Church versus the world: The ongoing struggle
Ephesians 1: 15-23
The letter of Paul to the Ephesians is a letter that was written to a group of churches that were not founded by Paul himself. This letter was written while Paul was under arrest and therefore he was not able to visit them himself. This letter calls Christians back to the basis of their own belief, and their own baptisms. The reading this morning is a three part reading that begins with a thanksgiving for the community of believers and for the love of God. This is followed by general intercession for wisdom and guidance, ending with glorifying of Christ as the head of the Church.
That’s why, when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the Christians, I couldn’t stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I’d think of you and give thanks. But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for Christians, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!
All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.
Luke 24: 44-53
Luke’s Gospel has been a main contributor to the churches understanding of its relation to Judaism. Luke sees the life of Jesus as God fulfilling the promises made in the Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Temple and synagogue all figure prominently and favorably in Luke’s Gospel. The reading this morning is Luke’s last appearance of Jesus and his ascension. Jesus names Jerusalem as the centre from which the disciples will spread the word to all the nations. Jesus also once again affirms the message that is to be preached; a message of repentance and forgiveness. Once Jesus leaves the disciples they are instructed to return to the temple in Jerusalem to await the coming of God’s power.
Then he said, “Everything I told you while I was with you comes to this: All the things written about me in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms have to be fulfilled.”
He went on to open their understanding of the Word of God, showing them how to read their Bibles this way. He said, “You can see now how it is written that the Messiah suffers, rises from the dead on the third day, and then a total life-change through the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in his name to all nations—starting from here, from Jerusalem! You’re the first to hear and see it. You’re the witnesses. What comes next is very important: I am sending what my Father promised to you, so stay here in the city until he arrives, until you’re equipped with power from on high.”
He then led them out of the city over to Bethany. Raising his hands he blessed them, and while blessing them, took his leave, being carried up to heaven.
And they were on their knees, worshiping him. They returned to Jerusalem bursting with joy. They spent all their time in the Temple praising God. Yes.
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
THANKS BE TO GOD!
SERMON – “Church versus the world: The ongoing struggle”
Our readings this morning bring us the story of Jesus ascension and the resulting affect this has on the disciples and in the epistle letter to the Ephesians, to the new church.
In our Gospel reading from Luke the disciples are instructed to return to Jerusalem to await the spirit of God before venturing out into the wider world to bring the news of Jesus to the nations. The disciples are now faced with coming to terms with the ascension, as must we. In reading about the ascension we are faced with one of those stories in the Bible that many use to cast doubt on the whole idea of Christianity. If we leave out the seemingly supernatural side of the ascension, I am sure that many of the disciples are faced with the same questions we might have; where did Jesus go? Where is heaven? But above anything else the disciples are left alone. This is a time of transition for them as they go from having Jesus with them to that feeling of abandonment.
In the reading from Ephesians we see a community that is also in transition for the coming of Jesus back into the world has not yet happened and many are struggling with the doubts and questions.
Yet both of these readings have a connection to the world as it was; the disciples were to remain at the temple, they were not ready yet to venture out into the world as it was. The Ephesians were also advised to be wary of the outside world, we hear in the reading this morning; “The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church.”
This leads into the question of the relationship of the church to the world. How does the church relate to the world? How should the church relate to the world? There are many who feel that the church should be separate from the world, the world is a place full of unbelievers and those that go against the teachings of the church and therefore the church needs to set itself apart from the world outside its doors. On the other end of the spectrum there are those churches that you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between them and some multi-national conglomerates. To some churches, being church is a business. They are most concerned about the money and the wealth that is coming into the church, than they are about the people.
I will say that I am one of those people who for a long time thought that the church needed to be separated from the world around it. It was a challenge for me to recognize how the church was to function in the world today. I believe that the world today is a place where the ideas of grace and mercy seem to be foreign. It seems much easier in our world to put up a sign that says “No Strangers Allowed” then it is to openly welcome those strangers. I was reading an article and it was talking about hospitality and how we need to change our view of the world to look at hospitality as being a radical idea. What if we did put up a sign that said “No Strangers Allowed” but we looked at this is a whole new way. We looked at it in a way that meant everyone who enters this place will not be a stranger. We will not allow anyone to be a stranger in our midst. Is this a part of what Paul was talking about in the letter to the Ephesians when he says; “to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for Christians,”?
We as Christians are challenged to live in the world today and it is a huge challenge, it is daunting when we look at the immense problems facing us today. Yet this feeling of powerlessness is not only felt by us here today, it is also felt by many other from many faith communities. Shanta Premawardhana, President of the Seminary Consortium for Unban Pastoral Education in Chicago talked about this sense of overwhelming powerlessness at a NATO summit. She stated; “The church is supposed to be the lobbyist of the poor, and the church has given up its calling and resigned itself to a powerless position. We’ve sort of forgotten that for a long time. These are some of the signs that we’re stepping up. We need to reclaim that heritage.”
Jim Wallis the CEO of Sojourners, an American national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice, told the following story during his commencement address at the Virginia Theological Seminary this past Thursday. He was telling the story of his 9 year olds baseball team playing in a baseball tournament. The team had already lost a couple of games and was in the middle of a game where they were losing 5-0. At the most unexpected moment that bats and the team came alive. What was even more surprising is that it began with the weakest part of the batting line-up. After two walks the most inexperienced player came to bat. This young person hit the ball and it made it to the outfield and Stefan made it to 2nd base with 2 runs making it home. Stefan being from a British Commonwealth country proceeded to walk over to the short stop and the 2nd baseman to shake their hands. Jim Wallis shouted to him; “Stefan, you have to stay on the base.” “Oh,” said Stefan, “I’ve never been here before.” This inspired the rest of the kids on the team and those who had never gotten hits before started hitting and everyone was laughing and cheering and enjoying the game. After the game one of the kids remarked when they were talking about the game; “This just goes to show you, you can’t ever give up on hope. We always have to keep on going no matter what.”
We are called to offer this unexpected hope to the world around us. We are supposed to be a part of the world not separate from the world. We are challenged to become an integral part of the world outside our door. Not only are there no strangers allowed inside, we should see no strangers outside as we venture forth. We pray every Sunday with the words; “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are called to bring the kingdom of God to life in the world today. How can we do this is we do not engage in the world outside?
I found this blog the other day which was written by an 18 year old young man, who was struggling with the idea of engaging in the world outside of his faith. This young man is a writer and found passion in the written word. He states that he was reading a book called “Counterfeit Gods” by Timothy Keller. The book deals with idols, those things in our lives that we replace God with, money, television, acquisition of goods, all those things the keep us away from God. This young man was having a hard time as he was afraid to watch TV., become heavily involved in his writing, he even was concerned about having a girlfriend, because he was concerned that these would all take on the role of idol and in believing he was living his life for God he realized he was not living at all. He found himself in his parents room and say this quote from William Shakespeare; “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.” For this young man these words had a huge impact. He realized that we can do whatever we set our minds to, just as Paul writes to the Ephesians; “the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!” We are given this by the love of God for us. The other thing that this young man realized is that dreams = our greatest desires and we are made of that, and that therefore God desires us, we are God’s greatest desire. God desires to have a relationship with us. For this young man this opened up a whole new way of thinking about how he engaged in the world around him. His loves, his passions were a part of who he was, that which God loved and so why would he hide those from the world.
God calls us to bring this passion to the world; we are challenged to bring our passions into the world and to help bring the kingdom of God here and now today. In the Gospel reading the disciples were instructed to wait in the temple for the Spirit of God to come upon them. We are here today to be filled in community with the spirit of God, to renew us together to enable us to enter into the world around, to be in the world. We are also challenged to not give up hope and not give up on the world around. We come here to be refreshed to be renewed. We like the disciples come together so that the spirit of God may fill us and renew us as a community.
Jim Wallis ended his commencement address with the following; “never be content with what is predictable, to never become cynical about change. Don’t be satisfied with a church you can predict by looking at everybody living around them.” We are challenged to not only change to world but in the process to not be afraid of changing ourselves. Not to be afraid of growing and finding new ways of being church. Paul wrote to those who were doubting Christianity, they were afraid and felt very much alone. Paul reassured them of the love of Christ and the power of God to be their strength. We are reminded of this, so that when we are challenged with the world outside; let us also remember the love of God and that God is our strength. Let us remember that we are “such stuff as dreams are made of.” Amen.