I grew up in a wonderful family (and I’m not just saying that because two of my three siblings are probably watching this right now). God blessed me, and my brother and sisters, with parents who were strict but fair and raised us with a deep faith in God. I thank God regularly for the family in which I grew up.
That is not to say my family was perfect. We had our disagreements and conflict just like any family. In fact, anyone who tells you they grew up in a family with no arguments is either lying, suppressing or so delusional that they have confused their life with that of a 50’s sitcom family. There were contentions and heated debates on more than one occasion as I was growing up, but we always knew love and support from one another. My family was a blessing; and that was always a reality, even when I had to work to see it. It is this image of family – with all its complications, yet still a blessing – that I envision whenever I ponder the radical and beautiful possibilities of church.
We begin this series delving into the letter to the Ephesians for six weeks to explore these wonderful images of the church. It is a letter that was widely circulated and thus clearly an important document that reveals some of the struggles of a burgeoning community that might be familiar even to us today – distrust, prejudice, judgment. Paul understood the need for the community, like every family that survives, to focus on developing authentic relationships rooted in love. Being the body of Christ – united – was not only important for the ministry, it was imperative. They needed to come together, not for the sake of being some kind of social club, but to fulfill God’s will. His desire that we be more than a community; that we be a family. But what would heal the divisions among the people?
The letter begins with the simple fact that we are blessed. The promise that God chose us, adopted us to be sisters and brothers together. And the blessings continue. These myriad blessings are the basis for Paul’s praise, and he deftly integrates this throughout the letter. As we see today, in the opening of the letter, Paul feels blessed in so many countless ways.
But we don’t often feel blessed these days, do we? Twenty twenty and twenty twenty-one have not been easy. The three-headed ogre – Politics, Racism and Pandemic – is a fire-breathing monster that has kept the country on edge for a long time. Is it possible that like the ancient Israelites tramping through the wilderness of Zin, we have lost sight of our blessings and instead constructed a culture of complaint, a church of self-absorbed people spewing outrage and offense?
That’s maybe overstating the case a bit, but still, to speak of one’s blessings is so … 1950s. It’s retro and nostalgic. Perhaps we used to feel blessed, but the thrill is gone. What happened?
Blessings? What blessings?
This reading from Ephesians 1 is a much-needed attitude adjustment. As I already mentioned, Paul starts with the big blessing that we are chosen, before the foundation of the world, and adopted by God to be His children. Paul follows up with the blessing of redemption through the blood of Jesus; the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace; an inheritance in Christ; and the seal of the promised Holy Spirit (v. 13).
But before going further, let’s look at the word “blessing.”
Grammatically, it can be both a noun and a verb. Used as a noun, we might say:
“She is such a blessing.”
“He said a blessing before dinner.”
“Dad gave our marriage his blessing.”
“We have received so may blessings.”
But the word can also be a verb, conveying action.
“The pastor blessed the couple and sent them on their way.”
No cite today’s reading: “… God … who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.” Note here, the word appears as both a verb and a noun.
The point is that a blessing is something that one can both receive (noun) or bestow (verb). We can get a blessing, and we can bless others; as it should be in any good family.
Broadly speaking, a blessing received is a prayer for God’s favor and protection, for all the benefits and positive things that might make for one’s happiness. A blessing given is the same.
In the Old Testament, blessings generally refer to material possessions, children, good crops, good health and long life. When God blessed Job after his horrifying ordeal, the Bible says that “the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. … In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters … After this Job lived for one hundred and forty years. … And Job died, old and full of days” (Job 42:12-17).
Perhaps the most famous blessing in the Hebrew Bible is the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-26:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
In the New Testament, however, blessings generally refer to spiritual benefits. The text before us is an example of this, of course, but there are other well-known passages, too. Perhaps the most famous of these are the so-called Beatitudes from the mouth of Jesus himself.
In the Beatitudes, traditional notions of what it means to be blessed are turned upside down. People, exposed to the Scriptures through the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, generally believed that:
The rich were blessed, but Jesus said the poor were blessed.
Those who were in mourning had been cursed or punished for their sins, but Jesus said that those in mourning were blessed and would be comforted.
The strong and mighty are the blessed ones, but Jesus said the meek would inherit the earth.
You are blessed if you have plenty to eat and drink, but Jesus said that those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness” are truly blessed.
The apostle James speaks of the blessing that comes to the person who “endures temptation” because “Such a one … will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
But we’re not in Matthew 5 or James 1. We’re in Ephesians 1, and here we have blessings galore. Of course we are blessed! We’ve been “chosen” before the natural world came into being! God thinks of us as divine children. Our sins and transgressions have been forgiven through the blood of Christ. And there is an “inheritance” awaiting each of us!
This doesn’t begin to plumb the depths of this text with regard to blessings, and we will continue to look at these and more over the next five weeks.
In our roles as family; as husbands, wives, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends, we have all experienced moments of mercy and forgiveness. How liberating it feels to be forgiven! We are blessed.
So, we understand the apostle Paul when he reminds us that God has forgiven us. God has no argument or beef with us. God’s cool. We’re cool. All God’s children are cool. What a blessing!
Now, to the part where we bless others.
To bless, to be a blessing, is the verb form of the word. The family of God tries to live in a way that blesses others. As the apostle Paul says in our text, we have received “every spiritual blessing” (emphasis added), so now we try to offer others every tangible and emotional blessing that we can. In all we do, we bless others, and our lives are blessings in action.
People who are blessed do not curse (see James 3:9-10).
People who are blessed do not listen to complainers and naysayers (see Psalm 1).
People who are blessed do not feel entitled; they feel grateful.
People who are blessed tend to pay their blessings forward; in other words, they are generous.
People who are blessed are vividly aware of their blessed-ness and are humbled by it.
People who are blessed see the sacred and holy in every aspect of their lives.
This last thought is particularly significant. The apostle Paul had some incredible adventures that included shipwrecks, floggings, imprisonment, false accusations, the misunderstanding of colleagues, and illness. But Paul always regarded himself as blessed. He wasn’t blessed on some days but not on others. He lived and breathed in the blessing of God! As with my family, and I pray with yours, I knew I was blessed no matter what was going on at the moment.
Perhaps this awareness of the providence of God came, in part, from his upbringing and education as a Jew. This cannot be understated because, as Rabbi Jennifer Singer notes, “Judaism is chock-full of blessings.” A blessed person perceives blessings when others are oblivious. In turn, a blessed person blesses everything! In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir suggests “reciting 100 blessings each day … one every 10 minutes of our waking lives.” Which is to say that we “should be constantly aware of the world around us, and should respond through gratitude and prayer.”
In the weeks ahead, as we consider the blessing of being part of the family of God, we will see what this truth means for all our relationships. And we will talk more about that consistent response of gratitude and prayer. Can we do that? What would be on your list of blessings? Blessings Received, Blessings Bestowed.
Some of you may be well on your way to 100 blessings a day. For those of you more “blessing challenged,” how about starting with 10? Can we come up with 10 a day? Absolutely! And let us pray that it happens!