Pull It Together!
“In Ephesians 1:10,” N. T. Wright suggests, “Paul says something which many Western Christians have never grasped, that the whole point of what God was doing was to sum up everything in heaven and on earth in the Messiah, in Christ” (page 9). He outlines our current passage in three parts: the purpose of God (vv. 3-6), the unveiling of the mystery (vv. 7-10), and the unity of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit (vv. 11-14).
This “downpayment” of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in individual believers is, Wright notes, the foretaste of what God intends for all of Creation when it is renewed. “By the Spirit coming and taking residence in the actual physicality of Christian believers,” he concludes, God is saying “I am doing this now because one day that’s what I am going to do to the whole world. This,” God promises, “is how it is going to work.” It works this way, Wright notes, because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (page 12).
Let’s look at how we can talk about this text today. It seems like everything is falling apart. Race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, party—take your pick. In a time when we seem to be more connected than ever, we are retreating into ever smaller cliques and cocoons. As the world widens, our vision narrows. We are headed toward eight billion individual empires—all at war with one another.
Life these days seems like a washer tied to the end of a string. As you swing that washer in a circle, you can feel it tugging to escape. The faster you twirl it, the harder the washer pulls. If you spin it fast enough, the washer and string may fly right out of your hand. The results can be destructive and even painful.
Physicists call that tugging “centrifugal” force. If you are interested, centrifugal force is defined as “the apparent force…drawing a rotating body away from the center of rotation…” If you were alert, you noticed something in that definition. Centrifugal force—that urge to come apart—is only an “apparent” force. Something else is at work.
Physicists call that something else “centripetal” force. This is the actual force “acting on a body in curvilinear motion that is directed toward the center of curvature or the axis of rotation.” No matter how it feels, the force holding things together is real.
Why in the world have I given this lesson in basic physics? I want to focus on Ephesians one, verse ten—“gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God pulls it all together in Jesus. That’s the main theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We’ll come back to that theme many times this summer. So it’s worth saying again. God pulls it all together in Jesus. When it seems like everything is falling apart, that’s some pretty good news.
Honest preachers will tell you that we are often preaching to ourselves. The rest of you get to listen in. I imagine that was true for Paul as he wrote this letter. In chapter three, verse one, he reminds us of his situation. He is “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” He’s not exaggerating. Paul is under house arrest, awaiting trial in Rome. He is accused of treason because he obeys Jesus rather than Caesar. In a few months, an executioner will separate Paul’s head from his body during the persecution of Christians in Rome.
Paul has every reason to think everything is falling apart. He sits in jail while Christians are hounded from pillar to post. His churches in the eastern Mediterranean roil with conflict and division. The Roman Empire reels under the rule of Nero the Narcissistic Bully. During Nero’s persecution, for example, Christians were covered with tar, tied to poles and used as human torches to light Nero’s garden parties. It was hard to make sense of anything.
And yet…Paul launches this letter with a magnificent prayer of blessing. How can he do this? Let’s review our little physics lesson. This feeling of flying apart is not the real force in the universe. The real force is that which holds all things together. God pulls it all together in Jesus.
God’s plan has always been to fill this good Creation to overflowing with God’s unending love. That’s the power that holds it all together. God has always planned “to bless us…with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” God has always planned to make Creation flourish. We know this plan was delayed by sin, death and the devil. But delay is not defeat.
In his prayer, Paul rehearses God’s strategy. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God rescues all of Creation from sin, death and the devil. That rescue operation comes to a head in Jesus. The fake forces of division and destruction are defeated. That rescue operation continues in and through us, the body of Christ.
God pulls it all together in Jesus. Jesus pulls it all together through us. God has chosen us in Jesus by grace to be part of that rescue plan. “We aren’t chosen for our own sake,” says Tom Wright, “but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us.”
How does this happen? Our part of God’s plan begins in worship. Twice in these opening verses, Paul identifies our primary purpose in life. We are made, he says, “to live for the praise of [God’s] glory.” We are most truly human when we live for the praise of God’s glory. That kind of worship makes us more of what God created us to be.
We have a great variety of fans in our local congregations—black and gold, scarlet and cream, cardinal and gold, purple and gold, red and white, and more. Sundays in the fall are always interesting here. Even if I don’t hear the scores, I can tell who has won just by how some people post online. If my team has won, I stand taller, smile bigger laugh louder. That victory makes us more than we are in defeat.
That’s what worship does for us when we live for the praise of God’s glory. “When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made,” Tom Wright reminds us, “you do indeed grow. You discover what it means to be fully alive.”
Jesus leads us to that point in the Gospel reading as well. The Sabbath was made for human flourishing, not in order to fulfill some legal requirement. Worship makes us truly human. Rest makes us truly whole. God longs for us to live for the praise of God’s glory because it is good for us.
God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. That happens whether we are face to face or face to screen. We can depend on the Spirit to hold us together even when we’re sure we’re coming apart.
References and Resources
Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-3.
Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-5.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) [Kindle Android version].
Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” Address to the Scottish Church Theology society conference, January 2013, and published in Theology in Scotland.