I am sure there are people in this congregation who remember the 1950s and the Bible translations of J. B. Phillips. There were at that time only three or four English translations of the New Testament, so when Phillips brought out his fresh version of the NT letters, then the Gospels, then the Book of Acts, it was a tonic to readers of the Bible who struggled with the complexities of the King James Version and the Revised Version. Today I think we probably have too many translations, but Phillips isnt to blame for that!
Phillips was an English scholar who also wrote books of theology. One of these was called "Your God is too small". The book wasnt especially good but the title was terrific! A wake-up call to those who either saw God as an ancient figure dwelling in some remote heaven or else a quiet voice of conscience within the individual. To these Phillips said, in effect, "our God is beyond all time and space, all human thought, all our imagining".
Today there is much debate about the human Jesus. Bishop Spong, Dr Macnab and various others want to re-invent Jesus and start a new form of Christianity. I have said from this pulpit why I think they are on the wrong track: today I have another line of thought, prompted by our second Reading today from Ephesians ch.1. This chapter stretches our view of God and of Christ in various directions, some of these directions being neglected in much of the Churchs preaching.
I want to mention briefly some of these extra dimensions. The first is about the Christian hope. St Paul says we "look for" redemption. What we now experience is only part of what God gives us. We are moving toward our inheritance (v.14). In todays society we look for quick results. Internet speeds are becoming faster and faster. We can talk to and even see people on the other side of the world by a few clicks of the mouse. We ask of our politicians quick results, and as a consequence our leaders are tempted to adopt only policies which will produce results in time for the next election, not the substantial long-term policies which will benefit our people in 10, 20 or 30 years time. Our entertainment, too, is "on tap". Houses advertised in the weekend papers often include a "home theatre". We dont need to go to the movies any more!
Gods plan is a long-term one: nothing less than the re-creation of the Universe. I often wish I had studied science at tertiary level so that I could relate theology to cosmology. There is a fair amount of cosmological talk in the NT, especially in Ephesians and Colossians. But it is a mistake to regard this as empirical science or theoretical physics. Likewise, Christians who discount evolution on the basis of the first chapters of Genesis are confusing theology with science. There is no future in fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, and the so-called creationists, located mostly in the United States, simply hand a stick to militant atheists like Dawkins, a stick with which to whack all Christians. We shouldnt be surprised that atheism is on the rise when defence of Christian faith (the technical term is apologetics) is carried on by people with large blinkers firmly in place.
What we can say, from a theological point of view, is that God has a plan for the whole cosmos. The plan of God is not limited to individual salvation or even to the Church. The agent of re-creation is the Christ, the "anointed" or chosen One. Our salvation involves the creation of a new community in Christ (v.22), and so the Church is a central part of this plan of God. But the plan reaches beyond the Church. It is nothing less than the renewal of all humanity and indeed of humanitys environment. Environmental issues, which are so vital to all of us, have theological dimensions. For example, the environment exists not just for human enjoyment still less for exploitation: it belongs to God, and we are Gods stewards. Verse 10 of Ephesians 1 says God has "a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth". All creation is to be changed. This purpose of God is only partly discernible by us. Verse 9 says it is "the mystery of Gods will". A "mystery" in NT language is something which is only partially disclosed: its meaning and its content still lie ahead of us.
How then are we to know what lies ahead? We have clues in our present experience. We see lives changed by faith. We see extraordinary self-sacrifice. We see communities renewed (just think of the bushfires in this State). We see the Church reaching out into the life of communities far away and entering into partnerships. We see people living out their baptism as agents of the new life in Christ. We see extraordinary developments in medicine and in the arts. These are signs of the renewal God has given, is giving and will give.
The writer of Ephesians (St Paul or a follower of his) describes this renewal as the work of the Holy Spirit, who marks us believers and marks our world with signs of new life. The work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit are one within us and beyond us. Ephesians refers to a "guarantee" or "down-payment" in our present experience which is yet to be fully realized. In this life we know the love of God, yet there is more to come!
Ephesians and Colossians speak of a cosmic Christ who was, and is, and is to come, whose kingdom is "in the heavenly places" (v.20), whose name is above every other name, and whose work is not remote and unreachable but here and now. Jesus is more than a rabbi who lived 2,000 years ago and more than an inspirational teacher and healer. He is "head over all things" (v.22), the One who was "with God in the beginning" (John 1:2). He is known to us in Scripture, in history, in the life of the Church and the lives of the saints, yet is not fully known. This cosmic Christ is greater than our knowledge and our imagining, greater than all theologies and all our institutions. This Christ never abandons us but goes before us into a future which belongs to God and which is more wonderful than anything we can conceive.
As a preacher I can only invite you to seek that future which belongs to Christ - and to us as his adopted brothers and sisters (v.5).