The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18
I thought that I was being creative, even unique. When I was deciding how to begin this sermon I came up with this: Three little words. I love you. So I looked around on the Internet. It turns out that there are many popular songs that sing about those three little words. I am not being unique. Being more of a copycat, I guess.
Except. That if the words I copy are those – I love you – maybe copying is a good thing. After all, God speaks those words into our world, into our worship, into our hearts repeatedly, across time. While today’s Gospel reading, St. John the Evangelist’s prologue, is not a discourse on the words “I love you,” it is precisely about God speaking those words to us, over and over, speaking them through us, over and over, speaking them into our neighborhoods and our families and our spirits.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” And we see. We hear. We utter. Three little words, walking among us as the Word. A person. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Three little words on two feet for moving among us, with two hands for blessing us, with two eyes for seeing our struggles, with two ears for hearing our cries, with one heart. One sacred heart longing for our oneness and wholeness and joy. Eternal release from pain and sadness. Eternal joy.
The prologue to St. John’s gospel is a hymn to the Word become flesh, a song of ecstatic praise for the power of God that will not let us go. Simply, will never let us go off on our own. Will always catch us up. Will always speak to us: Three little words. I love you.
Scene: a conventicle meets for a meal. A conventicle. A small group meeting for some purpose that is far out of the ordinary for its culture. A conventicle. A small band of Christians meeting around a simple meal in the mighty, learned, wealthy, international city of Ephesus. They eat and drink. New Christians, most of them, eating and drinking because, while this sect of people following a dead rabbi is strange, it is also somehow compelling to them. He whom they call Jesus is somehow compelling to them.
They have their meal and then there is an announcement. A letter has arrived from their founder, wherever he might be in the world just now. They know that, if the letter doesn’t sound like the way he talked to them, then it was written by a follower, a disciples of his. They don’t care. It is read. In all of its complexity it is read. The letter to the Ephesians is older than today’s reading from St. John’s gospel, but it’s almost as if Paul, or his disciple, had read John. The word became flesh. Praise. Thanks. Blessing, and blessing, and blessing.
Today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians is translated into many sentences, but the fact is that in the original Greek it is comprised of only one sentence. Seems like Paul didn’t know how to take a breath at the excitement of God coming into his life and the lives of lovers of Christ Jesus. In fact, one commentator has called this reading “monstrous” because of its structure, while another has called it “liturgically majestic.”
Why might that be? Monstrous because one long, breathless, highly difficult to translate sentence causes problems. “Liturgically majestic” because this sentence is a berakah, a response to divine benefaction. An answer to God’s grace. A profoundly spiritual thank you note. New Christians, babes in our faith, probably thought that gathering for a meal with others was a good way to enact their religion.
So they sat and ate by the dim light of oil lamps and they drank wine and they got to know each other a bit. Then the reading of the letter. This: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ…In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of this grace that he lavished on us.”
And the berakah goes on and on. One long sentence of praise. One breathless statement of how much we who are gathering here, around this little table, in this dark room, going against all of society’s standards for religion, how much we are blessed by the presence of the Word become flesh. The Word that is in our midst, even now. Imagine the power of this sentence. A sentence sentencing the Ephesians not to death, not to a humdrum existence, but a sentence sentencing them to an extraordinary life. Three little words: I love you. Three little words: Word become flesh. Three little words: Take, eat, drink. Three little words: Blessed to bless.
And we learn along with the Ephesians that we are here not only to receive a word of God, not only to host the Word that is Jesus, not only to be blessed. We are here also to bless. And I don’t mean, so much, to bless each other, as to bless God, “so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” Live for it! Not to pronounce it through proper, pursed lips when called upon to do so in liturgical directions, but to utter it not only with our lips, but also with our hands and with our feet and with our eyes and with our ears; to utter it beyond all utterance with our spirits, our souls, our hearts, all that is ours.
“Because this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” That is how we are called to join in the great hymn of blessing that God sings through the Word into our lives. To sing it back. To bless in return. With the psalmist, to sing, “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion!” Because “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Blessings. Three little words: I love you. Amen.