Right Here, Right Now

July 25, 2004



Right Here Right Now… (7/25/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

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I’ve been a Christian most of my life, but I still wrestle with exactly what that means. What does it mean to say, “I’m a Christian.” I say I’m a member of the worldwide Christian church. What rights and privileges go with such membership? What obligations and responsibilities go a long with this “being a Christian?”

When I first went to seminary a lot of my friends were surprised. I had been working in sales for a division of ITT, and whenever I told an associate or customer I was leaving my job and enrolling in seminary, he or she would suddenly get this panicked look. They were thinking back to everything they had said to me over the years—all the jokes, all the little cuss words that had slipped into conversations along the way.

I remember one fellow in particular, who wanted to quickly assure me that he was going to heaven. He said that even though he had not attended church since he was twelve years old, he had accepted Jesus as his personal savior, and that was that. He was in. He had the heaven base covered. On his list of things to do in life, he’d long ago placed a big check mark in the box next to eternity. Never mind that the folks he worked with all knew that this was not a person you turned your back on. I don’t want to be judgmental, but the fact is, this was a pretty nasty guy. He was bitter, and angry, and he was quick to point out the many faults of everybody he worked with—whenever they were not around.

And it may be that he had it all figured out. In fact, I am in that group of Christians who believes God’s love and mercy cover all of our mistakes. And this man had every right to call himself a Christian; but I knew then, and I still know, that for me, being a Christian involves something more than a one-time confession of faith in Jesus.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of my favorite books of the Bible because it talks about what it means to be church. It uses strange language, calling the church “the Body of Christ.” Ephesians talks about being “in Christ.” This being “in Christ” means that we are not only part of an organization—the church—we are a part of the living body of Christ. Don’t look for Christ in the stars above; Christ is right here, right now, alive and well, living forever in the hearts of the people who have faith.

Now, we may disagree who is and who is not a part of the Body of Christ. We may disagree over how one becomes a part of this mysterious and mystical body the author of Ephesians makes central to his theology. But there are signs that indicate a person is there.

Consider a tree we plant in the back yard. How do we know whether or not it is an apple tree? We nourish it with water, fertilizer, and sunlight—and it grows year by year. But how do we know if it is an apple tree? By looking at its fruits. I mean, the tree either ends up with apples hanging all over it, or it doesn’t. Trees and people are much alike in that way. “By their fruits you will know them.” (I’d like to take credit for that analogy, but Jesus beat me to it in the Sermon on the Mount!)

So how do we recognize a Christian that is bearing good fruit? How do we identity those who are truly a part of the Body of Christ, being amply nourished by the Word of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit? Well, according to Ephesians, there are signs—signs that people are living life as a part of the Body of Christ. Most people find these signs encouraging, because they don’t involve morphing into some sort of Mother Theresa. If we have to give away everything we own and live among the poorest of the poor to be a proper Christian, most of us are in trouble. I know I am. I like knowing there is a little food in the fridge when I go to bed at night, and maybe a little cash building up in the bank for a vacation next summer. I just didn’t get the Mother Theresa gene.

But it’s not nearly that difficult. Listen to the signs, according to Ephesians: Put away all your bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

That’s not so hard, is it? Could the Christian message be that simple? Can we boil it all down to a nice and neat, Be nice? Probably not. There is a bit more to it than that. But the point, it seems, is that if we truly are in Christ; if we truly are a part of the church; being nice isn’t all that difficult. It just sort of happens.

But wait a second. Some of us have a hard time giving up our bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling, even after becoming Christians. Okay, I’ll give up my bitterness and anger, but please: at least let me at least hang on to my wrath and wrangling! And let’s be honest. There is not a person among us, regardless of his of her devotion to God and sincerity of faith in Christ, who doesn’t have moments when the bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling don’t surface in our lives.

But here is where the good news comes in—the gospel! God loves us through each and every moment, including those times when our fallen natures come to the fore. And do you know what that means? That means that the guy I mentioned earlier, who loved to regale me with stories about the shortcomings of his coworkers—the guy who confessed Jesus and then appeared to turn his back on the very teachings of the one he confessed—that guy is indeed a part of the Body of Christ.

So the question is simple. Why be good? Hey, I like my bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling. There are days when I’d much rather do a little wrangling than spend the morning in prayer. And God will love me anyway, right? So why not do a little venting? It’s good to blow off some steam now and then. God help the person who is closest to me when I finally blow; but hey, God will heal them and forgive me. So stand back.

After all, in the long run, who gets hurt? God loves, God forgives, God heals, and in the end everybody’s happy. Well, Ephesians tells us who gets hurt when we give in to our malice. Our angry words and vengeful deeds have a cost. In the words of Ephesians, they “grieve the Holy Spirit.”

This is important. Ephesians insists that we, flaws and all, are indeed a part of the Body of Christ. And when we don’t live up to our call—when we allow our lesser natures to take us over for a minute, or a day, or a week, we don’t lose God’s love. God’s love is still there—grieving.

That is one of the most frightening images in the Bible. Ephesians says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Do we have that kind of power? You and me? Have we been given the power, the ability, the authority to hurt God? That is scary. I don’t want that kind of power. I don’t want to believe that the words I say and the things I do can be hurtful to God. I want God to know I am about to have one of my spells, and just sort of disappear from my life for a few moments. I want to be able to say to God, “Lord, I know the rules; but I also know you love me even when I break the rules. Would it be too much to ask for you to just sort of look the other way for the next few minutes, while I let this scumbag who just cut me off in heavy traffic know what I think of his driving skills?”

Ephesians tells us it doesn’t work that way. God isn’t out there, somewhere, able to turn away while we have our little tantrum. God is everywhere. Always everywhere. God is right here, right now, using our eyes to see God’s own creation. What other eyes would God use? God is right here, right now, using these hands—your hands and mine—to do great things in this world. These are the only hands God has available at this particular moment, in this particular place. God is right here, right now, using our minds—our imaginations—to envision ways to shape this world more closely to the kingdom God envisioned through the life of Jesus. Who can envision a better, more loving world, other than you and me—the creatures God has given the gift of imagination?

Ephesians! Do you know why I love this book so much? Because it unites both aspects of the faith more than any other book in the Bible. In some books we hear the practical implications of the faith—how to treat other people; how to live in the world. In other books we learn about the eternal implications of our lives, and look forward to the consummation of God’s plan after our lives in this world are over. But Ephesians brings it all together. Ephesians is in some ways the most practical book in the Bible, because it insists that eternity is right here, right now.

I wish more people would study Ephesians. There are simply too many Christians who base their lives on the hereafter, as if these miraculous lives we have been given are simply problems to be endured until we finally die. Oh, eternity is real. We don’t have the luxury of turning back to dust and pretending our lives never happened. But eternity is not something in the future. Eternity is always happening.

There are forces in this world that would poison us. Forces like anger and bitterness. But once we understand that we are a part of the Body of Christ; once we understand that God is using our eyes and our hands and our ears to experience creation, those forces more than poison just us. They poison the Body of Christ. They hurt God. And those powers are always looking for a way into the world.

I love the imagery from Ephesians. Ephesians wants us to become saturated with God—to allow God to permeate every fiber of our being. Listen to Paul’s words! Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against evil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

And then, Ephesians describes the “armor of God” by asking us to put on the belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the shield of faith; the helmet of salvation; the sword of the Spirit.

Some people don’t like Ephesians, because it tells us that life is serious. Human life is not some meaningless accident, some strange chemical reaction, some empty bubble on a sea of nothingness. The story of the universe is playing out inside each and every one of us. The words we say and the things we do have eternal consequences. Because these eyes do not belong to us—they belong to God. These hands do not belong to us—they belong to God. And everybody and everything we see with these eyes and touch with these hands—they belong to God too.

A few weeks ago somebody told me they didn’t read the Bible because they thought it was boring. Boring? Are you kidding me? If you think the Bible is boring, do yourself a favor and read Ephesians. And don’t skim it like some sort of dime-store novel. Read it slowly. Absorb it. It will probably scare the hell out of you—literally—which is a good thing. Because when all is said and done, life is important. It’s not a game, and the stakes are high. But the good news is that God loves us through the whole drama, through each and every moment of the story.

And if you want to go to heaven; well, according to Ephesians, open your eyes. You’re already there, if your head and heart are in the right place. Think about it. What would heaven be like? How would it be different from life in this world? What would we have God do differently in order to make this heaven?

It seems to me there are four things that would have to happen for a place to be called heaven. First, we would have the freedom to be ourselves. After all, if we did not have any sort of free will, we would be no more than robots. So we would have to be free to make our own decisions.

Second, there would be people to love. It would not be heaven, no matter how wonderful the surroundings, if we were alone. Without people to love, it would be hell.

Third, we would be able to speak to, and be heard by, our Creator at any moment. No matter what was happening, we would know that our Creator was only a prayer away.

And fourth, we would know that in spite of anything that might go wrong, God is ultimately in control. We would have faith that in the end, good wins out over evil.

That’s it. That is what heaven would be like. We would be free, we would have people to love, we would be able to pray, and we would trust God. So I have to ask: What is it we want God to do that God is not already doing, right here, right now? Oh, the world before our eyes is surely not the totality of heaven—heaven, eternity, life everlasting—those are concepts that we can’t begin to get our minds around.

But God is holding up God’s end of the deal. God is doing everything necessary to make this the Kingdom of Heaven envisioned by Jesus. We human beings are the ones who are falling down on the job. We are the ones who allow evil into the kingdom, and act as if it is somebody else’s fault. We are the ones who grieve the spirit, day by day, with our bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling.

Maybe its time we stopped punishing God. Oh, God will love us no matter what—I’m convinced of that. In fact, any questions regarding God’s love were answered at the cross. There can be no question about God’s unfathomable love for us. The only question concerns our love for God. We don’t have to give away everything we own; we don’t have to become martyred saints of the church; all we need do is go joyfully about our lives, and put away our bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling.

Thank God for church. Really! Thank God for church. This is where we come to arm ourselves. This is where we look the truth squarely in the eye and say, “We can’t do this by ourselves. We can’t stand against the evils within ourselves, let alone the evils out there in the world, without some help.” This is where we come to help one another don the whole armor of God.

And it works! It really does. I honestly believe that the people who gather in this place on Sunday morning, for the purpose of worshipping God, grieve the Spirit of God considerably less than those who do not take the time to do so. We are not perfect, but taking the time to put life in perspective is important, and it pays dividends. It pays dividends in our own lives, and in the lives of those we touch. I believe that when God looks through our eyes and sees the work our hands are doing in creation, there is joy in the heavenly places. And knowing that God’s love is always right here, right now, may we gather in this sacred place, wrapping ourselves in the whole armor of God, giving thanks for every breath, and taking joy in every day.