Room For Anyone
Lots of things about life are mysteries. Death is a mystery. No one has ever come back and told us what death is like, or what its about. Even Jesus, after his resurrection, spoke about life, about the kingdom of God, but not about death. At least, not in any way that has been recorded. Death remains an enigma, a riddle, a mystery. If we look through a telescope long enough, our eyes bug out against the lens and our mouths drop open as we try to fathom the mystery of space. Think about the invisible world all around us, those things that we can see only through a microscope. Whether viewed through the telescope or the microscope, life seems shrouded in mystery. Did you know that if you could increase the size of an electron to be the size of an apple, and increased you in size proportionately, you could hold the entire solar system in the palm of your hand and would have to use a magnifying glass to see it? Now, not all mysteries are as profound as that. Most homes in America have washing machines. Ever wonder why you can put twelve perfectly matched pairs of socks in the washing machine, run the load, and pull out eight socks, none of which match? In our house we have a laundry basket that is perpetually half full of socks that we haven’t found the match to yet. Some of those socks have been in there for more than a year. Or think about the mystery of check out lanes at the grocery store. When I’m picking my checkout lane, I take into account several variables. One is the length of the line. Another is the amount of groceries in each cart. And a third is whether the cashier is working quickly and efficiently or constantly talking to the shopper. I’m always on a mission to find the ultimate checkout lane. But this I can guarantee you – if I get into a checkout lane, it will mysteriously become the slowest lane in the store. Even if it was previously the fastest. The fast cashier will go on break and will be replaced by a talker. Or something won’t scan. Or the card reader will stop working. Somehow, mysteriously, when I pick a checkout lane, it always becomes the slowest. From the profound to the absurd, life is full of mystery.[i]
And the greatest of all mysteries is on St. Paul’s mind in Ephesians 3. If you have your Bible with you, turn to Ephesians 3:1-13. If you don’t have a Bible and would like one, see me. And as always, you can follow along on the screen behind me. Ephesians 3:1-13.
Paul on his knees in prayer, but before he even gets started, his mind, wrapped up as it is in this mystery he is speaking about, goes off on a tangent. He’ll return to his prayer in v. 14. He begins by identifying himself as “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles …” Remember, from the perspective of Paul, of 1st Century Jews, and of most 1st Century Christians, a Gentile was anyone who wasn’t Jewish, either by birth or by conversion. And those who had converted to Judaism weren’t quite as high on the totem pole as those who were born Jews. And remember that early in his life, Paul, who was born outside of the holy land in Tarsus, but was trained as a Pharisee under the greatest of the rabbis Gamaliel in Jerusalem, was a passionate persecutor of Christians. In his mind, Christ was a heretic and criminal and his followers were tainting the Jewish people and keeping God from acting to save Israel. But God literally knocked him off his horse on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus as he traveled to Damascus with permission and the intent to imprison anyone who claimed to follow Christ. When Paul came to Christ, God took his passion and his ardor and transformed it, using it for his glory, and because God sometimes has a sick sense of humor, he made Paul, persecutor of Christians and passionate proponent of the purity of the Jews into a missionary tasked with sharing the love of Christ with Gentiles. And Paul engaged in that work just as passionately as he had engaged in the life of a Pharisee and persecutor of the church prior to his conversion. And it was his work among the Gentiles that had landed him in prison in Rome, appealing to Caesar. The Jews had condemned him under their law, and only Caesar could overrule them. Tradition says that he didn’t.
But Paul isn’t blaming his gentile Christians for his imprisonment. Look down at the end of this passage, in V. 13. He hasn’t lost heart, even though he is under house arrest, in prison in Rome awaiting trial before Caesar, chained to a Roman guard 24/7. So what does Paul do while he’s in prison? He pens Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. And Acts tells us that “they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). So Paul is in Rome under house arrest. He can’t go anywhere and is chained to a Roman jailor, but people can come to him, and when they come, what does he talk with them about? Jesus. I wonder how many of his jailors came to faith in Christ. They were chained to him as he spoke every word. You see, Paul understood that his circumstances were just that, his circumstances. But he never allowed his circumstances, the things that happened to him, to define him or change his purpose.
America’s preacher, Billy Graham, was known for the same thing. He was so focused on bringing his message in every venue…that he would somehow always find a way to do it. His use of the microphone check illustrates the intensity of his focus. The A. Larry Ross firm handled media and public relations for more than twenty-three years for the Graham organization. Ross says, “One of the distinctives of Mr. Graham’s ministry has been his ability to make positive points for the gospel in any situation. You can ask Billy Graham how he gets his suits dry-cleaned on the road, and he’ll turn it into a gospel witness. I cut my teeth in the corporate world before I worked with Mr. Graham,” says Ross, “and I set up numerous media interviews. Almost always before a TV interview, they do a microphone check, and they ask the interviewee to say something—anything—so they can adjust the audio settings. Often a corporate executive, for that check, will count to ten, say their ABC’s, or recite what he had for breakfast. Mr. Graham would always quote John 3:16—’For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’
“When I asked Mr. Graham why he does that, he replied, ‘Because that way, if I am not able to communicate the gospel clearly during the interview, at least the cameraman will have heard it.’” Even the pre-interview time is focused on his overriding purpose.[ii]
And the thing that kept Paul focused, enraptured, really, he calls a mystery. Now, we have to understand, he used the word differently than we do. For those of us who speak English, a mystery is something dark, something obscure, something secret or puzzling. A mystery is something that is inexplicable, maybe even incomprehensible. But the Greek word for mystery, mysterion, is different. Although the thing is still a “secret,” it is no longer closely guarded. It is open. The mystery of which Paul speaks is truth which, although beyond human discovery, have been revealed by God and so now belong openly to all who follow Christ.[iii] It is an “open secret.” Secret in the sense that no human could have discovered it, thought it up, or made it up. It had to be revealed by God.
In vv. 2-5 he describes how the mystery was revealed by God, and then in v. 6, he describes the mystery itself. There are two key verses in this passage, and V. 6 is one of them. Look at V. 6. He uses three phrases to describe the mystery. I would use one, but I’m not Paul. The real mystery is this: there are no barriers in the body of Christ. Paul says that Jews and Gentiles are together 1. Fellow heirs, 2. Members of the same body, and 3. Partakers of the promise. Heirs, members, and partakers. Three of the images Jews used to describe what they saw as their privileged status as the people of God in the world. And folks, I wish I could impress upon all of us just how central to the Gospel this is. Jesus was not born, did not live, did not die, and was not raised to life to establish a divided body of Christ!
Ephesians 2:14, earlier in this letter. “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one (he’s speaking of Jews and non-Jews, the racial, ethnic, and cultural barriers we erect) and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Galatians 3:28. “There is neither Jew nor Greek (that’s the race barrier), there is neither slave nor free (the social and economic barriers), there is no male and female (the gender barrier), for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Is he saying these things no longer exist? Of course not. There are still males and females, rich and poor, young and old, people of different races. He isn’t saying that these things don’t exist. He’s saying they no longer divide us. So why is the body of Christ so divided? Because we absolutely refuse to be defined by Christ. When you’re asked to describe yourself, how do you start? We’re find being known by our gender, by our race, by our culture and ethnicity, by being liberal or conservative, upper class, upper middle class, middle class, even dirt poor. How many of us go to Jesus first when we’re asked to describe ourselves? Romans 1: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus …” 1 Corinthians: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus …” 2 Corinthians: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus …” Galatians 1: “Paul, an apostle …” Ephesians 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus …” Philippians 1: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus …” Colossians 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus …” 1 Timothy 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus …” 2 Timothy 1: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus …” Titus 1: “Paul, a servant of God …” Philemon: “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus …” In only two letters, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, does Paul not identify himself in this way. Get the picture?
But Paul didn’t forget all the other stuff. He can recite it quickly. In Philippians 3:5 he wrote that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” He knew all of the other stuff. But listen to what he says next. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Christ is my primary affiliation. Christ is my primary defining orientation. Before I am anything else, I am Paul, servant of Christ. Now look at how Paul describes himself in this passage. Look at V. 8. He’s actually playing with words here. A literal translation of the Greek here would read “leastestest.” Or maybe “most leastest.” It’s pretty much a nonsense word in English. It is in Greek too. But he’s making a point. I know what I am. Am I an apostle? Yes. I am the least of the apostles. In fact, I am the most leastest not just of the apostles, but of all the saints. Why did he say that? Because he knew his past. He had been a legalistic persecutor of the church. To his young protégé Timothy he would write “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners …” And then he adds, “ … of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul had a unique mix of confidence and humility. He knew what he had been saved from. He knew that it was an undeserved gift of God to be saved in Christ. But he knew that God had called him. And so he had confidence. Never arrogance. But healthy confidence. You see, humility and confidence aren’t opposites. They are two sides of the same coin. I know what I was, and I know what I am, and it is by the grace of God that I am what I am. But God has made me what I am, so forward I go.
If we define ourselves, gain our primary identity by anything other than Christ, walls and barriers are the inevitable result. But when we know that before anything else we are children of God, saved by grace, they come down. I heard one of you describe this church to another attender last week as “wonderfully diverse.” I love that. Not because I love diversity for diversity’s sake. I love it because it tells me that we are beginning to view ourselves first and foremost as brothers and sisters in Christ. How else does a scarlet and gray buckeye become the pastor of a church full of wolverines and spartans? Especially someone who identifies himself as a buckeye almost before he identifies himself as a man? Because, at least on most days, my identity comes from Christ first, and not from Brutus the Buckeye. And I figure that’s the only way you can tolerate me … you’re identity in Christ comes first.
We aren’t diverse for diversity’s sake. We aren’t diverse for loves sake. We aren’t diverse to be nice, or to be accepting, or tolerant. We are diverse because we are united in ONE person, in Jesus Christ. That’s why we call this church Christ Church. My name isn’t on the sign and never will be. My picture isn’t on a billboard and never will be. Our goal is to be known as followers of Jesus Christ and nothing more. But we can’t leave Christ out of the mix. He is the only one who saves. He is the only one who heals. He is the only one who can hold us together. And he is the one at work in each one of us transforming us. Take a second and look carefully around the sanctuary this morning. Get a good look at as many people as you can see. Now, how many finished products do you see? None. Not one. Sure, some are farther along than others. Some have been walking with Christ for years. Others are still trying to figure out who this Jesus is and what exactly he wants to do in my life. And we reflect that this morning. Some of us might have been attending church for years and not really know what Jesus is all about. The point is, only in Jesus can we come together. And that’s a critical, central point of the gospel that we almost never talk about, preach, or teach. And to neglect that point is to do a severe injustice to the gospel and the Biblical witness.
Now, look down at V. 10. I said there were two key verses in this passage. One was V. 6. The other is V. 10. There are two things we need to notice here. The first is that it is through the church that the wisdom of God is made known. What does that mean? That the church is perfect? No. Never makes mistakes? Certainly not. But we are witnesses of the goodness and love of God. But here’s what we have to understand. It is through our ability to love one another that others will look at us and say, “Something’s different about those people.” The church of Jesus Christ is the demonstration plot for the breaking down of barriers and staging ground for the expression and release of the power of Christ in the world. And when we are true to our identity and being in Christ, Christ is present in our midst and his love flows from our life together. His forgiveness is easily expressed first in our relationships with one another and also with those outside the church, and his justice and mercy are visible in our ministry, especially to those who can’t do anything for us in return.
The second thing we need to notice is that it is through the church that God is revealing his wisdom to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” What in the heck does that mean. How many of you have assumed that angels have known God’s plan all along, or at least since he told them about it at some point prior to the coming of Christ? Interesting that this isn’t the case. In 1 Peter, another apostle, Peter, writes “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1:10-12). Literally it reads “angels stoop to look. The angels, bent over, intently looking at the people of God, at you and me, to see how God will bring all things together in Christ. John Stott said “It is through the old creation (meaning the universe) that God reveals his glory to humans; it is through the new creation (Christ’s church) that he reveals his wisdom to angels. Isn’t that incredible?
Yes, its easy to criticize the church. Any church. We all make mistakes and the church is made up of forgiven but still fallen human beings, and that includes every pastor to ever stand in a pulpit. I am still human, and I thank God every day that no one recorded me watching Ohio State unexplainably losing to Iowa a few months ago. And those who saw it must speak not a word of it. But we are also the church of Christ, and the means through which he is making his wisdom, and his power, and his love visible in this world. And it is through the church of Christ that God is saying to the angles surrounding his throne, “Now, watch this!”
Several years ago, Johanne Lukasse of the Belgian Evangelical Mission came to the realization that evangelism in Belgium was getting nowhere. The nation’s long history of traditional Catholicism and the aggression of the cults had left the land seemingly impervious to the gospel. But driven by Scripture, he came up with a plan. First, he gathered together a mixed group of believers: Belgian, Dutch, American – whoever would come. Then he had them rent a house a live together for seven months. As you might expect, frictions developed among these diverse people. But this led them to prayer and then, surprisingly to some, on to victory and love. And then they began to see a fruitful ministry. Outsiders called them “the people who love each other.” Isn’t that what Jesus’ followers are supposed to be known for? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35). Did you notice that they didn’t just give up and leave? What do we do when we are irritated with somebody at church, or frustrated by someone at church? We leave, right? What would happen if we decided instead to hit our knees and cry out to God, allowing him to work in us and work in each other? When most people look at our country, at our world, they see nothing but division and strife. We’re supposed to give them something else to see … another way. But we can only show it when we refuse to be defined by anything other than Christ. We are Christ Church. May we live as such.
[i] Based on an illustration by Chuck Swindoll in Swindoll’s Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes, p. 407.
[ii] Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham (Zondervan, 2005), pp. 71-72
[iii] John Stott, God’s New Society: The Message of Ephesians, p. 116.