Series: Ephesians: Imagining a New World – Part 2
When we were first married, Diane and I attended her family reunion at one of the state parks in New Jersey. People brought their barbecue grills, coolers of watermelon and drinks, musical instruments, Frisbees, and had a great day of eating and enjoying one another. The reunion was fun … for them. They could mention a holiday, a name, a place, a memory – and there was instant recognition, laughter or tears, from everyone it seemed except me. While the “family” sat at the picnic tables under the pavilion sharing memories, I whispered to Diane questions like, “Who are they talking about?,” “When did that happen?,” and “What’s that about?.” Diane and others, were tremendously patient and would try to explain each story to clue me in, but, inevitably, each explanations included the phrase, “you really had to be there to appreciate it.”
After a while, I gave up, and walked over to the playground, and play with my new nieces. They didn’t get a lot of the stories either, so we put those Frisbees to good use.
Please don’t hear this as a complaint. It’s not. It was fun to watch. It was just that while I was part of the family, I didn’t know the stories. I was a bit on the outside.
Have you been there? Maybe you attended a reunion with your spouse. You find yourself listening in on a conversation that started ten, twenty, thirty, or more years ago. You spouse is picking up where he or she left off. You are just trying to pick up on the story.
Or maybe felt a twinge of anxiety as we turned the calendar from October to November this week, recognizing you will soon be attending your spouse’s dreaded office Christmas party. Your spouse works there, you don’t, and inside jokes are flying. Everyone is laughing and having a good time, and you have no idea what’s going on. Others can go to great lengths to try to make you understand, but it just doesn’t work. You had to be there.
We have all experienced this sense of not belonging, missing out, being on the outside looking in. The first day in a new school, the first day in a new job, or going as someone’s date to a wedding. Universally, I think we can agree, it is no fun. None of us likes to be left-out, none of us enjoys being excluded, none of us likes feeling we don’t belong.
Have you ever felt that way at church? Like there’s a conversation going on that you are not quite getting? Like everyone else in the place knows something you don’t? Like the whole thing is for them, and you are just kind of watching?
Well, our passage of scripture for today has something to say to you.
- Today’s message is for those who on the playground, when the captains picked teams – were picked last, the ones who didn’t have a date to the prom, and those who didn’t make the team, the choir, the play, or the band.
- This message is for those whose marriages are struggling, for those who are divorced, or whose kids aren’t speaking to them right now.
- This is a message for those who are confused, filled with doubt, and worry about things over which they have little control.
- Today’s scripture has a message for those who are broke, those who are addicted, those with sexual sin in their lives.
- This is a message for the messed up, the imperfect, and those who wake up crying in the middle of the night.
- This is a message for the one who is sick, the one who has become forgetful, and the one who is grieving.
- It is for the one who got a speeding ticket yesterday, the one who has a history they’d rather forget, the one who is still paying for the consequences of poor decisions.
- This is for those of us who are imperfect, those who came to church today feeling like a phony, a fake, an impostor, those who sin.
- This is a message for those of us have every come feeling like we are on the outside looking in.
And the message is quite a simple one. Ready? Here it is: YOU BELONG HERE!
I know there are times when we in the church have made it appear as though Jesus is only for those who have it all together. We want to make it seem like we have somehow earned this station we have in the eyes of God. That Jesus loves us because of something we did on our own. We want to build ourselves up into something fantastic and special. But the truth is, we’re not. We are just as much of a mess as the other people around us every day. We don’t belong either. None of us does.
Apparently, this is what the people in Ephesus were dealing with. For some reason, they were feeling like they didn’t belong because they weren’t Jewish. Paul, a Jewish preacher, had told them about Jesus, a Jewish Messiah, and while they had accepted Jesus, and wanted to follow him they felt like a newlywed at his in-laws family reunion. There were things going on, a story they did not know, that made them feel like second-class citizens in the church.
Now, I want to pause here just a moment to talk about “church.” When Paul uses the word church, he is not talking about it the same way we do. He is certainly not talking about Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church, nor is he talking about the United Methodist Church. I would argue that Paul is not even talking about the church universal – all of us on earth who profess Jesus Christ as Lord. No, Paul is even broader than that.
At the end of Ephesians chapter one, listen to what Paul writes about the church:
And he [God] has put all things under his [Jesus’] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22-23)
Did you catch that? For Paul, the church is “the fullness of [Jesus] who fills all in all.” Church, in this context, is the presence of God among us. When I read church in this context, I think Kingdom of God. The church is the fullness of Jesus, into which we are invited to participate.
In the first century church there is a clear divide the Ephesians seem to be caught up in. In the words of Paul this is a division between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul identifies the Ephesians as Gentiles, or in one place, “the uncircumcision.” This simply means the Ephesians were not Jewish. While there doesn’t seem to be a particular controversy driving this conversation, Paul feels the need to tell the Ephesian Christians they are not second class citizens in the church, the Kingdom of God.
You belong here
Like us, when we feel like we don’t have it all together, when life is rough, when we are doubting God and ourselves – the Christians in Ephesus are wondering if this faith is really for them. They feel they are on the outside looking in, and are wondering if this isn’t because they cannot fully participate in the church because they do not have Jewish heritage.
Paul’s answer to the Ephesian Christians is to remind them of the work of Jesus that has welcomed them into the family. Then he writes, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (2:19). Listen to how The Message version of the Bible puts it.
“You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone” (2:19 MSG). You belong here. I don’t know about you, but I need to hear that from time to time.
There are times, I must confess, I feel like a Christian impostor. As if I have everyone fooled into thinking I am something I’m not.
I remember Pastor Bob telling us a couple of weeks ago about a mentor who once told him to remember two-thirds of the people in front of him, almost didn’t come to church this morning. Sometimes it is difficult, isn’t it. We come, but we might not be all that happy about it.
Maybe you didn’t want to come today because you don’t want to pretend you have it all together. Maybe it’s because you are frustrated over the death of a friend. Maybe you are feeling confused about God in the face of super-storm Sandy. Maybe you fought with your spouse this morning.
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is he came for people just like you and me who have doubts, fears, struggles, pain, suffering, worry, and so much more going on in our lives.
To people like us, people who feel like we are on the outside looking in, those of us who feel like we are at a reunion we simply don’t understand, those of us who have been or still are, on what is perceived to be the wrong side of the issues, Jesus has come near to us to draw us near to him.
This was Paul’s passion for ministry – to welcome the non-Jewish people, the ones who “did not belong,” the uncircumcision, the outsiders into the family of God in Jesus Christ. A message he received from Jesus who seemed to be always in trouble for being with the “wrong” people. Paul opens the third chapter of this letter with that fact. He writes:
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—
It would have been much safer, and probably made more sense, for this Pharisee of Pharisees, as Paul called himself, to stay in Jerusalem and preach the Gospel there. But that was not his call. Instead he traveled the known world to share the message of Jesus. He even bumped noses with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem at the time, made up predominately of Jesus’ disciples who were, of course, all Jewish.
I like the way Eugene Peterson shares what might have been going on in his book Practice Resurrection:
There is considerable irony in the probability that this negative definition was given to the first Gentile Christians by Jewish Christians representing church. But it is understandable. Jews had a long history as the people of God… They had a well-developed sense of being a chosen people, which they were… But along with that, they had also developed an entrenched prejudice against non-Jews as a rejected people, which they were not (Peterson 120).
It might be easy to get down on those first century Jewish-Christians for being exclusionary, if so many people did not feel exactly the same way about us 21st century Christians. We don’t have the best reputation of making others feel welcome. We are sometimes called, quite unfairly, judgmental, hypocritical, navel-gazing, and more.
You and I know that’s not the truth. We know about Christian people who are the first to respond to tragedy. I have been reading about churches in New Jersey, including the one where I used to serve as the youth pastor. The people there have been some of the first to provide help to people in need. One church opened a cafe where people could come and use the internet, recharge their phones, and get a hot cup of coffee or tea. Another church was supplying ice for anyone who needed it. With no power, and thereby no refrigeration, ice was important and quite hard to come by. The church I served was distributing “clean up kits,” I think from the United Methodist Committee on Relief yesterday. 600 kits were there to be given away.
Our bad reputation, as happens with so many prejudices, comes from the bad actions of a small group of people who are very vocal, while the very good stuff the churches are doing goes almost unnoticed. We have a great way of bringing people together when we need to, and are often the most willing to give of ourselves to help someone else out.
But then again, I have been around Christian people who have made me uncomfortable. Maybe you have been there too. It is tempting to get caught up as those first century Jewish Christians did, into believing that we have been chosen by God, and therefore have some inside track to him. As if we are his chosen and those others have been somehow rejected by God.
Oh, I pray I never do that to someone else, but I’m guessing I have. I think that happens to others I meet when they find out I’m a pastor. They suddenly get very conscious of their language, fearful they will say something that will give them away as not a “good-enough” Christian. As if I’m ranking everyone I meet into a tier of heaven, Dante style.
While we may not intend it, I believe there are times when we put up walls that make people feel as though they are on the outside looking in. Without much thought we sometimes slip into church language – what a seminary professor used to call Christian-ese. We Christians don’t hang out; we fellowship. We don’t say we are lucky. Instead, we say we are blessed. I have even be with those where I have said something like, “Wow, what a coincidence,” and the other has responded, “Oh, I don’t believe in coincidence. I think it is a God-incidence.” Ok, but you knew what I meant. Didn’t you?
Maybe you have felt that way – judged, sized-up, evaluated.
Can you imagine what it must be like to come to church for the first time? What does TLUMC mean? Who else talks about bulletins, or UMCOR, or tithes, or intinction? Oh, sometimes, in very unintentional ways, we can be constructing walls delineating the insiders from the outsiders in the church.
But the truth is, just like we belong here, so do they.
They belong here
Those people we don’t agree we – the ones who voted for the other guy – they belong here. Those ones who do not struggle with what we struggle with, but something altogether different – they belong here too.
I’m concerned about our country Wednesday morning – not because I think the wrong person is going to be elected president, but because no matter who wins, about half of our country is going to feel disenfranchised.
I’m sure you, like me, have noted just how close this race is. There was a poll that came out early this week that said Romney and Obama were in a flat-footed tie in Colorado. Each were expecting to win about 48% of the vote, with two percent wanting someone else and two percent undecided. Statistically this means more people could vote for someone other than the one who is elected than vote for him. Meaning more than half of the country could wake up Wednesday morning feeling like they are somehow on the outside looking in.
Whoever wins the election would do well on Wednesday to start building bridges toward those who did not vote for him. To begin making all feel like they will have a place at the table to be heard in the four years ahead.
That is why I am so glad we are sharing communion on Election Day. What a great symbol of the church bringing people together in healing and wholeness.
I’m sure I’ve told you before about my Friday nights growing up. We spent every Friday at my maternal grandmother’s house for coffee and dessert. There was always lively conversation and often a game of Pinochle. The good news for my brother and I was we were always welcome at my grandmother’s table, a role I thoroughly enjoyed. I remember conversations between by grandfather mechanic and my father, a former mechanic, where I learned my appreciation for cars. I also remember some great Pinochle games, where I learned how to win and lose graciously. Because I was always welcomed at that table, I knew I was part of the family. I learned what was expected of me as a family member. I was invited in to the story, and reminded time and time again that I belonged.
Tuesday, we are welcoming people to a different table – not one where we play cards and eat dessert. But one where we take a piece of bread and a cup of juice and are united as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. The table, the church, where we are all welcome, just as we are.
At the end of chapter three, after talking about this church where the Ephesian Christians belong, and his role as an evangelist to the Gentiles, Paul launches into a prayer of thanksgiving. It is quite a moving prayer that includes this line:
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. (3:18-19)
Again, let me share that with you as it is rendered in The Message:
And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. (3:18-19 MSG)
There is a song we often sing at the 9:45 service because it is my favorite of all time. It is a song written by John Mark McMillan during a particularly difficult time in his life. A friend had been tragically killed in an automobile accident, and McMillan went through a dark period of doubt and anger with God. He began to wonder if God really cared for him at all.
It was then God turned the question on him. McMillan came to realize that God loved him when his friend was killed and continued to love him even in his doubt and anger. He began to write this chorus:
He loves us! Oh, how he loves us! Oh how he loves us! Oh how he loves.
If you walk out of here this morning and don’t remember anything else, I pray you will remember this – He loves you, oh how he loves you. In your doubt and anger, he loves you. In your fear and worry, he loves you. In your messed up relationships, he loves you. In whatever it is you think might keep God from loving you, he loves you. He loves you with a love that is beyond understanding. “Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights!”
You belong here. They belong here. Because oh how he loves us all. Amen.
Eiselen, Frederick Carl, Edwin Lewis, and David George Downey. “Ephesians.” The Abingdon Bible Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 1929. 1222-1237. Print.
Perkins, Pheme. Ephesians. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997. Print.
Peterson, Eugene H. Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.