Faith Mysterious and Practical: Fourth Sermon on St Paul’s Letters


Sermon preached by Dr Peter McCullough on Ephesians 3.14-4.6, the fourth of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Today we reach the midpoint of our tour through the seven early churches ministered to by St Paul – we have already stopped at Rome, and Corinth, and Galatia; next, after a pause for two glorious August feast days, we will travel on to Philippi, Colossia, and Thessolonika – and today we stop at Ephesus. Or do we? Because in fact, most New Testament scholars now doubt whether this letter was originally addressed to the church there, since early copies of it lack the opening salutation ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus’. More than that, scholars also point out that in both its style and its content, Ephesians is very unlike Paul’s other letters – the author here doesn’t address any problems or arguments troubling a specific congregation, he uses language and imagery used nowhere else by Paul, and is even silent on some of Paul’s most insistently addressed topics, like the doctrine of justification. So what many believe that we have in Ephesians is in fact a letter written by a later follower of Paul who was inspired to model his own letter on Paul’s.

But the most uncharacteristic thing about Ephesians if it was indeed written by Paul is what some have called its ‘verbose rhetorical style’ (a bit unfair!), or, more putting it more kindly, its ‘powerful poetic language’. Now, as someone who teaches literature, I have to try hard to avoid letting a sermon become a lecture or a tutorial – so I wonder if Fr Phil was testing me by giving me Ephesians Sunday – but I still can’t resist suggesting that it might help if you have your texts open in front of you. For even this small passage of Ephesians is, it has to be said, beautiful writing – something captured so well, without me even asking, by Soo Tian setting part of it on the front of the service sheet in a beautiful font, and even in the traditional language of the King James Bible (something that has its own aesthetic charge, but that’s something for another time).

But if writing like this is truly beautiful, truly good, it isn’t enough just to pause and appreciate its formal aesthetic qualities, like a picture in a gallery, but to go on and think about why it has been written so beautifully. The author – and let’s just call him Paul – Paul writes with such powerful rhetoric here not for its own sake, or to show off his skill, but because he wants words to match the urgency and importance of his message.

Our reading begins with ‘For this reason’. Now you have to be careful with lectionary excerpts, especially from a book as rhetorically elaborate as Ephesians. The ‘reason’ that Paul ‘bows his knees’ isn’t to be found in what follows in our reading; instead, he’s referring to something he said earlier, and to find it you have to go all the way back to chapter 2, to that great summary of our faith itself: that ‘through the cross’, Christ ‘came and proclaimed peace’, and ‘you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.’ And ‘For [that] reason’, in our reading, ‘I bow my knees before the Father’.

No wonder Paul strains every rhetorical, even poetical, nerve here – because his prayer (which must now be our prayer) is that the universal church, our national church, our parish churches of St Alban and St Mary and St John, may live up to nothing less than our destiny, our obligation, our joy, that, as Paul says, ‘Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith . . . rooted and grounded in love’. [I can’t help but think here of all the effort that goes in to finding catchy mission statement slogans for churches and dioceses – which are almost never Scriptural and almost always banal; why not ‘Christ in our hearts through faith’, or, ‘Rooted and grounded in love’. It works for me.]

But if we’re honest, I think, we have to ask ourselves, just what – exactly – do even purely Scriptural tags like ‘Christ in our hearts’ or ‘grounded in love’ really mean? The original recipients of Paul’s letter, for whom the faith was so new, must have asked it. And we, for whom formulae like ‘Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith’ are dangerously familiar, probably need to ask it as well. And Paul (and the Holy Spirit that inspired him) knows that then and now we need explanations, for the very next next intercession in our reading is to ‘pray that you may have the power to comprehend’.

But what I love most here is that Paul doesn’t give an answer, at least not a direct one, to the question of what the in-dwelling of Christ means. And he doesn’t, as a human being, because he can’t really, any more than we can. If that was something we could comprehend, at least in any recitable, factual way, would it really be something worth knowing? Put another way, would it really be ‘faith’? Here we have one of the central mysteries, the central paradoxes of our lives as Christians – that we pray and we struggle to and know something that is real but impossible to know fully, since, as Paul puts it here, because ‘the love of Christ’ is, wonderfully, something that ‘surpasses knowledge’. But rather than that being a source of discouragement, it is in fact an encouragement, because there is ‘a power’, the Spirit, ‘at work within us able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine’.

Still, that can all sound very abstract, a bit of a mental, philosophical, or mystical puzzle played out in the mind with words. But that is what the ‘therefore’ in the next paragraph of our reading is there for. ‘I therefore’, Paul says, ‘beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called’. ‘Beg you’. Those are strong words, and should be powerfully felt – because this is where faith in the abstract (praying for knowledge that we rightly desire and rightly strive for, but can never completely have, nor comprehend it if we could) that intangible faith has its counterpart, its compensation, perhaps even its fulfilment, in the material reality of faith lived in what we do and how we should do it: ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’

Paul’s language here works hard because the work of living faithfully is hard, but worth the struggle. And in this life we come closest to comprehension and knowledge not by talking or thinking only, but by doing, by ‘making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. So it should be no surprise that as we journey through these early churches some patterns begin to emerge. We encounter here what Fr Phil showed us in Romans, that as church we come together not to avoid, but to live with difference and diversity; and as Petronella showed us last week in Galatians, we do so by nurturing the gifts of the spirit that are repeated for us here in Ephesians; and the whole of Ephesians is a perfect blueprint for the church that Bp Stephen reminded us is always under construction.

And in our parishes the place where we must regularly, because most fundamentally, come together as the messy but loving family that is the church, where we meet and make our faith a living and incarnate one, is in the sacrament of the altar – where not just words, but nothing less than The Word, Christ, is made flesh and dwells among us, through him receiving ‘one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’ AMEN.


Trinity Sunday 2017: Jesus’ Final Orders to his Disciples


Preached by Fr Phil Ritchie

The Gospel today is often referred to as The Great Commission and it is not a passage that I have ever felt drawn to! Maybe it’s my taste for drama but I have always preferred Marks final lines (before the later addition) which just say: They went away afraid and said nothing to anyone – Now that sounds like an event or the beginning of something worth investigating. By contrast Matthews ending reads like Conservative Party conferences of old or the cricket club AGM – well organised with all the controversy, the fear and the rage written out to avoid arguments. You get the feeling that Matthew felt Mark bungled the ending and he, Matthew, is sorting it out.

Jesus meets his disciples on a mountain – as he did earlier in the Gospel in his famous sermon. You have to hand it to Matthew, he gives us a bit of narrative tension, the disciples worship him – but some doubted. Maybe Matthew knew there was uncertainty, ambivalence, doubting in his own community? However, Jesus’ response is part enthronement hymn and part commissioning. Standing on the mountain before his worshipping disciples he tells them ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’ and then that well-known commissioning ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit.

That’s the section where a community like ours often starts to feel squeamish – we don’t want to tread on anyone else’s toes, our faith is personal and even maybe private. A lot of us may feel more Mark than Matthew, and in fact, we might actively disapprove or dislike Matthean evangelists.

As part of my attempt to break out of my own cosy English bubble of ritualistic, social Justice orientated, evangelism phobic liberal Catholicism I have been reading Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven church – It is quite scary, kind of the Great commission on acid. But it is good on this passage. He points out that the Greek text of Matthew 28 – contains 3 present participative verbs: going, baptising and teaching. And that Baptism features so strongly in the passage because it symbolises one of the purposes of the church – fellowship, identification with the body of Christ. As Christians, we are called to belong not just to believe.

So on this Trinity Sunday I want to talk briefly about Going, about baptising and about teaching.

Going. Go therefore and make disciples. It’s a strange thing but I think it is actually true that we have become terrified of what this might actually mean for us, and that we have created this frightening binary opposition between Christians who help people and Christians who make disciples, we stay in the first and we leave those others to do the second. Often in rather disparaging way we say that they can convert them and then we pick them up when they want something a bit deeper or a bit more socially engaged. The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt says that even those who are given to a life of contemplation still cannot refrain from going out and taking an active part in life, those who are given to a life of contemplation and avoid activities deceive themselves and are on the wrong track. Contemplation and action are part of all our callings. And surely part of action is the business sof making disciples. Go, therefore…but how?

Jesus tells us to Baptise people. Our translation of that sometimes seems to miss the point. I have baptised a small number of people at the font at the back of church, not many of those people are still here. But maybe we need to back up a little to look at what it means to re-imagine what Baptism is. That in Baptism we become one with Christ in his death and resurrection, that by this grafting into Christ we become part of the divine dance of God as Father Son and Holy Spirit. That Baptism is both an invitation to live in the mystery of God’s love and also an invitation to not only be a new creation but to live a new kind of life. When we live that life we become a beacon for a different kind of living. The ‘Go, therefore’ bit becomes easy. The problem is we have made too much of the faith about learning how to behave, as if what we told people about the Christian life was just what they can and can’t do. Herbert McCabe writes:

“Ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want, that is to say with being free. Most of the difficulties arise from the difficulty of recognising what we want”.

To journey ever closer to living through Christ in the dance of the Trinity teaches us true freedom – it reminds us of what we most deeply desire.

Go, Baptise, teach. If we thought Going to make disciples was bad, and Baptising a bit of a tall order, then teaching is in another league! And our fear is, like with the ethics, that it will be rule bound, that it won’t be about freedom, that it will pen us in. For me this is partly because in a society obsessed by immanence we are terrified of speaking about transcendence. One American writer has spoken of the process of ‘immanentization’ in our society. Basically what he means is that we have ditched any notion of the transcendent – of a God out there. There is the material world, the natural world, and humans in charge of it trying to flourish. This secular world view has also taken over sections of the church with a singular focus on the incarnation, on the good man Jesus with an associated fear of the otherness of the supernatural, of a God who exists outside of creation.

Mark Vernon in his lovely little book about Love says it comes in three movements: First we love ourselves, but this is just a preparation for realising that there is another in the world whom we might trust to love and be loved by too. Romantic love tries to tell us that love ends there in that second stage, that love is fulfilled in the one who loves us back. But there is a third kind f love which brings with it the possibility of sharing in circles of love, family, friends, community – and the more subtle capacity to stand back and reflect on life and love itself. But a few pages later he goes on to talk about a fourth shift, an awakening to the transcendent. He ends by saying:

‘It seems as if a final barrier has been dissolved. The most basic truth in life is not that we yearn for more when clumsily we love, though we do, but that the constant unclouded love of God yearns for us. The revelation is summed up in the formula: God is love.

Go, Baptise, teach this simple truth, this is the heart of the great commission, the love that is revealed to us in the mystery of the Trinity.