Greatness of Soul

It’s sometimes said that if you want to gain a better perspective on life – especially if you’re a bit down in the dumps – then the best thing to do is pay a visit to the children’s ward of the local hospital. Now, whether or not that does the trick, the point is that from time to time (and I’m not talking about clinical depression which is an altogether different matter); I think we all know the value of being lifted out of ourselves and our preoccupations. We probably all know the need, every so often to, as we say, put things in perspective.

So, this is why, when we meet someone who’s developed a certain ‘tunnel vision’ (and if you’ve read Winnie the Pooh, you’ll know all about Eeyore!) we sometimes say something like, “You need to get out more!” Or in time past we might have said, “Count your blessings”.

But there’s another prescription for moments such as these which is offered in today’s New Testament Reading (Ephesians 1.3-14). We heard some memorable verses from the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus.

Now, I’m told that in the Greek language these fourteen verses which we heard this morning are actually one, long breathless sentence (which makes a point in itself!) but its intention is clear. Paul wants to lift us into another plane. And this morning, I want to dwell on three things that we find in that opening verse. Paul says, “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” (Ephesians 1.3).

Firstly, notice that this verse is all about God. Paul begins with the fundamental conviction that the central player in life; the really interesting one is him… and not us. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” Recently, I came across the phenomenon of the ‘mystery shopper’. Essentially head office sends someone (anonymously) to discover how customers actually experience a particular shop.

Curiously, I’ve even come across the phenomenon of the mystery worshipper who carries out a survey of what it’s like on Sunday at a given parish church. In that case the mystery worshipper observes and reports on things like the quality of the welcome; the choice of hymns and the taste of the coffee and so on. But I can’t help thinking that they miss a trick. Because I’ve never I heard them report on, what kind of God these people worship. I mean, you can tell if you look and listen closely enough. I mean, there are clues (in what’s going on) that reveal the character of their God; and real the significance of their God to the life of the worshippers.

It’s a hobby-horse of mine but all too often, what passes for worship easily turns into an opportunity to talk about ourselves and our own concerns. But here, notice, Paul blesses God. He leads the way by pointing to the shear grandeur of God. And if the Christian life, if Christian worship doesn’t begin there, then it’s not only pretty pointless, it’s quite dangerous because, as I often say, you become like the God whom you worship… Which is why, I would suggest that these are especially dangerous times for the soul. It’s not just that the restrictions placed on our singing, in particular, lessen the opportunity to give voice our ‘wonder, love and praise’.

No, these are days in which it seems to me, we need to think more deeply and become more deliberate when it comes to worship. To get the focus right; on where it belongs. Yes, we could revisit those little routines which help us to settle and enter into worship; but we might also want to make a point of reminding ourselves who it is we wish to be present to; how our God looks upon us and what it means, for instance, for us to be caught up in his story rather than seeking to make God part of ours.  

Then, secondly notice, all too obviously, Paul is not referring to just any old God. We’re dealing, he says, with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1.3). In other words, the God with whom we have to do is no matter for guesswork or speculation. This God is revealed, known, encountered and experienced. No, this God is en-fleshed in Jesus the Christ. Everything we know about this God is there in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. He is revealed as the God who is with us and for us.

Then thirdly, Paul speaks of the God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing”. And this I think is where we get to the heart of it. You see, Paul insists that we’re dealing with an abundant God. A God who is in the ‘blessing business’. Today, Paul assails us with seven verbs… (What my teacher used to call, ‘doing words’) Each of which give us an account of all that this God has done, is doing and will do. So, he’s a God who is all about blessing and choosing. He has destined us; bestowed and lavished… He has revealed and gathered.

In other words, contrary to popular assumptions, we find ourselves placed in a world which is in fact a good place to be; a place of abundance… of all that we need… where every spiritual blessing is ours. So, these verses invert the folly of thinking that this God is one who like the arbitrary Greek gods who occasionally thundered from the mountain top ‘looks on from a distance’; all indifference and caprice, leaving us with the anxiety of a life that’s lived as if we’ve constantly got to ‘keep our end up’. But this is the rub. Just as our congregational life will reflect the character of the God we worship; so, it’s our everyday choices and behaviours that ultimately reveal how far the true nature, character and purposes of the God of Israel have become part of us.

You see, as Eugene Peterson points out, the point is that we are the object of all those verbs. And when that takes hold of you, you walk differently through life. It seems to me that we’ve lived with the old jibe about being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use for a long time now. But we can’t allow this to obscure the fact that being different is exactly what Christ and Paul are calling us to. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”, says Paul (Romans 12.2).

In other words, we really are being asked to ‘get out more’. To adopt a totally different perspective and posture before “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. Yes, it’s hard, because so much pulls us in the wrong direction. But it’s worship which helps us get our bearings. By which I mean RIGHT worship. It’s always a matter of whom we worship… It’s always about what we ultimately give ourselves to.

It was summed up for me many years ago when I met an African Bishop. He had come to speak with a group of clergy and he began by telling us of a curious incident on the railway platform at Waterloo. He said, “I was sat next to a person who turned to me and said, “Are you somebody special?” Now, he was a very impressive figure of a man and with a smile on his face he said, “I told her, “Yes, I am. I’m a very special person. Because God the Father made me. God the Son died for me and God the Holy Spirit lives in me’”.

It was St Augustine who described sin as the condition of being ‘curved in on oneself’(curvatus in se). Its antidote (and the world into which Paul would lift us) is what the early Christians called the ‘Magna Anima’: the great soul. This is what happens to us when through our Baptism we know that this is the truth about who we are: “God the Father made me. God the Son died for me and God the Holy Spirit lives in me”. And because we know ourselves to be SO blessed, we are set free to share the blessing of God with others. We can live with greatness of soul – no longer curved in on ourselves.

In other words, when you get your understanding of God right, then you see yourself and all those preoccupations in their proper perspective. And you can 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” and not only mean it but live it.

2021-07-25