Three months later they returned home and were met by the wealthy parishioner. The surprise for him, he had had a new church built. "It's the finest building money can buy, pastor," said the man, "No expense was spared." And he was right. It was built in a style that reflected the traditional worship spaces. But there was one striking difference. There was only one pew and it was at the very back. "A church with only one pew?" asked the preacher.
"You just wait until Sunday." said the rich man.
When the time came for the Sunday service, the early arrivals entered the church, filed onto that lone back pew and sat down. When the pew was full, a switch clicked silently, a circuit closed, the gears meshed, a belt moved and, automatically, the rear pew began to move forward. When it reach the front of the church it came to a stop. At the same time, another empty pew came up from below at the back and more people sat down. And so it continued, pews filling and moving forwards until finally everyone was seated and the front of the church was full!
"Wonderful!" said the preacher, "Marvelous!"
The service began, and the pastor started to preach his sermon. He launched into his text and he was still going strong when 11 o'clock came. Suddenly a bell rang and a trap door in the floor behind the pulpit dropped open.
"Wonderful!" said the congregation, "Marvelous!"
I'm focusing on the reading from Ephesians today. I'm doing something kind of rare for me, for our church for that matter. We will look at this passage verse by verse. Now, that may take a little longer than you are used to...but I checked and there is no trap door so here goes. Please follow along in your bulletin.
The passage begins, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” The author of the book of Ephesians is thought by many to be Paul. But there are enough grammatical differences in the Greek that many question his authorship. In any case, I will say Paul wrote it. This is one of my favorite passages because it gives such honor to God while acknowledging our need for God's help to know what God has called us to. It begins with acknowledging that it all starts with faith in Jesus.
Paul has been away, but hears of their faith- most likely from fellow travelers. As their mentor, as their friend, he gives thanks to God for that saving faith. He does this in in prayer; prayers of thanksgiving. But then he shares with them the kind of intercessory prayers he has been praying. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,”. A prayer for wisdom and revelation. Wisdom in how to live in light of the gospel; revelation... that seems a little more complex. But it is a timely question- for our verse of the month from Michael is at least partly inspired by the question of revelation. The text on the Affirmation of Creation begins like this, “From early in its life the Christian church has affirmed metaphorically that God is the author of two books of revelation: the Book of Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) and the Book of Nature.” God is revealed by God's word... we affirm that I think. But God is also revealed in nature. So often we fear that science is denying God's creative power. But the statement goes on to say, “Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time.” Time doesn't permit to look at all the arguments, but the idea of God's revelation in nature is not dead. There are many professing Christians among modern scientists. I share this quote from Alan Sandage (winner of the Crawford prize in astronomy): "I find it quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing." Wisdom and revelation...we would do well to pray for that for each other as Paul did.
Next comes one of my favorite phrases in the bible, “so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened.” You should ask as we read this, how can we have the eyes of our hearts enlightened? The heart doesn't have eyes! But, as is always the case when studying scripture, we need to look back at what the writer meant when this was written. Today, we think of the heart as being the center of emotion. We love with our heart. But 2000 years ago, the center of our emotions was considered the gut, we'd love, not with our whole heart, but from the gut. The heart was considered the site of reason or intellectual thought. So this isn't an emotional plea as much as it is a prayer for understanding. Today the prayer might be worded, “with the insights of your brain enlightened.” We need to have both; the emotional connection with God in faith comes from our heart but it must also include our intellect, our brains. We don't check our minds at the door when we become a Christian.
Paul goes on to list the specifics that he prays for the Ephesian church and... for us. It is to know hope, to realize our inheritance in Christ and to know the Power of the Lord. Let's look at these one at a time.
Hope: He writes of the hope of the Lord's calling. We often think of our hope in the Lord as hope for eternal life, the second coming of Jesus, the eschatology of the end times. But that doesn't seem to be Paul's intent here. To what does the Lord call us? To relationship. To spiritual maturing. To serve others. To be fulfilled in the things of God. Hope grows as we grow in the Lord. In another place Paul wrote about maturing from the milk of an infant in the faith to the solid food of a maturing faith. As that happens, our hope grows...and it grows because Jesus calls us as children of God.
Inheritance: not just an inheritance, but the riches of his inheritance. The Interpreter's Bible suggests this inheritance is seen in John's vision in the book of Revelation. Holy beings surrounding the throne of God, praising the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We, too, will be “clothed with glory” and may hear the words similar to what Jesus spoke in today's gospel, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” But as is clear from the gospel, we have our part to do in living out the love of God.
Power: God's power, as we learned in Sunday School growing up, is infinite. But in this created world, God has chosen to limit that power and give us free will. So the writer is not talking about what God can do, but what God has done, particularly in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. God's power has been displayed in that victory over death...death where is thy victory, death, where is thy sting? Death does not get the final word because God is more powerful than death. And Jesus is still at work as the verse continues, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand.”
So where is Jesus seated? Literally or figuratively, Paul places him at the right hand of God. When we recite the Apostles' creed, we affirm this same idea. The place is not what is important, is is his “place” in the universe, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” This is Christ the King Sunday, a Sunday the church sets aside to acknowledge what Paul wrote. But I'd say the title King is not a sufficient term for Jesus; he is above every king, above all rulers, greater than any earthly authority, any earthly power, ranking higher than any other name we could name. Paul wrote this late in the first century but it stands today and it will stand in the age to come, when Jesus comes again in glory.
Christ the King Sunday...what kind of King is Jesus? Our Old Testament lesson gives us a picture of this king who came to earth not to be served, but to serve; not to lord it over us, but to watch over us. “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered.... I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; I will feed them with good pasture,...they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,.. says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, I will feed them with justice.” It is a picture of a king who loves, who cares, a king with compassion and grace. And so this picture of a king makes the last line of our Ephesians reading a comfort rather than an image to be feared, “And he has put all things under his 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.” Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus is the head of the Church universal. Jesus is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep, cares for us. And in that we have hope and peace and assurance.
The title of my sermon is based on the hymn written by Frances Crosby, and she wrote it in spite of a life filled with trials. When she was only six weeks old a doctor applied a mustard plaster poultice to her eyes, making her totally blind. Yet, she began writing hymns when she was 6. When she was 9, she wrote these verses: “O what a happy soul am I, Although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I will be. How many blessings I enjoy that other people don’t. To weep and sigh because I’m blind? I cannot, and I won’t.”
During her lifetime, Fanny Crosby wrote eight thousand hymns but “Blessed Assurance” is one of the most well known. God wants us to have assurance and that our assurance be founded on faith and what Paul calls, “confident hope.” But, what is our “confident hope?” And of what are we assured? I have memorized this passage from Ephesians because it tells me just what it is I can be assured of; God's care, God's answers to prayer, an assurance of a heavenly inheritance, God's power to overcome evil in this world, and to overcome evil for eternity. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, Jesus is yours, Jesus is King. Amen.
Hymn: Blessed Assurance