Albert Schweitzer once said that “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”1 Dr. Schweitzer was a brilliant guy, and I think I know where he’s coming from. But still, I’m not so sure. I think a good memory is a pretty handy thing to have, if it’s used in the right way.
As we have talked about before, much of life is lived in retrospect. It’s only when you look back that you can rightly interpret those significant events that have shaped who you are and turned you in the direction you have traveled. The first Sunday of the new year, we would think, should be a time for looking forward. New Year’s resolutions and all that. Going to lose weight, going to get in shape, going to organize those closets… that kind of stuff.
But the whole concept of January came from Janus, the Roman god of gates and doors, who is represented with a double-faced head. He looks backward as well as forward. He still learns from the past while facing the future. That is January.
You see, it does little good to resolve to lose weight if you don’t think about the past behavior that caused you to put the weight on. Proper nutrition is a mindset, not a diet. After all, look at the first three letters of the word diet and what do you have?! Does it do any good to exercise and get in shape if you don’t adjust the busy schedule or change the attitude that resulted in your being out of shape? Sure, a neat closet is great, but what caused you to mess it up in the first place? Perhaps your life in general, and not just your closet, needs to be more organized.
Now, before you go and get all sensitive on me, feeling like I’m meddling in your personal life, talking about the need to lose weight, get in shape, and straighten up your closet, you need to know that in talking about all this I’ve simply taken a page from my own personal notebook… okay? Okay.
It’s true though, isn’t it? Thinking about the past can help shape or re-shape the future. It’s possible that Schweitzer got it only half right.
Sometimes it is only as we consider where we have been that we truly know where we are going, and we can adjust things so as not to live while simply perpetuating all our old habits. And it takes a pretty good memory to be able to do that. It is good to reflect on the past.
That is exactly what Paul is doing in his letter to the Ephesian Christians. In order to meet a present situation, he is considering the past, the events that have brought them to this place in the journey of life. And Paul is in prison, a place that gives him the time and opportunity to do such a thing.
It certainly seems like Paul spent a lot of time in prison, doesn’t it? Actually, I think he did the bulk of his writing while behind bars. When he wasn’t in prison, he was too busy conducting his ministry to write.
Think about it. If Paul hadn’t gotten into so much trouble, which of course is what made him such a consistent jailbird, we might not have his writings. We would certainly be poorer for that, wouldn’t we? That’s true even for those folk who wish Paul hadn’t said some of the things he said. If it weren’t for Paul getting into trouble on a pretty regular basis, our New Testament would be limited to the gospels and a few other small epistles, plus John’s Revelation. But then again, John wrote his revelation as he was exiled on the Island of Patmos. Those early Christians got into a lot of trouble, didn’t they? Most of the New Testament was written by people on the run!
Well, this troublemaker named Paul is writing to a group of folk who are themselves in trouble. It hasn’t landed them in jail, and they don’t have a price on their heads, but it has put their faith and their church in some jeopardy.
What’s the problem? Well, for one thing their morality has become suspect, and they, as Gentile Christians, proudly pronounce themselves independent of any Jewish influence. In fact, they have become rather intolerant of the Jewish Christians in their churches.2 Having received the gospel as gift, they are now denying the value of that gift to others who are not like them. They are like children who have received gifts at Christmas and refuse to share them with others.
Unfortunately, that is a behavior the church has been perpetuating ever since.
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How does Paul set them straight? By doing what Paul always does when he finds himself explaining intensely what he considers to be God’s eternal plan of salvation for the human creation. He waxes autobiographical. When Paul really wants to illustrate God’s grace, he talks about himself.
Do you think that might have been because he so much enjoyed the subject? I doubt it. Look at what he says. “I am the very least of all the saints…” literally, “lower than the lowest of all God’s people.” Paul?
Let’s make sure we’ve got this right, now. Here is a guy who at first persecuted the followers of Jesus. Jesus, the risen Lord, goes to all the trouble to accost him on the Damascus Road, turn his life around so dramatically, and give him the authority of being the leader in proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles. During his ministry Paul spends what seems to be an inordinate amount of his writings defending his position as an apostle, which obviously was a matter of great importance to him. Now, here he is talking about himself as “the very least of all the saints”?
Is it false modesty? Is he just talking this way to get their attention? Could be. It sounds like a guy wearing a thousand dollar suit complaining about how poor he is. This fellow, who considers himself to be “lower than the lowest of all God’s people,” doesn’t hesitate to write the Ephesians or the Corinthians or any other church and tell them how to live, does he? Yet, in the same breath he says, “I am the very least of all the saints…”
What’s up with that?
Well, listen to what he says… “This grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…”
I’m not sure that makes it any better, are you?
Paul rather timidly – that’s probably not a very good word to use in regard to Paul… timidly… but it’s the best I could do – Paul rather timidly refers to himself as “the very least of all the saints,” or “lower than the lowest of all God’s people.” Yet, here he posits himself right smack dab in the very center of “God’s mystery hidden for all the ages.” It does make you wonder if his modesty is all that honest, does it not?
But (you knew there would be a “but” in there, didn’t you?), while Paul is talking about himself, he has something else in mind. He’s framing his own personal story in the context of the church. By the time Paul corresponds with the Christians in Ephesus, he has come to the full and irrevocable understanding that the church was the one institution that Jesus cared about the most. Not the temple, not the Law… the church. And if Christ would live to begin the church and die to redeem the church, then he, Paul, could at least give his life to the church… and die for it, if need be… which, the more time he spends in jail, looks like what the inevitable outcome is going to be.
Let’s consider this in the context of who we are and where we are as we enter this new year. Can you believe it? It’s 2005! Where did 2004 go?! Just yesterday, it seems, we were worried about Y2K and now the decade is almost half used up.
Oh well, it’s over with so let’s get over it and get on with it. And let’s understand that there is a certain extent to which we are at the mercy of what happens to us. Or, as I once saw on a bumper sticker, “Life is what happens when you have other plans.” The calendar happens to us, and 2004 is gone. What are we going to do with the rest of the time that is allotted to us? Will it be the same old same old?
You’ve got a tight schedule and have given yourself just enough time to make your destination. You’re waiting at the intersection, and when the light turns green you pull out. That’s when a car runs the red light and plows into you. You’re not hurt, but your car is. The police have to be called, a report has to be filled out, the tow truck has to come and take your vehicle away, and you have to arrange for other transportation. It’s more of a colossal aggravation than anything else, isn’t it? Dealing with the insurance company (taking for granted, of course, that the other driver is insured), waiting on them to settle with you, getting the car fixed.
Time wasted, time spent. In that split second, because of the bad judgment of a total stranger, everything in your life has changed. Your plans are shot to pieces. The day – no, the week, maybe even the month – has become completely discombobulated.
There is a certain extent to which we are at the mercy of what happens to us. But Paul isn’t talking about car accidents or interrupted schedules. He’s talking about eternity, and the role we have to play in it.
What if that happened with your life and not just your schedule? You’re traveling along, filling out your days with what you think is truly important. You’ve made plans, set goals, have a distinct purpose in everything you do. And suddenly, there’s a collision. Except, this time it isn’t a total stranger. It’s God. That’s what happened to Paul. So maybe that is why, when he talked about eternal things, he talked about himself.
“Of this gospel,” Paul says, “I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.”
He’s saying there comes that point in life when we have to determine that we will not be at the mercy of other forces that do not and cannot claim divinity. We say, “This is what I want to do, this is what – this is who – I will be.” It has less to do with the circumstances that happen to you than it does with the path you intentionally choose to travel. And the only appropriate path is one that takes you in God’s direction.
Paul had reached that point in life and he wanted his friends in Ephesus to experience the same. We talk about fender benders. Paul is in prison! We curse at inconveniences. Paul rejoices in shackles. He refers to the Ephesian Christians and himself as “sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
You know what he is saying? He is telling the Ephesians, “This is the life I have chosen.” “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.”
“This is the life I have chosen. Despite the circumstances that have brought me here, I have chosen to do what I do, to be what and who I am. I rejoice in what God has done through me and look forward to what is yet to come.”
It is true that we are where we are – and to a real extent, we are who we are – because of circumstances. Where and when we were born, the people to whom we were born, where we grew up and went to school, the people we met along the way, the things that happened to us. All that goes into the mix of life. But there comes that point for each of us when we finally have to say, “This is the life I choose. This is the direction I will take.” And if God is in it – and God will be in it only by invitation – then it is not only the life we have chosen but the life God has given to us as gift.
So take your nice, clean, unused 2005 calendar and every morning as you make friends with the day you have been given, write the name of God at the top and vow that you will give God your day. It might just make all the difference in the life you have chosen.
Lord, we give you this day. It is yours, for you have given us the gift of eternal life and the least we can do is choose a life worthy of that calling. Walk with us, we pray, in the name of Jesus. Amen.
1Quoted in Christian Ethics Today, Volume 10, Number 5, Issue 52, Christmas 2004, p. 3.
2Ralph P. Martin, Interpretation: Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1991), p. 5.
––Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.