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Sunday, February 24, 2019

“Worthy of the Calling…”

A sermon based upon Ephesians 4: 1-16
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany-C,  February 17th  2019 
(7-14) Sermon Series: Growing Up In Christ (Eph. 4:15)

One day a couple by the name of Herman and Mary were riding along in their shiny new car. Mary spoke up and said, "You know, Herman, if it weren't for my money, we probably wouldn't have this wonderful new car." And Herman just sat there and didn't say anything at all.

As they pulled into the driveway, Herman turned off the motor and they quietly admired their new home. Then Mary said, "You know, Herman, if it weren't for my money, we probably wouldn't have this new house." And again, Herman just sat there and didn't say anything.

They got out of the car and walked in just as the delivery man finished setting up their new furniture. You know, Herman, said Mary once more, "If it were not for my money, we probably wouldn't have this new carpet and all this new furniture." And once more, Herman didn't say a word.

It happened again as they sat down in their new den and propped their feet up and watched the big screen TV in their new entertainment center. "You know, Herman," said Mary, "if it were not for my money, we probably wouldn't have this huge entertainment center."

And with that, poor Herman had had enough. He turned to Mary and said, "I don't want to hurt your feelings, Honey, but you know if it weren't for your money, I probably wouldn't be here either!"

What is it that brings you here? Why did you choose to become a part of a church?  If you are not a member, what are you looking for in a church? What is the reason to go to church, or why should you become part of Christ’s body we call church?

Many want to follow Jesus and be a Christian, and perhaps even be part of a church, but have they-have we, considered blue-print; the original design by the designer?  In today’s message, we consider the basic ‘design’ and ‘operations’ of the Christian life, which includes living up to the ‘calling’ of being a part of Christ’s church.

The most important part of Christian living is not to think about what God is going to do for you, or even to just to think about what you can do for God.  It’ is to think about what it means to live with others who are in the community of faith, we call church. Paul writes in verse three: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…”

Notice again, the Christian life is not simply about you, what you want, what you get, or what God will do for you, but the Christian life is about how you will live in relationship with other people who share faith and life with you.  ‘Life Together’ is how one famous Christian named it.  To be a Christian means to be a part of a community of believers; to commit to that body, to be faithful to that body, and as Paul says here, to get along within that body too.  We get along with each other by making ‘every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” 

Maintaining unity is a core value of the Christian faith and life.  It is also the most important responsibility when you become a member of a Christian Church.  I love how the Moravians put it in their motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.”  In can’t be expressed in any better way that this.

Unity is so very important; it is an ‘essential’ itself, because this is who we are to become; caring, cooperative, and community-oriented persons.  Your Christian calling, before anything else like teaching, witnessing, helping, or serving; is to be a cooperative, supportive, and participating part of a body of believers.  Just like human body must work together in ‘unison’ to function and give life, the church body can’t function properly without believers working together, sharing life and making life possible for each other, so that God is revealed and glorified through our lives, to both insiders and outsiders.

Tom Lentz tells how his daughter and her husband lived next door to a difficult family in Columbus, Ohio.  There was a large lot separating their two houses, which belonged to the neighbor. Although the neighbor was quick to claim the property and run off our grandchildren any time they ventured onto this side lot, he was, nevertheless, lax in taking care of it. Branches and fruit fell off the trees where it lay on the ground and rotted. The grass was rarely cut.

Tom, the Father-in-law, asked his son-in-law why he didn't complain to the neighbor about this eyesore that affected the entire neighborhood. He shrugged and said, "I'll take care of it."

The next time the Father-in-law visited he noticed that the lot was clean and the grass neatly cut.  He asked his son-in-law if he had confronted the neighbor, and he said, "No, when they were away we made it a family project to clean up the lot."  The neighbor never offered any words of gratitude for this act of kindness, but that was not the motivation for the good deed.

Isn’t this what it means to respond to a higher calling and to make an effort of ‘unity?  Instead of reacting to a neighbor's insolence, creating what would have certainly been a defensive or reactive spirit of vengeance against the neighbor, widening the gulf between neighborly relations, the response of the son-in-law was in keeping with Paul’s exhortation: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:2-3).

However, this isn’t easy to do, is it?  This is not the kind of reaction or behavior that comes naturally.  We are not born patient. We scream when we want something and grab for things around us. We react and act out, instead of responding in love.  We are not normally inclined to be humble and gentle. We are more likely to argue and fight back than to "keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." Many people, never do reach this level of maturity, until very late in life; if then.

How can we move beyond our own self-centered, self-focused, response?  What it takes to ‘go above and beyond’ our natural reactions, according to Paul’s own words, is ‘grace’.  Paul understands that to ‘make a different response than the world around us, we must learn to react or respond to something greater than the hurt, the evil, and the normal state of things.  We must learn to ‘react’ to God’s grace

Grace is where Paul’s conversation ‘supernaturally’ gravitates in this text; and every text he writes.  “Grace and peace” is the greeting of all Paul’s letters.  Here, as Paul continues his discussion of ‘the higher calling’ of the Christian life and way, he explains how God calls us to ‘one hope…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:5-6 NIV).  It is out of this oneness of shared hope and common faith that ‘grace’ is given to ‘each one’ of us (v.7).  God’s grace is what we all share and continue to give to each other in God’s new community.  God’s grace is what enables us to live out a higher calling in life.

It is within this discussion of the calling of God’s grace that Paul one of the most powerful, out-of-this-world descriptions of what Jesus has already accomplished for us in his life, death and resurrection.  Quoting Psalm 69, Paul uses an ancient military picture symbolizing Jesus, ascending to the heavenly throne, ‘taking captives’ of the evil, spiritual, and oppressive powers, and then giving ‘gifts’ to God’s people’ (8-11).  The words ‘gifts’ and ‘grace’ are from the same word, charis.  Grace is a gift.  A gift is a form of grace.  Jesus wins a decisive battle against evil and showers God’s people with gifts of grace.

Now, to our comfortable, modern sensitivities this image might not mean much, but to an oppressed, suffering, and life-defeated people, this is picture and promise for a whole opportunity for life.  Instead of living in a reality that drains the life out of you, the gospel promises gifts, resources, and opportunities directly from God.  Through Jesus, God defeated the powers of this world his cross by overcoming evil with good.  So, now that Jesus rules the world, through our lives by faith, hope, and love, we too can receive these ‘gifts of grace’ that give us new promises and new opportunities to receive, share, and live our lives in a more fulfilling and positive way.  These ‘gifts’, which Paul names as ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are not only gifts for the church to receive, but they are gifts that can transform the meaning and purpose of our all our lives, and we all share in the ministries they lead.

So, hearing this, when was the last time you thought of having a teacher, a pastor, an evangelist, or a prophet as a gift?  I recall how year ago, when Revival time came each year to our church, families would invite the evangelist and the pastor into our homes, or we would invite them out to dinner, and we would celebrate the gifts God gives together.  We would treat them with high regard and respect, because of God had sent then into our midst to call, lead, and encourage us.  Because of the leadership they gave to us in the church, and in the community, those who led us, were highly valued, regarded and appreciated by us all.  They, our spiritual leaders, were ‘gifts’.

I like the story about Bernard Shaw. He was an agnostic, but carried on a correspondence for many years with a cloistered nun. It is one of the strangest relationships in history, probably, but also one of the most intriguing and beautiful.  There was Shaw, the intellectual, the playwright, a man of the world, a man of considerable wealth; and the nun, cloistered, who gave up all worldly possessions, to pursue a life of work and prayer.
In one of his letters to her, Shaw wrote, “The next time I’m in your neighborhood, I will peer through the bars of your cell to see the freedom on the other side.”  (Quoted by Mark Trotter, in a sermon entitled “Need Any Water?” preached at the First United Methodist Church, San Diego, CA, March 19, 1995).

Why did Shaw appreciate his friendship with this nun?  She was his teacher to help him know the true nature of freedom and of life.  Only her absolute dedication could teach him about the joyous freedom that comes by abandoning oneself and giving constant attention to the God who enables us to be who we are created to be.  To have such a ‘teacher’ is one of life’s greatest gifts.

What made teachers, pastors, evangelists, or other prophetic voices so dear to the church of Paul’s day was how they were the ones, who has Paul said, ‘equipped’ or ‘prepared’ the people for works of service, so they could grow and live out their faith by taking part in Jesus’ ministry in the world. 

Do you fully catch the inference here in Paul’s words?  Some translations don’t fully convey the proper reading because a comma is added between ‘for the equipping of the saints, for the work of the ministry’ (as the KJV), as if the leaders do all the ministry.   But the Greek has no comma, reading correctly that the gifted leaders, apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers ‘equip God’s people for works of ministry’.  Do you see the difference?  The teachers, pastors, evangelists, prophets, and apostles were considered ‘gifts’ of for the church because people, needed and wanted to become ‘prepared’ or ‘equipped’ for doing ‘works of ministry’ in the church and in the world.  Every church member and every Christian were to be equipped and prepared to serve in the ministry of Christ’s body, the church.  

In my own days of Christian ‘Formation’, those teachers who taught me faith, both in word and deed, still have a special place in my heart.  Although I marveled at some of their skills, they were gifts to me not because of their great skills of ministry (which some had, but others didn’t), but they were gifts to me, each of them, because they challenged and encouraged me, allowing me the space to grow in my own understanding of faith and in my desire to serve Christ in the world. This is how they became great gifts to me.  It was people who were the church, that have been God’s greatest gifts in my life.

Some of you may know Aesop’s fable about an old crow who was out in the wilderness and was very thirsty. He had not had anything to drink in a long time. He came to a jug that had a little water in the bottom of it. The old crow reached his beak into the jug to get some of that water, but his beak wouldn’t quite reach. So what did he do?  He started picking up pebbles one at a time and dropping them into the jug. What happened as those pebbles accumulated in the bottom of the jug? Why, of course. The water rose until finally the old crow was able to get a drink.

My friends, that is my understanding of the way God has chosen to work in this world. Each of us dropping in our own little pebble‑‑teaching that Sunday School class, making that visit, working on the finance committee and on the church board, making that special gift to missions, serving as an usher, etc. Each of us serving in his or her own special ministry. Doing that little task that may not seem so important at the time, but those pebbles are accumulating in the bottom of that jug, and the water is rising, and one of these days God is going to bring in His own Kingdom. That is God’s plan for the church and for every Christian who is called to become part of Christ’s body enter into some kind of ministry. Are you dropping in your pebble? Are you using your gift to the glory of God? Is your work for Christ a ‘gift’ to someone else?

In her bestselling book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott explained why she made her son, as a young person, go with her to church. She says, “The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith . . . They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful . . . Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food.” Then she says, “When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on.”

When the people of God make efforts of unity and peace because we have received God’s grace; when we respect our leaders as God’s ‘gifts’ to them, who are given to equip them as ‘doers of the word’ and ‘not just hearers only’; then, and only then, is the church is on the right track, moving forward in ministry, to become the ‘mature body’ (v. 15) of Christ, that attains ‘the fulness of Christ’ (13).  

This image of ‘the fulness of Christ’ is clearly described as a working body of many parts that is ‘joined and held together by every supporting ligament,’ which ‘grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’  (Eph. 4:16 NIV). 

A group of tourists were visiting a rather picturesque town on the outskirts of a well know city. As they walked by an old man sitting beside a fence. One of the tourists, in a rather patronizing way, asked, "Were any great men born in this village?"
To which the old man replied, "Nope, only babies." (Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), February 1993)

That wisecrack answer holds a lot of truth. There are no instant heroes, there is no instant status or fame, whether in this world or in the Kingdom of God. Growth takes time. Growth takes help.  Growth takes dedication and commitment to the process.

One reason people don’t mature as well today is because we live in the instant age. There is instant coffee, instant oatmeal, instant milk, instant soup, instant breakfasts and even instamatic cameras.  Modern people are impatient people, who can't and won't wait for desires to be met. People today demand instant gratification. So, at fast food restaurants we get fast food. And we complain if it takes five minutes instead of three.
We don't even have to wait in line at the bank anymore; those with the right card can go to an automatic teller machine and make deposits or withdrawals. Today's kitchen has to have a the indispensable microwave. Now, we don't even have to cook. Just pop it in the microwave and three to ten minutes later, dinner.  

But Paul’s words about growth, development, and the process of becoming mature Christians reminds us that ‘maturity’ in Christ does not happen in an instant, nor is it something we can do all alone.  

James Harnish, a Methodist minister, puts it this way, there is such thing as a ‘solo’ Christianity in the body of Christ.  In the church we have been given many gifts—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And we could expand this list to include:
·                     singers and secretaries and social workers
·                     builders and businessmen and bean counters
·                     doctors and dietitians and designers
·                     carpenters and carpet layers and contractors
·                     lawyers and lecturers and lovers of children
·                     athletes and actors and aerobics instructors,
And of course, there are so many more, but as we come together in the oneness of Christ, nurtured and discipled in Christ’s love, we reach Christ’s fullness and our maturity because we come ‘together’ with one clear purpose: "To equip the saints for the work of ministry, building up the Body of Christ in love."  But notice again, we do this ‘together’; in unity, because there is no such thing as a ‘solo’ Christian or a ‘solo’ ministry in Christ.

You are probably familiar with the amazing story of the migration of the monarch butterfly, a lovely little creature who blesses our gardens and forests in the summer. Every autumn, millions of monarchs from all over the eastern United States and Canada migrate thousands of miles to a small handful of sites in Mexico where they rest for the winter. Then in the spring, they begin their return trip to the north. The amazing thing is that no individual monarch ever makes the trip to Mexico and back.

A butterfly that leaves the Adirondack Mountains in New York will fly all the way to Mexico and spend the winter. In March, it begins the trip northward, but after laying eggs in the milkweed of Texas and Florida, it will die. Those butterflies will continue northward, laying eggs along the way until some of them, maybe three or four generations removed from the original ones who left, make it all the way back to mountains of New York. But when August comes, they will head south, aiming for the exact place their great grandparents visited, a place they have never been.

Sue Haplern says: "The monarchs always migrate in community and depend on each other. Although a single monarch may make it from New York to Mexico, it is the next generation who completes the journey."
Now here is the word for the church. She says: "No one completes the journey solo. It is only as a community that we discover the fullness of God's plan for us" ( From Homiletics, January 2002, page 13).

The old gospel songwriters and revival singers witnessed to it when they sang: When we all get to heaven,What a day of rejoicing that will be.

When we all see Jesus,We'll sing and shout the victory!  What the Butterfly and the Song attest, and this great text explains, is that we will not make this journey alone.  It's only in maturing community that we discover what God has in mind for us.  For there no greater ‘owner’s manual’ for what it takes to be a church than this: “Christ is the head and we are the body who makes God’s grace and love realized in this world as we each do our part to share and show God’s love together.  This is the kind of ‘life together’ in serving Jesus, each doing his and her part, that makes us ‘mature’ and makes Christ real, both in our lives and in this world.  This is how we ‘live a life worthy of the calling which we have received’ in Christ.  AMEN.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

"His Glorious Riches"

A sermon based upon Ephesians 3: 14-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany-C,  February 10,  2019 
(6-14) Sermon Series: Growing Up In Christ (Eph. 4:15)

Several years ago, after the terrible school shooting in Charlottesville, VA, Philip Yancey, the evangelical Christian writer, responded by writing a book to answer a question many young people were asking.  Many of them were not only wondering how something terrible like this could happen.  They were also wondering ‘how’ God could allow it.  In other words, if God allows such suffering in the world then “What good is God?”

Maybe you’ve wondered that too.  Maybe you’ve wondered, in this world where religion, church, and even Christian Faith seems to be losing to all our other interests and opportunities in life, What good is God?   We’ve all got better things to do, don’t we?  We’ve got other plans.  God is on the back burner for many.  God has become an option or a mere leisure activity, at most.  If something else is happening on Sunday, Wednesday, or any other time, God must take a back seat.  What good is God?

I don’t know how many of you have seen the classic move, “Chariots of Fire”.  It’s an older movie about the Olympic track star, Eric Liddell.  Eric was a winning, talented runner for the United Kingdom and he was also an Olympic hopeful of his day.  But when a Track event was planned on a Sunday, Eric refused to run.  He was not going to desecrate the Lord’s day.   It looked like it would finish Eric’s career.  Instead, it just made him faster, and an even greater mystery to others. 

But of course, Such devotion seen as unnecessary today.  God comes in second to all the other things people have on their plates.  If this is your mindset you might be wondering: Why in the world would someone as talented Eric Liddell miss a chance to win a race in order to prove his devotion to God? What was he thinking?  Why did he do it?  What was so ‘good’ in God that he would not miss worshiping God even on one single Sunday?

In chapter three of Ephesians, just before today’s text, the apostle Paul writes about his privilege to preach to the Gentiles ‘the unsearchable’ (KJV) or ‘boundless riches of Jesus Christ’ (3:8). Here, Paul opens up about the specifics of God’s goodness and the unlimited riches that come to us ‘only’ from God.  His words are a prayer that others might come to know what he knows about the goodness of God. 

The first good of God is the power that only come from God.  This, of course, is a different kind of power.  It’s the power that works in us from the inside out.  It’s the power of fortitude that gives strength for living our lives, each and every day.

Singer Demi Lovato needed this power to keep her from overdosing on drugs last summer.  She had depression, but she and needed more than treatment, managers, family and friends to keep her on the right track.  She needed an inner strength; a power from beyond herself to help her overcome her situation and her human weaknesses. 

Many people in our culture think they don’t need God.  They think they can hold life together on their own.  They are modern, advanced, educated, and they think God is a ‘crutch’ unnecessary for these days.  They think they know better,  and that they can manage both their life and their death without God.  Like the Greek fable of Prometheus who stuck his fit in defiance toward the gods, most today live, choose, and determine their own life without giving in to any serious thought of God.  Why should they?  We have medicine, treatments, therapies and therapists, so what good is God?   

But even though we live physical lives, and have many modern technological advances, we also know that humans can become captive to those technologies.  We not only need a the power of self-control to manage these advances, but we need the moral, emotional and mental strength to keep from destroying each other, or our own selves, with these new-found powers.   What we learn from the ‘dangers’, as well as, the ‘advantages’ of human ingenuity is that life not only has a physical reality, it also has an mostly unseen emotional and a spiritual basis in all that we do.  Negotiating the realities and powers of life and death, require much more than our physical strength.  And even our emotions are linked to more than what we simply think or feel in any given moment.

Do you recall the fable of the mouse and elephant?  The elephant had fear of the little mouse, even though he could crush it.  In the same way, a big, powerful circus elephant can break the chains that hold the, but because they have been chained since birth, they don’t realize they have that power.  Those Elephants are victims, not of physical limits  but they become captive by their own short-sightedness.   In others words, they simply don’t know their own strength because their minds and habits hold them back. 

In the same way people can be chained, addicted, and overcome, even by small things they should be able to master.  People can be overpowered by habits, attitudes, feelings, and desires they and we should easily master, but we can’t.  We are not mere logical beings like Spock on Star Trek, but we have weaknesses, flaws, and hang ups that we can’t easily overcome in our own strength.  Even the smartest people can do the most stupid things.  Even the most trained, capable persons can fail in what they are able to do.

Eric Liddell understood, whether he knew it at the time or not, that the key to winning was not just physical strength alone.  He understood that winning demands as much psychological, emotional, even spiritual strength,  as it does physical talent, training and ability.  When the best athletes are competing against each other, they are all well trained, capable, and able to win, so most often the key to victory is something intangible, but real.  It is often the mental, emotional, psychological or spiritual edge that pushes them across the line first.

While the unseen mental, psychological and even spiritual resources that are part of our human reality don’t prove the value of having faith in God, they can point to it.  The  apostle Paul understood that faith in God is not a given in life, but it is a gift for life that flows from the God who not only created life, but still works to sustain life.  God sustains our human lives with the spiritual power and strength that gives us courage, fortitude, and self control to withstand the destructive forces are also real, even in the best things we humans can accomplish.  Even in a world, where people think they have no need of God, we still do. 

As I wrote this, news headlines reported on concern over whether a computer programmer had the write to sell computer software and hardware which would enable someone to make an assault weapon using a printer from files sent over the internet.  This would allow anyone, including criminals to make their own guns, which would not be registered or traceable by authorities.  Interested, even the NRA was not getting involved in this, because it would cut into the profits of regular gun makers.  What we can all understand, is that the lines between the freedom for self-preservation, and the freedom that gives Americans ‘enough rope to hang ourselves, or enough guns to shoot ourselves, is a very fine line.  What gives us the strength and ability to walk this line, is not only common sense, but it’s also moral sense and strength. 

God must be our moral and emotional strength because God is the source of life and only God’s promises gives us the reason, will and courage to live good, moral, worthwhile lives.  Why is this?  This brings us to another of the riches of God’s goodness.

This power for living a life that is good and worth living comes to us by our faith through Jesus Christ.  That’s how Paul described it.  According to Paul the apostle of God’s goodness given in Jesus Christ, the key to understanding the greatest secrets of life, for life, are not ‘out there’ in some Martian discovery of a salty lake, nor is it in some future human discovery or fascinating invention, but the key to life’s power is a discovery that has and will remain a discovery that can only be found within our own hearts in our own living soul. 
When Paul prays for ‘Christ to dwell in your hearts by faith’, he’s not merely talking about believing in Jesus, but Paul means making Jesus your Lord and Savior each and every day of life. Paul’s not referring to having a mere religious experience, or joining a church, or simply growing in our understanding of life or faith, but Paul means making Jesus the guiding focus of your life by reorienting everything in your life; your dreams, your hopes, and all that you desire and do, around God’s reconciling and redeeming purposes of faith, hope and love. 

This is not a life-changing and life-challenging power that comes to you because you have the best ideas, made all the right moves, or have always made all the right choices, but this is a power that comes from within your heart, as a gift, when you open yourself fully to God’s heart, so that you invite the sprint of ‘Christ to dwell within you’.  God’s spiritual power becomes your own emotional power, when you align your heart with the promise and power of the resurrected Christ.

Now I know there are many interpretations, as well as, misinterpretations of what this means.  Just like there are multiple religions and denominations with religion, there are multiple angles and paths for what it might mean for Christ to ‘dwell’ with your heart.  What I definitely don’t mean, is that Jesus dwells in us like a genie to give us all our hearts desire.  Remember that famous TV show, “I Dream of Jeannie”.   We all know it would be both dangerous and detrimental to our human existence to have that kind of access to power or promise.   Having ‘access’ to God’s throne, as is visualized in the gospel, does not mean getting what we want.    

No, allowing Jesus to dwell in our hearts means that our hearts are fixed and focused upon God’s heart as it has been revealed as the unfailing love that is on display through Christ’s life, death and resurrection.   God reveals his heart for us through His son, so that we can have our hearts challenged, changed, and also comforted, by God’s loving presence and promise.  

A good biblical example of how Christ loves dwells in our hearts to challenge, changes and to comfort our hearts is the story of Saul, who became Paul.  Paul came to speak of Christ ‘dwelling’ In him, because the living Spirit of Jesus came to him to challenge and changed him from being a murdering, religious zealot into a becoming a compassionate servant of Christ who gave his his life to serve and bring hope to others. 

Because of what Jesus did in his own heart, Paul came to realize that know that the greatest resources in this world, not not written down in books or laws, but are what happens within the human heart that moves us to live like Christ, in the spirit of love and grace.  Whatever you fix your heart upon, is who you become, Paul realized.  If you only focus on rules and laws, your faith becomes rigid and legalistic.  When you focus on the Spirit of Jesus, since Jesus has the greatest heart of love, when his love love fills our hearts and rules our lives, we gain the power to live and to love in a way that follows and patterns our lives after God’s love in Jesus Christ. 

Of course, we all know that we become what, or who, we set our hearts and minds on becoming, don’t we?  The greatest power in our human possession is the power of choice; the ability to choose.  “What do want to become, when you grow up?” Our first answers, as children, are already people we admire: a fireman, a doctor, or a nurse?  Then later, we discover other desires and dreams.  New realities set in and we make choices about who and what matters, all over again.  Then we go to college, get a job, or start a career.  As we make these choices, not only do we make our dreams a reality, but the dreams and realities also make us into who we become.      

But where does God fit into all this?   Where does Christ dwell in our hearts as we go after our heart’s desire?  Do so many people lack faith these days because people take so little time for matters of the heart?   Perhaps more and more people think God doesn’t matter, not because God is lacking, but because their own faith is lacking.  If you have too little time to cultivate your faith, do. We think that faith grows all on it’s own?  While having faith is a gift from God, we do have to open the package, and we do have to learn how to use the gift.
Isn’t it interesting that Paul says Christ dwells in our hearts by faith?  Faith is a power, a resource for living, which God gives to us as we continually put our trust in Christ in the ups and downs of life.  Notice that Paul does not say that faith brings power, but he says rather, that power and strength opens our hearts allow Jesus Christ to dwell in us by faith.  Why does Paul put it like this; saying strength brings faith, and not the other way around?

I think Paul says it like this, because the reason for God’s goodness is not just because of God’s love for us, but God’s goodness is because of God’s love for all.  God’s goodness is not just because of his love, but it is because his love can change us into being love.  This is why God’s goodness is love, not just to prove his love for us, but to ‘root’ and ‘establish’ his love in us, so that love will grow in, through, and around us.

 The whole point of Jesus ministry was to move ancient Israel out of its preoccupation with politics and national identity, and to move Israel on to the spiritual and relation ministry it needed to have to become the kind of people who could rule the world with Christ.  This was not by becoming a stronger Israel, but this was by becoming a better, more caring, and more compassionate people. 

Unfortunately, ancient Israel did not chose the caring and compassionate way of Christ, but took on the power structures of this world, trying to defeat them ‘at their own game’. Not long, after crucifying Jesus,  Jewish zealots took on Roman power their own way, choosing to fight ‘sword up against sword’ and the disaster of disasters--- the end of ancient Israel, which sent Jews into a diaspora for 2,000 years.  Still today, people still misunderstand that the kind of ‘strength’ that gives peace, must be more than mere physical or military strength.  The greatest people’s and greatest nations reveal their greatness in the strength to love, to care, and to live by the highest ethics capable within the human heart.  This is the way Jesus came to root and establish love in our hearts.  It was, and still is, this kind of caring and compassionate love that can bring hope, redemption, and salvation into our world. 

Do you recall that black American Episcopal bishop, Rev. Michael Curry shaking up the British royals a bit, when he preach at the royal wedding and quoted Martin Luther King’s own words about ‘the power of love?’  His quote was from Dr. King’s own book, entitled, ‘Strength to Love‘ which said: "We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make out of this old world a new world, for love is the only way."

ABLE TO DO…MORE (v. 20).
Love is the way, Paul says, that we can have ‘power’ together with ‘the Lord’s holy people’ (v. 18) so that we can know how ‘wide, long, high, and deep is the love of Christ’.  Isn’t that a great statement?  The riches of Christ, the good of God is the that we can forever learn the way of love, through the way of Jesus Christ, with each other.  This is a good of ‘love that surpasses knowledge’, Paul goes on to say (v. 19).  It is a ‘love’ that ‘fills us with the fullness of God’.”  

Now, with a statement like that, you would think that Paul has said everything that is ‘good’ about God, or ‘good’ from God, but her is where the good keeps on going and giving.  Paul ends his prayer with the limitless possibilities of goodness in God when he concludes his prayer with a blessing that never ends: ‘Now, unto him who is able to do unmeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work in us”(v.20).  

When I read this great text again recently,  I couldn’t help but hear the Geico Insurance commercial in my head: “More!” It started with the commercial in the Gym, with the guy saying ‘more’ as his muscles grew bigger and bigger every time he pressed the dumbbell.   Then, next they came with the cowboy belt-buckle ‘more’, with the already big cowboy ‘buckle’ getting larger and larger with each ‘more’. 

Perhaps that a good way to end this message, ‘more’.  What good is God?  “More!”  The more we allow God to work through us, the more God 

“The Mystery of Christ”

A sermon based upon Ephesians 3: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth  Sunday After Epiphany-C,  February 3rd,  2019 
(5-14) Sermon Series: Growing Up In Christ (Eph. 4:15)

During the 1950’s and early 60’s, when TV was in its infancy, game shows were more relational than competitive; and much less technical too.  Three of those early shows were What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret.  

I’ve Got A Secret had a Panel of celebrities competing with each other to guess the amazing, humorous, or interesting ‘secret’ of a contestant.  It wasn’t so much the contestants who were competing, but it was the celebrities competing with each other and the contestant trying to keepu their secret as long as they could.  

In today’s text from Ephesians, Paul has a secret, not to keep or to hide, but to tell.  It is a secret most translations call a ‘mystery’.  It is not a mystery like in a movie or a novel, but it’s a mystery that has just come out in the open and needs to be made known.  This mystery is the mystery of Jesus Christ.  It’s a mystery that has been made known, but can still be just as mysterious as the mystery of love.

But the first question arising from this idea of spiritual mystery is why.   Why was Jesus a mystery in the first place?  Why does Paul call Jesus Christ a mystery when most everybody there and now here too, already knows who Jesus was?  

Besides, is it even favorable to have a faith that is mysterious?  Religion, like life can be dangerous and unsettling, so who wants more mystery?  When we are young we like mysteries and riddles, but when we get older what you need is facts.  You want Christ more as a solid rock, not a misty, risky, spiritual mystery.

Catholics call the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper part of the Paschal Mystery, but our baptist spiritual forefathers didn’t have room for such mysteries, so they threw that idea out.  I guess their lives were mysterious enough, so they preferred a Jesus with all the mystery solved, not left unresolved.

So why would Paul still call Christ a mystery?   Well for one thing, Paul says this mystery was: Not made known to other generations (5).  This doesn’t mean God was keeping secrets from us, but it means the past generations weren’t ready.  What we know about the biblical Jesus is that the world needed a love like Jesus had, but it still wasn’t ready to receive him, nor accept or learn about God’s love through him.  The world wasn’t ready for Jesus, and still isn’t that ready, but God was ready, and so were those who needed to know God’s love.

This is why Jesus was not born until ‘the fulness of time’ (Gal. 4:4).  The gospel is good news because we can understand it and realize we need it.  Even though the world rejected Jesus, he came in the world when humans were then at least capable of understanding what God’s love meant and what Jesus taught.  Jesus came at the right time or ‘in due time’ (Rom 5:6) when people knew how to make a choice either to accept or reject God’s love.

This story of Jesus is a story of salvation, not just a story about an event.  It is a story of what human power and self-righteous did to Jesus as much as it is a story of what God did for us in Jesus.  When we understand what happened to Jesus, we see clearly who we are, who we aren’t, and who we can become, both good and bad. So the story of Jesus is not only about what we need, it is also a story of what we don’t want.  The story of Jesus is a story that confronts us not only with our need, but also with our choice.

So, when Paul says the mystery was ‘for ages past kept hidden in God (9) this was not due to God’s reluctance to reveal, but due to lack of human understanding, to sin, to ignorance, and also to human arrogance.  But, besides this, there is another reason the truth of Christ’s love was, and still is, a mystery.  It is not just that the mystery of God’s love waited on us to be capable of understanding and choosing it, but the mystery of God’s love is a mystery that always belongs to God’s and is never ours alone.

God keeps hold of the mystery of his great love, even when he is revealing, sharing and showing to us.  This is important to know, because there will always be a mystery to God because God has to remain mysterious to remain God in our hearts and minds.  The day you can know everything there is to know about God; what God thinks, what God does, or who God is, is the day you can always start to claim to know everything God knows, and you can pretend to be God yourself.  Some people think they are, but that’s because they have no room for mystery in their own lives.  

The mystery of God’s love remain a mystery, just like love itself is a mystery, so that love can remain love, and not be corrupted by human manipulation.  Think about it this way: while history can be seen as a story of growth, development, and progress, it can also be understood as a story of  resistance, rebellion, failure, sin, rise and fall.  This is why the ancients understood Eden as ‘the way we were’, as much as, the way we still are. Perhaps, over the years, as much ‘good’ has been lost due to human rebellion and sin, as has been discovered by human ingenuity and brilliance.  When we humans get a hold of something good, like medicine, technology, and power; we can do some very wicked and destructive things with them, can’t we?

So, with our human capacity to corrupt what is good and right, is it any wonder that the gospel took so long to come into the world?  The ‘mystery’ of God’s love remained hidden in God so that God could reveal it on God’s terms and the message could remain God’s message of love and could not be so easily misunderstood as a message of our own human making.  This is why the mystery comes by ‘revelation’ as a ‘gift of grace, through faith’ rather than through human effort or expertise.  The truth of Jesus remains a mystery because it is God’s mystery; a mystery that even when it is revealed to us, must still remain beyond our human grasp so it is not stained with human corruption and sin.

Think about it this way.  Do you recall those TV shows about ‘Prehistoric People’ back in the early 70’s on TV  (It’s about Time, starring Imogene Coca)?  I can’t remember all the shows, but I do recall the images of prehistoric people having to deal with some the same problems we moderns are still dealing with.  Some of those shows were hilarious and just good fun to watch.  Those shows depicted the truth that people are people, no matter what time period we live in.  No matter how many problems modern conveniences or technology solves for us, the basic human problem is always with us.  This is why the ‘mystery’ that God reveals has been, is, and in some ways will always remain, ‘hidden’ with God.

The mystery Paul means here, is the specific mystery of the Messiah; the mystery of Christ (v.4).  Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah is the mystery of all the ages; or as the movie once claimed; the greatest story ever told.  What kind of mystery is this?

In the ancient biblical story which tells us of the ancient Hebrews, Israel wanted a king like other nations.  Samuel, the last judge of Israel was against it, and so was God, but Israel got their King anyway. 

As was anticipated, this did not work out so well, but then David came along.  David wasn’t a perfect person either, but he was loved, both by people and favored by God, who named David, ‘a man after his own heart’.  Because David, even as a King, had a heart for God, God promised that his kingdom would last forever.  This turned out to be problematic because the kingdom of Israel split in two and the nation was completely destroyed by the Babylonians who carried the people off into exile.   

When the Jews were finally released after 70 years, it was wrongly believed that their rescuer was the messiah.  This proved to be a mistaken hope, so the Jews began to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and their nation Israel.  But then came the Greek and Roman powers to came to both threaten and to rule over them, but instead of extinguishing hope, this only multiplied it, so that renewed expectations of a David-style ruler arose again and again, especially among the poor and oppressed.

Jewish excitement escalated when Jesus of Nazareth began his healing ministry, but it did not end with Jesus sitting on a throne, but hanging on a cross.  After Jesus’ crucifixion and death, three days later about 500 people claimed to have seen Jesus alive again, risen from the dead, and then soon thereafter, he ascended into heaven to rule at God’s right hand, awaiting a day when Jesus will come again and rule on David’s throne, on earth, once and for always.

When you think about this story, especially with our modern filters; it sounds not only incredible, but remains greatly mysterious.  Jesus is King, Jesus rules; but not on earth.  Now he rules from Heaven, awaiting the time when he returns to be realized as God’s eternal ruler on earth, as it is in heaven.  Surely, we can understand; perhaps now, more than ever, with the world as dangerous as it is, why we need an eternal Lord, ruler, and King like Jesus; but at the same time when he will rule and how he will rule, is as mysterious to us as ever.  Jesus’ rule is already and forever, but it is still not quite yet.

But this is not just a ‘mystery’ we live with, but this is the ‘mystery of Christ’ the people of God called the church, have always lived with.  The Christian faith, trust, and belief in Jesus begins in mystery.  We can clearly see this at the end of Luke’s gospel, when two disciples are walking along the Emmaus Road, trying to figure out all the things that had just happened in Jerusalem. 

While they were walking and talking, a stranger (who is Jesus incognito) joins them, but they are unable to recognize him.   When this stranger asks them about ‘the things that had just happened’ they give him a report about Jesus death and how they are so disappointed, because ‘they hoped He was going to be the one to redeem Israel’.  Then they also tell this stranger about the strange, mysterious reports of the body going missing, and how the tomb was empty.’ 

After hearing their story, which is the gospel story,  Jesus calls them ‘foolish’ for not believing or understanding how the prophets had predicted all this.  He leaves them with this great question of mystery: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”

What is important for us to understand is that the great ‘mystery of Christ’ was, at least here, not the ‘resurrection’, but it was the necessity of the Messiah to suffer before being glorified.  Here, the great mystery is the cross.  Why did Jesus have to die?  How does his death save us?  Can you solve this mystery? You might come to believe it, but I don’t think you’ll ever solve it?

Just recently, I was at a pastor’s meeting in Wilkesboro, talking to one of the pastors who is in a Peer-Learning Group with me.  We were talking about some deep questions of life and faith, and this retired pastor said to me:  “I’ve believe that God saves me through Jesus’ death on the cross, but even now, after all these years, I still can’t explain how he saves me and why God saves us this way.  But I still believe it anyway.  I believe it because I can’t explain it, but I can know it’s true deep in my heart.

This is exactly what Paul means when he says the ‘mystery of Christ’ ‘has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets IN THE SPIRIT’’  (Eph. 3:5 NAS).   Did you catch Paul’s phrase ‘revealed…by the Spirit’?  This is exactly what happens, not only through the apostles and prophets, but this is also what happened to those two disciples on the way to Emmaus, and it’s what mysteriously can still happen to us.  After encountering the suffering Messiah, the text says, that ‘their hearts were warmed’ (Luke 24:34). 

We don’t know everything about this ‘mystery’ of Jesus, but we can still experience it.  When we suffer with Christ and realize how Christ suffered for and with us, this mystery can be known ‘by the Spirit’ in our own ‘hearts’.  This is the only way the mystery of Jesus can be solved; not by fully understanding it, but by living it and by feeling what Jesus felt, feeling what those first disciples felt, and feeling what God feels not just in his love for the world, but also in God’s love for us.

For Paul this ‘mystery’ was at the heart preaching about Jesus.  It was a love so great that it was not just God’s love being poured out for Jews in their suffering Messiah, but it was also God’s love being poured out for “Gentiles’ to become ‘heirs’; that is ‘sharers’ and ‘partakers together ‘with Israel’ in the ‘promise in Jesus Christ’ (6).  

I find it interesting that the mystery that Paul is preaching is  ‘the promise in Jesus Christ’, not just ‘the promise of Jesus Christ’.  The promise of Jesus is that we have the promise of eternal life, but the promise ‘in Jesus’ is that all people anywhere, everywhere by coming together in God’s love, share in this ‘promise’ that is revealed not just in how Jesus died, but also how Jesus lived. 

What Paul says here became the ‘heartbeat’ of his mission, to take the gospel to the Gentiles, that is to the world beyond Jerusalem---to bring Jews and non-Jews into a family of faith together rather than remaining apart.  Interestingly, when Paul wrote this, he was NOT talking about bringing Gentiles into the Church, but he was talking about bringing Gentiles into the JEWISH FAITH, which was fast becoming a CHURCH made for now being open for Gentiles who believe in Jesus.  It’s amazing to think, but the church was originally Jewish, not Gentile.  As Paul says elsewhere, it’s we Gentiles who have been grafted into the main branch to become part of God’s family (See Romans 11).  Jesus is how we become Jewish, to be a recipient of God’s promise, without having become a Jew.  

We are also told that this new ‘family’ of faith, both Jew and Gentile also have a job to do; to make ‘the wisdom of God …. known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, (Eph. 3:10 NIV). When people come together around the mystery of God’s suffering love, they have a new kind of political wisdom and power.  It is with this new power of political ‘togetherness’ that they receive a ‘wisdom’ (God’s wisdom) that can influence the ‘rulers and authorities’ of the world for good and for God’s glory. 

Isn’t that was what was missing in the ancient world; ‘people power’.  There was power in the old world, but it was, for the most part’, a power that left most people out.  But, here, revealed in God’s suffering love, is a mysterious power that joins with the suffering Jesus to ‘speak truth to power’ so that, the wisdom of God’s love can bring hope, change, and goodness into the world.  Can you imagine what would happen in our world, if people ‘spoke to power’ with the right kind of power?

Len Sweet tells how once in his church Bibles were being passed out to the kids on “Bible Sunday. During the distribution one long-standing member went up to a little girl and said, “My goodness, what is that you have in your hand?”
She said proudly, “A Bible.”
He said, “Can I look at it?”
“Okay, but don’t open it.”
“Why can’t I open it,” he asked.
“Because if you open it you’ll let God out.”

Isn’t this what we want to have happen in our world.  We want to ‘open’ the book and ‘let God out’.  But this doesn’t happen by simply opening, or even reading the book, but it happens when we ‘live’ the book, in a way that the world in all its wrong ways of power, comes to consider and even be confronted with the ‘all-powerful’ truth of God whose power of love and grace is the only ‘power’ that can rightly rule in this world.

But the question remains, how can we preach, proclaim, and reveal to the world this secret and mystery of love in Jesus Christ?  How do we get the world to become hungry for the truth we have to share?  Take a lesson, not only from this little girl, but also from a little boy. 

Listen: Two experienced fishermen went ice-fishing. They chopped holes in the ice, put worms on their hooks, dropped their lines into the water and, three hours later, they had caught nothing. Then a boy came along with his fishing gear. He cut a hole in the ice, put a worm on his hook, dropped his line into the water and, immediately, he caught a fish. He repeated the process over-and-over again until soon he had captured a dozen fish.

The two fishermen watching were flabbergasted. Finally, one of them approached the lad and said, “Young man, we’ve been here now for more than three hours and haven’t caught a single fish. You’ve caught at least a dozen in just a few minutes. What’s your secret?” The boy mumbled an answer but the man didn’t catch a word of it. Then he noticed a large bulge under the boy’s left cheek.
“Take the bubble gum out of your mouth so I can understand what you’re saying,” the man demanded.
Whereupon the boy cupped his hands and spat it out. “It’s not bubble gum,” he said. “It’s my secret. You’ve got to keep the worms warm.”

Folks if we want to be able to share the mystery of Christ, the ‘secret’ is that we have to ‘keep the worms warm’.  The ‘mystery must be alive in us, just like the ‘worms’ were ‘alive’ in him. 

While we will never fathom just ‘how’ much ‘goodness’ ‘wisdom’ and even ‘power’ has been revealed in Jesus’ suffering love, God’s love can be released and revealed in us.  God’s love is not just a mystery and wisdom that can save the world; but it is also the most the most personal ‘wisdom’ everyone needs to know.  It is a ‘wisdom’ that that comes to us all by God’s ‘grace’ revealed in Jesus Christ.

That’s an amazing thought, that God’s ‘grace’ which was revealed  especially to Paul is also ‘for us’ (v. 2).  God grace is big enough to be made plain to ‘everyone’ (v. 8), but it is also a personal enough that it can be discovered by him, and it can also be discovered by ‘you’ because Jesus Christ has made God’s love accessible by all.

There was a soldier in the Union Army, a youngest son who had lost his older brother and his father in the war. He went to Washington, D. C. to see President Lincoln to ask for an exemption from military service so he could go back and help his sister and mother with the spring planting on the farm.

When he arrived in Washington, after having received a furlough from the military to go and plead his case, he went to the White House, approached the doors and asked to see the President. He was told, "You can't see the President: Don't you know there's a war on? The President's a very busy man. Now go away! Get back out there and fight the Rebs like you're supposed to."

So, he left. He was very disheartened, and was sitting on a little park bench not far from the White House when a little boy came up to him. The boy said, "Soldier, you look unhappy. What's wrong?"  The soldier looked at this young boy and began to spill his heart about his situation, about his father having died in the war and his older brother having died in the war, and how he was the only man left in the family and was needed desperately back at the farm for the spring planting.

So the little boy took the soldier by the hand and led him around to the back of the White House. They went through the back door, past the guards, went past all the generals and the high ranking government officials and they all stood at attention as this little boy took this private through the rooms of the White House. The private didn't understand.

Finally, they got to the Oval office itself and the little boy didn't knock on the door, he just opened it and walked in, and there was President Lincoln with his Secretary of State, looking over battle plans on his desk. President Lincoln looked up and said, "What can I do for you, Todd?"  And Todd said, "Daddy, this soldier needs to talk to you." And right then and there, the soldier had a chance to plead his case to President Lincoln, and he was exempted from military service due to the hardship he was under  (As told in: From the Pulpit by Billy D. Strayhorn).

While is one thing to talk about the mystery, wisdom, and suffering love of God in grand terms of the gospel; or even to preach or share this message of God’s amazing grace, it is another thing to ‘experience’ this ‘grace’ for one’s self, and in one’s own life.  But this is exactly what Jesus has done.  Like the story of Todd Lincoln taking that solider to the President, Jesus has made God’s love available to us all.  As Paul writes, In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. (Eph. 3:12 NIV). 

How can Paul say this? Paul is able to preach and proclaim this ‘mystery’ because the mystery of God’s love and grace had been “made known to me’  (v.2), he writes.  And isn’t this what makes this ‘mystery of Christ’ even more mysterious; that Jesus doesn’t just remain a story in history, but Jesus can still become a story of God’s love being received and being lived in us, through us, and for us, here and now, in our own lives?

In the early 1500s, Nicholas Copernicus was a Polish astronomer who put forth a radical theory that rocked both the scientific and theological worlds. He said that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe. The earth was just one of many small planets circling a larger heavenly body. Everyone gasped. The implications were enormous. Suddenly, we were not the center of the universe. Suddenly, the sun and moon didn't rise and fall on me. Suddenly I was so very insignificant.

The church fought him on theological reasons. "We are the pinnacle of creation, designed in the image of God. How dare you," the priests said. Science fought him on empirical reasons. "We are the top of the food chain and called to have dominion." But Copernicus held his ground and literally put us in our place, causing not only a stir but a revolution.

What we need today is another kind of "Copernican shift" of the heart.  It’s a not a shift saying that life is ‘all about you’.  That’s a misunderstanding of what life is about and what the gospel is about.  The right way to take this message of grace and love is to God is for you, and God is for me, just like God is for the lost and least of this world. 

And the only way to keep our focus keep our focus on the God who loves me, us and us all, is to keep our focus on Jesus.   Paul put it this way in Colossians, "Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17).  Only when you keep your ‘focus’ and ‘center’ in him, can you keep your focus on this love that makes the ‘world’ keep going round.  Amen.