Sunday, September 10, 2017

It's a Mystery--a sermon on Ephesians 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
It's a Mystery
Luke 22.14-27
 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!’ Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

Ephesians 3.8-21
Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.
 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his 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.
 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. 


Many of you have already learned this about me, but just in case there is still any doubt: I like to know things. I read, I watch documentaries, I go to museums, I ask a lot of questions…when I go out for a run, I don’t listen to music, I listen to a history podcast. When I was a child, I read the dictionary for fun. I’m one of those people, politically unpopular these days, who really values experts and likes to learn from them and even change my mind and my behaviour based on new facts they present. I think it’s important to read the most accurate translations of scripture and to keep up on what scholars are learning about language and history so we can know God’s word as fully as possible. I try to work out how pieces fit together and how systems work. I have a friend whose favourite word to describe me is “insufferable” because…well…I like to know things.

When I was new to faith and church, reading everything I could lay my eyes on, my minister told me one day “when you think you’ve got God figured out, what you’ve figured out is not God.” No matter how much we learn, read, study, or pray, we will never understand all there is to know about God, because God is so much more expansive, so much broader and deeper and longer and higher than our limited human minds can ever manage. 

And yet that is exactly what the author of Ephesians prays for: that the church, the body of Christ, might come to know the height, breadth, length, and depth of Christ’s love—love that surpasses knowledge.

Unfortunately, we humans seem to have an intense desire to know this thing that surpasses knowledge. Or more specifically, we want desperately to know just what is the exact height, breadth, length, and depth—what are the measurements, the boundaries of love? How big is it? Who is included in it? Where are the edges, and what do we do if we think we, or someone else, doesn’t fit the dimensions so carefully measured out? It’s as if we think the old adage “measure twice, cut once” can be applied to people—if we can just get the measurements right, then we’ll know who to cut out of our community and out of God’s community too. And those measurements always seem to look an awful lot like us, without much room for people who look, speak, act, or worship differently, and even less room for people who are not economically or politically useful to us.

Even more unfortunate is that the Church has, historically, been the one defining what it means to measure up, claiming that there are some who fall outside the boundaries of this love that just a few sentences ago was called unfathomable. We cannot quite manage to wrap our minds around the fact that the betrayer was at the table with Jesus, breaking the same bread and drinking the same cup. And so was Peter, who just hours after that first communion would deny even knowing Jesus, let alone sharing his table. And all those other disciples passed around the bread and cup with their running shoes on. By almost any standard we have set, they don’t measure up. And yet there they were.

I think it’s so interesting that when the disciples were discussing who could possibly do something so awful as betray him, they turned quickly from the painful self-examination into a discussion of who is greatest. It’s like they couldn’t manage just “I would never betray him” without following on with “because I’m the best.” I’m not sure what criteria they were using to grade their performance as disciples, but it was obviously not the same as that Jesus uses, since he had to interrupt them to remind them that what they think they know, what they think they have figured out, is not God. Instead, Jesus hands them a mystery: we all know that the one seated at the table is greater than the one who serves them, and yet he, Immanuel, God-with-us, is among us as one who serves. If we want to live into his greatness, if we want to grow up as the Body of Christ, we will find ourselves bringing together the greatest and the youngest, the servant and the leader, the Gentile and the Jew, the outsider and the insider. Not measuring or drawing borders, but rather allowing the height, depth, length, and breadth of God’s love to be unfathomable, beyond comprehension, and yet tangible, real, taking up space in our lives, in this world. 

Philosopher and theologian Diogenes Allen wrote that “Mysteries, to be known, must be entered into. For we do not solve mysteries, we enter into them. When a problem is solved, it is over and done with. We go on to other problems…But a mystery once recognised is something we are never finished with. It is never exhausted. Instead, we return to it again and again and it unfolds new levels to us.”

It is easy, I think, to get so caught up in knowing the right things, or solving the problem of how we can be loveable (or how they can be loveable), that we forget to experience God’s love. I can listen to a podcast about how language, culture, and brain synapses work together to make a joke funny, but that’s not the same thing as laughing until I can’t breathe at something a friend says. I’ve seen every documentary there is about how our food system works, but that knowledge pales in comparison to what I learned growing up on a farm. 

And so it is with love. 

When it comes to learning the true dimensions of love, there is no substitute for encountering the living God. Which is why it’s important that we put ourselves in the places where Christ has promised to reveal himself: at the table, in the word shared in community, and among the least and outcast and lonely. It is in practice that we are able to live into the mystery, and to experience beyond knowledge. 

It’s a mystery, how at the Lord’s table a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine can feed our bodies and our souls, how we are lifted up and given a glimpse of Christ’s heavenly banquet, where even those we have marginalised are honoured guests. It’s a mystery how sharing this hour together can change the way we see and act during all the other hours of our lives. It’s a mystery how giving of ourselves and our resources can make us feel full. 

Ephesians says that when we have experienced this mystery, when we have come to know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge, we will be filled with all the fullness of God. This is addressed to plural you, to the whole Church, the Body of Christ. Together, when we allow ourselves to experience the love of God in all its glorious breadth, length, height, and depth, we will find that the Church on earth becomes ever more what the Church in heaven already is, the dwelling place of God—who, remember, came among us as one who serves.

There is a video that makes the rounds of social media every now and then called “Twinkies with God.” In it, a young white American boy packs up his rucksack with Twinkies and apple juice, tells his mom he’s going to look for God, and heads out the door. He rides the subway and walks through the neighbourhood until he comes to a park bench, occupied by a middle-aged African-American woman who is homeless. He opens up his pack and offers her a Twinkie, which she accepts and begins to eat with glee. The two sit together, talking and laughing, eating Twinkies and drinking apple juice together in the park. When the boy goes home, his mother asks “did you find him?” And the boy replies “MOOOM, God is a woman and she has the most beautiful smile.” Meanwhile, the woman walks away and joins a friend sitting on the pavement with her sign and cup for change, who asks “why are you in such a good mood?” The woman answers “I just had Twinkies with God! He’s much younger than I expected.”

When we think we have God figured out, what we’ve figured out is not God. So may we come to know beyond knowledge, to love beyond borders, and find ourselves filled to overflowing with all the fullness of God, whose abundant life is more than we can ever ask or even imagine.


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