By The Rev. Dr. Stephen Simmons
Text: Ephesians 1:3-14
Inheritances are tricky things. As we all know, an inheritance can be a blessing, or it can be a curse. We’ve all heard of cases in which a squabble over the terms of a will has caused family members to stop speaking to each other for years, maybe even permanently, or in which the maker of a will has left four million dollars to his cat just to spite money-grubbing relatives.
For some people, an inheritance is a bonanza. It’s like winning the lottery, a pile of free cash to be spent however they wish, indulging their own fancies and appetites as though they “had it coming” to them, no matter what the donor had in mind. I once heard an attorney who specializes in wills and trusts say that in his experience something like 70% of all inherited money gets used tor things other than what the donor intended.
But for other people, an inheritance is a commission; it’s a chance to act out the donor’s values and dreams, giving them new life as unforeseen opportunities arise. An inheritance can simply mark the end of a person’s life, or it can extend that life into the life of the world – a promise made and kept, something held in trust and paid forward. And that’s how an inheritance becomes a legacy.
Actually, we use the word “inheritance” to talk about a lot of things, from hair color to artistic talent to characteristic features and gestures that prompt us to call someone “a chip off the old block.” I inherited my grandfather Alfred’s uncluttered scalp, and my own sons have, through genetics or upbringing, inherited certain mannerisms that, to people who know us, identify them almost instantly as “Simmons guys.” You could probably say something similar from your own experience.
And this is what makes the emphasis on our “inheritance” from God in the letter to the Ephesians so striking. For the most part, the Bible doesn’t have much to say about inheritance in an earthly sense; and in fact, on the one occasion when a man asked Jesus to adjudicate between him and his brother over who got what, Jesus ducked the question entirely. So it’s all the more worth noting that, when the writer of the letter wants to talk about what God has in mind for you and me over the long haul, he leans heavily on the language of inheritance.
The first question that comes to mind is, What? What entitles us to “inherit” anything from God in the first place? In one way, the answer is simple: we are God’s children. If you want to be theologically precise, we are God’s adopted children, Jesus being “the only begotten Son of God,” as we say in the creeds.
But adopted children, thankfully, have a way of becoming simply sons and daughters, part of the family, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. When we baptize a person, we often say, as scripture does, “See what love the Father has for us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are” – not with reservations and conditions, but as a simple fact.
And that makes us the bearers of God’s legacy. As Ephesians puts it,
God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. (Common English Bible)
A word of caution is in order here. As over against a pernicious misunderstanding that is all too common these days, this is not a “prosperity gospel” that guarantees material blessings and success here and now in return for faith, a Little Jack Horner approach that entitles us to sit in a corner and admire ourselves. Instead, we’ve received an inheritance that calls us to be true chips off the old block, and to turn it into a legacy by giving it away, as God does.
See what love the Father has for us, that we should spend it on others and even squander it on those who don’t love us back! This is not a gospel of possession and accumulation, but the good news of a spiritual abundance that grows in the giving. As the letter goes on to say,
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned these good things to be the way that we live our lives. (Ephesians 2: 8-10, CEB)
That’s our inheritance.
This week we begin the season of Epiphany, marking the arrival of the magi and the giving of some really peculiar gifts to the Christ child – gold, frankincense and myrrh, mysterious symbols of royalty, divinity, and mortality. As every Sunday School kid has asked at one time or another, why these gifts? Why not Pampers, or a Teddy bear, or something else that would be either fun or useful? This is a baby, for Pete’s sake!
The point, I think, is that the real importance and meaning of these gifts could only be revealed as time went on; they weren’t something to be used or spent or kept, but something to be realized, to be lived out and lived into as Jesus came to understand fully his Father’s purpose for his life.
That baby in Bethlehem couldn’t possibly have understood his vocation from the beginning; this could only come in the fullness of time, through Jesus’s living as God with us, and coming to know our life as an insider, with all of its joys and griefs and achievements and disappointments and aspirations. An epiphany is, by one definition, “an Illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure,” and this Epiphany was the beginning of Jesus’s discovering his destiny, and so of our discovering ours. And he could only do that, as we can only do it, by extending and expanding and giving his life away in love of God and neighbor.
Olivia Goldhill is an investigative journalist who has recently been covering stories about the politics and ethics surrounding the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Clearly a no-nonsense person who has her ear to the ground on current trends and realities, she took a step back this week to write a post with the intriguing, if somewhat dispiriting, title, “You’re Never Going To Have a Legacy, So Give up Trying.” Her point is that, no matter how much fame and fortune a person acquires during this life, with the passage of time he or she will be remembered little, if at all – only a name, if even that. She says,
Our names and legacies are mortal, just like us. And so we are free to choose a more meaningful lodestar to guide our lives, rather than chasing the ephemeral possibility that our names will be spoken with gravitas once we’re dead.
Reckoning with the insignificance of your own legacy can also improve your perspective on life more broadly speaking. We all die, and our legacies all die, so what really matters? Even in the face of impending mortality, some acts have worth: Great love, acts of kindness, exciting experiences, and personal sacrifices for the wellbeing of others contain the best of human existence. They hold intrinsic value, regardless of whether they are remembered.
I don’t know what faith tradition Ms. Goldhill practices, if any; but it’s interesting that she comes out at a place with which most persons of faith could agree. Listen again:
Even in the face of impending mortality, some acts have worth: Great love, acts of kindness, exciting experiences, and personal sacrifices for the wellbeing of others contain the best of human existence. They hold intrinsic value, regardless of whether they are remembered.
Amen and bravo, yes and…there’s something else. God remembers. And if you and I are, in fact, the legacy of the living God, the only one who can credibly use words like “eternal” and “everlasting,” it’s all up to God, thank God!
The challenge on our side in this New Year remains, as ever, to nourish and exercise and stretch our faith in prayer and praise and study and service, watching for signs of God in the world even as we reach out in God’s name. So may we keep the gift of faith strong and expansive, putting our trust not in short-term prospects, which after all can often look pretty dim, but in the boundless promise of God – and we do that not only for ourselves, but on behalf of a world that is often tempted to give up hope entirely.
None of this is easy or obvious. It’s certainly not our default mode in times like these, especially when our lives recently have involved so much hunkering down and drawing back. There are many who would say that this kind of faith is nothing more than an exercise in self-delusion. And yet, exactly in times like these, it’s our commission to show God to the world.
This is a communion Sunday, a time in which through this sacrament we celebrate Christ’s becoming who we are, and our becoming daughters and sons of God – of his transformation into us, and our transformation into him. In gathering around this table, we remember the Lord who remembers us, who has remembered us from the beginning, and who never lets us go. In embracing and cherishing and receiving the Light of the World into our own lives, into our own substance, we are invited to become, as he himself said, the light of the world. As Graham Kendrick puts it in our concluding song of praise this morning, and as we pray in approaching the Lord’s Table,
As we gaze into your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness.
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored there may our lives tell your story;
Shine on me, shine on me.
And so, a very Happy Epiphany to us all!