(preached June 26, 2016)
This past week several thousand individuals, representing 171 Presbyteries from around our nation, gathered to worship, pray, and discern the Spirit as the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was underway. The theme for this week was ‘The Hope in Our Calling,’ taken from Ephesians chapter 1, when Paul prays for those followers of Christ in Ephesus, that ‘you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you.’
The work of the General Assembly is no small task. Yes, there will be plenty of fun, friends, and fellowship to be had, but ultimately this assembly has the sobering task of seeking to discern the movement of God for the denomination in the year 2016, and into the future. What is our calling today as the Church? How is God already moving in this world, and how are we being called to move as God’s children; as Presbyterians?
This, of course, can be an exceedingly exciting time as the delegates and advisors gather to celebrate the life of the Church, but it can also be an exceedingly anxious time, as many individuals, congregations, and communities wrestle with the harsh realities of an aging and diminishing church membership, a societal movement from the Church once being in the center to now being in the margins, and an uncertain future.
Perhaps more importantly, each day we turn on the news to hear more stories of what seems like unending violence in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, or the cities of Baltimore and Chicago, or even here at home within our own neighborhoods. We see videos of terrorism every day in Syria, and France, and in places where we assume we are safe like in Orlando. We talk with neighbors and community members who continue to face unemployment, unmet medical needs, and housing challenges.
Where are we to find this ‘hope’ that Paul alludes to in such a world? What, or who, are we being called to be?
I’ll be honest; I have some very optimistic and positive days, and others can be pessimistic and negative. Let me be even more honest, most days seem to be filled with more pessimistic thoughts than optimistic. I sometimes wonder about the work of the Church and about my work as a pastor. I wonder what it says about us as Christians if we gather to worship on Sunday morning, or at Sunday School, or at a national General Assembly, and we talk, and worship, and sing, and all the while there are millions of individuals in this world still suffering…right at this very moment.
How are we, as Christians, to respond? Is it appropriate to say, as the politicians have safely established the cliché, that ‘our thoughts and prayers are with them,’ and then to move on? Are words enough? Or is there something more that we can do? We would think that if we live in this great country with the majority of Americans being Christian (around 70%), we should be able to solve some of these problems, right? This is what I want us all to wrestle with this morning, as we think about hope in a world that seems sometimes so utterly hopeless.
We begin with our lectionary text for the day and the story of Elijah and Elisha. This is a most important story within the biblical narrative as we read of Elijah being called up to God, and we also read of the transition for his assistant Elisha, as Elisha will now be the prophetic leader within our faith story.
The story of Elijah passing on the role of prophet to Elisha is filled with a variety of emotions.
We can imagine the fear and anxiety at the news of Elijah’s pronounced departure. Elisha will now be on his own; his spiritual guide and mentor; the person who Elisha held as the hope for the nation of Israel, will now be leaving forever. We can also imagine an evolution of emotion from Elisha, as sadness/anxietyàacceptanceàhope & faith.
We also witness this larger theme within the biblical story; that which we use the term ‘calling’. Elisha is being called by God as the next prophet of Israel, following in the footsteps of Elijah, and we see this in the imagery of the mantle, similar to an outer layer of clothing, or a jacket, and the parting of the waters.
In v.8 Elijah first demonstrates his closeness with God by the splitting of the waters, and in
v.14, it is now Elisha: When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
Elisha understands that his work is not done. No, it is rather just beginning. Can we relate to this story?
Our letter to the Ephesians is quite different, with a different time period, a different audience, and a different location. However, there is one theme within this text which associates well with the story of Elijah and Elisha—hope.
Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus
v.17, that God may grant a spirit of wisdom and revelation
v.18, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of [God’s] glorious inheritance among the saints,
19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe
These are, of course, some beautiful words from, but what does this mean for the people of Ephesus? What does this mean for us today?
So what does the story of Elisha have to do with the prayer of Paul for the Ephesians?
Both texts are able to capture the possible uncertainty of the present reality, but more importantly communicate the hope and faith of God’s story at work in the world.
Both stories capture the dichotomy of living within the framework of what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the myth of scarcity, the fear and anxiety of an uncertain future, versus the opportunity of living in God’s abundance, where hope and faith reside.
We live in a world that allows us to see our daily lives with different lenses. We may look at such tragedies as the massacre in Orlando and say to ourselves, ‘Here is yet again another reason to be afraid, to fuel hate, to respond with violence.’
We may say to ourselves, what in the world can I do to change things? What can the church possibly do, or pray, or say that will make things better in this world?
But there is another way to respond. There is a part to Paul’s prayer that may get overlooked, that comes in the verses following verse 19. Let’s hear this again:
18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
We can see the world and ask, ‘Who am I to change this world?’
Or we can see the world and ask, ‘Who is Christ to change the world?’ And when we ask that question, we hear the Good News for us this morning. The Good News is this: In Christ Jesus, who conquered death and who lives eternal, the world will change. In Christ Jesus there is hope for a new world, a Beloved Community. And we, the Church, are Christ’s Body in the world today. This Good news is empty if we only look to ourselves, alone, in response to a broken world. But when we embrace our identity as Christ’s Body, then there is hope. When we embrace Christ’s movement in the world, then we are able, as Elisha and Paul understood, to embrace our calling in this world. When we understand our calling as the Body of Christ, we unleash the power of God to work within us, and through us, and sometimes despite us, to move in miraculous ways.
It is God who reminds us who and whose we are, as we are given the mantle of this calling as the Body of Christ. It is God who gives us hope in places like Syria, or France, or Orlando. It is God who moves within us as we gather as a General Assembly, to yes, join together for food, fun, and fellowship, but most importantly as the body of Christ, and not to point to ourselves, but point to Christ as our response to this broken world.
Friends, Christ is the reason we can wake up each day to news of such brokenness, and understand that God is present even in the darkest of days. Christ is the reason we can choose to live with the understanding of God’s abundance, rather than the myth of scarcity. It is Christ Jesus who is the hope in our calling. And for this, we are thankful, we are hopeful, and we are called. Amen.