The Big Picture

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 15
July 11, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: During the past century, scientific investigations have revealed the vast extent of our universe in both space and time, raising questions about the significance of our lives on this single planet. Our text from Ephesians is about the meaning of our lives and the whole creation from a different standpoint, that of faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God's plan is for "all things" to be united in fellowship with Christ.

A few years ago, a professor teaching a college astronomy class asked the students why they all seemed to be interested in questions about life on other worlds. There were several answers, but one student was particularly passionate about the matter. "The universe is so big and so old," she said, "that it would just be too depressing to think that we were all alone in it."

Big and old certainly. As scientists theorized during the 20th century, and most now believe, the universe stretches billions of light years in every direction and began with a "big bang" some 14 billion years ago. But while people in previous centuries didn't realize how vast it is, the fact that it's big isn't a modern discovery. The ancient Greeks and Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages thought that the earth was just a speck when compared with the whole universe. Today we know that it's far larger than they knew.

But it wasn't just size and age that troubled that astronomy student. Her feeling was probably more like what Blaise Pascal wrote back at the beginning of the scientific revolution: "The eternal silence of those infinite spaces fills me with terror."1

Size and age alone aren't terrifying, but what if they're filled with - silence? What if no one speaks to us and no one listens? The Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg wrote a book titled The First Three Minutes about the attempts of scientists to probe back to the beginning of the universe. After describing what had been learned, Weinberg asked what it all means. His answer was essentially, "Nothing." "The more the universe seems comprehensible," he wrote, "the more it also seems pointless."2

What would you expect? We wake up and find ourselves in a sealed car on a train moving along an unknown track. Why are we on this train? Where did we come from and what's our destination? From inside our car, there's no way to tell. To know the goal of our journey, we'd have to get some message from outside the train. And if, in our journey through life, we ask why we're here and where we're going, we would have to get some message from beyond our world for an answer. Otherwise, the whole thing can seem "pointless."

The plan for the fullness of time

And just as we start getting depressed about that, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians breaks into our reflections with such enthusiasm that he can hardly pause for breath. Written in Greek, the 12 verses of our scripture passage comprise a single sentence with over two hundred words! It's as though the writer is trying to express all at once the tremendous scope of God's purpose and the magnitude of love and grace it shows for us. It's the beginning of a hymn of praise which at the same time is a profound theological text.

God's "plan for the fullness of time," the letter says, is "to gather all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth." That is the purpose of creation. It is the reason the universe came into being, why "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."3 God made the world for Jesus Christ - made it so that the Son of God could be Jesus and bring all things together with him into harmony.

We're not just told, "God has a plan for your life and someday you'll find it." God's plan is, first of all, Jesus Christ. What we see in him - his complete trust in the Father and obedience unto death, his love for others with forgiveness and healing - are what the world is all about. When we encounter such things in the world, we are getting glimpses of the basic pattern of creation.

It is, our letter says, a pattern of which "all things" will ultimately be part. There are no limits. Language about heaven and "spiritual blessings" might make you think it's going to be one of those religious attempts to escape from the world into some disembodied realm, but it's nothing of the kind. "All things" encompasses the physical world, including you and me. And it doesn't say just, "human things." It's stones and stars and trees and animals, angels and archangels and intelligent species on other worlds if there are any. "All things."

And it begins with us because Jesus is one of us. God did not want to be God without humanity. God freely chose to be Mary's son. And because we are fully human only in community, God elected to be for us and "chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world."

The chosen one

Language about God choosing people - about divine "election" and "predestination," to use the technical terms - have caused a lot of debate in the history of the Christian church. We'll avoid the sometimes-unedifying details here. But part of the problem is a tendency to think of God "electing" people back before the creation of the world by looking toward the future and saying, "Okay, I'll choose Susan and Bill and Mildred and Harry, and everyone else can go to hell." Then the ones who think they've been picked can think that they're better because, "I'm one of the chosen people."

But we aren't chosen simply as individuals. Jesus Christ is the chosen one, and we are chosen in Christ, because of Christ, for Christ's sake .

Being chosen does not mean just privilege. The chosen one is Jesus, and that meant, first of all, his rejection, his suffering and his death. Human sin didn't come as a big surprise to God, and it's not too wild a guess to say that God took that into account in creating the world and bringing us into being.

The cross was part of God's plan to gather all things in Christ. His death and resurrection is how "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us." Christ overcomes the evil that threatens creation by giving his own life to keep the course of the world directed toward the fulfillment of God's purpose.

Jesus is the chosen one, and we are chosen in him to be members of the body of Christ. All of us are invited to be in Christ. Will anyone finally be left out and lost? We don't know, and God doesn't give us the task of speculating about it. Part of our calling as Christians is to let others know of God's "plan for the fullness of time" to unite all things in Christ.

The biggest picture

This text from Ephesians gives us not just a big picture but the biggest picture, not details about day-to-day issues in our lives or the life of the world. It doesn't tell us how to deal with racism or climate change or disputes with coworkers. But it's not just pie in the sky either. God's purpose for "all things" includes those concerns, and we're called as God's chosen ones to be his instruments in doing something about them.

Depending on the lectionary you are following, you can see a bit of that in other readings for today, with Amos speaking out against Israel's sins4 and John the Baptist standing up to a king at the cost of his own life.5 The story of John is a reminder that those who are chosen are called to take up their crosses and follow Christ.6

We're more likely to do what we can to resolve problems that face our world if we know that there is a goal and purpose of history, and that we can be instruments, however small, which God uses to bring that purpose about. Staying on task is easier if we know that that task will be accomplished.

And to remind us that this isn't just abstract talk about the future, the writer of the Ephesian letter says that Christians "were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit." That's language about baptism, and our text says that this is "the pledge of our inheritance." The word used for "pledge" there means something like a deposit that a person might make on making some major purchase - "earnest money." It's not full payment but a pledge that the buyer is serious.

God tells us, "That language about my purpose and you being chosen in Christ, about being forgiven and receiving every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places - I'm serious about that. Believe it."