This morning we are picking up in Ephesians, studying chapter 3. Ephesians is a letter of encouragement, probably written in the apostle Paul’s name by one of his followers who was tasked with continuing to spread his teaching. This was not plagiarism or dishonesty; it was a very common practice in the ancient world, people did this all the time. The letter was addressed to the church in the city of Ephesus but was probably intended to be shared with all the churches in the surrounding cities. The purpose of the letter is to help Christians connect their theology and their everyday lives, to make sure that what they believe actually shapes how they live. So the first three chapters are a lot of theology and theory, while the last three are about specifically how to live.
Ephesus was a hugely influential city in the ancient world, a trendsetter city, so what happened here spread to other places. Here are some more images from my trip there in 2007 …
The first week I shared with you the four themes in Ephesians that we will see over and over again. Here they are as a little refresher.
1. By grace, we belong to God. By God’s free gift, we are adopted into God’s family. All the energy in our faith comes from God and not from us. God calls us, God destines us, God empowers us, God blesses us. Everything we do is in response to what God has done.
2. God plans to unify all people (and everything else) under Christ. PastorMarshall talked a lot about this in his sermon last week. We’re going to talk a little bit more about it again this week. But God’s ultimate plan – the reason that Jesus came – was to break down the barriers that we put up to keep ourselves separate from other people.
3. Resurrection power is at work in us. The very same exact identical power that raised Christ from the dead is literally at work in us individually and especially among us as a body.
4. Christ is over all: the head of the church and more powerful than the “powers and principalities.” Christ holds us together, and Christ is victorious over every other sphere of authority in existence. I’ll explain that in a few minutes.
So let’s get started with our scriptures. This is chapter 3 of Ephesians.
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—and then he breaks off and starts a new sentence. He says,
Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery (or, the plan) made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. So what Paul is saying is that he has understood God’s plan, not because he’s so smart, but because God has shown it to him, and he has told the people about this in the past. He continues, In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, So he is writing this so that they understand what he has understood. This mystery – this plan – which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. So this is not clear just from looking at the past; we have to understand something new. And here’s what it is: This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 3:1-6
Look at verse 6 – “The mystery (that is, God’s plan) is that through the Gospel (the Good News, the Christ-event) the Gentiles together with Israel are joint-heirs, a joint-body, and joint-partakers in Christ’s promise (that they are blessed to be a blessing).”
The author is saying that the full scope of what God was doing through Jesus is only obvious AFTER the resurrection, when you look back on the whole Christ-event: his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension. When Paul and other apostles reflect on that whole Christ-event, they discern that God’s purpose is for everyone to be blessed to be a blessing, the original promise to Israel through Abraham. God’s plan is to break down all the walls between privileged insiders and rejected outsiders. This is good news for everyone who has ever been told that they aren’t good enough, that they aren’t the right kind of whatever, that they aren’t allowed in the club, that they aren’t worthy. Through Christ, everyone is included. Through Christ, YOU are included. God is blessing you so you can be a blessing to others. Men and women, young and old, black and white, gay and straight, abled and disabled, cisgendered and transgendered, native-born and undocumented immigrants, Sunday School teachers and drug addicts. In God’s plan there are no insiders and outsiders. EVERYONE is invited to the table. Everyone is saved by grace: rescued, healed and victorious by an unearned gift from God. Everyone is saved by grace through faith: accessing that gift simply by trusting that it’s there for us. Everyone is blessed to be a blessing. That’s always been God’s plan but we couldn’t see it until Christ completed the work he came to do.
But that’s not the end. There’s more!
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, – this is what Paul is called to do –and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, – how this plan is going to be carried out – which — again — for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. Now here’s how this is going to be carried out. Here’s what he says: Now, through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety should be made known to the “powers and principalities” in the heavenly realms, according to God’s eternal purpose accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with boldness and confidence.Ephesians 3: 7-12
According to verse 10 (underlined above) The plan of God, that everyone is blessed to be a blessing, is demonstrated by a church that embraces and includes many different types of people. This is God’s wisdom, The English says “the wisdom of God in its rich variety.” Some of your translations say “the manifold wisdom of God.” The Greek literally says “God’s multi-colored” wisdom.” When the church is inclusive, we bear witness, we testify to the powers and principalities.
What are these powers and principalities? In the ancient world, people may have seen these as spiritual beings, but even if we don’t believe that, there are still powers and principalities existing in our day. They are the structures that govern our societies, and we know they have a spiritual energy in them. They are the institutions, systems, ideologies, political parties, corporations, bureaucracies, traditions and processes that shape our lives, that herd us one way or another, that dictate what we can and can’t do. They are the structures that are too big to fail, the monsters we’ve made and can’t unmake.
These powers and principalities are fallen just like everything else in creation, separated from the good they were intended to do. They now thrive on scarcity and separation and division. These powers and principalities say it’s impossible and even foolish for a power to succeed based on unity and inclusion. It is the calling of the church, of all of us together, to bear witness to the multi-colored wisdom of God by blessing the world through our unity and inclusiveness.
To which we all say “woohoo!” Sounds great. But hold on a second because we know when the rubber meets the road it’s not easy. Inclusiveness means working with people who want to do things differently than we do. It means singing the songs our siblings in the faith need to hear instead of only the ones we like. It means spending money on someone else’s idea first. It means affirming expressions of worship that make us uncomfortable. It means not leaving as soon as we get hurt. It means listening compassionately to people who are voting for the other guy. It means change. And the church in America has proven over and over that we are not good at change.
But we have to figure it out. The reason it is so important for the Church to fulfill our calling is because it takes a power to face off with a power, it takes an institution to confront an institution. Individuals cannot contend with institutions, people cannot contend with powers. Institutions will crush individuals every time. When individuals try to confront institutions they get ignored, and maced, and shot. That’s why the power of resurrection present in the whole Church must face off against the powers of evil in the world. It’s a big ask, one we could never do without help.
So what are we going to do? How in the world is this broken and messy church going to prove to the principalities and powers that God’s multi-colored wisdom is the way to save the world? We are going to do it through the power of the Holy Spirit, which is how Paul ends this chapter. The last seven verses are prayer that comes straight from a pastor’s heart, a gut-level word of encouragement and strength for a church longing but struggling to manifest God’s wisdom.
I want to invite you to sit back and listen to what comes next. We are going to do an extended meditative reflection on these verses. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Begin by picturing the principality or power that you most want to confront: racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, the criminal justice system. Acknowledge the frustration you feel and the weakness that you feel in trying to confront that principality on your own. And now picture the person in your church that you don’t see eye to eye with. THAT person is your partner in confronting the powers and principalities. And as I read this Scripture, every time I read the word “you” I want you to picture yourself and that person together. Feel the Holy Spirit filling you with whatever you need this morning. Open your hearts and your minds and receive this prayer from the end of Ephesians chapter 3.
For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, the Source, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. Because our calling is so big and because God is so generous, we approach God with boldness and confidence, asking for what we need.
I pray that from God’s glorious, unlimited resources he will give you mighty inner strength through the Holy Spirit. God has whatever you need this morning. God has everything that God’s church needs this morning. Unlimited resources. Not stingy. God is not holding out on us. And when we feel weak, we know that we are strong. God is giving us mighty inner strength, through the Holy Spirit, the divine One, the breath, the wind, that moves in us and through us. That wind is bringing us glorious unlimited resources straight from God.
And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust in him. As you open more of yourself up to Christ’s love, to God’s generosity, as you crack open those doors that you’re keeping closed, those corners of your heart, those hurts from the past; as you begin to relinquish those, in trust, Christ – the divine Christ, the resurrected Christ – will be more and more at home with you. You will recognize it.
May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love. Not just the roots from your individual plant, but all of our roots, going down deep, digging through the darkness, irresistibly drawn towards the resources that are there. Our roots are going down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love, God’s unconditional and unchanging love.
And may you and all God’s people have the power to understand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of Christ. Every direction, every dimension. As in the ancient prayer of St. Patrick: Christ above me, Christ below me, Christ beside me, Christ above me, Christ behind me, Christ within me and without. Everywhere. How wide, how long, how high, and how deep is the love of Christ.
And may you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it. May you know it, in your body, in your life, even though you will never fully know it with your head. You will never fully wrap your brain around how much Christ loves us. And yet you will experience it as you live.
And then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Nothing will be lacking. You will be filled. Everything will be provided. We will be filled. The church will not be intimidated. We will be filled. The church will not back down. We will be filled. The church will not live in scarcity. We will be filled. The church will not worry about budget. We will be filled. The church will not be separated. We will be filled.
And now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we could ask or imagine – by the power at work within us, God will do the work that God has purposed in the world. By the resurrection power at work within us all together, that is how God will accomplish God’s purpose. And not just scrape by, but accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. In us and through us, God will accomplish better things than we can even think to ask God for. God’s solution to our problems, God’s restoration, God’s redemption of these principalities and powers is better than we can even imagine. By that resurrection power that is working within us, God will accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
And to that God be glory in the church – in God’s messy, struggling, united, committed people. Glory in the church and glory in Jesus Christ – the manifestation of all that God is – throughout all generations – extending beyond us, responsibility not fully resting in our hands. We’re here to play our part in a long, long story. Glory throughout all generations forever and ever! – In the eon of the eons, as we rest, knowing that we are right where we were designed to be. And we trust.
God is good. We do not need to be afraid. The powers that are at work in the world will not be victorious. God will be victorious. God’s victory will come as we follow God’s plan, as an inclusive church, committed to demonstrating the multi-colored wisdom of God against the principalities and powers that survive on scarcity and division. God will be victorious, and we are called to be a part of that.