“Unimaginably More”; Ephesians 3:1-12; January 5, 2020; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“Unimaginably More”
Ephesians 3:1-12
January 5, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Sometimes when I am looking for an entry point into a passage of scripture I look for which words are repeated. In our Epistle reading from Ephesians the word of the day, if you will, was undoubtedly “mystery,” repeated four times within our passage.

Now when I think of mysteries, I primarily think of them as a literary genre or type of movie. Something solved by Sherlock Holmes in an English countryside, Veronica Mars in Neptune, California, or Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove, Maine. Often in these contexts mysteries are essentially questions, especially “whodunnit?” that end up having one clear answer or explanation. Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the wrench, something like that.

But that is not what Paul means when he uses it in this passage. The way he frames it is more as something that has been revealed that was not known previously. In a way it works in the opposite direction of mysteries as a genre, first God reveals something and then prophecy is referenced to see if it lines up. It’s not that prophecy wasn’t pointing to a more expansive kingdom of God, but that it was simply more than the contemporaries of the prophets could’ve fathomed or thought to look for.

Augsburg University professor, Jennifer V. Pietz frames it in this way:

“The assertion that this mystery was unknown to previous generations (verses 5, 9) raises the question of whether or not the Old Testament prophets, whose words Christians interpret as pointing to Christ, had any understanding of the mystery. Some interpreters assert that the “as” (os) that begins the second part of Ephesians 3:5 signals a comparison, meaning that the mystery was not made known to previous generations to the full extent that it has now been revealed. Others think that Paul is in fact claiming that earlier prophets did not envision God uniting Jews and Gentiles in Christ in the way that Ephesians describes, even though doing so was part of God’s eternal purpose (verse 11). In either view, Ephesians 3:1-12 is clear that the decisive revelation of this mystery is occurring now (verses 5, 10).” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4347)

Just reading this text with a modern lens could lead us to believe that Paul was just musing to himself on these sorts of things. That his understanding of God’s promises for humankind were simply that, his understanding. But what he is claiming is that the mystery of God’s design of unification and reconciliation must be from God by the Holy Spirit because it is beyond what the human brain could come up on it’s own.

Today is Epiphany Sunday, most closely tied to the narrative of the Wisemen’s arrival after the birth of Jesus and the revelation of Jesus as the expected messiah. If “mystery” is the word that Paul uses to frame the question, then “epiphany” is the answer. Jesus is the epiphany to the mystery of how God will redeem humanity. And radical inclusion of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, is the epiphany to the mystery of who are included in the humanity to be redeemed.

This has major implications for Christians of every time. It means that all people are able to receive the grace and redemption offered by Christ’s resurrection. And if all are able to inherit Christ’s redemption then all are to be invited to claim their place as known and beloved by God.

It reminds me of a blessing that my seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson pronounced at the end of each class. The ending of it goes something like this:

“May joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.”

The part that came to mind especially with this week’s text is the line about light guiding others “whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent.” This is the truth that seems to stop Paul in his tracks, that God’s invitation is so much larger than what the prophets could’ve imagined. 

And while this epiphany of God’s expansive inclusion is incredible in its enormity it’s also incredible in its specificity. Because it is for everyone, that means it is for every one. Whoever you’re thinking of right this moment, it’s for them. And that other person who you might think beyond saving, them too. And you in the midst of the worst thing you’ve ever done? You too.

It really means something that this message comes to us in the person of Paul. After all, we are first introduced to Paul as a man known as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. The first few verses about him in scripture in Acts 8 he is introduced approving of the death of Christ’s followers and then “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [and] committed them to prison.” The fact that it is this man that becomes such a voice for the church is honestly rather staggering. Redemption for him, really? Co-inheritor of heaven with Christ? Him?

For Paul, receiving this epiphany that he too was able to be redeemed, wasn’t just some abstract reality, but genuine Good News. God was able to use him, all of who he was to revolutionize the church, spreading the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection far and wide, both in this time and also in ours.

Presbyterian Pastor Michelle Wahila explains it in this way:

“Like Paul we are planted in a particular place and time with a particular holy purpose. Don’t be afraid to claim your story and who you are. You can say, “this is me: brave, bruised, but who I am meant to be.”

Paul’s testimony was that “God’s grace was sufficient.”[2] Our God is the God who answers our failings with affirmations. Jesus whispers to you: I know your imperfections. I know you who are, but do you know who I am?

On your very worst day, when you think your story is finished, Jesus calls you beloved. If you aren’t hearing this, you aren’t hearing Jesus. He chose you before creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he claims you.” (https://upcendicott.org/sermons/2018/8/19/merry-christmas)

What a mystery, what a revelation, what an epiphany! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Letter for February Newsletter

Grace and Peace to you!

As I write this, the wintery weather is keeping me inside, canceled Jesup schools for the day, and canceled our worship service on Sunday. When it is so cold, so icy, or so foggy outside, we sometimes have to choose safety over community. Though a necessary choice, this weather can be isolating. Add to that the darkness of the short days of winter and it can seem pretty gloomy in this season.

Here in this time of slushy weather, flu season, and darkness, it is no accident that it is also the time that we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day to bring us out of our introspection and melancholy, a day to celebrate love. While every store you walk into is eager to sell you some way to commemorate this holiday of love, as the Church we are able to offer a priceless gift in this season: the gift of God’s grace, which we encounter through Lent. Lent begins the day before Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday. It commemorates the forty days before Easter (Sundays are not counted as part of Lent) and is a time of considering the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This is the ultimate gift of love, which cannot be contained to a Valentine’s Day card, or box of chocolate. Christ’s gift of love was the gift of his life, given selflessly for all of our sins.

Lent has been historically celebrated in Christian traditions through fasting, which is translated into present day by giving up something like chocolate, pop, or junk food. The idea of fasting is to temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In Ephesians 3:16-20 Paul offers a prayer of love that I echo today:

“I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

May you know the love of Christ and share it will all you meet!

Pastor Kathleen Sheets

“Abundance” Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15; July 29, 2012

“Abundance”
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-15
July 29, 2012

My Grandpa Charlie was an excellent cook. Our family’s weekly dinners at my grandparents house were not to be missed, as he approached the creation of each meal with gusto. I remember once, right about the time that the internet was becoming popular, that he spent hours researching horseradish to transform a giant horseradish root into the perfect sauerkraut. Still, I think his real gift came not simply in his ability to make a tasty meal, but in his ability to take any leftovers and completely reinvent them into an equally delicious and creative meal. As a child born in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he was instilled with the values of thrift and conservation. If there was food, there was a meal. And if people were hungry, they weren’t anymore after a meal with him.

So, when our gospel reading tells us that five barley loaves and two fish fed thousands, I picture my grandfather rooting around the refrigerator and cooking up a feast.

Our gospel passage tells us that as Jesus had been traveling with his disciples teaching, preaching, and performing miracles a large crowd had formed around him.  Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy food for all these people?” Then in the text we get a bit of a “tell.” Our passage says, “[Jesus] said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

Jesus knew what he was going to do, but as he was in the business of training his disciples, he wanted to let them think through it first. I can imagine Jesus’ disciples a bit exasperated. They were the original hearers, the ones personally selected to be part of Jesus’ entourage, but in joining Jesus they had given up many of their worldly possessions and powers. They weren’t joining Jesus so that they could be benefactors or underwriters of Jesus’ mission. They joined Him because they were interested in seeing what would happen next with this rabble-rousing religious man. They wanted to be a part of this church that was not tied to rules or the law. And now, Jesus wanted them to come up with some sort of catering plan for thousands of people?

Philip answers, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Andrew assesses the situation and he says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Immediately he dismisses the thought say, “But what are they among so many people?”

Andrew was looking pragmatically at the facts. If we have five thousand people and five loaves, each loaf divided into a thousand parts, surely would just be one crumb-filled mess.

I’ve always wanted to have a good picture of what these loaves and fish looked like. Were the loaves small dinner rolls? Or were they giant loaves, the sort to hold a sub sandwich? And the fish, were they something small the boy had caught on his line? Or were they something large he had purchased at the market? Like Andrew, I’d like to think that the concrete facts of the case make a difference.

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,” Andrew says.

“Make the people sit down,” replies the Lord. The meal is blessed, served, then eaten, and all are satisfied.

Note that the scripture does not say, every one had a snack or everyone made sure others had what they wanted before they ate. In John 6: 11 it says that everyone ate “as much as they wanted.” And when they were done eating, there was still plenty left over. Verses 12 and 13 tell us, “when they were satisfied, [Jesus] told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

They filled twelve baskets. There was not just enough, there was abundance!

The theme of abundance is echoed throughout the Gospel of John. In the 16th verse of the first chapter we are introduced to Jesus as the Word from whose fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The providence of God in creation and God in incarnation are tied together in one timeless blessing of abundance.

Jesus’ ministry is begun when he turns water into wine. In a noticeable act of providence, this is not just any wine, but high quality wine produced from jars of water filled to the very top. Jesus provided abundantly for this wedding celebration.

As Jesus moves in his ministry to Samaria he meets a woman at the community well in the heat of the day. As they both come to the well seeking water, Jesus tells the woman in John 4:13-14, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In the passage we have read today, the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we hear a familiar narrative. While the four gospels have many similarities, this narrative is the only miracle story that is told in all four gospels. However, continuing the theme of abundance, the Gospel of John is the only one to add the detail of situating this story in the context of Passover. This context would not be lost on those followers with Jewish lineage, as Passover was the time commemorating when God spared the lives of the first born sons of the people of Israel and provided safe passage out of Egypt.  All through their journey to the Promised Land God provided for them with manna. God provided for them abundantly.

Even at the end of the Gospel of John the author seems overwhelmed by the abundance of what is left unsaid by the innumerable actions of Jesus’ ministry. The last verse of the Gospel of John reads, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These stories of abundance are not simply something relegated to the history of our faith. As God continues to move in the world, we are made agents of that abundance. In Ephesians 3:18-21 we read Paul’s blessing to the people of Ephesus: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.”

So I have to ask, when was the last time you felt, “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine?”

More often than not, our faith is more likely to reflect the pragmatism of Philip and Andrew, than the promise of abundance of Jesus Christ. Sitting here, on the tail end of a recession, it can be hard to imagine we would have anything to give. We are all too aware of the scarcity in our lives. We are afraid of our insufficiency. We are too young, too old, too frail, too busy. We are those loaves, divided over a thousand times, surrounded by crumbs.

Catholic nun and spiritual author, Marcrina Wiederkehr writes of these crumbs in her book, “A Tree Full of Angels.” She writes:

“We stand in the midst of nourishment and we starve. We dwell in the land of plenty, yet we persist in going hungry… we have the capacity to be filled with the utter fullness of God (Eph. 3:16-19). In the light of such possibility, what happens? Why do we drag our hearts? … Why do we straddle the issues? … The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things… We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment.”[1]

There is a provision waiting for us in these crumbs. For when our crumbs are gathered together, there is an abundance. We are “filled with the fullness of God,” and “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Why do we wait to serve till it is convenient? Why do we wait to help till it is asked of us?

Artist and author, Jan Richardson wrote a poem inspired by our Gospel narrative, called “Blessing the Fragments”:

Cup your hands together,
and you will see the shape
this blessing wants to take.
Basket, bowl, vessel:
it cannot help but
hold itself open
to welcome
what comes.

This blessing
knows the secret
of the fragments
that find their way
into its keeping,
the wholeness
that may hide
in what has been
left behind,
the persistence of plenty
where there seemed
only lack.

Look into the hollows
of your hands
and ask
what wants to be
gathered there,
what abundance waits
among the scraps
that come to you,
what feast
will offer itself
from the fragments
that remain.

We are to live as those cupped hands, extending ourselves outwards to welcome the feast that is present in the crumbs.

There are some who know how to serve from the crumbs, like my Grandfather’s meals made from left-overs. It is a gift, to be able to see the abundance in the scraps.

I have been blessed to be invited to tables where I know that I am sharing in this sort of abundance. Tea and cookies from an older widow with a fixed income sustain and nourish in a way the greatest feast cannot. Lemonade provided by a woman with physical limitations receiving help with home repairs quenches thirst like the most gourmet beverages cannot.

There is a short but important story about this in scripture. This passage comes to us from Luke 21:1:

“Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

God’s abundance in our lives is shared not through our ability to give much, but our willingness to give all that we can.

That boy in the crowd had five barley loaves and two fish. We are not told how many meals he was hoping to get from that bread and those fish. We are not told whether the boy was giving out of his own personal abundance or out of scarcity of a life of poverty. We are simply told that he had five loaves and two fish and was willing to offer them to others. Andrew at first dismissed the idea and Philip thought feeding five thousand from such meager resources was an impossibility. But still that boy gave what he had and it was multiplied.

I pray that we would recognize the ways that God has filled our lives with fullness, knowing that God desires to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. And that we may give to others what we can, even when it seems like mere crumbs.

Amen.


[1] A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, Chapter 3