The Church – Ephesians 3
I try to limit the number of times I mention Grand Designs in sermons which – if you haven’t worked this out – is ‘must see’ television in the Groves-Downey household, but there was a heightened level of drama in the last season. Not only did people face the usual issues – not having planning permission, project managing themselves, running out of money, falling pregnant and -who would have predicted it – rain! But in addition the date would occasionally appear on the screen, ‘November 2019’ or ‘January 2020’, as the owners confidently predicted being in by April or having the entire build finished by June. Not knowing what we know; that – owing to the pandemic – their predictions will go right out the triple glazed windows!
We are currently working through Ephesians and reading Ephesians chapter 3 this week I had a I had a similar feeling.
Here is the writer of Ephesians – possibly Paul or someone writing a kind of ‘fan epistle’ in the style of Paul – writing about the very beginnings of the church; about this ‘mystery’, this amazing revelation, that through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, human beings are reconciled to God, and reconciled with each other; that the place where all this happens is the church! In this amazing place called the church, verse 6 says, we have become co-heirs of God (we are part of God’s family), we have become corporate (we are parts of one body), and we are co-sharers of the blessings that life in God brings. And the writer goes on to describe the future ministry and mission of the church throughout the world.
But the writer of Ephesians – Paul or fan of Paul – does not know what we know; that the church will be, as the centuries roll on, blighted by abuse and by the scandal of church leaders who cover up this abuse. They do not know about the wars that will be waged in the name of religion. (Though there is considerable debate about the role of religion in human conflicts. According to the Encyclopedia of Wars, out of all 1,763 recorded historical conflicts, 123, or 6.98%, had religion as their primary cause.) But they do not know that, in the centuries to come, the church will be viewed as hypocritical and judgmental and much better at accumulating wealth than sharing it. According to McCrindle Research these are the top five issues that most discourage people, people who are open to exploring faith, from exploring Christianity.
In Morris West’s novel Eminence, he tells the story of Luca Rossini, a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, who now serves in the Vatican, but lives in the shadow of what took place in Argentina in the 1970’s; his own terrible experiences and his sense of betrayal by the silence of many church leaders. In the novel, he is interviewed by a journalist who begins by asking, “Let’s deal with the big questions first. What’s wrong with the Church?”
And Luca’s replies, “The same things that have been wrong with it for two thousand years – people! Men and women and children, too, who make up the family of believers. This isn’t a community of the pure and the perfect. They’re good, bad and indifferent. They’re ambitious, greedy, fearful, lustful, a rabble of pilgrims held together by faith and hope – and the difficult experience of love.”
That is who we are – who we have always been – a rabble of pilgrims held together by faith and hope – and the difficult experience of love.
But what the writer of Ephesians makes very clear is that this is not all that the church is – then or now. Yes, we – the rabble of pilgrims – make up the church, but we did not make the church. It is not our ministry, our mission, our revelation. It is God’s ministry. God’s mission. God’s revelation. It is the power of God at work within us, holding us together – holding us together with faith and hope and helping us in the difficult experience of love.
Because, firstly, like Paul, we do not choose to become ministers of God’s grace – part of the church – ourselves. God commissions us – verse 2. God makes us ministers of this gospel – verse 7 – or servants of this gospel (in the NRSV). Our calling, our commissioning, our indenture – if you like – is God’s initiative. And this call comes to all of us. “Although I am the very least of all the saints,” the writer says in verse 8, “this grace was given to me.”
Secondly, we are not called to share our message – but God’s message. It is God’s grace that is given to us for others (verse 2); given to us to bring to others (verse 8). And this message of grace is a message of mercy, forgiveness, new life, reconciliation with God, fellowship with God, reconciliation and fellowship with one another, the end of hostility and the beginning of peace, membership among God’s people and in God’s household, becoming an integral part of God’s dwelling place… It goes on and on. The riches of Christ, verse 8, are boundless. Literally they are ‘not to be tracked out’. They have no end.
And, thirdly, verse 10, we are called to share this message of grace, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Again, it is not our wisdom. It is God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom that is revealed in its rich variety to the rulers and authorities. Here is another reference to the spiritual realm where destructive, demonic forces dwell, and yet even to these forces, the church has a role in revealing God’s amazing wisdom, grace and love.
Modern scholars also speak of these ‘rulers and authorities’ as the societal structures that oppress our world, poverty, racism and power. In the face of such realities, the church is not called to simply survive or to maintain its own reputation and place, but to be a sign of what God is doing in our world and what God intends to do – God’s eternal purpose, verse 11, – to give us access to God through Christ – a ministry of reconciliation with global, cosmic dimensions. Against this backdrop the writer urges the readers not to lose heart – to be discouraged or dismayed – by his sufferings for the result – glory – is worth it.
I am reminded of the witness of the early church in this regard. How in 251AD there was a great plague and fear was everywhere. People fled to the countryside and the streets of the cities were filled with those who had become infected because their families had no option but to push them push out the door. Christian communities however took an entirely different approach. They took the sick and dying into their homes and nursed them. In this way saving many people who otherwise would have died. Historians suggest that elementary nursing could have reduced the mortality rate by as much as two thirds, but it also cost many Christian carers their lives.
In The Early Church, Henry Chadwick comments: The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success. The pagan comment ‘see how these Christians love one another’ (reported by Tertullian) was not irony. Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death of labour in the mines, and social action in time of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.
It is interesting to me that although the McCrindle Research conducted in 2017 indictaes that those open to Christianity list those top five things as preventing them from exploring Christian faith (abuse, hypocrisy, religious wars, judging others and issues around money) 92% of Australians know at least one Christian and the top five words they use to describe them are caring (41%), loving (35%), kind (35%), faithful (32%) and honest (31%). The riches of God’s grace, the richness of God’s wisdom continue to be revealed in heavenly and in earthly places.
And continue to be revealed to us as well.
In the final eight verses of this passage the writer reaches for the most eloquent language they can find to describe what God’s calling as to be the church, God’s sharing with us grace for others, and God’s revealing God’s wisdom through us means for us as well. Divine love, we are told, is not love learned in private study, but love discovered in the ministry, in the mission, in the testimony and revelation of the gathered church.
We need the church – we need others – to discover the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s love. We will have power to comprehend the dimension of the love, the writer says, only, “with all the saints.” “The isolated Christian,” John Stott writes, “can indeed know something of the love of Jesus. [but] it needs the whole people of God to understand the whole love of God all the saints together, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, young and old, black and white, with all their varied backgrounds and experiences….[Yet even then] we shall spend eternity exploring [God’s] inexhaustible riches of grace and love.”
The church is not our Grand Design. It is God’s design – God’s mysterious, boundless, rich, glorious design. When we go ahead without planning permission, when we try to project manage ourselves, when we build on foundations that are not love, we fall into disaster. But God is building the church. It is God’s permanent dwelling – the word used here means ‘permanent’ not ‘temporary abode’. God is settling down for good – for good for us. Whatever bad weather human nature throws against the church, whatever events the passing years bring, we are grounded in love, we are being built in love, love dwells within. We are the house that God built.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.