(Genesis 1: 26-28; Ephesians 1: 3-14)
Today I’m going to do something with the sermon that I don’t usually do – I’m going to tell you where it’s going before I get there. In other words, I’m going to give you the Cliffnotes along with the real thing. So here goes: the sermon today is about our inheritance and our responsibility as God’s people to take care of it.
And I imagine you’re thinking to yourself, what kind of a New Year’s sermon is that? After all, just last Thursday we welcomed in 2015. Which means we are mired in all kinds of “beginnings.” Tomorrow the kids go back to school; many of us will jumpstart normal work schedules again. Today we’re installing and ordaining a new group of ruling elders in our church. New beginnings everywhere. Certainly the first sermon of the year should reflect that – not some “inheritance.”
And yet there it is in black and white – these first few verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, our lectionary passage for this Sunday, where we find the following verse: In Christ we have obtained an inheritance. You know, we consider Paul an authority on lots of things – our understanding of God, theological matters like the body of Christ and justification by faith. We eagerly go to Paul for those kinds of things. But inheritance? Sorry, Paul, but you’re not exactly the type who would command our attention on financial matters!
According to Merriam-Websters, an inheritance is defined as “the acquisition of a possession, condition, or trait from past generations.” To put it simply, it’s when something is handed down to someone else. An inheritance can take all kinds of forms – a large sum of money when someone dies, land or property from one generation to the next, even furniture when elderly parents move out of their large home to a smaller condo.
But inheritance is not simply about the “stuff,” is it? This goes deeper than Merriam-Websters. Because there’s also an element of responsibility. In other words, when someone “inherits” money or land or “stuff,” they not only take possession of it, they also promise to use it wisely, to take care of it in the spirit in which it was given.
All of which begs the question – what do we think ol’ Paul is up to when he starts talking about our “spiritual inheritance?” Or, to put it more directly, what has God handed down to us that we need to be caring for?
I wonder how much time in any given week you and I devote to thinking about those things. I would imagine not a lot. No, our world tends to be one obsessed with ownership – where we see what we have in our possession as being unequivocally ours. Our cars, our home, our computers and goods. Even our children, we think, belong to us. But if the collective narrative of our Bible from cover to cover tells us anything, it is that what is in our care is never really ours. We don’t really “own” anything; it’s all on loan to us by God.
We read in Genesis, for instance, that we have been created “in the image of God.” And we’re tempted to think this means we are more important than everything else – when what it really means is that we have more responsibility, to care for that which has been loaned to us, in the way the One who owns it would want us to care for it.
The inheritance continues – Paul speaks to the Ephesians of things like love, grace, redemption. Things that are made known to us through the person of Jesus Christ. These are not things we are supposed to keep to ourselves! The whole intention of them is to be shared with others, in the same way they were first shared with us. We don’t own them at all. They are not ours to claim. They are ours to receive and pass on.
And here’s the thing – I have to think that Paul, as he penned these words from his prison cell, I have to think he knew how hard this would be for us. I think Paul knew, as much as anyone, how easy it is to take this wonderful inheritance God has given and ignore it, misunderstand it, twist it into something it’s not meant to be. Because Paul had done the same exact thing.
It reminds me of that familiar bumper sticker we’ve all seen tacked onto the back of some RV cruising down the interstate: We are spending our children’s inheritance. It’s like a letter to the editor that popped up in an edition of the Buffalo News a few years back; a letter of sorts from one generation to the next:
Dear kids: We, the generation in power since WWII, seem to have used up pretty much everything ourselves. We drained all the resources out of our manufacturing industries, so there’s not much there. The beautiful old buildings that were built to last for centuries, we tore them down and replaced them with inexpensive structures, which you can have. Except everything we built has a lifespan about the same as ours, so like the interstate highway system we built, they’re all falling apart now, and you’re going to have to deal with that. We used up as much of our natural resources as we could, without providing for renewable ones, so you’re probably only good until about a week from Thursday. We did build a generous Social Security and pension system, but that was just for us. In fact, the only real durable thing we built was toxic dumps. You can have those. So, think of your inheritance as a challenge – the challenge of starting from scratch. You can begin working on it as soon as you pay off the debt we left you. Signed, your parents.
I think that letter, to whatever degree you agree or disagree with it, I think that letter captures a little bit of our human nature: that we much prefer today over tomorrow. So when it comes to our spiritual inheritance, you can guess what happens. God has given us grace – and yet we insist on living as grace-less people, choosing guilt and self-shame instead. And we fail to grasp the power of forgiveness, as if it’s a worship service and we’re reciting in full voice the Confession of Sin, and then totally forget the Assurance of Pardon: In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
God has given us love – and yet we take that precious gift and turn it into a thousand things that love is not. We cheapen it to the point where it is self-serving and disguise it as “meeting needs” – usually our own. It winds up binding us up rather than setting us free. There are way too many people walking this earth today who are burdened by a false understanding of God’s love.
God has also given us redemption – and yet, rather than graciously accepting this free gift, we stubbornly reject it. We continue to believe that we can get by on our own and that we are the master of our own destiny. We fool ourselves into thinking that, while it’s good to play the “God part” from time to time, we really don’t need a savior in our lives after all.
We have done this. And we continue to do this. It is our nature.
So thanks be to God that Paul steps into the picture and reminds us of something we forget in the busy-ness of our lives, even as we enter this time of “new beginnings” – that there is tremendous power in the gospel and in our spiritual inheritance. That you and I as God’s people are called to embrace both. Because when we do, we are utterly amazed at the wonderful things God can do through God’s people.
So – let’s get personal in our New Year’s sermon and ask the question: what is our inheritance as Trinity Presbyterian Church of Charlotte? What has God left in our care? And what exactly is our responsibility to it?
I imagine there are many ways each of us could answer this, especially those of you who have been here much longer than I have. But for what it’s worth, let me share with you a few thoughts I have. First, I believe our church has a responsibility to building a fellowship of united believers and followers of Christ that focuses on what binds us together rather than what may separate us. This certainly is not the status quo for some churches and denominations that seem intent on deciding who is “in” and who is “out.” I would submit to you that the church of Jesus Christ has to be bigger than that. We may not always see eye-to-eye on every theological and social issue. And that’s okay – because what is most important is not what divides us but what unites us in our belief – and, I would daresay, even as we struggle with what we believe.
Secondly, I believe this church has a responsibility in our spiritual inheritance to being a “missional church.” You’re going to hear that a lot in the coming year. Being a “missional church” means much more than simply writing checks in support of local benevolences. It’s about our very identity. It’s about taking action as a congregation to share our spiritual gifts of love and grace and redemption to our community and to our world. So mission, then, can occur anywhere. It can happen at a Habitat build, or a youth mission trip. Or when you bring hundreds of gloves, hats and chapstick to our Christmas Eve worship services. It can happen in a dozen ways we haven’t even thought of yet, but will in the coming year. Churches that are growing spiritually, numerically and financially are churches that have a strong sense of their missional inheritance and act on it to take the church outside its own walls.
And finally, I believe our church has a responsibility in our spiritual inheritance to embrace and own up to whatever kind of “growth” God has in store for us. I use the term “growth” here to mean a couple of things. Certainly it suggests greater Sunday morning attendance – and in the past year we welcomed dozens of new members and hope to build on that with a Visitor’s breakfast next Sunday morning.
But church growth is about something deeper than that, something that can’t be measured in membership rolls or financial reports. It’s the kind of growth that takes place when a church like ours recognizes all the many blessings it has, all of its inheritance, and invests it wisely. In our children, youth and adults. In our facility and in our ministries. All geared toward the new thing that we sense God doing here at Trinity. All geared toward the vast inheritance we’ve been given that is just begging to be shared and put to use.
I want to challenge you in the coming year to ask yourself, to ask your book club and your Bible study and your Sunday school class and your sessional ministry team (formerly known as committees), I want to challenge you to ask what you are doing here at Trinity with your spiritual inheritance. Because it’s not just us who are noticing.
Christmas Eve, right after our 9:00 service, I’m standing at the front door greeting people as they leave: Merry Christmas! One lady takes my hand and holds onto it after my “Merry Christmas,” as if to get my attention. She leans in: I’ve heard about this church, she says to me. I’ve heard what God is doing here. I’ve seen now that it’s true. Keep up the good work. And she smiles and lets go of my hand and walks down the front steps.
I have no idea who that woman was. I don’t know that that matters. Isn’t it great when we embrace God’s inheritance for us, and when others take notice? Love, grace, redemption. Let’s keep building on it, shall we? Let’s embrace the new year and all that God has in store!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 As quoted in Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991), 207.