We have spoken these last few weeks about Jesus’ formation of his church. We saw that Jesus’ desire was and remains that the church be a group of people committed to following him. Through his ministry, Jesus gave examples for his church to follow. Those examples include being loving toward those in the church, being willing to give testimony about Jesus, and to give care and comfort to those outside the church.
Jesus’ first disciples brought Jesus’ message forward and established churches throughout the ancient world. That ancient world had a vast set of spiritual beliefs. In fact, the notion of atheism, the belief that there is no God or gods was rarely held in the ancient world. Virtually everyone had some belief in the supernatural or the spiritual realms. We might think that after 2,000 years of human history that the modern expression of humanity would be vastly different from our ancient ancestors. But we are not. A survey of Americans in 2017 showed that the vast majority of Americans believe in some form of higher power. At that time of that survey, about 56% of Americans believed in the God of the Bible, 33% believed in another type of higher power, and the balance, about 10% of Americans, believed in no God or no gods or no spiritual life.
Despite all of our technological advances, spirituality, the belief in the existence of something other than that which is physical or material, remains central to human story. I thought then it would be profitable for us to examine how Jesus’ early disciples began carving out a sense of Christian spirituality in the ancient world and how their experience informs us today. Of the earlies disciples and church planters, the Apostle Paul was known for blending spirituality with practical counsel for living life as a Christian. So, I would like us to begin our look at Christian Spirituality with Paul’s letter to a church he founded in the city of Ephesus.
Ephesus was a city in ancient Greece but now part of modern-day Turkey. The city was famous for its Temple of Artemis, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Artemis, in Greek religion, was the goddess of wild animals, hunting, and vegetation and of chastity and childbirth; she was identified by the Romans with the goddess Diana. Artemis was the daughter of god, Zeus and the goddess, Leto and the twin sister of god, Apollo. In just the briefest of introductions to Artemis, she is identified with four other gods and goddesses. SI we can see that spirituality was very much alive in the city of Ephesus.
Paul began his letter to the church this way, “1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-3). Immediately, Paul began his letter to the members of the church at Ephesus talking about Christian Spirituality.
Just look again at Paul’s opening three verses for words that are of a spiritual nature. “1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1-3). Paul wanted to make sure his readers understood that whatever else Paul might have to say in his letter, Paul would be talking from a spiritual frame of reference.
After reading Paul’s words again, I thought about letters I have written to people. I have spoken of spiritual matters in those letters, but I cannot think of a single letter in which I started off the letter on a spiritual framework. I can only recall starting letters talking about news of family or current events and then working my way up to spiritual topics. Paul made clear that his spiritual perspective would inform everything he had to say including anything he might offer about news of family or current events.
Christian spirituality was, therefore, central to Paul’s life. From that frame of reference, Paul’s first teaching of his Christian spirituality was given in verse 3, “3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Paul wanted his church, Christians, to understand that Christian spirituality begins with an understanding that God is the God who grants unmerited blessings. We do not have to do works to please God and hope that perhaps we can do enough to make God happy such that he will be persuaded to bless us. Working to please God or to please the gods was and is a pagan view of spirituality. The view of trying harder and harder to please a god or working harder to achieve a higher and higher level of self-improvement is also part of modern spirituality that nearly 1 in 3 Americans claim for their lives.
Paul said that Christian spirituality is something completely different than works. Christian spirituality begins with a recognition that God is on his own and of his own well pleased to bless people with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
We know then that Christian spirituality is expressed by having Christ at its center. In verse 3, Paul, in his various letters, used the two-word phrase “in Christ,” nearly 100 times to emphasis Christian Spirituality and to express that Christ was and is the source of God’s blessing to humanity. Paul also used that two-word phrase “in Christ,” frequently in his letters to emphasize the union Christians enjoy with Jesus. So, Paul said that Christian spirituality causes us to say, ““3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).
We might want to then ask, what are those “spiritual blessings in Christ?” Paul began to explain those blessings in the verses that follow.
“4 For he (God) chose us (you and me) in him (Jesus) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his (God’s) sight” (Ephesians 1:4). The first blessing we see is that God took the initiative to make us different than we would have been. Our relationship with God is not an accident. God always intended for us to be in relationship with him. This means God is not uninvolved in the world. God is not as some believe a Creator who set the world in place and walked away from it saying, “I set things in motion, gave you everything you need to be successful. Good luck!” and then retired. God is the God who created and loves his creation. In loving his creation, God chose to love humanity who he created in his own image above anything else in our created world. God created us holy, meaning set apart for him, and blameless, without sin. Yet, we did sin and since that time, God has worked to bring us back to be holy, set apart for him, and blameless, without sin. It is part of God’s plan to restore inner peace to us and God desires to give us such peace. Why does God desire this for us? God’s desire is based on the simple fact that He loves us.
The concept that God loves you and loves me is at the heart of Christian spirituality. The idea that God loves people was radical to the ancient people and is still difficult for many people today to believe in.
Many people today struggle to believe God loves them because so many of their relationships with other people have turned out to be unloving. That is a sad truth but we need to face the truth. Love as God would have us know it has been corrupted. People who should love one another too often abuse one another. People who should love one another often abandon one another. People who should love one another often are indifferent toward one another. When we see and experience hurt and pain in unloving relationships, it makes it difficult for people to believe God loves them.
Here is the good news. God knows about the abuse, abandonment, and indifference many people experience in their relationships that should be loving. God knows the darkness of those experiences. God knows the hopelessness of those experiences. And knowing all that, God chose to speak and speaks to us into that darkness as a bright light saying, “I love you! I love you so much that I sent my Son, Jesus, to you. I know some will follow him out of the darkness and into genuine love, to a life lived in the light. I know too that some will prefer the darkness and will kill my son with their words, doubting my love, and they will live in the darkness. Even though I know all that, I am willing sent my son as a sign of my love for you.”
Jesus knew he came as an expression of God’s love for you. That is why he said to those who would accept his love that they must love other believers. The heart of Christian spirituality is to know God loves us and we reflect that love, we reflect his bright light into the darkness of abuse, abandonment, and indifference.
Paul said, God desires a relationship with us as a spiritual blessing in Christ, and then Paul said, “In love 5 he (God) predestined us for adoption to sonship (to make us his family) through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his (God’s) pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5). We should think of what Paul was saying in this way. “God loves being in love with us.” Have you ever experienced that feeling on your own? You love someone. It could be a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, child, a friend. You love someone. As you think about loving them, you come to love the emotions you have because you love them. In your love of loving that person you experience joy, happiness, and ecstasy. You love the idea of planning to do things that would express your love for them. You love being in love with someone. Paul was saying in verse 5, “God, in his love for you and me, decided to send his Son, Jesus, with an invitation to become God’s own child and sharing his love and that made God joyful, happy, and ecstatic.”
That “God loves loving you and me,” is at the heart of Christian spirituality. That God loves loving you and me, is the bright light into the darkness of those human experiences that can leave us feeling abused, abandoned, and exhausted. God wants you to see in Christ that he loves loving you. That is a spiritual blessing.
In sharing spiritual blessings, Paul explained how God made his plan come together. Paul wrote, “7 In him (Jesus), we have redemption through his (Jesus’) blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he (God) lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he (God) made known to us the mystery of his (God’s) will according to his (God’s) good pleasure, which he (God) purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:7-10). Paul’s words seem like a lot because they are. I want us to begin with the end of verse 8 and all of verse 9. “With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he (God) made known to us the mystery of his (God’s) will according to his (God’s) good pleasure, which he (God) purposed in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-9). Said simply, “God made himself known in Christ.”
The mystery about God and his ways were unveiled in Christ. The mystery revealed about God is that to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If we put that on a bumper sticker it might read, “No Jesus, No God. Know Jesus, Know God.” It is knowing Jesus and accepting he died for us that we will come to know all that can be known about God. Christian spirituality then is that in Christ we come to know God, simply and plainly.
To be loved, to known, and to know someone simply and plainly is the desire of our hearts. God knows that and God has provided for that desire to be met in Christ. Knowing this desire is met in Christ, Paul concluded his opening thought to the church in Ephesus this way. “When you believed (in Christ), you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13-14).
Paul was pointing out two things here. First, Christian spirituality involves embedding the Holy Spirit of God in us – now. When we accept Jesus, genuinely accept Jesus, then God enters out life to guide us, to comfort us, to challenge us, and to lead us. God blesses us with a new capacity to live a new life guided and informed by his Holy Spirit. Second, Christian spirituality sees a blessing in the present and for all time. Following the Holy Spirit is not just about getting into heaven, it also includes living a fruitful abundant life of grace and peace while in the body.
Christian spirituality is about abundant life in the present and for all time. I have met people who want to believe Paul’s words, but they are unwilling to wait for the Holy Spirit to work in their life. They are impatient and want a new life instantly and on their terms. When they do not see their life changing into the life they want, they conclude that God is a myth.
Christian spirituality, the work of the Holy Spirit, is not about snapping one’s fingers and being changed. Christian spirituality involves real work to become more and more like Jesus. We naturally resist making changes until we experience the blessings from those changes. Paul said God’s Spirit works, “according to the plan of him (God) who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his (God) will” (Ephesians 1:11b). God is patient with us in making us who we were always intended to be. We must be patient with him as we cooperate with him in making those changes through the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is Christian Spirituality.
Spirituality remains central to our lives. Christian Spirituality has at its heart a recognition that God blesses us not because of our works. God blesses us because God loves loving us. Christian Spirituality has at its heart an understanding that this God who loves us has made himself known in Christ. In Christ, with his Spirit, we have abundant life in the present and forever. This is the start of our journey as Christians. And I am so glad we are on this journey together. Lets pray.