Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, December 15, 2018
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God's Secret Plan

Ephesians 3:1-12

 I heard a riddle one time.  I think it came from the book The Hobbit.  It went like this:  “If you have me, you’ll want to share me.  But if you share me, you won’t have me.  What am I?”  The answer is:  A secret.

 Do you have any secrets?  If so, secret from whom?  Where do you keep your secrets?  We usually want to keep things that are valuable secret and safe.  Safes are a good choice, though maybe not as popular as the bottom of your sock drawer.  

 Well here we learn that God has a secret, but he doesn’t to keep it to himself.  He wants to share his secret with the whole world.  It is a secret that has changed and is continuing to change the world.  God’s secret is that he is creating for himself a people, a new people, a people set free from the power of sin and joined together for a common task and a common destiny.  Paul helps us to know God’s secret because he was chosen for that task.  

 Though at the moment Paul was writing these words, he may have been tempted to think that he had been chosen for nothing, because Paul was writing from prison.  Ephesus is one of several letters of Paul written from his imprisonment in Rome, as he was awaiting his trial before Caesar.  

 He had been arrested in Jerusalem several years earlier on a charge of disturbing the peace.  Eventually, he was sent to Caesarea Philippi.  There he was kept in prison for some time because it was easier to keep him there than to sort the situation out and either put him on trial or release him.  When it became apparent that he had no way out of Caesarea Philippi, he appealed his case to Caesar, which meant that he had to be sent to Caesar.  And then for two years, he was held in Rome, to await his trial, or to be released if charges were never pressed.  

 It’s easy to dismiss someone in jail.  After all, a person in jail has no status, no influence, no power.  They are easy to discredit.  And it would be easy for Paul to feel ashamed of his circumstances and to want to avoid any kind of attention.  But that was not how Paul saw his imprisonment.  He saw himself as a prisoner of Jesus or maybe better, a prisoner for Jesus.  He saw every part of his life and his circumstance as part of his calling.  

 Perspective changes things.  Our perspective changes our circumstances.  Rather than seeing himself as a person to be ashamed of, or a victim of powers beyond his control, Paul saw himself as a man on a mission.  And his mission made him bold.  Even from prison, he was bold.  

 He was bold because he knew that he had been chosen for a special task, the task of revealing God’s grace to the Gentiles.  Now Paul was not the first to do this.  Philip introduced an Ethiopian to Jesus.  Paul brought the gospel into the home of a Roman centurion.  But Paul was set apart for the singular task of sharing the Gospel with all people.  And to be sure, he was an unlikely person for the job.  He was a Pharisee, part of a group of Jews who especially did not believe that God’s grace extended beyond the Hebrew people.  But God chooses unlikely people.  He even chose us to be a part of his work in the world!

 God revealed his secret or his mystery to Paul.   In the Scriptures, the word “mystery” often refers to God’s plan for history, which is revealed to the wise by the Holy Spirit.  This mystery, Paul says, was not revealed to previous generations.  

 Now we might take issue with that.  Was it really not revealed until Paul that God intended to make salvation available to all people, not just one nation?  For example, Genesis 12, verse 3:  God says to Abraham that his descendants would become a light to the nations.  So from the very beginning, there was an expressed idea that God was concerned for all people.  And when Israel came out of slavery in Egypt, many other slaves went out with them.  Some of the Egyptians even joined them, having seen the power of their God.  And from the very beginning there was a provision made for Gentiles to come into the covenant people.

 But it’s easy for us to see all of this from our perspective.  We’re looking back from our understanding of the gospel.  But it was not widely understood even by the very first Christians that God intended salvation through Jesus to be available to all.  And there were stumbling blocks.  The first Christians struggled with the question:  Can a Gentile be saved without first becoming a Jew, coming under the Mosaic Law?

 But if you go back a chapter in Ephesians, you find an explanation:  Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic Law.  He fulfilled it, and in so doing ended it.  He died once for all, both Jew and Gentile, ending the hostility of an “exclusive covenant.”   And in so doing broke down the wall of hostility that separated Jew and Gentile.   

 Whenever one group sets themselves apart from others for any reason, they invariably create some measure of hostility.  Over the summer I had the chance to see the movie Invictus, which tells the story of the South African Rugby team that won the World Cup in 1997 and helped to unite the nation after apartheid ended.  One of the struggles they had is that before apartheid ended, rugby was seen as a white man’s game.  And the black South Africans, not wanting to play a white man’s game, all played soccer instead.  When the national rugby team played, the black population would root for the other team.  But Nelson Mandela saw the national rugby team as a way to unite the nation, and succeeded in getting the whole nation to root for them, breaking down the wall of hostility between black and white, turning a “white man’s game” into a South African game. 

 Now for us in Christ, there is one covenant, a covenant of faith in Jesus Christ, a covenant that offers hope to all.   Both Jew and Gentile who believe share in the inheritance of God.  In the Old Testament, the word inheritance, when related to God, most often meant the Promised Land, the land of Canaan; that was the inheritance of God’s people.  But now in the New Covenant, inheritance has a new meaning:  God’s inheritance is eternal life and the new creation, the new heaven and earth.  

 Verse 6 has three nouns to describe the Church that all use the prefix syn.  Syn in Greek means together.  In Christ, we are co-heirs, co-members of body, and co-partners.  We are heirs together of God’s inheritance.  We are members together of his body.  And we are partners together in God’s work.  We look forward to the same reward because we are part of the same body and do the same work.  No matter who we are outside of Christ; this is who we are in Christ.  

 Paul writes that he was honored to be chosen by God to make this mystery known, even though he was the least deserving of God’s people.  That was probably Paul making fun of his own name.  The Greek name Paulos meant “small” or “least.”  So Paul, though he was small and unworthy, he was chosen by God’s grace to make God’s plan for history known.  God was making a new people, not united by their birth, but united by their second birth as children of God through faith in Jesus Christ, united together for a common purpose:  to give glory to God and to share his good news.  

 This is not our story.  This is God’s story.  This is not because of who we are or what we have done, but because of who God is and what he has done.  It all comes back

to God, and his Church represents his purpose for history:  a new people united for a common task.  

 The Church is a reversal of the fall of this creation.  This past fall in Bible study, we were looking at the first chapters of the book of Genesis.  Those chapters are there to explain from God’s perspective why the world is the way it is.  Why is there death in the world?  Because of sin.  Why is there suffering?  Because we rejected God and put ourselves in his place.

 One of the interesting stories in the beginning of Genesis is the story of the Tower of Babel.  People come together to build a grand monument to their own greatness.  But God confuses them, mixes up their language, and they lose their identity and go their separate ways.

 The Church is God reversing those things that happened in Genesis.  God puts a new spirit in us, a spirit that is responsive to God.  And that spirit seeks God’s will rather than our own.  That is the new birth in Jesus Christ.  And through the Holy Spirit, we are united together for a common purpose: to give glory to God and to work for the restoration of this world through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

 Verse 12 says that because of Christ and our faith in him, we have boldness. The word boldness refers to the openness and honest that only exists between friends.  We have boldness before God because we are part of his plan for history.  

 But do we have boldness before the world?  Are we bold in sharing what God is doing? We’re not even in prison. What excuse do we have for not being bold in sharing what God is doing?  

 I sincerely believe this to be true:  The Church is the best hope for the world.  Not politicians, or technology, or our own creativity or effort.  The Church is the best hope for the world because of the power of God.  Are we bold in our task of being the hope of the world?

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