Sermon: "The Eternal Purpose," January 3rd, 2016

 An ancient cave painting of the Apostle Paul found in a cave in Ephesus

An ancient cave painting of the Apostle Paul found in a cave in Ephesus

Ephesians 3:1-12
Epiphany Sunday

"The Eternal Purpose"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

You have likely heard the story of the Magi, the wise men, the story of the Epiphany. But our focus passage for this morning is a not-so-well-known Epiphany story. Not well known, but equally as important. It’s the third chapter in a letter bearing the name of the Apostle Paul to the church in Ephesus. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. This morning we are going to do a little close reading of this letter together. So if you’ve got a bible in front of you, open it to Ephesians, chapter 3. Should be near the back. If you have a smart phone or tablet, Google “Bible Gateway” and look it up in the New Revised Standard Version.

                Our passage begins three chapters in to the letter. And it begins like this: “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles." Prison. This letter comes in to our hands written from a jail cell. Maybe somebody sneaked it out on the back of a crossword puzzle with the laundry. But this guy has been put away on account of his preaching. From our vantage point it’s hard to imagine somebody being locked away based on a sermon (unless you’re perhaps an Imam). But something Paul has said and done has been dangerous enough to serve time. So much for the minister’s criminal record check.

                And Paul continues: "For surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ." If you remember, or if you don’t, Paul was one of the people rounding up and persecuting followers of Jesus. Until one day on the road to the city of Damascus there was a flash of light, he heard a voice, and had an encounter with the risen Christ.    And you’ll notice the word he uses to describe this experience he had—the word “mystery.” In our scientific age, we have trouble with mystery. In our world we believe we have the power to know and see everything.  Everything is fixed. Everything has an explanation. But Paul talks about this experience as a mystery. Not something to be solved like a detective novel. But something real, hidden below the surface of things. Just beyond our sight and our touch. Paul had a revelation, an epiphany, an “aha” moment. A light bulb went off. And it turned his whole life upside down. And ever since he’s been traveling near and far. Spreading its light.

And here’s what the light shows when it shines:

"In former generations,” he says, “this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

The mystery that has been unveiled to Paul, he says, is that “the Gentiles share in the inheritance of God's own people.” Now, generally, in the New Testament and in contemporary usage, “gentile” (sometimes translated “Greek”) just means somebody who is not Jewish. But its beyond that. As a teacher of mine says, for the church gentiles aren’t just non-Jews. In every generation they are “them, not us.” They are the outsiders to God’s story. They are everyone who doesn’t fit in. It’s these outsiders who Paul says who get a part of the insiders’ inheritance. Jewish shepherds and Iranian wise men both stand equal before Christ. All human beings are given equal worth. And an equal share of God’s grace and mercy. The mystery revealed to Paul in Jesus is that all the ways we have decided how people fit and don’t fit in terms of worthiness have been blown apart. It doesn’t just belong to us, the insiders. It’s for the outsiders as well.  This is what Paul sees in Jesus. To paraphrase the late great Hank Williams, Paul “saw the light. God has claimed everybody as her own.

This is what Paul sees in Jesus. And this is what changes him. And because of it he says, “I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things."

So now that Paul has seen the light, there’s no going back. He’s got to spread it around. He’s got to give away the "the boundless riches of Christ." And this is what puts Paul in jail. It’s what makes him dangerous. When was the last time you thought about church as dangerous? But the good news is risky. It’s a radical thing. It’s the reason that, like Paul, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his own letter from a Birmingham Jail condemning local Christian leaders for their defence of racial segregation. It’s why Desmond Tutu amid South African Apartheid stood at a microphone, shaking a Bible in the air, and said “if you did not want us to be free, why did you give us this book? It’s because all human beings are given equal worth and dignity because they have been made worthy by Christ the Lord.  It’s the woman in who shows up at the church door to beg for change with her head still clouded by a hit of crystal meth. It’s the Syrian girl who weeps because her family lies under the ruins after a strategic airstrike. These are the people, Paul says, as much as us, are the ones for whom Christ died, and for whom he lives for. And Paul risks it all, jail time or worse. Because his world has been turned upside-down. Because when this revelation grabs hold of you, when God’s light has shone on even the darkest place, and lights up every human face, like Paul, you just can’t help but see the world differently. And you can’t help but live your life differently as a result.

And so, from his prison cell he writes:

"so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known
to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places; This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him."

“Through the church,” Paul says. For Paul the church is where the whole thing, the whole movement of God’s light, gets lit. And it and the light moves outwards. That the church is actually the test-site, a laboratory, a model version for the future that God has planned for everyone. One where the lost are found, and the broken are healed. One where lions lay down with lambs, and swords are beaten in to plowshares. Because the community that gathers around God’s light, this where this wisdom, this great mystery hidden for the ages is revealed. This is where people see God’s work in action. It’s meant to be a glimpse of the way God wants everything to be.

And, you know, it’s hard to see this sometimes. I am beginning to see it more and more. This is what God’s light is doing in us as a community of faith. Have you noticed how different we are from each other? Where else in our culture do you see small children and the elderly gathered to eat at the same table? Or people who have found their way in as successful professionals and business people sitting beside people who found their way in through a soup kitchen? Some of us have money, some of us have none—or owe a lot. Some of us have lived lives of great virtue that we take pride in, while some of us would rather forget our past out of a sense of deep shame. We are a group of such different people. Yet, like the wise men drawn by the star to Bethlehem, we find ourselves drawn to the same place. Where else do you see this? Week after week. So different, yet drawn together by the same light. It may not be the same flash of light Paul saw on the road. But according to him, it’s a glimpse of the way God wants everything to be.

                So friends, no matter who you are, where you come from. No matter what your life is like. If things are good or in shambles. You have been drawn here by God’s light for a purpose. We have been drawn together for a purpose. God has brought us together to discover the incredible riches, to encounter the light of the deep love of God in Christ. One that once we see it, we can never see the world the same again.

In this place:

There is no Jew or Gentile
No male or female,
No slave or free.
For we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Do you see the light? I do. I really do. AMEN.