January 18, 2009

The Church: The Masterpiece of God
“Addressed by Paul”
Ephesians 1:1-2

David Parkyn, a friend and former colleague of mine in the religion department at Messiah College, grew up the son of missionaries in Guatemala. He once told me this story:
One afternoon there was a knock on the front door of our house. Two men were there, both members of a congregation located about a five day’s journey by foot over the Cuchumatane Mountains in the Midwestern highlands of Guatemala. They had come to our home primarily to seek Dad’s advice concerning several issues which had been raised in the life of their church. They asked questions about particular points of Christian doctrine as well as how they should live as Christians, especially in relationship to non-Christians.
The members of this congregation, including these two men, spoke only the Ixil language, an indigenous dialect descendent of the ancient Maya culture. At the time, only selected chapters of the Gospel of Mark had been translated into this language. Consequently, the congregation had no facility for hearing God’s Word. But since the Bible was available in Spanish and English, and since Dad spoke both of these languages, they came to him. He could read the Scriptures, tell them what it said, and they could in turn take the message back to their congregation.
That evening Dad sat down to write a letter to the people in this Ixil parish. In it he delineated what he thought was a proper response to the questions they raised. In the morning the two men received the letter and departed.
Three years later I joined Dad on a trip which took us to this and several neighboring congregations. To our great surprise, Dad’s letter had become an important part of the parish’s tradition. Since they had no Scripture to read in their services, and since they believed Dad had written the letter based on what he believed Scripture teaches, they read the letter during each of their services, much as we read Scripture in our worship traditions. In addition, several neighboring congregations had acquired hand-made copies of the letter and used it as part of their worship services as well.
It is a wonderful story, isn’t it?!? A simple letter from a caring Christian leader to a distant congregation that was struggling to find its way through various pressing issues. As David told the story, I felt as though I had been ushered back through time to the earliest years of the church when Paul and other church leaders were writing letters to nurture their congregations. In the absence of the Bible, Mr. Parkyn’s letter became for this and the other congregations who read it Scripture.

Now, to be sure, the letter that Dave’s dad wrote that day several years ago was not Scripture. You won’t find it in any of your Bibles! But this letter to the Ephesians, and the other epistles in the New Testament for that matter, were not Scripture either when first written. It was what it still is: a letter written by a concerned and experienced church leader to a congregation or group of congregations who were wrestling with their identity and mission. People like us. Churches like ours. Asking similar questions: What does it mean to be a church? How do we relate to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ? What is our responsibility to “those people” out there? And so on. When we at the Grantham Church ask such questions and seek to discern what it means to be the church in the world, as we are right now, we are not alone. We’re not unique. In fact, we’re in good company. Congregations like ours that are eager to be faithful to God and authentically present in the world have been wrestling with similar strategic issues for the last 2000 years.

In our modern, western world, of course, the methods of communication have largely changed. We probably would not write or receive letters like Ephesians and Mr. Parkyn’s. Instead, we’d use e-mail, conference calls, leadership seminars, multi-media presentations and occasional two or three-day retreats with a consultant, like the one scheduled here this week with Tim Day. But back in the first century, letters served a crucial role. Like Ephesians. Sent from the founder of the church or another spiritual leader to congregations trying to find their way. Imagine the reaction when the letter arrived. Imagine the people, gathered together to pray and worship, sitting while the letter was read. I suspect that you could have heard a pin drop.

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” the letter begins. One senses immediately a heightened level of respect and authority. It’s apparent, for one thing, that Paul himself recognizes the importance of his own role. He will later in this same letter discuss the significance of various leadership positions within the church, but he first demonstrates here his deep appreciation for his own lofty calling. Paul, the former Pharisee who hated Christians and hunted them down like wild game. That same Paul, now a father-figure to the many churches that he had planted throughout the Mediterranean world following his dramatic conversion. A man of experience and wisdom, a man tried and tested by years of Christian service. A man called by God to deliver the message of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world, invested with divine authority, speaking, not for himself, but for God. Paul doesn’t take his calling lightly. He’s not in it for fame or fortune. He is not a minister of Christ because he is ill-equipped to do anything else. He is not sloppy or careless in carrying out his work. If anything, Paul stands in awe of his God-given responsibility.

It is sad, of course, that not everyone in Christian leadership these days shares Paul’s point-of-view. Various spiritual leaders have, for their part, either taken their responsibilities too lightly or have forfeited their right to be heard altogether. Some are lazy. They don’t prepare their sermons or lessons carefully or provide oversight to the committees they chair. Others make self-serving decisions. Some intentionally misinterpret texts in order to suppress certain people or promote personal causes. Some misappropriate funds, and others take advantage of people under their care —you name it. Over $615 million of church money was spent in 2007 alone because of allegations of sexual misconduct against various “full-time” ministers. It is no surprise that many people today, particularly members of the younger generations, find it difficult to look up to religious leaders. It is perhaps not unexpected that people take their cases to court rather than to church leaders, discuss their future hopes with career counselors rather than spiritual guides, and address their issues with therapists rather than confess their sins to spiritual mentors. And in many cases, the religious leaders have no one but themselves to blame. Paul, an apostle of Christ by the will of God, takes his leadership role seriously, and so must all of us—pastors, board members, commission chairs, teachers—who provide leadership to this worshipping community.

But Paul, at the same time, clearly expects his readers to respect his authority as well. The very words that he chooses underscore the divine nature of his calling. To disrespect him and to ignore his authority is in essence to disrespect the God who sent him. Paul, to be sure, believes that all followers of Jesus are equal and valuable members of the body of Christ, all children of God. Not everyone, however, carries out the same functions within Christ’s body. By the leading and gifting of God’s Spirit, certain individuals are called out to serve in leadership positions in order to guide the church into spiritual maturity. These people, from whom a great deal is required, must be respected if the church is to function as God intends.

And, I’m thankful to add, there remain endless men and women who do live lives of great integrity and forfeit varying levels of self-advancement in order to serve Christ as leaders within the church. I’m speaking, not only of the many pastors who I have the privilege of meeting year after year in various places, but of other staff members and volunteer leaders in this congregation and others like it. People who are worthy of respect and trustworthy beyond measure. People of prayer and deep spiritual conviction. People who are at times wiser than worldly magistrates and more worthy of our admiration than the endless heroes who parade across our television screens and display their skills in athletic arenas. There has been an unmistakable breakdown in the level of authority assigned to leaders and mentors within the church, and many people, frankly, are far worse off because of it. When I read this opening line of Ephesians, I can’t get away from the word “respect.” Paul respects his calling. The churches in Ephesus and the surrounding area respect Paul.

But that’s not it. There is yet another level of respect needed for a church to be vital and healthy, and we see it in the next line: “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Paul respects the people to whom he is writing. He thinks highly of them and cares deeply about them. Just look how he addresses them. He refers to them as “saints.” It is a term that perhaps makes us quiver a bit, a term that leaves us somewhat uncomfortable. We no doubt hear the word “saint” and think either of unattainable perfection—“I’ll never be good enough to be called a ‘saint’—or of religious super-heroes—the formal “saints” of the church. So-called saints, after all, stand out in certain Christian traditions, people who have been designated “saints” by the church after years and years of noteworthy and even miraculous service. The Catholic Church, for example, has over 10,000 saints, people who have been officially canonized by the church itself.

The word “saint,” however, is at the bottom line a wonderful term. It means “chosen one” or “set apart one,” and it is a term that Paul very much liked to use when speaking to Christians of his day. These people are not just anyone—they are individuals set apart for God! Think, for a moment, of the various try-outs that have been going on in our local high schools in recent weeks, try-outs for plays, musicals and athletic teams. There is great excitement when one is chosen for this role or that, when one is recognized by the director or coach. Or on a national level, consider the honor of being chosen to serve in President-elect Obama’s cabinet. People give up all sorts of prestigious positions when they are selected by the President.

What, let me ask you, is more mind-boggling than this: being set apart for God himself? Really? What could possibly be more inspiring than to be on God’s team, acting in his play, and serving in his administration? And even more, imagine the effect that being called “saints” would have on predominantly Gentile communities like the one addressed here. All through the Old Testament, the people of Israel have been set apart for God. That is what the holy texts say. They are his special possession. But now, Paul refers to Gentiles, those previously outside of the family of God, as “saints.” It is difficult to imagine a designation more inviting, more embracing, than this one. “You are not just anybody,” Paul seems to say. “You belong to God.” Paul respects his readers. They are saints. They are faithful in Christ Jesus. They are living out their calling.

Frankly, whether I convey such sentiments enough I am not sure, but I feel much the same way about all of you. As I look out at your faces today, I don’t just see teachers, students, lawyers, professors, farmers, construction workers, doctors, retired pastors and missionaries, custodians, stay-at-home moms and dads, administrators and office workers. I see saints. People set apart for God. People living prayerfully and faithfully, sometimes in spite of great obstacles. And at a deep, deep level, I feel great respect for you and for the history and mission of this congregation. In fact, when I’m away, I make it a point not to say to much about the Grantham Church to other pastors for fear of making them jealous! Do we have much to learn? Of course. Do we hurt and struggle like other people? More than some of you might think. But we’ve been set apart, chosen by God himself to be his people in this world. What more could we possibly ask?

Paul respects his calling. The people of the church respect Paul. Paul respects the congregation. When all three of these levels of respect are in place, there is reason for hope, excitement and a great sense of anticipation. There is a foundation upon which to build. For when the calling of God, the servants of God and the people of God are cherished and respected, then God himself can move more freely and powerfully.

One final thought. Paul, as you can see, brings the opening of his letter to a close, not with a simple greeting, but with a blessing. Rather than saying “Hi,” Paul expresses a hope that the very grace and peace of God, two central ideas that we will explore later together, will overflow into the lives of his readers. Interestingly enough, Paul will repeat virtually this same blessing at the close of the letter in 6:23-24. His letter, in other words, begins and ends with what is in fact a simple prayer for these people. So I want to close this message this morning in much the same way. “May the grace and peace of God himself fill your hearts and minds.”