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What are the Essentials?

Rev. Terry McKinney
Sun, Jul 15

Texts: Ephesians 1:3-14
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.”

I remember a guy in high school named Kenny. He wasn’t the number one most popular guy in school but he was definitely in the top ten. If you’d asked him if I knew him, I’d say yes, but just in the same way you know the person eight cubicles down. You don’t have lunch or hang out together, but you nod or say, “Hi,” when you pass each other.

There’s that unspoken tier of coolness in high school, and I was definitely not in Kenny’s tier. So imagine my surprise when Kenny asked if he could come over. I tried to be nonchalant as I said, “That would be great,” but I probably dropped all my books and did a double back flip with a one and half twist.

Maybe I was beginning to elevate into the next tier up ever so slightly. There was a part of me that was trying to justify the visit. I was known for my wicked serve at racquetball, for example.

The big day came. I was excited and nervous. Kenny opened up the gate and I saw two other guys with him. My first thought was, “Do I have enough rackets?” Then it dawned on me: we’re not playing racquetball.

Kenny introduced his two friends, and from the serious looks on their faces, I thought, “Uh oh, this really, really isn’t about racquetball.”

The Kenny looked me straight in the eye and said, “Let’s talk about Jesus.” Finally, whatever desperate hope I had about racquetball evaporated like a puff of smoke.

The question was surprising. I’d just converted from the Calvinism of the Presbyterian Church to the Elizabethan Settlement of the Episcopal Church. I was still new to the Episcopal Church, but I was pretty sure we didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s talk about Jesus.”

Without wasting any time, Kenny asked me whether I believed that, if I were to die this very day, I would be in Heaven with Jesus. I knew there was only one acceptable answer to this question, and not a smidgen of room for doubt, so I said, “Yes.” But as I thought about it later, I kept thinking to myself, “That’s the wrong question.”

I would love to look back on that conversation and say that I asked them, “Do you really mean that your entire test of faith rests on the question of what happens immediately after you die?” But I didn’t ask that.

In fact, that question scared me and haunted me, and made me wonder for years what the force of belief has on our fate, both now and after death. Our text today isn’t so stark, but in some ways it too pins a great deal on belief.

But let’s step back a bit and look at the context. Few scholars believe anymore that it was Paul who wrote Ephesians. In fact, many think it was originally a sermon, given a salutation and a concluding blessing as a wrapper to make it look like a letter.

That Paul probably didn’t write it doesn’t make the contents any less inherently valuable, or less valuable to us today. Instead, it does something very important which is to draw our attention to the promises that come from God through Jesus in a sequential line of thought.

Why would the author of Ephesians start with this opening passage? Whoever wrote it, Paul or otherwise, was reminding the recipients who were clearly partly Jewish and partly Gentile of what united them.

This was one of the most important messages Paul had in his own letters. In most of them, he’s writing to a new or struggling church, trying to end divisions of one form or another by reminding them what the essentials were, and what the core of their belief that united them was.

What he was doing was distinguishing core belief from adiaphora. How’s that for a word? Adiaphora is non-essential theology. I want you to use the word in a sentence three times today in order to incorporate it into your vocabulary. So Paul and this writer wanted to make sure that its congregants were unified in essential belief, not divided by non-essential belief, by adiaphora.

It would be tempting to say that we no long have divisions like that in our churches today, but of course we do. With apologies to both, just get a Seventh Day Adventist and a Greek Orthodox congregant together, and divisions will spring up like weeds.

Part of the division comes from disagreement about what is essential and what isn’t. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, it’s considered a matter of life and death. There’s not a smidgen of room for doubt. Violence and bloodshed in the formation of creeds has occurred in the Christian church, and more than once.

Listen carefully to this extremely brief bit of exegesis on the text – in bullet points, no less – and ask yourself: what part of this is essential and unifying of all Christians today, and what isn’t?
Here’s the synopsis:

God is the blessed Father of Jesus,
God blessed and chose us in Jesus before the world was created,
God adopted us through Jesus,
Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we have forgiveness and freedom from bondage,
In Jesus, God revealed to us the mysterious plan for Jesus’ return,
By that adoption, we are destined to be redeemed after Jesus’ return,
We Jewish Christians, the first to hope in Jesus, will live after his return for praise and glory to God,
You Gentiles through belief inherit the same,
You are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a pledge of that inheritance.

Did you follow all that? If your eyes glazed over for just a second, you are forgiven. If it was for more than a second or two, come and see me after the service.

I know that all flew by pretty quickly, but I imagine some of it struck a chord with you, either as foundational – non-negotiable – or possibly either outdated or simply optional, or it simply floated on by you without assessment.

The truth is, if we took a secret poll, not many here would say they believe every word literally. Most would say that believed parts of it, some a lot and some a little. And some would say they don’t believe a word of it.

The writer of Ephesians clearly believed the entirety of it was non-negotiable, but what if we didn’t believe it in its entirety today? Are there some parts we would consider essential, and some parts to be adiaphora? If so, what are the essential bits and what parts do we doubt?

The very question itself feels dangerous. What does it mean to Iook at a piece of scripture and say, “I agree with that bit, but not that bit. This is certainly non-negotiable, but this part seems more like superstition, and anyway it’s from a less sophisticated and educated time than ours.”

These pronouncements can indeed make one feel more educated and sophisticated. But doubts can also feel dangerous for fear that these beliefs differing from scripture might have the power to change our consequences, both now and in the world to come. What would happen if I believed something differently? Especially something biblical? What fate would befall me?

I have a friend who’s a Unitarian Universalist minister. He once said to me, “The problem with Christianity is that the whole thing is riding on what you believe and what you doubt.” I don’t remember what I said exactly but I do remember saying that a whole lot more was riding on our actions, which took him by surprise. I think my quick response took me by surprise too.

We obviously have Jesus commending and asking for faith. “Only do not doubt, but believe.” And yet when asked how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, we also have Jesus requiring actions. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke? When asked how to inherit eternal life, Jesus says to love your neighbor, and here’s how. There’s nothing in the parable about belief, but rather action: love of God, and love of neighbor.
Do you remember the story of the sheep and the goats? The Son of Man comes in glory and separates them, the sheep for inheriting eternal life, and the goats for eternal punishment. He divided them not based on belief, but on who gave food to the hungry, and clothed to the naked.

We in the UCC often say that we are a non-creedal church. This doesn’t mean we don’t believe anything we can articulate, but it professes a freedom of belief within a Christian framework. If you look up the UCC’s Statement of Faith, and I recommend you do, most of the content of our Ephesians passage is in there.

But what precedes it says that our statement is about the testimony of our denomination writ large, not a minimum set of beliefs in order to be a member or even a full-fledged Christian. In fact there’s a good bit more on our website about actions that beliefs.

This is what makes us such a liberal mainline Protestant church. Inherent in that is having beliefs that at times are at odds with biblical text. In other words, there’s more than a smidgen of room for doubt, and a lot of call to action.

Our UCC campaign would say that God is still speaking, but does that mean God is solely adding to scripture? Or could it mean that God is revealing something new and different: that we can be unified by a compact core of beliefs proclaimed loudly in actions? When we have communion here, we say it’s open to all who follow Jesus’ ways of justice peace. Is that enough to unite us? Or does it feel too small?

Maybe God’s continuing voice is saying that what unites us as a body of faith isn’t so much a minimum list of beliefs that don’t have a smidgen of room for doubt. Rather, it is indeed Jesus’ mission of peace and justice in the world. It is our actions as we best understand Jesus would have us do, and loving our God.

While it can feel dangerous sometimes, doubt is an essential part of faith. It’s part of faith’s fertilizer. Doubt can keep us engaged, wondering from time to time whether we’d got something wrong, or whether Jesus would have us do this instead of that, or this in addition to that. Simply put, doubt can keep our faith alive.

So when Kenny and his friends came over and I had a wordless sense that their question was wrong, maybe I was wondering if there wasn’t so much more to faith than the strength of certainty being required for entrance into Heaven.

Perhaps the right question – and the question I would ask Kenny today – is this: are you visiting the sick and clothing the naked? Are you helping those who’ve been robbed and attacked?

In other words, I might ask if we shared the core, unifying belief that we, as followers of Jesus, are to discern what actions Jesus would have us do.

What does the Lord ask of us? Do justice, and to love with kindness and mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. May we have whatever mixture of faith, doubt, and action we need to go and do likewise.


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