Monday, October 27, 2014

The Highest Calling - Living the Prayer

Preached on Sunday, October 26, 2014

Scripture Readings: Matthew 8:5-13; Ephesians 3:7-21

Crab Creek Wildlife Area: October 2014
A mother was listening as her little girl was telling her even littler brother about Sunday. “I can hardly wait to go to church tomorrow.”
The mother perked up at this at smiled and, then, not so much. The little girl followed up with her reason. “They’re having a potluck after.”
I’m sorry we don’t have a potluck supper today. But there is a feast laid out for us today. It’s the same feast as yesterday, and tomorrow, and forever. It’s a feast that never spoils or gets old. It’s a feast laid out for everyone, for all time and eternity.
It’s the feast of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is not about borders, and governments, and crowns. The kingdom is about God being in charge. The kingdom means the place where everyone is the person God created them to be. It’s where everyone functions according to specifications, as Commander Data, in “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” might say. The kingdom is where we are able to give and receive just as God created us to give and receive.
Paul writes about his calling to preach to the Gentiles. The Gentiles means everybody, and preaching means making sure that everybody gets the news right. It’s the news of the kingdom of God.
What Paul calls “the mystery” is the solution to the puzzle of the world as we know it. Paul says that the solution to the world as we know it is that the love of God, working in Jesus, has broken down the wall between outsiders and insiders. Everyone is invited to be an insider in the kingdom of God. We can’t find anyone in this world who isn’t invited to this feast: to this kingdom.
Earlier in the third chapter of his letter to the Christians in the city of Ephesus, Paul writes: “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 3:6) Eugene Peterson translates the same verse this way: “The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.”
This is the feast. This is what Paul calls God’s “glorious riches.” We are welcome. We don’t know anyone who is a real outsider. We only know people who are invited to God’s love and strength.
We live in a horrible world where we want the horror to end. We live in a world that conspires against the truth and against those who stand for the truth. The whole the world is against us.
In spite of this, Paul told his friends that they couldn’t imagine or ask for a greater and more positive ability to face the world, as it is, than the ability that comes from the power of God’s love.
For the Christians in Ephesus, their leader, Paul, was in prison and his life was at stake. More than that: their own lives were at stake. It was normal for Christians to know that they were in danger all the time and that the whole world was against them. They were a tiny, tiny group that no one understood. Everyone seemed to delight in misunderstanding them, and misinterpreting them, and judging them accordingly.
Even worse than that, what stood against them was more than human. The rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms stood against them. We have just read this, and it is part of the ancient way of describing the universe. It is also a truth about the universe that we can translate into our own thought.
The universe is not just what we can see, and touch, and measure. There is an invisible reality that God has created and rules just as much as he rules this earth. Just as God rules (or overrules) this visible world and works against the evil around us (and the cross and the resurrection are the highest examples of God’s power at work in our history), there is a sort of sub-heaven that stands behind the evils of this world and the way the world so often works.
It a spiritual reality, but it is not the center of the heavens, where we meet the presence of God. There is a heavenly space between heaven and earth where angels and devils go on their appointed missions and fight each other and influence the human world, including us. Paul and his friends would know that there was an invisible evil behind the powers of this world, and that this invisible evil was determined to use the visible powers of this world to destroy them.
The truth is that you shouldn’t want to know too much about that war-torn invisible part of the universe. Paul tells you to look somewhere else. Paul tells you to look beyond what you fear, to look beyond what you suspect, and to look to Jesus. Look at the feast. Look at the treasure. Look at the love and the power of that love.
The Christians of that first generation looked at their friend and advisor, Paul, in prison, and they were afraid and depressed. How could they go on without Paul, and how could they survive in such a world?
The plain fact is that we can ask the same questions; and, for us Paul has the same answer. God “is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
The truth was worse off in Paul’s day than it is in our day. The church was worse off in Paul’s day than it is in our day. The life of any church and the life of the whole church seemed to hang by a thread in Paul’s day. It isn’t any worse in our day.
What they needed and what we need was and is to be strengthened within. Paul didn’t know what the days or years ahead held for him and his friends, except that they would need to be filled with the strength and love of God. He knew he could pray for them as they prayed for him. He knew he could pray for them without fear, and that they could learn to pray without fear. He couldn’t know exactly what to pray for, except that God was able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.
He didn’t only tell his friends that God was able do more than they could imagine. God was even greater than that. Paul told them that God was able to do immeasurable more than he could imagine, and so he used the word “we”.
Paul said that he was praying for the inward strength of his Christian friends. He knew that his friends would listen to him, and understand, and pray that for each other, and for him.
The innards of our being include at least three things. Paul’s friends would have known what these three things were. Paul would have known what they would understand.
One form of inward strength that we need is “reason”. There is a form of self-defeating logic that is simply destructive, and Paul doesn’t mean that kind of power of reasoning.
He means that we need the power of thinking straight, and thinking straight in extraordinary circumstances: thinking straight in a pinch. Soldiers, law enforcers, firefighters, emergency responders of all kinds need the power to think straight in a pinch.
We need the sense of reason that brings resilience. When I was twelve, I broke my arm playing touch football in gym class. I remember what bone it was but I had to look up the name. It was my radius bone. It wasn’t broken all the way through. The doctor called it a “green stick fracture”. You can snap a fresh green branch of a healthy tree and if probably won’t snap all the way through.
Because I was a kid, my arm bone was resilient. It still hurt like the dickens. But I didn’t cry.
When we get older, our bones lose resiliency. We may no longer bounce when we hit the ground. For some, it also becomes harder to be resilient inwardly. Sometimes even children fail to be inwardly resilient. Good parents teach their children to be inwardly resilient, because they know it’s important. Resilience is one of the most important strengths in life.
Remember that Jesus tells us to become like little children. (Matthew 18:2-4) He meant something to do with humility. I would argue that humility is one source of resilience. Pride makes it hard to get up and come back when we fall and fail. Humility means that we don’t take ourselves or our fears or out failures so seriously that we can’t bounce back and come back.
There was an old Puritan writer who said that “The perseverance of the saints lies in ever new beginnings.” That is resilience. That is the power we need.
For us, inward reason means the reliance of seeing reality through the eyes of faith. It also means using our faith to understand and deal with reality. It means the ability to look and see, to listen and hear: to hear God, and the world where God has put us, and God’s calling to us in this world.
Let’s think straight in our pinches. Without a strong sense of reason we will look foolish because we will become fools. We won’t deserve to have others listen to us.
Another part of our inward strength needs to be in our conscience. There is an inward conversation about what is right and what is wrong, what is fitting and what is inappropriate, what is noble and what is ignoble, what is brave and what is not. When our consciences are strengthened inwardly, then our inner conversations go in God’s favor.
When we ignore our conscience we deafen ourselves to the voice of God and truth. In the effort to make things easy, by ignoring our conscience, we will make everything harder. And we will no longer stand for anything.
The other inward strength is the strength of the will; the strength to choose the right and hold to it. There is a poem by the English poet John Drinkwater that goes, in part, like this:
“Grant us the will to fashion as we feel,
Grant us the strength to labor as we know,
Grant us the purpose, ribbed and edged with steel,
To strike the blow.
Knowledge we ask not, knowledge Thou hast lent,
But, Lord, the will – there lies our deepest need,
Grant us the power to build, above the high intent,
The deed, the deed!”
(From “Prayer for the New Year”, by John Drinkwater)

The inward strengthening of our will is how we live trusting the faithfulness and the love and the power of God. It means faith. And that is how we learn to be filled with the fullness of God in Christ. Trust, or faith, opens the door. People will only listen to us if we believe, and act like it.
This is a tall order. Paul says that this is not our doing. It is the doing of God coming to us in Jesus. It is even more than the result of God coming to us in Jesus. It is the result of God dwelling in us (living inside us), in Jesus: “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.” (Ephesians 3:17-19a) Think of the knowledge that surpasses knowledge.
Where do we look at Christ and find this knowledge of his love? We find it in the manger, in the carpenter shop of Jesus, in the homelessness of Jesus on the road, in his suffering for the sins of the world on the cross. We find the knowledge of his love in the resurrection, and in the wounded Jesus who sits on the throne of heaven and earth.
These are the riches of his love, and we have them as a feast, and as a treasure. But we know that this is not just for us. We live in a world where this is for everyone, and we should know this.
Think about the mystery again. God’s mystery took what belonged to God’s people and made it belong to everyone else as well. Who is everyone else to you?
Israel (the people of Jesus) couldn’t deal with the treasure of Jesus because he insisted that he and his treasure were here for everyone, and everyone was just too different from them. They were obsessed with the differences between other people and them. Who is different from you? Who is not one of you? Can you bring the news to them?
Paul says that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to the power that is at work within us.”  Again think about this: that Paul says that the power is at work in us. It’s not in you as an individual. It’s not in me. It’s in us. Paul says that the power and the love are in the Church and in Christ.
We can see power and love when we look at Jesus. This is always true. But we see this best (we see what Jesus means by it) when we look at Jesus and his disciples. The church is Jesus and his disciples: Jesus and us. That is the treasure. That is the feast: Jesus and us. It’s more than we can ask or even imagine.
But the mystery is that it is not even about Jesus and us. There are no outsiders. Don’t let anyone imagine that we think that they are outsiders, because we know better. God’s word says better. It will someday mean a world of heaven and earth that will include everyone, with no one on the outside. How do we show that (how do we live that out) to the world now?

Let’s live out this prayer. If no one is outside, then the prayer of Paul (to be strengthened within and to know the love of Christ) is for everyone. We pray this prayer and we live it out sincerely, for everyone: for everyone in our families, for everyone in our community, and for everyone in the whole world.


  1. Begin each day anew...this was one of the entries from the Monastery today!
    (From their Facebook).
    It reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge from the musical "Scrooge" know, anybody can quote the Bible to, I know all the musicals!

    1. I don't know if I ever saw the Scrooge musical, unless you mean the TV one with Mr. Magoo.