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.


“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free”: Third Sermon on St Paul’s Letters

Sermon preached by Petronella Spivey, one of our Licensed Lay Ministers, on Galatians 5.13-6.2. It is the third of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities.


One of the very few bible verses I know by heart is in this reading. It must appeal to my love of lists, because, aided by a dreadful tune that I have been unable to find music for (so you are spared that), I can recite all nine gifts of the spirit for you.

Not that I can actually demonstrate them very well in real life, which is maybe part of the point of Paul’s letter.

But being able to remember them in a list gave me an interesting exercise on a recent nine day break — namely to take one gift for each day, and look for opportunities to practice it, spot it in others, and notice its absence in myself.

But that’s not really quite I wanted to talk about.

Phil’s 3 Questions and Paul’s First Answer

Father Phil has been challenging us to discover for ourselves, as individuals, and as a community, the answer to three questions.

Why does the church exist?

What is the church to be?

What is the church to do?

Is there anything new in this letter to the Galatians to help us with our investigations?. Phil has shown us how Paul’s letter to the Romans, encourages to live alongside people we don’t like: and Bishop Steven has found in the letters to the Church in Corinth, an encouragement to nurture and teach new believers. Is there anything new in this letter to the Galatians to help us with our investigations?. Here is a group of churches founded by Paul, living ,as the church in Rome did in a multi-cultural community; wrestling like others, with the tensions between believers of a Jewish heritage, and believers with other backgrounds. What then does Paul’s letter to the churches (and he uses the plural) have to add to this? In Galatians we read that:

The church exists because people have heard Paul’s message.

The church is to be people who have a relationship with Jesus.

What is the church to do?: She must live the message and pass it on.

What is the message?

The message Paul is talking about is the very heart of the Christian gospel: he wants the churches to hear that message, cherish it, stick with it and live it, and pass it on. The main difficulty the Galatian churches are facing is pressure in some quarters to move back to Jewish practice. Paul is against this, and he goes on to contrast a life lived by law (and he means here Jewish law) and the new Christian life lived by faith. This is the message Paul is talking about is the very heart of the Christian gospel: he wants the churches to hear that message, cherish it, stick with it and live it, and pass it on.

What does Paul mean by living according to the law?

Human nature

Firstly, he means the law of human nature: to put self first and others second. We see it in children when they snatch a toy saying “I want it: it’s mine”. We see it in the teenager who expects parents to drop everything and ferry them to a social engagement. We see it at work when a colleague’s urgent project must be done immediately. We see it when we want the last parking space. We see it in a world that prioritise tax breaks for the rich over fair pay for all We see it at the school- leavers; assembly when every parent wants to sit in the front row . We hear it when we want our neighbours to share our preference for silence or our taste in loud music. We see it in a country that turns away the refugee because they are not one of us.. All this selfishness, this “me first” is a sign that to Paul that humans are no longer in right relationship with the creator God. He describes this as is a sort of slavery — to be in thrall to our own selfishness and animal nature

These are the bars that keep us apart from one another. These are the bars that separate us from the perfect love of God. This is why we know in our heart of hearts that the love relationships we have between parent and child: married partners, are so special — they are a sign of how the world was meant to be.

The mosaic law

Secondly, Paul means by law the set of rules God provided to Moses to try and control this human nature. The Jewish law did this in part by ritual ( there is much in Galatians about circumcision that feels alien and incomprehensible to us.) But Paul also means the law that includes guidelines for right living, like the 10 commandments. But this law doesn’t work. Or as Paul says, “no one will ever be justified by works of the law” (Gal 2 v 16) Having the rules doesn’t help: it just labels what we are doing wrong!

Humans want, says Paul, to be reunited with God. Both the law of human nature, and the Mosaic law stand between them. Humans want, says Paul to know how it would feel to be free. Free of sin, and free of the burden of failure.

A life of faith is a life united with Jesus

Such a life of freedom, says Paul, is a life of faith, and it is this he sets up in comparison to a life lived by law. But not blind faith, abstract faith — but faith and trust in the person of Jesus. This is the core of his message: and he urges his readers to live this life of freedom, to put Jesus and not the law, at the very centre of their lives.

Jesus taught how to live in relationship with God

We all know that Jesus taught how to live in relationship with God when he summarised all the law (the ritual and the rules, the ethical and the practical, all the words and words and words) in , “‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Galatians 5:14)

Jesus showed us how to live in relationship with God

But much more Jesus showed us how to live in relationship with God. I think that this was the aspect of Jesus character that was so attractive to people. People clearly came from all over to hear him, and many stayed to follow him., leaving behind families and work. The gospels don’t really make clear what people saw and why they would do this.

Some of us at St Alban’s have been reading (and for nearly everyone except me re-reading) Gerald Hughes book called the God of Surprises. It’s about prayer, but in this case prayer as knowing yourself in the light of the life of Jesus. And it’s made sense to me as I reflect on how people make me feel and how I treat them as a result of that that maybe Jesus was able to live without a sense of his own importance, without ego, and so able to see people as God sees them, without them being influenced by the effect they had on him. And in the same way, to be able to glimpse what it wd be to have a relationship with God like that too — not one distorted by our imperfections, but based on the very best of us.

Christ’s life showed us what it would feel to be free.

Jesus fulfilled the law

Paul says, here and elsewhere, that Jesus fulfilled the law. In mysterious way, the crucifixion and resurrection stories stand for the end of one kind of world-order and the beginning of another. While this is a huge element of Paul’s theology, to the Galatians he emphasises that we are to imitate Jesus in our life.

We are to imitate Jesus

Paul explains how this new life of faith is to be. Finally we can live like we’re longing to live. We are to have a relationship with Jesus, and just as dogs and owners grow to look alike, so we too, shall grow to be more like Jesus. Paul writes I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. Galatians 2:19.

This doesn’t mean that we can now steal or murder at will. Rather Paul writes that we believe now that it is truly possible to live in a way that unites us to the purpose God had for us from creation. We are to embrace what God arranges. Finally, we can show all the love in our heart. This is the fruitful life Paul is writing about, and it is this that describes what we as individuals and as a church are called to be and do.

We can live like we’re longing to live it would feel to be free. For Paul, the church was a group of people who knew Jesus like this. The reason the church exists is Jesus. Christ was in the heart of every member, and at the heart of their communal existence. His picture of this community of free people is a picture of a fruitful orchard bring forth great gifts of love, of joy of peace; patience kindness, goodness,; of faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

May we all have Christ at the centre of your day today, and every day: and may we all show forth the fruits of his Spirit in our lives.