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s009e03 Lockleys 4/1/2004 Christmass 2

When you heard ... and ... believed .. (you also were) marked" Eph 1.12

As I read these words I thought how much this is a process and how much it is dependent on God.

Time and again in my time in the church I have heard things said which implied how stiff-necked people who don't come to church are. People are lazy or more interested in sport. "Is it nothing, all ye who pass by?" proclaimed the mythical sign outside the Church, in an attempt to shame people into believing that Jesus died for their sins and they "ought" to be at least grateful occasionally. How infrequently do I hear much self reflection - that perhaps when people came they may not have found a welcome, or that the message was not one of hope for them.

The reality is that the message has to be proclaimed carefully and accurately. People have got to feel that they are included and not excluded. People have to be given time to trust - indeed the giving of time is one of the marks of the gospel proclamation.

Even these words of hope can be turned around - don't you feel "marked"? - perhaps your conversion wasn't kosher enough! So even if people find a place "inside" it is not especially a secure place to be.

But hidden within these words are "you also". Everything that the author is - is extended to the other. This is how the author lived. If it actually was St Paul, then we can see that this "being all things for all people" is but another way of trying to express the truth that God is in the other as really as God was in him.

As we read this hymn of praise, he speaks of how God "has blessed us .. with every spiritual blessing", "he chose us", "he destined us", "we have redemption, forgiveness", "he has made known to us the mystery of his will", "we have obtained an inheritance" - all these things which are true for the author and his companions are also as true for his readers. "In him you also ..."

This "us" and "you" is reinforced as at the end of his description of who they are - it is all "for the praise of his glory." At the end of his extension of these same blessings to his readers - it is concluded with the same words: "to the praise of his glory".

For the mystery of God's will is that God will "gather up all things .. things in heaven and things on earth". The mystery is the inclusion that God is and will accomplish, despite all human attempts to thwart it.

The author doesn't exercise his or her apostleship with the preconception that he is in any way different from his readers. He didn't have something that others didn't. The blessings that he and his companions shared, he knew were shared with all people, precisely because Jesus died and rose again for all people.

These words are a hymn of praise to God, and we praise God as God truly is, when we recognise who God truly is, or not, as the case may be. We do not praise God, hoping that the louder we praise God, the more likely it will be that God will not hear the praise someone else is offering. We do not praise God loudly so that God will grant our petitions over and against someone else's petitions - well we can try, but it will be a waste of time.

The author to the letter to the Ephesians praises God because others share the same blessings as he did. And when we look around and see that others share the same blessings that we do, it is the cause of great joy. It means immediately that we don't have to convert or cajole anyone. We are not blessed more because we have successfully converted or cajoled more people than others. It is the cause of great joy because our faith is reinforced by the fact that others do not have to be identical to us before God will accept them. Our faith in an undiscriminating God is reinforced by our seeing God in all sorts of other people.

Or, of course, we can block this out, deny that God is this generous, and expect everyone else to measure up to the number of hours we have laboured, during "the heat of the day".

So one of the things I react against is divisions between people.

As I spent the time after Christmass doing the quickstep between the bathroom and the bedroom (I had a viral gastric wog :-) I began reading a book given to me for Christmass - what is going to be a great source of inspiration. It is "The God of all Worlds" - an anthology of contemporary spiritual writing by Lucinda Vardey. On page 12 she includes some words of Mother Teresa: "Faith ... Either you have it or you don't." And I thought - I'm not sure about this. Yet she goes on immediately to say "For us, it is very simple because our feet are on the ground ... God has created all things ..." And of course she lived a life of service to the poorest of the poor was ever done in a spirit of recognition to the divine in the person to whom she sought to be of help.

And there is a mark on people, on those who are resentful that God is this generous (not so very different from the mark of Cain of old) as well as a mark on those who welcome this prodigalness of God. It is something about happiness, about people with whom it is a pleasure to be, whatever version of the faith, or faith they hold. I sometimes tell the story of the person after whom our son Philip is named. It was an uncle of mine who never darkened the door of any church, he was even buried by a civil celebrant, but he was always the most welcome of my uncles in my parent's home. He was always friendly and welcoming.

It is interesting to me that the opposite of the statement: "It is the cause of great joy because our faith is reinforced by the fact that others do not have to be identical to us before God will accept them" highlights for me the observation that those who believe in a discriminating God usually are hell-bent on making others agree with their version of the faith. When one considers the huge variety of people and interpretations that coexist, it would seem at least a trifle ludicrous to try to get everyone to accept one version of the truth! And somewhat more ludicrous to worship a god who demanded I was to spend my life trying :-)



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