must become Jewish.  After all, they said, Jesus was a Jew who kept all Moses’ laws.  The great symbol of this for forcing uniformity was circumcision.  They literally cut everyone into line.

We’ve already heard Paul speak on this in Ephesians in the last two weeks.  Jesus breaks down the walls of hostility raised by laws of forced uniformity.  He sets the captives free. 

So churches like the one in Ephesus were amazingly diverse, full of all kinds of peoples who wouldn’t otherwise interact in ancient societies.  Can you imagine a slave and slave owner learning to treat each other like brothers?  Can you imagine people whose races were at war sharing the peace which surpasses understanding?  In Ephesians 4 Paul talks about how that diverse group finds unity.

The first thing Paul mentions is humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.  If the Son of God could be humbled all the way to be spat on while bearing a cross, we can be humble with one another.

Think of it like this.  Astronauts fly to the highest heights of any pilot.  But if they want to get into their rocket or shuttle, they need someone to dress them in a space suit.  If you’ve never watched how long and how potentially embarrassing the whole process is, you can find it on-line.  I mean space diapers are on display for all the world to see.  To get to the highest heights, humility is necessary.

The reason humility is necessary for us is not only because it helps very different people work together, but the heart of the church is a relationship Paul describes in Ephesians 4.  The heart of the church is in the relationship of disciple and teacher.

Follow Ephesians 4’s line of thought.  Paul speaks of grace being given to us.  He quotes Psalm 68, which was a marching song of victory, celebrating the defeat of an evil king.  In ancient war, the army got paid when they won victory and took spoils.  As Paul uses that verse, however, we haven’t had to fight in the war that was won.  Jesus fought for us; He was not only a casualty of the war He fought, but rising again, He is the ultimate victor.

See, Abraham may have won battles against Sodom and David against Philistia, but Jesus invaded the realms of death.  Jesus’ host of captives are the formerly dead.  Jesus’ treasures to give are the treasures of truest life.

But how does Jesus distribute these gifts?  He distributes by giving apostles, prophets, evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.

Teaching is the way Jesus’ gifts are given.  Humility is necessary on both sides.  If a pastor stands in the pulpit and thinks he knows it all, thinks he has human cunning, he will fail.  But it also takes humility to sit and listen.  It takes humility to discipline the mind to follow someone else’s words. 

Some sermons won’t teach you anything new.  That doesn’t mean they can’t give Christ’s gifts.  Some sermons won’t be remembered.  That doesn’t mean they can’t give Christ’s gifts.

The sermon that is a blessing is the one that brings you to the fountain that is the unity of faith.  As Paul says the goal is that we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.

I began the sermon saying that David and Abraham had the same faith, though one faith enabled a giant to be killed and one faith enabled a father to offer his own son.  How is this one faith?

Each patriarch had a definite promise from God.  Abraham had been told that a blessing would come to all people through Isaac.  David had been told that Israel would be given the Promised Land and could defeat the nations who remained for they were judged by God.  Abraham had to learn that Isaac did not come by his own human striving.  David knew that he could not defeat Goliath by wearing better armor or having a better weapon.  Both David and Abraham knew that the victory would only come through their God.  That was their faith.

So, for us, we need to cling to definite words from God.  Our faith is not the power of positive thinking.  Our faith is not just keeping the spirits up.  Our faith starts and sustains itself with what God has promised to us.  Our faith learns to pick the weeds of every wind of doctrine and craftiness in deceitful schemes.  We know the world spreads weeds through our minds.  So we work to clear those and let the promises of God grow in order to give us all the gifts of Jesus’ victory.

And here’s where the world accuses us of forcing uniformity.  We have doctrine.  We say that there are ways of thinking that hurt us and others.

And let’s be humbly honest.  There are plenty of times we speak the truth, but we don’t speak it in love.  We act like the truth is a tamed pet we hold on a leash.  But if we want to grow up into Christ, we must let the truth lord over us and we speak it in love, for the truth is God’s love.

This is critical- the truth that we have been given, the true doctrines, aren’t an enforced uniformity, because this truth finds the true you and unlocks the true you and lets you flourish in all the diverse ways the world isn’t interested in, all the ways the world represses.

Paul gets at this with the image of the body.  Some of us are hands; some are feet; some are mouths and eyes and hearts.  This past week, we worked together for a Vacation Bible School and a School Supply Giveaway.  To do these things, we worked together, with some working as organizers, some working as singers, some working to move pews, some working to cook food, some working to knock on doors to invite, some working to welcome with a smile, some working to encourage the weary, some working to herd unruly children.  Some of us were in roles where we felt the fit was just right.  Some of us were humbled working in roles that were hard for us.  But together, we reaped the smiles and thank yous of so many little children.

See, to thrive, the church cannot force uniformity of personality or uniformity of talent or uniformity of culture.  To thrive, we celebrate the diversity of gifts that God gives through the one truth.  When we thrive, when each part is working properly, the equipping of the saints in truth makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. 

To thrive as an individual Christian, we humbly offer our gifts in this body, we humbly receive Jesus’ teaching.  For Jesus humbled Himself before the whole world; He offered His gifts on the cross, and the Father raised Him up.  As the Father raised Abraham and Isaac from the depths of their sacrifice, as the Father raised David over Goliath, as the Father raised Jesus over death itself, you, too, are given this gift.  Where you are humbled, in that very place, God will lift you up.  Amen.

The reading for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:  Ephesians 4:17-5:2. 

May the meditations of our hearts and the words of my lips be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the way, the truth, and the life, Jesus, our Lord.  Amen.

Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

We have been reading through Ephesians this summer.  One of the great and repeated themes of this book is how Jesus unifies people who were once separated by the world.  For Paul and the churches of Jesus, a singular event had changed everything.  Jesus of Nazareth had taken on the sins of every human being.  He died to pay the penalty of those sins.  He rose to show us new life.  This gift does not just award us eternal life after we die.  This gift allows us to put away our old selves and put on a new self.

Because Jesus did this for everyone, it works a great leveling.  The humble and poor are lifted up.  The proud and mighty are brought down.  Every human being, viewed through the prism of the cross, has the same value.  Each becomes priceless in earthly terms, for the price Jesus set was the blood of God.  When I look at my neighbor, whether my neighbor is male or female, whether rich or poor, whether old enough to have no more natural teeth or just 7 weeks past conception when teeth first begin to form, whether the leader of the free world or a slave trafficked and chained for misery, I am charged to treat my neighbor not just as I would treat myself, but as I would treat the Lord who bought her.

Paul has already in Ephesians sung the glory of this freedom we have in Christ.  He has insisted that the Jews and Gentiles in the first century church were brothers and sisters, equal in grace.  So, there may be some surprise to read Ephesians 4:17.  You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.  Paul just said that everyone who is not Jewish has a mind that doesn’t work.  How can the apostle of grace and peace insult the whole world like this?

The apostle explains, They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them.  It’s not who the Gentiles are, it’s what they don’t know.  The Jews were the only ones to have the Scriptures, God’s Word.  The only advantage the Jews had was in the Bible.

What advantage did hearing God’s Word give?  The Word sets us free from the chains of appetite.  When filmmaker Woody Allen answered for the scandal of his having an affair with his lover’s daughter, he said, “The heart wants what it wants.”  This is a quote from the poet Emily Dickinson, in full being “the heart wants what it wants- or else it does not care.”  For Woody Allen and so many others, “the heart wants what it wants” means either I’ll chase my appetites or risk not caring about anything.

We know, in general, that our appetites are not a good guide to health.  The amount and kinds of food I want to eat do not match the foods I ought to eat.  We also have unhealthy sexual appetites destroying families, unhealthy ego appetites destroying friendships, unhealthy consumer appetites destroying the glory of God’s creation.  Jesus’ apostle writes, They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.  We know how an undisciplined appetite for food works.  It only wants more and more.  It only becomes harder to tame.  Paul indicates our other appetites work the same way, becoming calloused and needing further impurity to be re-stimulated.  The drug addict no longer gets a high from the first dose he took; he goes further and further.

It’s not true in the end that the heart only wants what it wants.  The heart is far from settled.   The heart wants what it wants in this fleeting instance.  How many times does achieving what it wants today make it despise what it consumed?  Buyers remorse applies to more than just binge shopping trips.

When Paul urges us to put off our old self, he says that old self is corrupted through deceitful desires.  The heart may want what it wants, but it also lies.  It’s bad enough that other people will lie to us; how do we find our bearings when our own hearts lie to us?

This is why the Scriptures are invaluable grounding.  The God who speaks in the Bible is the God who made not just our hearts but our entire being.  And the God who made us has not just left us on the side of the road like the poor hitchhiking robot.  Our God sustains us and has shown His plan to remake us. 

So many others will tell us what we want to hear.  They speak so that they can stoke the desires they will profit from.  God’s Word tells us the truth.  It brings us low where we are proud in deceitful desires.  It lifts us up when we are humbled.  God’s Word pierces our hearts, working a spiritual surgery no other knife could reach.  God’s Word changes hearts.

We don’t just need to hear this message once in our lives.  It’s not a matter of buying into this as an abstract concept.  Each day my appetites wrestle for control of me.  Each day I betray my true self and betray my neighbors because of deceitful desires.  In that moment of betrayal, there’s yet another danger.  My response to that betrayal can be sensitive, repenting, humbling myself to seek healing.  Or, and this is much easier in the short term, I can callous up.

If I let myself become callous, anger and fear and falsehood follow.  If I know myself to be loved, however, if I don’t give up on repenting, God can preserve me from the callousness.

And so Paul follows up with all kinds of specific teaching.  As God’s Word speaks truth to us, we become people to speak truth to one another.  That’s why we should be people in God’s Word and people in God’s Church.  The Bible speaks truth without varnish.  My brother Christian is a sinner, too, and may misspeak, but he can also speak directly to where I am in life.  The rest of the world is either too afraid or too unloving to tell me my sin, but when a brother or sister speaks to me, I not only gain myself, I gain a friendship I can really trust.

God’s Word also teaches me what to do with anger.  I am not told I can’t be angry.  I am told to hold my anger in check.  Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.  Each night I pray and the Lord helps me forgive those who made me angry, helps me wake each day at peace.

God’s Word also teaches me what to make of work.  I am not working, like the thief, to acquire for myself.  Rather, do honest work so that you may have something to share with anyone in need.  As Jesus labored for my sake, now I labor so I can be generous.  In being generous, I become more my true self.

God’s Word also teaches me about the stories I tell.  I can sow tales of corruption, tales that make my neighbors envious, frustrated, angry, and afraid.  Or I can only speak things that give grace to those who hear.  Let’s take this in terms of how we use social media.  Am I posting comments that belittle my neighbors?  Even if they deserve it, what is the good?  Am I arguing for the sake of argument?  Even if I’m right, what is the good?  Am I coloring my life only so others will envy me?  Even if it’s true, what is the good?  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

Paul ends this section as he began.  He began saying that is not the way you learned Christ!  He ends saying be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. So I find my true self walking in love, giving myself up, becoming a fragrant offering.

That means we end the sermon the way we began, not overwhelming you with a pile of go out there and remember all the different rules.   Instead, we celebrate what Jesus did for us.  We give thanks that He gave Himself for us.  We remember His offering and how though He suffered, God raised Him up.  We remember that victory, because it is your victory, too.  Brothers and sisters, inhale deeply the fragrance of Jesus’ offering.  Breathe it in for it is medicine for your heart, medicine of immortality.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The reading for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:  Ephesians 5:6-21.

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the light of the world, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.

Brothers and sisters, here is today’s paradox.  Christians have been given the light to see and own that the days are evil.  But this admission does not lead to gloom and despair.  The days are evil and we are full of praise.  Imagine what the Spirit will give us when the days are full of love.

We may not be able to understand this paradox, but we can live it.  And so, there are three main ideas I want you to hear in the epistle to the Ephesians this morning.  First, live in the light.  Second, let the Spirit loose.  Finally, seek the cross. 

Paul begins with a call to avoid empty words.  Empty words are the opposite of the light; they are the smokescreens cast by the fearful.  The guilty think the smokescreen of empty words will hide them, but Paul warns there is wrath in the empty words.  People fear the light for the wrath they think might come in the light.  How often have you heard that the cover up is worse than the scandal?  People think they can protect themselves through darkness, but there are other baddies hiding in the darkness.

Let’s be specific.  In college I had a friend who had a crush on a girl.  But he was too afraid to say something about it.  We urged him to just tell her.  He took months to build up to bringing his affection into the light.  We were all crushed when she ended up with someone else.  It got worse, though.  Talking to one of her friends, I found she had felt the same way for him but got no signs of him having any feelings for her.  So she moved on.

He was afraid if he showed his heart, he would be judged.  Hiding did not avoid judgment.  In fact, hiding led to the judgment.

The same is true spiritually.  We each have parts of our hearts we are afraid to show.  My friend was afraid to show something that was good, but we’re often afraid to show the things we know are wrong.  Maybe you’re even afraid to show your own spouse or parents.  We hide part of ourselves in the darkness, but there is no salvation in the darkness.

In fact, living in the darkness often makes things worse.  Denying part of who we have been only gives those parts more power over us.

When we talk about living in the light, we don’t mean that you always be good.  We mean that you don’t hide.  Walking in the light means confessing sins, owning up to it.   When I bring my own darkness into the light, the light transforms me.

Brothers and sisters, we confess our sins each Sunday.  There is a small pause for you to speak in your hearts what you need to confess.  Don’t just live in that space.  Each day in your prayers, speak your darkness to God, trusting His light to purge, forgive, heal, cleanse, and lighten you.

And let those moments in private prayer allow you to own yourself wherever you are, with whomever you are.  Paul tells us to make the most of the time because the days are evil.  Evil is all around us; it’s in us.  Don’t waste time trying to hide it.

But don’t be a person focused on the evil.  We come into the light so the light can purge the evil.  The irony is that when you’re hiding the evil, you’re more focused on it.  But when you confess it and have God separate it from you and put it away, you can become a person of praise and thanksgiving.

Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.

See, alcohol, and similar drugs have the promise of making it easier to live with yourself in the darkness.  It’s the liquid crutch of the ashamed.  There’s nothing immoral in drinking in moderation, but if you seek drunkenness, it’s because of deep dissatisfaction with yourself. 

But you were made good.  You have been redeemed.  You are being called to wake from the dead.  You are being called to live with your face warmed in the light of Christ shining on you.

Being filled with the Spirit is the opposite of being filled with wine.  Wine makes you forget yourself.  The Spirit gives you back yourself.  Too much wine and you will act the fool.  Full of the Spirit and joyful wisdom will lead you step by step.

The Spirit does not only enable you to find yourself good.  The Spirit lightens the world around you so that instead of being angry at everything around you, you can find good all around you.  Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.

Now I know not all of you love singing with your mouth.  So, please note that Paul says all this music is made in your heart.  Sure- singing with your mouth can help the heart wake up.  If you haven’t learned a few hymns by heart, oh, please do so.  When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was locked up in prison, he wrote about the blessing of having memorized hymns.  If hymns can lighten a concentration camp, certainly they can bring light to a cubicle or a divided home.  Martin Luther, too, spoke of how music chased the devil away when he felt tempted to despair.

Many of you know this from Christmas.  Part of the joy of Christmas is filling your heart with O Come, O Come Emmanuel and Joy to the World and Away in the Manger.  Part of the joy of Easter is Jesus Christ is Risen Today and the Hallelujah chorus.  But brothers and sisters, there are hymns for all the year.  There is Amazing Grace and the King of Love My Shepherd Is.

One of the frustrations of children in the terrible twos is that they know communication is possible, but they can’t do it the way they want.  Learning how to communicate what they want eases the terribleness of the terrible twos.  The same is true about praise.  Too many people don’t have the language for praise.

This is the point of having hymns that aren’t just happy-happy-joy-joy, but somber hymns.  The hymns Dietrich Bonhoeffer particularly praised were the hymns of Paul Gerhardt.  I encourage us to sing one of these hymns about once a quarter.  They are hard to sing.  They aren’t anyone’s favorites.  But they give us a language to praise when despair and depression threaten.

I said the second point of the reading this morning is the let the Spirit loose.  It sounds like a cheerleader slogan at first.  But it is not at all what I mean that you should chant, “we’ve got spirit, yes we do.”  You can be filled with praise when getting a diagnosis of death.  You can be filled with praise when someone spits in your face.  And you gain the language for that from God’s Word, from the Psalms, from the hymns of brothers and sisters who have lived the same struggles and wonders and hopes we have.

We’re at our last point – seek the cross.  We’ve spoken of the light bringing us forgiveness and resurrection.  Those gifts come from a day that was very dark, from Jesus having died in our place on Golgotha.  He died on a cross, which was that world’s way of condemning you utterly, making you nothing.

Jesus’ cross didn’t have to happen.  Pilate gave Jesus a way out.  Jesus didn’t even need Pilate’s help.  He told the Roman governor that if Jesus asked a legion of angels were at Jesus’ command.

Jesus accepted the cross because He was willing to submit.  He submitted first to the Jewish leaders, though they were corrupt.  He submitted next to the Romans, though they were invaders.  He submitted to us, brothers and sisters. 

Submission is not weakness, when it is done, not out of fear, but out of love.  It takes strength to let someone else have charge of you.  You can only do it if you believe the Father has charge over all.  You can only seek the cross when you believe the Resurrection has the last word. 

So, brothers and sisters, we end with words that are not empty, but words that are full to overflowing, bringing new life, bringing a new heavens and a new earth.  Jesus is risen from the dead.  The crucified is alive.  And He says to you today, Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ will shine on you.  Amen.

August 23 was Holy Cross' annual Sunday School kickoff, so Pastor Guagenti preached off of the Old Testament reading which fit the theme of the day.

The reading for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost:  Ephesians 6:10-20.

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Son of David, the Lord of Hosts, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.  Put on the whole armor of God.

Paul, imprisoned for the sake of Jesus’ Gospel, ends his letter to the Ephesians with two contrasting but not contradictory images.  Paul describes what we are to put on, God’s own armor.  Then he asks to be remembered for he is an ambassador in chains.  These are two very different adornments, although neither is exactly what the world sees.

Paul wore the opposite of armor, metal chains keeping him restrained.  But his voice remained unrestrained.  Indeed, he asked for prayers of boldness.

Do you see, to the world, Paul looked locked away and impotent.  But he was writing, by the Spirit’s guidance, Holy Scripture that would invade every land.  Paul was still wearing the armor of God.

So, this is the first thing you need to hear.  It does not matter what in the world is restraining you.  Some of you may feel restrained by a body that fails you.  Some of you may feel restrained by a lack of resources.  Some of you may feel restrained by your own weaknesses.  None of that can keep you from putting on the whole armor of God and being invincible.

This is God’s armor.  It’s not something you have to- or even can- buy of your own.  It’s not something that could misfit.  It’s God’s armor and He is giving it to you, to be known as the king’s own man on the field.

Some of you may have seen the Lord of the Rings movies.  One detail none of you saw in those movies was hidden away on the inside of the armor of the king of Rohan.  The actor, Bernard Hill, who played Theoden, revealed after the movies, that the props department had stamped onto the inside of his leather cuirass a symbol of the sun, the symbol of his kingship.  He said it was there for just him and that whenever he put on the prop armor, it made him remember who he was playing, the king of a legendary people.

This is even more true for you if you follow the command to put on the Lord’s armor.  This armor marks you as a royal priest.  Know who you are in this battle.  You are not a pawn.  You are not simply a number.  You are an heir to the kingdom.  You are God’s child given to wear God’s own armor.  This is the point of the belt of truth.  The belt Paul means is the kind worn like a sash of military distinction.  Isaiah 11:5 prophesied of God’s armor, “Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.”  So, God’s righteousness covers you over.  This is the truth that defines you. 

As you know yourself in God’s truth, know how limited is God’s enemy.  Our enemy, Paul says, is a schemer.  He plots evil, but his evil doesn’t look evil until the trap is sprung.  So our armor helps protect us from schemes.  Our armor is truth and righteousness and peace and faith and the Word of God.  Do you see?  Our armor is for our hearts and minds, because the attacks come at our hearts and minds.  The attacks convince even God’s own children that evil is desirable or even good.

We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  There are two important points here.  First is the point of who is not the enemy.  We do not wrestle against flesh and blood.  Christ died for all humanity, so He has made peace for all humanity.

Our enemy is the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  See, these spiritual forces have authority that goes beyond any movement on earth.  Indeed these spiritual forces are always working to corrupt whatever is good in any movement on earth.  Once we put power into the hands of any man or woman, there these forces are tempting and corrupting.  See, they get you just when you think you can take the armor off.  Just when you think you’ve won and get to make use of the power you have, they get you.

So, put on your armor, soldier!  Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all this to stand firm.  Here’s the next thing a good soldier must take note of.  What are your orders?  Have you been commanded to take ground or to hold ground?  St. Paul tells us.  The days are evil.  Jesus gave a clear indication of how things would go after His ascension.  His church would spread among all nations, but His church would be persecuted by the power-hungry from without and false teachers from within. 

See this war goes like no other.  The days are evil.  Everywhere you turn, it looks like the enemy is gaining ground.  But our God turns evil to good.  So we don’t fight by obvious victories, the maps turning indisputably border after border into the colors of light.  Quite the opposite.  We stand, looking to be surrounded, looking to be overwhelmed, and after furious attack upon furious attack, we still stand, and we look up and one who used to fight for the enemy now stands with us.  We smile at our newborn fellow soldier, who just a minute ago was wailing on us, for we know, we too, have fought for the enemy.

So, let’s put on our armor together, looking at each glorious piece, thanking God for the honor of being so girded.  We’ve already taken up the belt of truth.  Next, you have the breastplate of righteousness.  A breastplate covers your vital organs.  You may be wounded, but the breastplate will keep you alive.  So, Jesus told us, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Because we are righteous in Jesus, we have eternal life.  Death, too, has been conquered by Jesus.  If we die, we will be with the Lord, waiting for the Resurrection and the trumpet call to mark eternal victory.  The devil may win a minor temptation against you, but clang your armored fist against your breastplate of righteousness and say to him, “You cannot bring me down!  I am Christ’s!”

You are standing firm, so you need proper footwear.  The shoes we wear give us readiness; they are the Gospel of peace.  Now, this contrasts with the warrior of Isaiah 59, who was clothed with vengeance and fury.  In just the same way, our helmet is of salvation, while in the Jewish book of Wisdom, God put on a helmet of doom.  Paul has changed these two pieces, for Jesus has taken God’s fury against sin and took the doom of our horrors.   He took this when He died on the cross for us.  So, we get much better shoes out of this deal.  Wherever we are, whatever the attack, God’s peace surpasses not only understanding but surpasses every attack.

How is this possible?  The Gospel of peace tells you whatever is taken will be returned tenfold in the kingdom to come.  The Gospel of peace enables forgiveness for every hurt.  Your peace, your rest in God is what keeps you on your feet.

That is not all.  You have also a shield.  Your faith in God’s promises extinguishes the fiery darts.  There is a story from World War II.  British soldiers were told to surrender in Africa to the Nazis.  They wave the white flag only to be bombed by their merciless opponents.

This is the character of the enemy we face.  He does not take surrender.  His barrage is relentless.  But there were shields in ancient war the size of a man’s body.  They waterlogged the shields to be proof against fire.   Your faith in God’s promises is a trusty shield.  When the devil tempted Jesus, our Savior always had a Scripture ready to respond, saying, No, I believe my Father will provide for me.  Take refuge behind God’s promises.

Finally, we have the sword of the Spirit.  The prophet Hosea spoke for God, “I have slain them by the words of my mouth,” and  John’s vision in Revelation saw Jesus with a sword issuing from His mouth.

Hear this clearly.  Our one and only offensive weapon are words, not hateful words, but only the Word of God.  Again and again the devil has tempted the church to take up other weapons.  The first disciples took weapons of iron into Gethsemane when that arena was for prayer.  Would that they had prayed instead of nursed the weapons whose wounds accomplish nothing!  Jesus begged them to pray.

So we are begged now to pray with the sword of the Spirit.  When we hear God’s Word, we’re not just going to stow it away.  Raise your sword to the heavens!  We’ll hear these words and pray them back to God.  If He tells us about the armor, we won’t just say, Oh, ok, cool.  We’ll thank God for this privilege.  We’ll pray that our family also will be fully armored.  We’ll ask for fearlessness and trust to be given it so that those who menace as enemies will be won over by forgiveness.

So, brothers and sisters, you can stand firm.  David faced Goliath without armor.  We have the armor of God.  God has us.  We already know how this war goes, for Jesus has won forever.  Our Lord is risen from the dead.  He is returning for us and His kingdom is over all.  Praise be to Him!  Amen.