Overwhelmed on All Saints’ Sunday

Sermon on Ephesians 1 on All Saints’ Sunday

Overwhelming.

Is that a negative word to you, “overwhelming”?  Do you associate that with the feeling you get when facing a large project or task, or a very full schedule?  We can feel overwhelmed by work, by the demands of friends and family, by our own inner turmoil or indecision.  I suspect most of us primarily think of the concept of “being overwhelmed” in a negative connotation.

But there is positive sense of being overwhelmed too.  Perhaps you’ve been overwhelmed with a feeling of love or joy or thankfulness.  Perhaps you’ve been overwhelmed with gifts at the birth of a child, or overwhelmed with kind sympathy at the death of a loved one.  Or perhaps you’ve gone somewhere beautiful and have felt overwhelmed with a sense of awe.  A massive cathedral, a rich landscape, an exquisite work of art – these things can overwhelm us in the most wonderful of ways.

There is much in Christianity that can be, is, or even should be, overwhelming.  The very concept of an infinite God, perfectly good and eternally existent, is overwhelming.  The love of Christ demonstrated on the Cross and offered to us in the Gospel is overwhelming.  The first time you tried to read the Nicene Creed was probably overwhelming.  If you’re not accustomed to a high church liturgy, it could be overwhelming with the sensory overload – the beautiful architecture, the stained-glass windows, the incense, the artful vestments, the soaring choir and organ music, the King James English… it’s hard to find your feet when experiencing all that at once for the very first time.

Even today, in our humble setup you may find the hymnody overwhelming – all eight verses of For all the saints as merely the beginning of the worship service, with so much more music following, knowing that even now we still have two more to sing!  (And the closing hymn is gonna have to be awesome if it’s going to compete with the opening song.)  And then, of course, are the Scripture readings.  The Bible, too, is frequently overwhelming, even for the seasoned reader.  And that can be both good and bad.  It’s fine to be in awe of God’s Word, and wonder at the depth of its riches and wisdom.  But if it just leaves us confused and bewildered, then that’s where the preaching of the Word needs to step in and do its job.

The writings of St. Paul can be notoriously complicated to translate and understand clearly.  The first chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians is a prime example of this.  In that chapter, all 23 verses, there are only three sentences.  It’s overwhelming for you, sitting and listening to it read to you; it’s overwhelming standing and reading it to you; it’s overwhelming trying to translate it into English reasonably; and it was probably a little overwhelming in the original Greek for the original recipients of the letter.  As I’ve been describing, sometimes it is good to feel overwhelmed, but if that just results in confusion, then it has not done its work.  So let us move it from a place of confusion to a place of appreciation.

Sentence #1: Verses 1-2

The greeting in verses 1 & 2 is a pretty standard greeting.  St. Paul introduces himself as an Apostle of Jesus Christ – that is an emissary, ambassador, or messenger – called so by the will of God.  This is divine authority he’s claiming; if you accept that, then you’d better believe this letter is Scripture!  He write to “the saints in Ephesus”, referring to the congregation of that church, and offers them a blessing – grace and peace – his usual go-to when writing his letters.  His address of the Ephesians as “saints” (holy ones) is a reminder of the common meaning of the word: all God’s people are already made holy.

Sentence #2: The Great Doxology

This doxology is trinitarian, roughly focusing on God the Father in verses 3-6, God the Son in verses 7-12, and God the Holy Spirit in verses 13-14.  Let’s consider another translation of it (by Lutheran commentator, Lenski), and explore a few samples along the way.

BLESSED

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
he who blessed us with every spiritual blessing
in the heavenly places
in Christ,
Even as he elected us in him before the world’s foundation
to be holy and blemish-less before him in love,
having predestinated us to adoption through Jesus Christ for himself
according to the good pleasure of his will
For the Glory-Praise of his Grace
which he graciously granted us
in the Beloved One

In whom we have
The ransoming through his blood,
The remission of the trespasses,
according to the riches of his grace
which he made abound for us in all wisdom and intelligence,
having made known to us the mystery of his will
which he purpose in him for administration
during the fulness of the time-seasons,
to summarize all things in the Christ,
those in the heavens and those on the earth;
in him in whom also we were given a lot
as having been predestinated
according to his purpose who works all the things
according to the counsel of his will,
that we may be for his Glory-Praise
as those who have hoped in advance in the Christ

In whom also you,
having heard the Word of the Truth,
the gospel of your salvation –
in whom also having believed
you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of the promise,
who is pledge of our inheritance
for ransoming the possession
For his Glory-Praise.

The phrase “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” is packed, soteriologically and confessionally.

  • God of Jesus = highlights the humanity of Christ
  • Father of Jesus = highlights the relationship between the divine persons of Father and Son
  • Lord = kyrios, master, respectful stand-in for God’s name, highlighting the divinity of Christ
  • Christ = christos, or messiah, the anointed one come to save God’s people

Both times that predestination is mentioned here, it is “through Christ” or “in Christ”.  Specifically, God the Father elects us through/in Christ, meaning that his pre-creation will of choosing his people is inextricably linked with his perfect foreknowledge of who is (or will be) in Christ.  Election therefore cannot be spoken of as an arbitrary act of God’s sovereign will, but one inherently connected with his foreknowledge.  To assert that God’s act of election comes “before” his seeing the future of those who are in Christ is to put words in the Apostle’s mouth.  God knows who has (or will have) faith in Christ, and it is them whom he elects.  As the Lutherans put it, election is “in view of the all-sufficient merits of Christ perseveringly apprehended by divinely wrought faith.”  That is to say, God elects us to receive salvation, and this is synchronized with those who have faith in Christ, so we cannot veer off into the one error of preaching an arbitrary God who saves some and discards the rest, or the other error of preaching a reactionary God who elects people only because they mustered up enough faith on their own.  Rather than worry about the particulars of election (as, for example, the Calvinists and Arminians do), this text should prompt us to consider what we’re elected to or for… to be holy, without blemish, adopted, to live for God’s glory & praise, to hope in Christ.  We have been elected to be Saints.

The phrase “Were given a lot” or “have been destined and appointed” in verse 11/12 is more about being God’s heritage than about our receiving an inheritance.  We belong in God’s kingdom!  You could say our Sainthood is a matter of where we truly live, not what we have or do.

Sealed with the Holy Spirit” is a baptismal reference, akin to “receiving” or being “given” the Holy Spirit in other New Testament passages.  Once again, the holiness of God’s people is a promise and gift from God, not an achievement of our own.  As we celebrate the Saints who’ve come before us, we celebrate not the mighty works they did, but the mighty works that God did in and through them.

 Sentence #3: The Great Prayer for Knowledge:

Because of this I, too, having heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and of your love for all the saints, cease not in giving thanks for you, making mention (of you) in my prayers,

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of the glory, give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in connection with knowledge of himself, the eyes of your heart enlightened,

so that you know what is the hope of his calling, what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the case of the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of his power for us believing ones in accord with the working of the strength of his might,

which he wrought in the person of the Christ by having raised him up from the dead and having seated him at his right in the heavenly place far above all rule and authority and power and lordship and every name named not only in this eon by also in the one to come;

and he ranged everything under his feet and him he gave as head over everything to the church since she is his body, the fullness of him who fills all the things in all ways for himself.

The opening words “because of this” refers to the whole of the doxology.  Because of who God is and what he has done, we pray this.  Two brief comments…

Christ filling “all things” applies to different things in different modes.  He is in rocks and he is in your heart, but those modes of presence are very different indeed.  He is in a rock, or in this computer by virtue of the fact that he is the one who created it and sustains its existence.  He is in the Bible in the same way, plus a further mode of spiritual presence by virtue of the fact that it’s his Word contained within its pages.  He is in the sacraments even more so, such that he communicates himself, his grace to their recipients.  To you who have been baptized, he is in your heart also, spiritually living within you such that you are permanently near to God whether you’re seeking him or not.

The “fullness” or pleroma of Christ is one of the subtle themes of the entire Epistle to the Ephesians.  To be filled with Christ, and for Christ to be filled with us, is the heart of this chapter, and indeed also one of the major images in the historic Anglican Communion prayers – “that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”  He dwells in you and desires to be Lord of all your life.  As the Scriptures say, “all things have been put in subjection under his feet,” and on that basis he seeks not just your Sunday morning attentions, but your every word and breath.  The Christian is called to be filled with the fullness of Christ; to confine your religion to Sunday morning and a handful of other special occasions is to resist and quench the Spirit, to reject the gift of God’s presence with you and within you.  As all God’s people comprise Christ’s mystical body, let Christ also mystically fill yours; a lifestyle of prayer and attentiveness to the Word of God moves in the direction of transforming every part of you and your life.  It is the great journey from convert, to disciple, to Saint.

 Overall Picture

To explore this chapter in the detail it deserves is a task that I cannot fit into one reasonably-timed sermon.  There is much to unpack, many details to explore, many sidesteps to account for.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to allow Ephesians 1 to continue to overwhelm us.  But what I hope we have done today is transform some of that overwhelming impression from bare confusion to a better position of appreciation.  God is very big, very amazing, and has done so much for us in ways that we can only begin to understand.  As a result, we pray for knowledge and wisdom.  St. Paul gave thanks for the church he planted and for the spiritual growth they had in the years after he moved on.  He prayed for them, as we all should pray for all Christians, that there would be continual growth in that knowledge of God.  You could summarize this whole chapter by saying that worship of God ought to lead to further knowledge of God.  We can, and indeed should, be overwhelmed by the splendor and majesty of God!  But that should then prompt us and inspire us to draw ever nearer, to dig deeper, to explore further, and broaden our apprehension of who he is and what he has done for us.

Particularly today, as we celebrate the Saints of God, those whom he has made holy, we can rejoice in the splendor of the perfect holiness of Christ given to his people; we can give thanks, with St. Paul, for God’s calling of Saints into a marvelous fellowship.  And we can pray for our own growth into that same calling, to be holy, without blemish, as spotless and perfect as Jesus himself; we can be overwhelmed with the impossibly high calling to which we have been called, and yet rejoice at the prospect that finally, eventually, God will complete that good work within us.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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