Ephesians 1:15-23 - 6th Sunday after Pentecost - 26th June 2016
Hear what Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to his great power” (Ephesians 1:14-19).
Pay attention to what Paul wants for the church. A spirit of wisdom. A spirit of revelation, meaning a spirit that’s open to the continual unveiling of God’s wisdom and truth, open to the new things God yearns to reveal or show us about Christ. He prays that the eyes of the heart be enlightened—the eyes of the heart, to see with and in and through the heart. A heart. Not blind, but one that can see because of the light of God. And why does Paul want this for God’s people? So that they will live in the hope of their calling. Or, said differently, that they will live in hope because of their calling. Or, live in hope because they have been called—called. Not some, but all of them, individually and together, for ministry, knowing that they—we—have been and are endowed with an extraordinarily rich inheritance, the immeasurable greatness of God’s power at work in us and through us, the church, not for ourselves alone, not for the church, but for God and for the world. The church does not exist for itself, but for the world.
I’m grateful that this Ephesians text served as the theme for the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And this Assembly, perhaps more than most (I think), embodied its theme as it met in Portland, Oregon. It was a hopeful Assembly, an historic Assembly, an inspiring Assembly. To be sure, the denomination is facing considerable challenges at the moment. We’re slowly losing members; churches are leaving the denomination, primarily in response to previous Assembly actions on GLBTQ ordination and same-gender marriage; Louisville continues to downsize due to financial constraints; we need to restructure how we organize ourselves; and trust is low. It’s easy to be pessimistic about the Church—and, believe me, there are days when I wonder about the viability of the Presbyterian Church, and the Church in general, and the relevancy of the Christian witness. The Church and Christianity are under considerable strain these days, especially in the West. Some say we're in a season of decline and it’s only a matter of time. Membership might be declining, but we need to remember this: membership rolls, numbers, are questionable and unreliable metrics of the health and vitality of the Church!
That’s because the Church is not a human invention. Sure—at times it’s all too human and sinful and petty and fearful. But we didn’t come up with the idea. The Church is a gift of God, formed and reformed by God’s grace. It’s the body of Christ that is growing and maturing and breathing in us and through us and around us. The Church doesn’t belong to us; it’s not ours. We belong to it—or, better, we belong to Christ and because we are his and he is ours, together, we are his body in the world; and if Christ is alive—if Christ is alive—then the Church must be alive. Therefore we have reason to hope, even to hope against hope! I didn’t say we have reason to be optimistic. Optimism and hope are not the same. And hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).
The contemporary theologian John Caputo writes, “Hope is only hope when one hopes against hope, only when the situation is hopeless. Hope has the full force of hope only when we have first been led to the point where it is impossible to hope – and then we hope against hope, even as faith is faith in the face of the incredible. Hope is only hope when all I can do is to try to keep hope alive even though there is no hope.”
It might sound like he’s talking in circles (theologians are known to do so), but he’s actually trying to make a really important point. I/we can look around and think there’s no occasion for hope. But that’s exactly when, against all odds, hope is empowered and empowers us. It might feel as if everything is (and might be) coming unhinged, yet, nevertheless—and grace is always, Nevertheless!—we don’t allow the situation at hand to ultimately define the nature of things, because something else is at work. God is at work, the Spirit is moving, and doing the seemingly impossible.
Why was this an Assembly of hope? The commissioners – equal number of ruling and teaching elders—worked hard this week, deliberating through overtures and resolutions, reading, debating, actively listening, praying, worshiping, wrestling with difficult, challenging, nuanced issues. (Presbyterians love nuance. Presbyterians are people of nuance.) Fossil fuel divestment. Israel-Palestine. Organizational structure. Repentance and apology for the denomination’s role in oppression and violence toward Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Hawaiian Natives (which was a Baltimore Presbytery overture). Regret for the serious harm done to GLBTQ Christians for decades. There were attempts to reverse the Assembly’s previous statement on same-gender marriage; a series of overtures from Foothills Presbytery (South Carolina), which, if approved, would have set back several decades’ worth of social witness policy. These all failed soundly. The Assembly also rejected the use of gay reparative therapy.
There were three moments, in particular, which made this Assembly historic and full of hope. First, the election of the moderator, or, correctly, co-moderators. For the first time, co-moderators are now possible in the PCUSA and we had two pairs standing for moderator: Denise Anderson, pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hill, MD, in National Capital Presbytery and Jan Edmiston, pastor, executive at Chicago Presbytery. Denise and Jan won by a margin of 76 percent to 24 percent, against another co-moderator team, Adan Mairena, a teaching elder and new-church development pastor from Philadelphia, and David P. Parker, a ruling elder and lawyer from North Carolina.
It is fitting that we have women co-moderators this years—some were referred to them as our mom-erators. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the ordination of women to Word and Sacrament and the 85th anniversary of the ordination of women as ruling elders. “We want you to remember this number: 104,” Anderson said. “That is the number of weeks between now and the next General Assembly. We pledge to show respect and compassion. Listening is more than waiting to talk.”
Next year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Confession of 1967, written to address the need for reconciliation amid the racial tensions of the 1960s and the struggle for civil rights. It was approved in Portland. Forty-nine years later, on Wednesday evening, the Assembly made history again. This is the second significant moment of the Assembly. We adopted the Confession of Belhar into our Book of Confessions, the Constitution of the PC (USA).
Belhar emerged in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, post-Apartheid. It confronts—explicitly—the sin of racism and calls for reconciliation, unity, and peace. For the first time our Book of Confessions will contain a confession from the global south. The Assembly rejected the confession six years ago, but then it was brought back two years ago and passed. (A change in the Book of Confessions requires the approval of two Assemblies.) That process came to a close on Wednesday when the Assembly voted, 94%, to approve Belhar. One of the leading Reformed theologians in the world, Allan Boesak, a black man from South Africa, who helped to write the confession, was there in Portland for the vote. The Assembly also set up a live feed with the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa.
Godfrey Betha, vice moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa, was invited to address the assembly. She said, “It is quarter to 6 (in the morning) in South Africa, and I believe there are those who did not sleep waiting for this moment.” She went on to say, “We gave you this gift and you have been unwrapping this gift for quite some time. …I will never forget this date.” She told the Assembly, “Your decision affirms you say to your children, you say to all, ‘When you come to us looking for a glimmer of racism, don’t come to our church.’”
Allan Boesak acknowledged both how much progress has been made against racism and injustice, and how much more is needed. Upon the adoption of Belhar in his own denomination, in 1986, the youth started singing “We Shall Overcome.” Boesak said, “I know no matter how long the road, we shall overcome—I thank God for your faithfulness. I know because of God’s faithfulness we shall overcome.”
At that, someone began to sing from the Assembly floor, “We Shall Overcome.” By the second verse the body had joined hands, by the third they had lifted them upward. Some on the stage couldn’t hold back tears and co-moderator Anderson was caught on the large screen mouthing, “Wow.”
This moment was a reminder that Jesus and liberation, justice and redemption, and peace and joy are inextricably bound together. The hope and the joy come in and through the liberation and redemption. Following Jesus means liberation, redemption, and justice. When we’re with him we know something of that joy.
Boesak reminded us that we are called to more than simply say the words of the confession; we are called to live them, embody them. As Belhar affirms, “We believe . . . that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged.”
Hunter Farrell, director of World Mission in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, tweeted, “How long the road from Belhar to Charleston, Orlando, and Gaza?” How long, indeed. How long the road from Belhar to Baltimore? It’s significant that this confession comes to the American church as gift at a time when racial tension, injustice and violence in the United States make headlines nearly every day. I find it striking that with Belhar now part of who we are as Presbyterians, the Assembly will next meet in St. Louis in 2018 and then Baltimore in 2020, cities with considerable racial tension. The Spirit is stirring something in us.
Significantly, the Assembly approved Baltimore Presbytery’s overture addressing racism. J. Herbert Nelson said that it was one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching overtures put forth by the denomination. The overture calls us the Church to establish and convene a “Racism Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The commission would be “charged with conducting a church wide listening campaign to hear the voices of peoples long silenced regarding the state of institutional racism and oppression within our church.”
Then, on Friday, the third historic first. The Assembly elected J. Herbert Nelson, a third-generation Presbyterian pastor and prophetic voice for justice, to the office of stated clerk, the top ecclesiastical and constitutional officer, representing the denomination in interfaith and ecumenical settings. It was a vote of overwhelming support, 447-112. Nelson issued a call to Presbyterians to stop focusing on internal church disputes, numerical survival, and labeling each other as progressives or conservatives. He said, “Nowhere in holy writ do I read the terms ‘liberal, moderate, or conservative.’” He’s right. These are not biblical categories. They create false, deceptive narratives. They should never be used to define our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.
J. Herbert said we need to focus on “the impact God can make through us” in a broken world. Of the Presbyterian Church he affirmed, “We are not dead, we are reforming, we are alive and we are well;” however, he said, "To only think about the survival of the Church is to set our aim too low.” All I can say to this is: Amen and Amen and Amen! He’s right. The Church should not be worrying so much about survival. We’re not called to save the Church. We’re called to be the Church in the world, to the work of the Church. Let God take care of survival.
The Assembly acknowledged and gave thanks for the now former stated clerk Gradye Parsons who, from 2008, served the denomination faithfully, passionately during a rocky time in the Church and did so without taking himself too seriously, with a great sense of humor. Gradye gave this advice to Church: “Get in the boat. Go across the lake. There will be a storm. You will not die.”
Consider the face of the PCUSA today: two women, co-moderators, one white, one black; the interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency board, Ton De La Rosa, is a married gay Latino elder; and then on Friday, we elected J. Herbert Nelson, our first African American stated clerk.
This gives me hope. Something is stirring. The Assembly approved a report from The Way Forward committee, suggesting strategies of discernment for the denomination as we live into the future that even now is coming toward us, by God’s grace. This, too, is reason to hope. Yesterday, the Office of General Assembly tweeted, “This Assembly did a lot of work on Social Justice but it's just a beginning. Just you wait. Just you wait.
Near the close of the Assembly, Denise Anderson assured us, "We're gon' be alright." Yes, "We’re going to be alright.” Because we’ve been called and the one who has called us will never give up on us. That’s the hope of our calling. With the eyes of our hearts continually being enlightened by grace, filled with wisdom and power, let us move forward with hope!
 John Caputo, “The Experience of God and the Axiology of the Impossible” in Mark A. Wrathall, ed., Religion after Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 134.