Rev Canon Cheryl Collins
May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I never met my paternal grandmother as sadly she died 6 years before I was born. As you can imagine I have always especially treasured any photos of her. I have one that shows her as a young woman, looking at her face it seemed very familiar, but it took me a while to realise where I’d seen that face before. It was not until I stood in front of a mirror and held the photo up next to me that I realised her face looked so familiar because I look very much like her, the family resemblance from her, through my Dad, to me is very marked. Today is Mothering Sunday, the day in popular culture that we say ‘Thank you’ to our mothers and the day within the church when we remember the church as our mother, nourishing and protecting us. This year it can’t be the way it usually is, but that does give me an opportunity to look at the readings for Lent 4 which focus not on our birth families but on our adoption as children of God.
In all sorts of ways our families make us who we are. Our genes encode not just our physical likeness but many other characteristics; and it is our family which shapes our expectations of what relationships are like, our attitudes to things such as money or leisure time, and the habitual ways we live our lives. This is baggage that we carry with us throughout our lives, whether we realise it or not. Jesus taught us to pray to God as ‘Our Father’ and we might wonder why God chooses to relate to us through a relationship he knows comes with lots of baggage? A profound explanation of this is offered in an excellent book about prayer I am reading at the moment-‘Where prayer becomes real’. The writers suggest that God created the parent-child relationship so his redemption would unearth the deepest formation in our lives. God’s salvation addresses how we were formed as children in those deep, and often broken, relationships we have with our parents. God brings to light the ways we have been loved and broken so that they, so that we, may receive forgiveness, healing and transformation in precisely those places. As God’s children we need the words father and mother to be healed and re-formed no matters how faithful our earthly parents were. We need to understand what it means that God is our Father and we are his children.
This is the kind of work that Paul is undertaking in his letter to the Ephesians, which pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson understands as being about growing up in Christ. In chapter one Paul has told the Ephesians that ‘He (God) predestined us to be adopted as his children through Jesus Christ.’ Now, in chapter 2 he is unpacking more of what that means. He begins by reminding us of the contrast between our old lives in the world of sin and death and our new lives in Christ. The temptations that surrounded the Ephesian Christians still surround us today. We are encouraged to competitive ambition, the pursuit of power and self-indulgence, the superficial idolatries of status, wealth and position. We are like a horde of over-ambitious 2 year olds trying hard to control our anxiety and prove ourselves grown up with frequent exclamations of ‘I do it.’
Just as the average two year old almost certainly can’t do it, it takes the power of God to break the deadly patterns of the old sinful life and to sustain our new life in Christ. That’s what Paul wants the Ephesians to understand, not only that they can’t save themselves but, and this is the good news, that they don’t have to. It is all grace. Grace is so difficult to define but it’s really very easy to exist in. You could say it’s like learning to swim. Just like water we can’t see the grace that is holding us up, but we will get nowhere until we learn to relax and trust that the water, the grace, will hold us up and keep us safe. We don’t have to do the work, we are the work that God does through grace. ‘We are what he has made us’.
Today’s passage ends by describing us as God’s workmanship, God’s poem, or handiwork. A poem or any other piece of work takes commitment and creativity from the maker. Like the painter or the sculptor or the poet the maker must shape and re-shape carefully and tirelessly to create the masterpiece. This is the same word that is used for the work God did at the beginning of Genesis and makes a link for us between creation and new creation. And just as Genesis 1 ends with the invitation to humanity, made in God’s image, to join in God’s work and steward creation, so Ephesians 2 invites the new Christians to join in with the work that God has created them for, the good life that he prearranged and made ready for us to live in Christ Jesus. And this good life is not meant to direct specifically to a life of church volunteering, the things we do ‘in church’. No, God calls us to work for Him in the ordinary, everyday stuff of our lives, the quotidian mysteries of laundry and bill paying and earning a living. To do this we are invited to order our lives around him and we do this by fixing our eyes upon Jesus. Just as the book of Numbers tells us that people were healed of poisonous snake bites when they stopped complaining against God and fixed their eyes on the bronze serpent on the staff, so we are called to fix our eyes upon Jesus when he is lifted up on the cross for our sakes.
To look up to Jesus, trusting and expectant is to receive through him, the onlybegotten Son, our identity as God’s adopted children. The Son is both the eternal object of the Father’s love and the full revelation of the character of the Father. We are invited to share in the Son’s relationship to the Father. This means that we can come as we are to the Father’s presence in prayer, trusting that we are seen, loved and forgiven as we really are because God receives us from within the love He has for the Son. Thus, we have access to God as his beloved children. When John tells us that ‘God so loved the world’ he is telling us both the
unimaginable extent of God’s love and the how of God’s love, he sent his only Son. Jesus shows us what living as a child of God looks like. His whole life is punctuated by intimate moments with the Father in prayer. He only does the work that the Father has given Him and he demonstrates his identity as Son most fully in this obedience. He welcomes and accepts those who come to him, broken and confused as they are, in the way that God accepts us in our confusion and brokenness. His life shapes our lives, we can do the work that the Father has prepared for us because we have been adopted into the character of the family, it expresses who we are as children of God.
As we give thanks today for the earthly love that has shaped us let us thank God for the way he is shaping us still, so great is the love that the Father has given us so that we might become children of God, for that is what we are.