Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bringing All Things Together in Christ: It's No Mystery Why We Are Here

"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory." (Ephesians 1:1-14 NRSV)


With these opening words, Paul sets the stage for what is to come in this little letter. What a beginning! Did you know that in the original Greek, verses 3-14 are only one sentence! The grammatical complexity of these verses aside, I want to narrow in a bit on a specific part of this lengthy sentence. There is a phrase I want to call your attention to. Did you see it in verse 9?

"He has made known to us the mystery of His will…"

You know, I wouldn’t think much of this phrase, except for that fact that Paul uses it again later. In fact, Paul uses this word seven times in Ephesians. Not to mention the seven other times Paul uses it in other New Testament letters! In other words, this "mystery" seems to be a pretty important thing!

So, what is this mystery Paul is talking about?

John Marks is a producer for television's 60 Minutes. He went on a two-year quest to investigate evangelicals. Marks grew up an Evangelical. But later in his life, he walked away from faith altogether. He wrote a book about his quest called Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind. The church's response to Hurricane Katrina turned the corner for him and became a key reason for him to believe again. One Baptist church in Baton Rouge fed 16,000 people a day for weeks. Another housed 700 homeless evacuees. Years after the hurricane and long after federal assistance had dried up a network of churches in surrounding states were still sending regular teams to help rebuild houses. Most impressively to Marks all these church efforts crossed racial lines and barriers in the Deep South. As one worker told him…

"We had whites, blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, good old Cajun … we just tried to say, hey, let's help people. This is our state. We'll let everybody else sort out that other stuff. We've got to cook some rice."

In his book, Marks concludes…

“I would argue that this was a watershed moment in the history of American Christianity … nothing spoke more eloquently to believers, and to nonbelievers who were paying attention, than the success of a population of believing volunteers measured against the massive and near-total collapse of secular government efforts.”

What do you suppose Paul was talking about when he said “mystery” and why was it so important?

Every three years InterVarsity Christian Fellowship sponsors the Urbana Conference. It is a gathering that challenges university students to get involved in world evangelization. About 16,000 students from around the world attended the 2009 conference. After the main session each evening, students would leave the larger conference auditorium to meet in smaller groups for prayer and reflection. In one of the banquet halls, three small groups were assembled. One was comprised of Chinese students. Another group was made up exclusively of Taiwanese students. The third group was populated only with students from Hong Kong. Large dividers stood between the three. Now, these walls were important, because historically these three peoples have not gotten along very well, so, they felt it best to separate themselves during worship. But something unexpected happened as the Chinese students were praying one night. They told their leader they wanted to invite the other countries to join them. When the Taiwanese students received the invitation, they prayed and sang a little while, and then they opened up the wall divider. It wasn't too much longer before the students from Hong Kong pulled back their divider as well. Suddenly, some 80 students mingled together. One of the leaders said…

"In Christ, we are all one family, and Christ breaks down political boundaries. In Christ, we have the desire to make the first steps to connect."

The Taiwanese students asked the students from China and Hong Kong to lead them in worship. The next night, they invited the Korean and Japanese groups to join them, nations which also had experienced fierce animosity. One girl from China said…

"It was a really moving time. This kind of thing would not happen in another situation."

What do you suppose Paul was talking about when he said “mystery” and why was it so important?

In the decade prior to 1906, lynchings of African Americans in America had skyrocketed. It is estimated that well over one thousand blacks, mainly men, were lynched. Some were hanged. Others were shot. Some were even buried alive! Millions of people in the United States had joined the Ku Klux Klan. But, in 1906, the Spirit of God was poured out in a powerful revival in Los Angeles that has come to be known as the Azusa Street Revival. Under the leadership of an African American man, William Seymour, tens of thousands of people came together. People from all over the world and all walks of life came together, rich and poor, men and women, American’s and non-Americans, black & white, Asian & Latino. They came by car, others by horse and buggy, and some by train and by boat. They all encountered the Spirit. In a year dominated by lynchings, blacks and whites were embracing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Frank Bartleman, a historian of the Azusa Street Revival, said…

"The color line is washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ!"

You know, so are all other lines…

Church, that is the great mystery of the gospel. Paul talks about it here in Ephesians. He writes about it in Romans and I Corinthians and Colossians. In Galatians, talking again about the same concept, Paul writes…

"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

It was unnatural for Paul, of all people, to write something like this! Paul grew up believing that because he was a Jew, he was better than anyone else. Because he was a rabbi, he also began every day with the same rabbinical prayer that included this phrase "Shelo Asani Isha" "Blessed are you LORD for not making me a woman." There was fierce discrimination in the religious world in which Paul grew up and there is fierce discrimination in the world in which we live but through Jesus, a great mystery has been revealed. And here it is…In Christ, we are all one and God’s grace is available to all.

Last week, many of us started a study of the New Testament book, Ephesians, a wonderful little letter that may have actually circulated among many congregations, not just the church in Ephesus. We will find in the coming weeks that this little letter has a very ambitious purpose. Paul describes what the church should be and one of the most amazing things Paul has to say about what we should be is this…

The Church Is To Be A Picture Of Unity To The World.

One of our functions is to show the world that unity is indeed possible. You see, Paul’s world was extremely divided. Jews and Gentiles did not get along. Men and women were not equal. Free persons and slaves did not have the same rights. Paul’s world was a world of walls, walls that divided people by race, color, gender, and belief. Paul’s message to his peers was simple. It is the job of the church to show this world that unity is possible. When the world looks at the church in Ephesus and Galatia and Jerusalem, they should see a picture of perfect unity. Then they will know that God is no respecter of persons. They will know then that God loves everyone equally. Instead of holding a mirror up to the world, allowing them to see their divisions, Paul held up a picture of a new reality, something better, a picture of the world as God designed it.

What does the world see as it looks at the picture of Glenwood?

Have you ever asked that? Suppose someone wandered in this morning off the streets. Out there, they see a world divided by politics, Democrats and Republicans. Out there, they see a world divided by economics. I read this past week that the 85 richest people in the world own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. We live in a world of economic divisions. The poor are becoming poorer. The rich are becoming richer. Out there, they see a world divided by race, African Americans, Whites, Hispanics, all living in their own corners of this small city. Out there they see a world divided by religion, even among Christians, a Baptist church on this corner, a Church of Christ on that corner, a Catholic Church here. a community church there. When they come into the living room of this family, or when this family moves out into the world, what do they see? It seems to me that is an important question for us to ask.

When I was in Lubbock, we took several steps in 2006 to join hands with Christians from a local Christian Church in town, a Non-Church of Christ. We had several Wednesday night services together. We swapped pulpits on one Sunday, I preached at Raintree Christian Church and their preacher came to Broadway. We helped restore the home of a single mother, together. One member of our congregation that was uncomfortable with all of our cooperation with "those other denominations…" came to talk to me one day. She asked me, "Why are we doing all of this?" It’s a valid question. Paul once wrote…

"He has made known to us the mystery of His will…" (Ephesians 1:9)

"The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers of the same promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel…" (Ephesians 3:6)

"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 3:28)

And in the words of Jesus: “Father, I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)

And there it is: The reason the revelation of this mystery is so important. We are a picture of God to the rest of the world. If we are divided, the world will not see God through us. It’s that simple. We should go out of our way to unify with other members of the household of faith. I pray God will give us, the family at Glenwood, opportunities to model the unity of Christ to Tyler. I pray God will give you and your family opportunities to model the unity of Christ to Tyler, apart from this congregation. Are you willing to pray that prayer, knowing that God has a habit of listening to the petitions of His children?

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