“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.

“Lydia is Listening”; Acts 16:9-15; May 5, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Lydia is Listening”
Acts 16:9-15
May 5, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1A month and a half ago the world saw a new pope elected at the Vatican in Italy. The Protestant church got its start when Martin Luther, a German monk posted his 95 reasons the church needed to change to be faithful to scripture. In the 1500s French/Swiss theologian John Calvin started what became the Presbyterian Church.

When many in the world think about Christianity, we think about Europe. However, none of these things would have happened without our story that we heard today from the New Testament.

SLIDE 4 - LydiaOur New Testament passage gives us a quick story about a woman named Lydia: “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.”

Though her story is a quick two verses, it’s an important moment in the history of the church. Lydia is recognized as the very first European conversion at the start of the Church. The Vatican, the Protestant Reformation, and even Calvin’s Presbyterianism wouldn’t have come about if Paul hadn’t followed his strange nighttime vision calling him to Macedonia.

SLIDE 5 - PaulThere are some lessons to be learned from Paul, from Lydia, and from their seeming chance encounter. These lessons can teach us about our own call to share the gospel with others.

First, Paul was a very unlikely sort of follower of Christ. He tells us in scripture that he originally persecuted Christians: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul recounts his conversion in Acts 26:12-18 “I was traveling to Damascus… when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? …’SLIDE 6 - Conversion

I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”

SLIDE 8 - Great CommissionPaul was given a very specific sort of call from God. In the familiar great commission passage at the end of Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples to, “go and make disciples of all nations.” However, the early church was composed primarily of Jewish people who had experienced the miracles of Christ.

SLIDE 9 - PentecostIn the account of Pentecost, the advent of the Christian church, we are told a miraculous account of a whole group of people from every nation who are overcome with the Holy Spirit and are able to understand one another even though they are all speaking in their native languages. A point that I never really picked up on in this passage is that it refers to this crowd of people as, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5) So while there was ethnic and geographic diversity in this group, there was not religious diversity. The call to reach all nations had somehow been translated into “the Jews of all nations.” So when Paul was called to follow Christ, he was called to open the eyes of both Jews and Gentiles.

Slide10Paul was a passionate man, so as impassioned as he was about persecuting Christians, he became all the more passionate about converting Gentiles to Christians once he was one.

He was brought to understand God’s plan for his life through a light from heaven, the voice of Jesus, and then later through visions in the night. His response, his willingness to follow where God led, changed the world forever.

Slide11It is incredible how God can redeem even those who seem the farthest off, and use them for the building of the Kingdom. Even now while I am talking about sharing Christ with others, do you find yourself falling asleep or looking around the room at others who are “better at sharing their faith”? If so, you are exactly who I am talking to.

Paul’s willingness is not the end to this story. Lydia’s openness to Paul’s gospel message is at least important as Paul’s willingness to follow God’s will. Though what we know about her is limited, her immediate responsiveness speaks to an even greater openness to God’s will. She gets it. She is a listener.

Slide12The verse labels her as a “worshiper of God.” In modern terms, she would be what we would call a deist, or perhaps even an agnostic. She is religiously unaffiliated, but questioning, open, and listening.

The reality is there are so many Lydias in this world. So many that are unaffiliated, that are looking for a truth to grasp onto. They’re looking for a way to connect. If we get out of our own way of the excuses of why we are not sharing our own Gospel witness with those we encounter, we open ourselves up to meeting these Lydias, and introducing them to our Savior.

More than just accept the message, Lydia is moved to respond. She immediately has her entire household baptism and invites Paul to stay at her home. She is all in, opening her home and her heart to what God would have her do.

Slide13If Paul had his own way he wouldn’t have even ended up in Macedonia to begin with. He wouldn’t have met Lydia, might not have made the effort to evangelize to Europe. Right before the passage we heard today, we are told that Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia. Like a GPS recalculating, he was constantly being pushed to try somewhere else.

It was not an easy thing for Paul to follow Christ’s call on his life. As Paul had previously persecuted Christians, he too found himself facing persecution. We read in Acts 14:2-7 that as he was in Iconium, “the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.”

Slide15The important thing to notice here is that follow God’s call to preach the gospel was certainly not always easy. In fact at times it was awful and hard, but even so Paul and his companions continued on their efforts “they continued proclaiming the good news.”

God’s plan was so very different than what Paul wanted to do by his own will. While Paul tried to work his way place by place, this night time vision sent him across the ocean to a whole new area, a whole new continent.

As we seek to tell others about Christ it will be hard, and we might feel defeated from time to time, but there are Lydias in this world waiting to hear the great good news of grace, redemption, and love. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in dead ends, or defeated by those who might even hate us for our faith, we will miss out on those eagerly waiting for us to share our own experience of Christ.

Slide16I read an article this week by Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana called, Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour. In it she writes, “ I love the story of Columba, priest in sixth-century Ireland, who got in a rudderless boat and let God and providence take him where he was meant to be. He made landfall once, but decided to push out again because he could still see his homeland on the horizon behind him. The second place he landed was Iona, the island where Christianity touched Scotland for the first time.” She continues, challenging each of us, “How are we being called beyond our carefully-considered plans and safe assumptions into something daring, unpredictable… maybe even unprecedented?”[1]

I have to admit, as someone who likes to have a plan, a direction, and a purpose, the idea of a rudderless boat seems genuinely frightening, not to mention dangerous in all the storms he likely encountered. Opening ourselves entirely to God’s will can be a terrifying proposition, it requires vulnerability, perhaps even helplessness, but it can also change the world. May we open ourselves to what God would have us do, knowing that somewhere in your life, somewhere in your path, God has placed a Lydia, who is just waiting to respond. Amen.


[1] Christian Wanderlust: Paul, Lydia and the Holy Detour, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/easter6cn/