July 8, 2012

The News Of The Boundless Riches Of Christ

Passage: Ephesians 3:8

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.

It was near Christmas a few years ago; I read a news story of a police report about a Tennessee man who did not want his wife to know he gave $5 to a homeless man so falsely reported being robbed.  The man was charged with filing a false police report.  What I am wondering is what really happened to the five dollars.  It may be that the police interviewed the homeless person who received the money; but we are suspicious of a man who after it was found that he filed a false report of being robbed then says he really gave it to a homeless man.

We profess to treat a person innocent until proven guilty; yet once news spreads that a person has been arrested a cloud of suspicion casts a shadow.  Persons falsely accused, who are later exonerated, often find that the damage has been done and they never escape the shadow of people’s suspicion.  But when a preacher of the gospel or priest is arrested or accused of wrongdoing; that seems to be in a category all by itself in terms of being given the benefit of any doubt.

When news that the Apostle Paul had been arrested reached the Ephesian church it couldn’t have been easy.  By all accounts Paul has a very happy relationship with the Ephesian church.  The news that a minister who was instrumental in your coming to own Jesus Christ in faith; when news comes that this person is caught in some scandal it shakes us.  The good news of Jesus Christ is not any less good news because ministers have clay feet; Christ died to redeem us, clay feet and all.  But what about when the person is innocent of any wrongdoing?  There is still some uneasiness.

“I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles”, Paul explains.  He reminds them of what they know—Paul was in prison having been falsely accused.  He is in prison because he followed his calling to proclaim to the Gentiles “the news of the boundless riches of Christ”.  It point of fact a Christian man from the Ephesian church named Trophimus had been in Jerusalem with Paul when Paul was arrested.  The false accusation of Paul’s enemies—that Paul had taken some Greeks into the Temple were Gentiles were forbidden—was partly because they had seen Paul in the city with Trophimus “and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.” (Acts 21:29)

Still he knows that his being in prison may cast a shadow over the gospel he preached.  Paul knows that the hint of wrongdoing could make some hesitate.  So Paul adds, “I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you”.

We often let the behaviour of others—presumed or actual—become the source of losing heart when it comes to the faith.  I encounter people who have let the behaviour of others keep them from worship; don’t let others keep you from Christ and the means he has ordained for our being sustained in the faith.

1. By all accounts the Apostle Paul was a man capable of whatever he put his mind to do.  He had studied at the feet of the great first century rabbi Gamaliel; the best preparing him to be the best.  He had excelled to the point of being admitted to the Sanhedrin as soon as his age permitted.  He was a craftsman tentmaker.  His brilliance was evident in how he spoke; Festus the Roman governor said his problem was he had too much learning.  His persecution of the church and then later his itinerate ministry to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles is evidence of a man with lots of energy and passion.

I point this out to you and invite you to note that Paul had loads of choices; choices that would have allowed him to make a very comfortable life for himself.  He doesn’t need to be in Nero’s prison.  Why does he do this?  In a word, it is because he possesses and is possessed by “the news of the boundless riches of Christ.  For Paul, nothing rises above this in importance for life; life has lots of important things but this tops them all.

John Wesley was a graduate and fellow of Oxford University with lots of options for life. He has a heroic public image based on a life-style that approached epic proportions.  The traditional rehearsal of the statistics of his life speaks for itself: 250,000 miles traveled on horseback, over 40,000 sermons preached during a span of sixty-six years, more that 400 publications on nearly every conceivable topic, all of these activities continuing almost to his dying day in his eighty-eighth year.  It should also be noted that the greater portion of the 40, 000 sermons preached occurred after 1738; after that moment when he knows his sins forgiven in Christ; after that moment when he comes to experience of the boundless riches of Christ. Most of his preaching occurred in this latter period when he preached up to 4 times per day.

What possess Wesley?  Surely it is the same that possesses the Apostle Paul; of first importance for life are the boundless riches of Christ.  As Wesley viewed the awful living conditions for many in 18th century England he was possessed of a passion that there is nothing that lifts human life like gospel.  When I pause to consider the way that the gospel of Jesus Christ has salted the democracy we live under for good I am grateful for the preaching of both the Apostle Paul and Wesley; their commitment to proclaim what is of first importance.  The riches of Christ are indeed boundless.  Paul’s ministry is at work today as we study his letters; Wesley’s ministry gave rise to the Methodist church in Canada that had great influence in our country.  Edgerton Ryerson, for example, whose work in Ontario gave rise to an education available to all children, was a Methodist minister.

Being possessed by the news of the boundless riches of Christ isn’t just for preachers.  To be sure, the role of those who proclaim is to lift up the One who is of first importance and it is good if they are convinced that Jesus holds this primary place.  But every Christian is a bearer of this news and it works its way out in the particulars of our lives as we engage in the world.  The believer in Christ convinced of his primacy for her life renders the kind of obedience the gospel enjoins; eager, glad, grateful self-abandonment to the "character" God wills for me.  It is through such obedience that we are the salt of the earth.  It is through this that we experience the riches of Christ that touch all areas of living; or as Paul put it, “that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known”.

Gerry Organ is the chair of Purpose at Work, a nationwide partnership initiative facilitated by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.  “A person’s work is an act of worship. You don’t leave your business to go into ministry. Your ministry is in business.”  Never underestimate what Christ is working through you in your obedience to him as you work.  Work, by the way, was ordained of God as a good thing.

Our world says wealth, fame, popularity, personal fulfillment are of first importance and people giving themselves to these pursuits impacts how they treat people around them both in the work and personal lives.  The believer who knows to put Christ first finds that in him there is a different ordering of what is truly important; and ordering that promotes good for people; an ordering that helps the challenged; an ordering that looks past the surface and loves people.  Such ordering makes a difference in how the believer works.

In his book Have a Little Faith Mitch Albom relates a story from a sermon of his Rabbi that touches on this point of having our sense of importance shaped by our faith.

A man seeks employment on a farm.  He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer.  It reads simply, “He sleeps in a storm.” The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man.  Several weeks pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley.  Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed.  He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly.

So he dashes off to the barn.  He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed.  He runs out to the field.  He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins. He races to the silo.  The doors are latched, and the grain is dry.  And then he understands.  “He sleeps in a storm.”

Friends, it seems to me that if we cling to Christ as of first importance and order the other important things of life in line with obedience to him we will tend to the important is such a way that we can sleep in a storm.  Is this not why Paul can write with such a clear mind and heart “I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus”?  Such is the boundlessness of the riches of Christ.

“Who are the happiest people?” asks The Huffington Post. “According to a new report from Gallup, it’s those who regularly go to a place of worship.   And maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, but the churchgoers’ positive emotions are especially high on Sundays—while everyone else actually sees a decline in mood on that day, according to the findings of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.”  Perhaps you know that song by Kris Kristofferson Sunday Morning Coming Down; it is a rather melancholy piece that describes the decline in mood for the way many experience Sunday.  The lyrical description of the mood says, “‘Cos there's something in a Sunday, Makes a body feel alone.”

2. I know that the heat of July makes it feel unnatural to be talking of the Christmas story.  Every year on Epiphany Sunday, at the beginning of January, the Common Lectionary guides us to read the story of the Magi who have seen the star and come in search of the one born King of the Jews.  It is a story that witnesses that Israel’s Messiah is the Saviour of the world; he is for the Gentiles as well.

The Epistle reading appointed for Epiphany Sunday is the text we are examining in this sermon—Ephesians 3:1-13.  Paul speaks of the coming of Christ into the world as ... “the mystery of Christ (now)  made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  Epiphany means the appearance; or as Paul summarizes “for the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all”. (Titus 2:11) (“Appeared” is the Greek word we get the English word “Epiphany” from).

By mystery Paul does not mean something incomprehensible because he invites us to read his understanding of the gospel in the summary that precedes in his letter; I think he refers to 1:3-14. Rather, by mystery he means it was something unknown until God was pleased to reveal it.

The story of the Bible is that though humanity turned its back on God, God has not abandoned humanity to their foolishness.  It is true that when our first parents distrust the goodness of God and choose to experience what God has marked as out-of-bounds, God sends them out of the Garden of Eden.  This is not God abandoning his people but his opposition to their sin; sin that destroys the very life he gave them and loves.  God refuses to abandon humanity always maintaining a witness to himself in the world; then calling Abraham to form a nation who will bear that witness.  The witness continues in the Exodus and the giving of the ten words.  In the fullness of time God sent his Son, Israel’s grater Son, and made the way for any to share in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel.  As Paul noted in is earlier summary of the gospel: “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Paul has dedicated himself to the proclamation of the boundless riches of Christ.  They are boundless in that in Christ is the restoration of all things; the world created good in every way, now riddled by sin, will one day be restored to its original goodness.  They are also boundless in that there is no boundary that can prevent a person from Christ’s salvation; the Jew/Gentile boundary does not exist in Christ.  As Paul said in his defense before King Agrippa; “To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”

I once read the story of an Ontario woman named Rose Crawford; she had been blind for 50 years. Then she underwent delicate surgery in hospital. "I just can't believe it," she gasped, as the doctor lifted the bandages from her eyes. For the first time in her life she saw a beautiful world of form and color.

The tragic part of her story was that twenty years of her blindness had been completely unnecessary. The surgical techniques used could have given her vision when she was thirty; the operation had already been perfected then. The doctor said, "She just figured there was nothing that could be done about her condition."

Paul said he preached the gospel so “everyone could see”; the root of the word “to see” is the word for “light”.  The good news of the gospel is its boundlessness; the cure exists and no boundary can prevent a person from “seeing” the boundless riches of Christ.