Sermon: When God Imagines A Church
Scripture: Ephesians 1:3-14; 3:20
Over the holidays, I was reading an article about Olympic champions and several of them made the same point. Physically, they were not superior to their competitors but often made the difference was their mental preparation to compete. When asked what that mental preparation involved, more than one said that part of their routine was to spend time imagining what it would look like to cross the finish line ahead of everyone else. They imagine how a winning race would unfold. If you stop and think about it, imagination is often the key to a successful life. Now we call it many things. Sometimes we talk about dreaming. Sometimes we speak of vision. If you break it down to its most basic elements, success is often in direct proportion to what we can imagine. Of course, one of the greatest examples in the last century has been Walt Disney. He believed that human beings are only limited by their imagination. He once said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” In fact, the employees of all of the Disney enterprises are called “imagineers”. The Disney empire was built on imagination. If we can imagine great things, we can accomplish great things.
As we begin the new year, I wanted to take a few Sundays for us to imagine what an already great church like St. Luke could become in 2015 and beyond. You see, I think that in essence that was what the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus was all about. And so he writes, in part:
Read Ephesians 1:3-14 and 3:20
Let us Pray
Now there are two things that Paul wants us to know when we start imagining what the church could become. The first thing is that the church at Ephesus is already a strong church. Perhaps the strongest of all of the churches that Paul had planted in his journeys. Paul had planted the church at Ephesus on the second of his journeys through what was then Asia Minor and is now Turkey. Ephesus at the time was one of the largest cities in the Empire. It was a center of trade and culture. Because of its location on the Aegean Sea, it became a blend of Greek, Asian and Roman culture. Paul knew that it was a very tough place to be in ministry. In fact, he had been forced to flee Ephesus for fear of his life. Paul had a great appreciation for the church that had remained faithful and steadfast in the midst of that cosmopolitan, and sometimes hostile environment. It is believed that he wrote the letter to the church at Ephesus when he was in prison in Rome, awaiting trial and eventual execution. Paul wrote the letter to commend the Ephesians for who they were and to encourage them to become even more. “Imagine how immeasurably more the church could become”, he writes. I think those are words are so appropriate for us as we begin to “imagine a church”. Make no mistake about it; St. Luke is a wonderful church. As a District Superintendent in two different districts, I had the privilege of supervising about 120 churches of all sizes and in all kinds of locations. I can honestly say that I knew then that, of all those churches, St. Luke was the strongest. Until I came to share in ministry with you, I had no idea just how strong you really were. As I reflect back on 2014 and especially the Thanksgiving/Christmas season, I continue to be in awe of the number of people whose lives were touched through our ministry together. And so when we talk about imagining a church the words of Paul to the Ephesians should resound when in essence, he says: you are a strong and faithful church and imagine how immeasurably more you can become. When the staff began talking about imagining goals for the church in the coming year, we began by identifying the strengths of the church. We said that St. Luke is a strong church because we:
*strive to reach people that no one else is reaching
*that we are intentional in discipling people towards Christian maturity
* that we exhibit a spirit of boldness which translates into a willingness to make hard and courageous decisions
* we are unapologetically United Methodist which means that we embrace our connection with thousands of churches all around the world
* we are friendly and open
* we are constantly striving towards excellence in worship
*we are a place of healing and wholeness*
* we have many strong and faithful leaders in the church.
This is who we are, we said, now let’s imagine how immeasurably more we can become. Our process was very much based on the Biblical principal that God had given us much and that to those He has given much, He expects so much more. Ephesians, Paul writes, you have remained faithful and served well in a difficult place to serve. Just imagine how immeasurably more you can become.
Secondly, Paul wants the Ephesians to remember that the church emerges from the imagination of God, and not our own. It is very clear that Paul is not talking about the Ephesians doing immeasurably more on their own, but rather it is God doing immeasurably more through them. Paul believes that our faith and the church is our inheritance from God, through Christ. When Paul writes to the Ephesians about our inheritance from Christ, our understanding of that can be influenced by our experiences with our earthly inheritances. Paul is saying that: The church is of God and as such we are the heirs of the faith upon which it was built. When we read Paul’s words here, we need to understand inheritance from the perspective of the first century listener to whom Paul was writing, especially from the Jewish understanding from which Paul wrote. You see, for Paul and his listeners, inheritance was not a matter of passing on estates and wealth as much as it was passing on the responsibility for the estate. There were no wills. The inheritance, by law, passed to the first-born son. Which meant not so much that he possessed the estate, that he owned it, but rather that it became his responsibility to manage. To care for the family. To run the farm. To provide for his mother and any others in the household. ith that inheritance came the blessing.
Remember the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob tricked Esau into giving up his birthright and tricked his father into giving him the blessing, which meant the estate, instead of Esau, who was the first-born son.
One of the reasons that the older brother was so angry in the story of the Prodigal son was that his father had given his brother “his share of the estate”. In reality, first century listeners would have known that the younger son did not have a share of the estate, no responsibility, unless the older brother gave it to him. Remember on the cross, Jesus looked at His mother, and then He looked at John the disciple who was not a relative, and he said: ‘Woman behold your son. John behold your mother.” Those were words that spoke to inheritance. Jesus was passing on his inheritance, his estate to John. Since Jesus had no earthly possessions, all He had to pass on was the responsibility of caring for his mother. So it was for the church. Remember what He said to Peter after Peter confessed his faith in Christ. “Upon this rock I will build MY church.” It was not to be Peter’s church, or the Disciples church. He says “my church.” Paul says to the Ephesians, you have become heirs to Christ’s church. It is not their church. It is not Paul’s church or Peter’s church. It is Christ’s church and what you have inherited is the responsibility of caring for the church.
Now as modern day disciples, as those who have inherited that church, we have been entrusted with its care. Paul will return to this idea in his letter to his young friend Timothy when he writes: “Timothy, my son (there is that term of inheritance), keep what has been entrusted to your care.”
So what is it that Paul has in mind, when he speaks to the Ephesians about their inheritance?
First of all, Paul redefines the concept of who can inherit because he says that all are adopted by Christ and become “heirs” of the Kingdom. It’s not just the first-born. In fact, he says that we are predestined to become heirs of the Kingdom. Now when Paul talks of predestination, he does not mean that some are chosen and some aren’t, but rather that all are born with the predisposition to be heirs of the Kingdom. One writer, in commenting on this passage, writes:
Often, when we speak about the blessings God has given us, we are thinking of material things or observable events: the bounty of the land, the cycles of the seasons, the goodness of our parents, the peace and freedom of our land, our health, our financial well being and so forth. But Paul is not thinking of any of those things. Rather he is talking about blessings so different from material things that they have to be described as belonging to “heavenly places”.
These are the gifts of God that connect us with our inward being, in that part of us that yearns for the sky, for beauty, for contentment, for goodness or for truth. These things are qualities of the spirit, or hungers of the personality, and they are hints of an existence greater than we are. In other words, one gift or blessing God gives us is the ability to sense that in addition to being part of this world, we have a stake in another one as well. God has planted a “hunger” within us that causes us to reach for another kind of connection. Essentially, He has implanted within us the gift of imagination. Through His Spirit in us, we can imagine becoming immeasurably more than we are.
There is nothing exclusive about God’s inheritance. The Kingdom of God is meant to come to everyone. The church is meant to be for all people. In Paul’s words, Jesus “made us (all) accepted in the Beloved.” The only way that we can be excluded is if we choose to exclude ourselves. Paul’s vision is of a church where, in the midst of a world that is fractured and divided, everyone could come despite their differences and have an equal share in God’s Kingdom.
In his book, All I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum writes about the town of Weiser, Idaho. It is a sleepy little town of about 4,000 people except on the last week of June, when it is the home of the Grand National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest. On this particular week, fiddlers from all over the world, come to Weiser, Idaho. When it started the fiddle players were pretty straight-laced, shorthaired country folks. Over the years, the group of participants has changed. Longhaired hippies began to show up. People with tattoos as well as others wearing leather jackets riding motorcycles are seen. In observing this change, Fulghum asked one of the old-timers what he thought about this new crowd and he replied “ I don’t care who they are or how they look. They can have a bone in their nose as far as I’m concerned. It don’t matter. If you can fiddle, you’re all right with me. It’s the music we make that counts.” And then he winked at Fuighum and said, ”You know, sometimes the world seems like a mighty fine place.”
That’s the vision of the church that Paul was sharing with the Ephesians, a place where everyone can find safety and be welcome. That is what makes the church “a mighty fine place.” A place where Jesus Christ is in every life, straight from the imagination of God.
As we thought about that as a staff, we began to imagine what that might look like. The first thing we imagined was a church where all these people that we were serving through God’s Pantry, Kid’s Cafe, the Alms fund, Upward and all of the other outreach ministries of the church, hundreds of people every week, were not just coming to the church to be served but were actually becoming a part of the church. They were serving others as well as being served.
When I was working the assembly line for the Thanksgiving baskets several weeks ago, a mother was there with her two children. I had not seen them before and, at first, I thought that they were there to pick up a basket and had gotten a little misplaced. I introduced myself to the mother and asked if I could help her. She said that they had come to help with the distribution. And then she said that they came to the church because of Upwards basketball and saw all of the people who were willing to give their time and abilities to serve them. She wanted her children to have the opportunity to know what it was like to give back.
Imagine a church full of people like that. And so in our imaginings we saw a church where people were not just coming to be served by the church, but to serve in the church. We said how immeasurably more we could do, we could be, if we could integrate 300 people who first came to be served into the ongoing ministries of the church in 2015. 300 new servants in God’s church.
Secondly, Paul tells us that though we inherit in this world, we should imagine an inheritance that is eternal. An inheritance in the heavenly realms. It is that hope which will see us through the difficulties of this world. Certainly Paul knew about the sustaining power of hope in that eternal inheritance. He writes these words to the Ephesians from a Roman dungeon. Twice he was imprisoned while preaching to the Ephesians. He had physical afflictions. He was beaten and stoned. Shipwrecked. And the Ephesians themselves were being persecuted. Yet Paul can point to the eternal inheritance that is through and yet is, Jesus Christ. The church is that place where we place our hopes for eternity.
We often say that the church began at Caesarea Phillipi when Peter confessed Jesus as Lord. I think it happened much earlier than that, when Jesus gathered His disciples and sent them out in pairs with the instructions to be in ministry as they had seen Him ministering to others. And so they go, and their ministries are blest and they return to Jesus with great joy and enthusiasm. I believe that’s what God imagines His church to be. A place of hope, joy and enthusiasm for our faith and for serving.
You know, sometimes we can become complacent in our faith. Lose our joy and enthusiasm. Stop imagining how immeasurably more we can be. I think that’s what happened to the Ephesians. Paul wrote this letter about 60 A.D. But just 35 years later, when John wrote about his Revelation, he says that the church at Ephesus had lost their joy and enthusiasm. Their first love. They had become comfortable – complacent. Do the things you did at first, John says to them.
Paul knew and John knew that complacency and imagination cannot coexist in the church. God’s imagining challenges us to move beyond our comfort zone. Become uncomfortable in our faith so that God can make us immeasurably more than we are. The danger for a strong church like St. Luke is that we become comfortable with who we are and what we’re doing. Look at these goals. We could set as our goal 20 new persons integrated into the life of the church and 50 first time guests in worship and 10 public professions of faith and 50% retention of new members. At that, we would be doing better than most churches. But we could achieve all of those goals by simply doing a little more of what we’re already doing. Those goals would not stretch us to imagine being immeasurably more than we are. I believe that God gave us these big goals in order to break us out of our comfort zone. The imagination of God is bold because it encompasses not just this church or community or even world, it encompasses all of eternity. t is imagination without limits and calls us to be His heirs, His people, His church without limits. That is our inheritance. Our responsibility. As heirs of the kingdom.
The final thing that Paul wants the Ephesians to know and us to think about this morning is that this inheritance from God is ours for the asking. But we have to claim it, accept it, claim it as ours. For the church to become immeasurably more, we, all of us, have to want it to happen. Now that may seem like a strange thing to say. But in every church there are those who are content with the way things are and will oppose doing anything differently. Oppose change at all. We must not just imagine the church being immeasurably more than it is, but all of us have to work for it. Make it happen in cooperation with God’s Holy Spirit. Paul says to the Ephesians that God desires to do immeasurably more than they could ever imagine, through them. Becoming disciples begins, I think, when we accept His inheritance for ourselves.
All of this talk about normalizing relations with Cuba has harkened us back to the 1960s and the Cold War with the Communist block of countries. In 1961, at the height of that war, the Russian Ballet was returning from a triumphant tour of the west. The star of the ballet was Rudolf Nureyev. And in the Paris airport, just as they were preparing to board the plane for their last flight home to Russia, Nureyev made a break for it and ran into the custody of two French custom agents. In spite of the protests of the Russian officials, the agents took Nureyev into an office and they told him he would have to do two things. First, he would have to sign an official request for political asylum, and secondly he must spend time alone in that office deciding if that was really what he wanted to do. They told him that there were two doors out of the office. One led back to the area where the plane was boarding, and the other led into the chief customs agent’s office who would grant his request for asylum. One door led to home and friends. The other door led to a strange new world, many hardships, but freedom. With that, they left him alone to contemplate his choice. In time, Nureyev stood up and opened the door to the head customs officer and stepped into freedom.
It is our choice to make, Paul tells us. Our inheritance is there for us to claim. We do nothing to earn it. It is given to us through the grace of Jesus Christ. “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus said. All we have to do is open it and He will come in and everything He has will be ours.
Friends, are you ready to become heirs of the church of Jesus Christ? Church, are we ready to inherit the Kingdom that is eternal in the heavens and are we ready to accept the responsibility of that inheritance on the earth? Because I believe that as we move into a new year that is our choice today. In a very real sense, we, as a church, are faced with two doors. One of those doors leads to where we are. The comfortable and the familiar. But if we choose the other door we can step into the imagination of God and become immeasurably more than we already are. Will you join me in exploring God’s imaginings for our life and our church?