Monday, October 18, 2010

More Than We Can Imagine

(This message is one in a series on Paul's Letter to the Ephesians titled, 'Growing Together'.)

Stewardship Sunday

Ephesians 3:14-21

We continue our series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians titled ‘Growing Together.’ Why Ephesians? I’ll put the quote we’ve been reading into my own words: Ephesians gives us a peek at the way God’s Spirit takes lives like ours and turns them into his church. That sums it up pretty well.

So I’ve been telling the story of those 33 miners stuck in a hole in Chile, but now I can’t do that anymore. Someone was poking fun at me this week, saying that the whole structure of this series is obsolete now that the miners have been rescued. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean I can’t keep using the story.

The images we saw late Tuesday night and all day Wednesday into early Thursday morning—I caught myself laughing and crying and wondering how it all went so well. As we watched those men come out of that capsule, so many of them prayed and thanked God for making it back to the surface. And I know, everyone would say that if they’d been through the same ordeal. But did you notice that most of these guys talked about their prayers—talked about their relationships to Jesus Christ as if they’d known him before they went in the hole.

That’s important, because otherwise it would be too easy to discount the faith of the miners as foxhole faith. You know the saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Well the miners we watched on our TV screens this week were buried a lot deeper than any foxhole, and their faith was deeper, too.

We’re studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians because it’s designed to help churches grow—to helm them grow in depth of faith and in service to each other and the world. We’re talking about growing together, and this journey through Ephesians is one of the ways we can do that.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Last week Stephanie talked about the first half of this chapter. Paul starts in the first verse sounding like he’s about to pray, then he interrupts himself with a description of how God has spoken through him and worked through him to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. In our passage this morning Paul picks up the prayer right where he left off.

And how does Paul, leading apostle of the early church, writer of most of the letters in the New Testament, rabbi of rabbis, Pharisee of Pharisee—how does big time Paul start his description of how he prays for the Ephesians?

On his knees.

Paul kneels and begins to pray one of the richest, most generous prayers in the entire Bible.

He prays for God to strengthen his church. That’s a good reminder for us: this is God’s church, not ours; God is our source of power.

He prays that Christ will live in and through the people of the church. Churches can easily slide into functioning as just another kind of human organization, like a school or charity or social club. The point here is that Christ—and all that that name means for us—Christ is who we follow, and it’s in Christ’s name that we serve.

He prays that the Ephesians will begin to grasp how much Christ loves them. This can be an incredibly difficult thing to swallow. After working in different kinds of ministries for 25 years or so, one of the hardest things I’ve seen people wrestle with is truly believing that God loves them no matter what, warts and all.

He prays that they’ll never forget that Christ’s love is the most important thing they’ll ever know. Now that one is a challenge, too. This is a pretty well-educated and successful crowd. I look out there and I can see some Harvards and Princetons and Penns—I can see folks who studied at great public universities, and people with advanced degrees in all kinds of subjects from business to science to the humanities.

No matter what you may think you know, Paul says here, it’s dwarfed by this one single thing—this one crucial data point: Jesus loves you. Jesus the Messiah, loves you.

Karl Barth was one of the giants in the world of theology in the 20th century. Late in his career he was giving a lecture and one of the students there asked him to describe his most important conclusion from a lifetime of studying the Scriptures. He paused for a moment, then sang the song: ‘Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.’

Allowing ourselves to be embraced fully by the love of Jesus is the most important thing any of us will ever know.

In the end Paul prays that the Ephesians—that the church—will be filled to the very top with the fullness of God. That everything we do or say or give or create will somehow reflect the God who made us and redeems us and loves us in spite of what we might do—who loves us often times in spite of who we’ve become.

This is an extravagant prayer—it’s a prayer that’s meant to show us and remind us of how mind-blowingly generous God has been to us—how generous he wants to be to his church.

Eugene Peterson tells the story of an American family that adopted a Haitian girl who had been orphaned in an accident. They brought her to their home—there were already two teenage boys in the family—they brought her home and when they sat down to their first dinner together, the parents noticed something crucial. As the boys tore through their meals and devoured seconds and thirds of everything on the table, the little girl looked sad and worried.

The mother guessed correctly that the new addition to the family thought that this might be all the food there was, and so she took her by the hand and led her around the kitchen. She opened the fridge to show her that there would be plenty of food for the next day. She opened the bread drawer to show that there were more loaves. She showed her the pantry where there were mounds of food for the coming days and weeks.

What the mom did was show her little girl the abundance of what was available to her—that she would never be hungry again, even if she did have to share meals with her growing brothers.

When God adopts us into his family through Jesus Christ, and when the Holy Spirit steps in to shape us into his church—as all of that happens, Paul takes us by the hand in this prayer—he takes us around to show us how much great stuff is there for us to enjoy. He shows us the abundance of God’s grace and provision, of love and mercy for us. “I pray that you would be able to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

But we know that prayer can be a challenge for us sometimes. The day after the miners came out of that hole in Chile, Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, wrote a challenging article on prayer that got right to the heart of what bothers us most about bringing our concerns before God. Mark’s problem is what to make of all the times we pray for things—for healing, for peace, for good to win over evil once in a while—we pray for things that don’t go the way we ask. What does that mean for us as we pray?

“First, we are to ask God for things that are important to us, no matter how we feel about God or prayer or the thing being prayed for. Second, once we announce our desire to God, it’s his job to deal with it. Prayer is not manipulating heaven to fulfill our desires. It’s putting what we desire into the hands of a loving God and letting him fulfill it in his time, in his way.”

Our passage today ends with a benediction. This one might be familiar to many of you—in the church where I grew up this was the benediction almost every Sunday.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

It’s a challenge to us to open our eyes and see that to aim too low is to miss what God has in store for us—what God is prepared to give us—what God wants to do in us and through us.

C.S. Lewis wrote about this tendency that people have of underestimating what God has to share with us. He writes:

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

It’s this benediction that informs our giving and pledging as we move into our season of talking about stewardship. It’s the benediction that reminds us that our participation is not about fueling God’s work in this church and in the world. Our giving is our way of joining into the work that God is already doing—the places where God’s spirit is already active. As generous as this congregation can be, if it all depended on our giving we’d be in serious trouble.

But that’s not how the story goes. What we do here is part of God’s work that is more than we could ever imagine. We join in as a privilege, not a chore—as a gift and not just another bill to pay. As we continue to talk about how Paul’s letter to the Ephesians helps us grow together, and as we add to that our own conversation about the ministry of this church, keep this last verse in your mind:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Radical Reassembly

(This message is one in a series on Paul's letter to the Ephesians titled, 'Growing Together'.)

Ephesians 2:14-22

We continue our series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians titled ‘Growing Together.’ Why Ephesians? When we started we read this quote: “We immerse ourselves in Ephesians to acquire a clean, uncluttered imagination of the ways and means by which the Holy Spirit forms church out of just such lives as ours.” That sums it up pretty well.

I’ve been telling the story of those 33 miners stuck in a hole in Chile. They’ve been there for 60 days now, trapped 2300 feet underground, and it looks as though they won’t be rescued for another month. Remember that when the miners were found they’d already organized themselves into teams—they were sharing regular rations, they sleep and exercise and keep watch over each other in shifts. Most of this wasn’t part of their standard procedures. Most of this was handed down informally from grandfather to father to son—they’ve gone through so many tragic mining events that they’ve learned how to be ready—how to take care of each other and live.

That’s how we want to be here in this church.

What we learn from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a lot like what we can learn from those miners in Chile. Their skill and commitment, their willingness to stay together and trust each other—none of that happened by accident. It worked because they studied and remembered and practiced what to do when disasters strike. When that mine caved in no one had to tell them that they needed to look out for one another—to take care of each other. They’d been getting ready all along.

That’s what we’re going to do.

As we work our way through Ephesians we’re going to be honest about life and faith and the world, and we’re going to see how this important book of the Bible helps us become more a more mature church—a church family that’s ready for anything. Too often churches forget that part of our job is to help people express and share and live their faith beyond the walls of this place—in the other 167 hours of the week.

I want to take that part of the church’s job more seriously.

Ephesians is going to provide road map for us as we grow individually and as a church family. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus has a lot to say about life and faith and how to live in a world that doesn’t always understand who we are. Today’s passage is an important part of that.

14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Some things to know about this text:

Look how active Jesus is in this passage. There are nine verbs to describe all that God has done through Jesus to grow us into a faithful church. Jesus is our peace, he made us one, he broke down the wall of hostility, he abolished the law, he created a new humanity, he made peace, he reconciled, he put hostility to death, and he proclaimed peace. Whatever else we learn from this passage about the way God interacts with us, we should at least be aware that he is active, that he’s busy, that he isn’t just sitting back and watching what his people do without getting involved.

Paul says that Christ ‘himself is our peace.’ Last year we spent a lot of time talking about the idea of shalom. In the Old Testament shalom has a broad range of meanings. It can refer to the communal well-being of the nation, or physical health, or a sense of contentedness or happiness in relationships. It often describes a state of completion and wholeness. One writer called it ‘the webbing together of God, humans and creation in justice, fulfillment and delight.’ But most often it gets translated simply as ‘peace.’

When Paul calls Jesus our peace, he’s saying that in his life and ministry, through his teachings and healings, in his death and resurrection—through the work of Christ we’ve been offered a chance to experience the shalom we were meant to know—to live the life we were meant to live.

Paul says as much in the next lines: ‘Christ’s purpose was to create one person out of two—unity out of division—by reconciling us through his cross. That’s the core of the good news of the gospel right there—that whatever separates us from God or from each other or from the earth—that everything that divides us is somehow healed and reconciled through Jesus Christ.

But we’re still kept apart by what Paul calls hostility—the ‘dividing wall of hostility.’ Now that phrase in itself packs a pretty good punch. The dividing wall of hostility could describe all kinds of things—racial hatreds, the grudges that keep some countries fighting forever or at least ready to go to war. It could describe the way that different kinds of abuse make trusting another person seem impossible. A dividing wall of hostility could describe the way we interact with anyone who’s wounded us in some way.

Paul’s readers might have thought of those things, but more likely they knew about the wall in the Temple in Jerusalem that was meant to separate Jews from Gentiles. The Temple was the holiest place in the world for Jews. It represented their history, their present faithfulness, and also their hope for a Messiah and a restored kingdom. The Temple was one place where even the Romans didn’t intrude, and where the priests and leaders were allowed to make the rules.

On the wall in the Temple separating Jews from Gentiles there was an inscription that read:

“Let no foreigner enter within the partition and enclosure surrounding the temple. Whoever is arrested will himself be responsible for his death which will [soon] follow”

This was known as the ‘dividing wall of hostility.’ This is what was torn down through the ministry of Jesus the Messiah.

Listen to how Eugene Peterson translated this in The Message:

“Christ brought us together through his death on the Cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to you insiders. He treated us as equals, and [in doing] so made us equals. Through his we both share the same Spirit, and have equal access to the Father.”

The point of all this is that we’ve been reassembled. We come to Christ with every single kind of brokenness—we come in pieces, but we’ve been put back together. It’s a radical form or reassembly—of being reconciled to God and to each other in ways that we didn’t think were possible—ways that aren’t humanly possible. We come in pieces, but we go with the peace that only Christ can offer.

What does all of this mean for us as we grow together as a church family?

First, part of growing together means focusing on what God has done for us individually. Whatever we’ve done that separated us from God—whatever sins we’ve committed or guilt that we carried—whatever brokenness we bring to him, he promises to heal and cleanse and restore. When people talk about coming to faith, this is what they mean: accepting the forgiveness and restoration that God offers us through Jesus Christ.

Second, growing together means just that: growing as a community that loves and sharpens and serves each other in peace and unity. Notice I said unity here and not uniformity. There’s a pretty important difference between those two. We don’t have to do all of this in the same way, by the same set pattern. But we are called to work and grow together as people who have been taught and empowered to live in community by God’s Holy Spirit.

And finally, growing together means that we take how we’ve been restored and made into a community—we take the way God has worked in our lives and we turn it outward, sharing it with our neighbors, strangers on the street, and the rest of the world. Growing together as a church community means going into those places where walls of hostility still separate and oppress people, and working to tear those walls down.

We come to Communion with the same expectations that brought faithful Jews to the Temple in Jerusalem. We come remembering what God has done in our lives through Jesus the Messiah, and how our lives have been transformed and restored to the shalom we were made for. We also come with our eyes open to what God is doing today—to the blessings we receive and the work we’re called to do together as his church.

Finally, we come because God has made promises to us. We come as people of hope—not some pie-in-the-sky dreaming about clouds and wings and harps, but a real-world hope based on the promises Jesus made to come back and make all things new. In Communion we share the past, present and future of our faith. We invite you to come to the Table this morning.