Sunday, October 12, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 5

Outside the Box
Ephesians 3:14-21
October 12, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Nannette Pashon and Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church,
Greetings from the churches of Ephesus!
We were a collection of congregations in Asia minor. This letter came to us from an early Christian teacher who wrote in Paul’s name, to instruct the church in how to live in unity with Christ and with one another. It was written for all churches, not just to address one single congregation with its particular issues. We’re glad we can share this letter with you, as it was meant to be shared.

The Epistle to the Ephesians speaks to the church’s need to understand itself as an expression of God’s love in Christ Jesus, built on the foundation of that love, supported by grace, and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. So we, along with you, were called to build up the body of Christ. As this body of Christ, brought from death into new life, we are to live as thankful people, imitators of Christ, faithful and generous. “Live as children of light,” the letter says. The closing chapter suggests that God’s people are to be dressed in “the full armor of God,” -- not for violent battle, but for “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

This epistle is filled with instruction and encouragement to help us live as the church, the body of Christ, gathered by Christ, and living in the light of Christ. And the promise is that we will see that God’s power at work within us can bring about more than we could ever ask or even imagine! Listen, as we did so very long ago, to this beautiful prayer for the church from Ephesians 3:14-21:

14 This is why I kneel before the Father. 15 Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him. 16 I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. 17 I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, 18 I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. 19 I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God. 20 Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; 21 glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

When someone starts praying for you, and you are present, it can leave you feeling a little bit self-conscious. That's exactly how I felt when you all prayed for me and our family during my dad's battle with cancer. Overhearing someone pray for you can also leave you feeling inspired. And I know that's true, that's also how I felt each and every time I heard you pray for me. Probably, that was the intention of this beautiful prayer for the church – to leave those who heard it feeling inspired.

The last few weeks, the letters we’ve been reading have been addressed primarily to Jewish people who had become Christian. This letter was more likely addressed to Gentile Christians, people who had never been Jewish, but were so compelled by the message of Jesus that they formed communities of faith to put his teaching into practice.

Perhaps they had observed some other kind of religious practice, but this was a whole new thing – a teacher who said to love your enemies, a teacher who described outcasts and sinners as God’s beloved. No longer did you need to figure out how to please some angry god; you only needed to turn your life over to this God who loved the world enough to come in human form, to live and teach among the common people, and to die and be raised again to life.

Of course, when you form a faith community, you tend to model it on something that already exists, on some kind of practice or group that has an established process. So these early Christians turned to the practices of the Jews, modeling their worship after them, and shaping their common life on the teachings of this Jewish Messiah who apparently had come not just for Jews but for every person in the world.

So they gathered, probably in someone’s home, and they sang Psalms, and they prayed, and they broke bread and shared the cup, remembering at table what Jesus had said, working out their lives as people of the way, and anticipating his return, as he had promised. But when you are doing something new, there’s always a danger that you’ll be tempted to throw out a lot of babies with a lot of bathwater. There is always the temptation to reject whatever is old and embrace whatever is the newest big thing. And there’s always the temptation to think that the future is up to you.

These early Gentile Christians, secure in their welcome to God’s household, got a little bit ahead of themselves, like arrogant teenagers who know better than their parents. They had rejected the strict observance of the law, and replaced it with a casual moral code that wasn’t exactly good for them or for this new thing called Christianity. Let’s just say that there was some theological eye-rolling going on.

They were trying to invent themselves, to create a community that celebrated and followed Christ, that worshiped one God and welcomed all people, a faithful community that would become the church. They needed to overhear a prayer that pointed their attention in the right direction – toward God, and away from self. And they needed to be reminded that the church wasn’t their invention, but the creation of God in Christ. Working through them, God could create something that was beyond anything they could even visualize – more than they could ever ask or imagine.

This prayer, so full of love and encouragement, was the basis for the rest of the letter. The rest of the letter sets them straight about the vocation of the church, the conduct of Christians in the church, in the family, and in relationships, and the centrality of Christ in all of those areas. Christ is at work in the life of the individual believer; Christ calls believers together to be the church, and through Christ’s church, the Holy Spirit is at work in the world. This prayer was like a loving hug that makes the rest of the lecture easier to hear.

It is easy to see why this letter to the church was copied, treasured, why it was read and re-read then and is still read and studied today. In every age, the church has faced times when it struggles to renew itself, when some Christians want to throw out the old and bring in the new, and others want only to keep everything the way it has always been.

In times of social upheaval, in periods of uncertainty, in cycles of economic downturn, this odd collection of humans called the church has always been challenged to hold realism in tension with faith, to hold itself together when forces seem to be tearing it apart, to balance respect for the past with the need to move forward to the future.

In this congregation’s history, not too far back, we faced a crisis when the mill closed, when the whole town seemed to be falling apart, when everything we had known was changing. That hit pretty close to home in my house. On the afternoon of May 18th 2001, Tim was at our nephew Brandon’s sectional track meet in Rock Island. I was playing in our backyard with the girls. The phone rang and when I answered, Tim's boss, Larry See, asked to speak with him. I told Larry where Tim was and wondered if there was a problem at work that he needed to speak to him about. Larry said no and I asked if I could take a message.

Larry paused and said nooo, at that point I jokingly said, “Unless you’re calling to tell him that the Mill is closing.” Sometimes my sense of humor is a little misplaced. Larry quietly said “Nan.....” and then I knew. I know it's hard to believe, but we didn't have cell phones back then. I spent the rest of the night waiting to tell my husband, the father of our three daughters, the main bread winner, that our lives were about to change. When he came home I met him at the door and told him we needed to talk.

You should have seen the look on his face. The last time I met him at the door saying those words, they were followed by the news of our unexpected third pregnancy.

After the initial shock, we set to the task of looking for a new job. We were lucky, in a few months Tim accepted a position at Raynor. Other Mill employees took a deep breath and decided what to do next. For some that meant newfound jobs, others went back to school and found new careers. The closing of Northwestern Steel & Wire was a blow to our community and many businesses in the area also suffered. Churches and civic organizations quickly realized they needed to help. They had to lift families up in prayer. And think outside of the box as they helped people find ways to support themselves and their families. As a result we adapted, community spirit kicked in, people pulled together, they worked hard and accepted every opportunity given to them.

Not so terribly long ago, we came together to vote on whether or not to leave this building, to try to build something new in hopes that we could turn things around. It hasn’t been all that long ago that we as a congregation had to face the reality of decline. We saw the finances dwindling; we saw the membership numbers falling; we saw the church members aging; we saw the building having problem after problem. We thought we might be coming to the end.

But God had other plans. Because God is a God of surprises. And even on our best days, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. This God who came to us in Christ Jesus, has been doing unexpected things from the very beginning. – walking with humanity in the cool of the day; calling inept and faulty people to affirm the covenant, putting unqualified people into leadership positions, choosing fickle and faithless tribes to build a new nation.

Of all the ways for God to pass along the message of unconditional love, why would humans, with all their arrogance and selfishness, be the way? Wouldn’t you think that a church made up of us would be the least effective? We humans are so inconsistent! We tend to be selfish, and vain, and undependable. But here we are, still at the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street. Who could’ve imagined that?

God is a God of surprises, and God continues to do more than we could ask or imagine. Who could have imagined that we, First Presbyterian Church, would have developed this way of worship that embraces styles and cultures, and welcomes all sorts of people, making space for new ideas alongside the old? Who could have imagined that this old building, which at one point more than half of us were ready to leave, would now be abuzz with people every day of the week? Certainly, none of us could have imagined that our congregation would be instrumental in beginning two new local ministries.

We had a story about ourselves, one that said we were stuck, and couldn’t go forward, because all the numbers were going down, down, down. But God had other ideas. God’s story for us is about being a place, right here on the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street, where people are welcomed, and workers are sent out. We are about to launch a community ministry providing food for children who are food insecure to take home from school on the weekends. We are about to begin the process of creating a safe space for respite care, a place where home caregivers can bring a loved one once a week, just for a day to get that much needed break – a haircut, a nap, a trip to the grocery store, a cup of coffee with friends.

And neither of these are Presbyterian programs, neither of these are efforts invented by us, for our satisfaction. They are God’s inventions, callings to us and to a wide cross-section of our community, calling Christians and non-believers alike, to do something that not one of us could have imagined alone.

A paraphrase of the Scripture in Ephesians three, the part that comes right before this prayer, sounds like it applies to us, right now, in this congregation: “Through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels! All this is proceeding along lines planned all along by God and then executed in Christ Jesus. When we trust in him, we're free to say whatever needs to be said, bold to go wherever we need to go.”

Because working through Christ’s church, God is doing new and amazing things, always moving us to live and act and think outside the box, to do more than we could ever ask or imagine.

To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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