THE WORD Ephesians 3:1-14
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles– for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not 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. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 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, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.
MESSAGE “The Mystery” Rev. James Renfrew
Have you ever had a coach? In sports, for sure. The last time I had a sports coach was when I played on the golf team at Severna Park High School in Maryland. My shining moment happened when the five other team members split their matches with the other team, so it all came down to me the number six golfer on a six member team, with all of the other players having finished ahead of me standing around the 18th green watching intently as I lined up the putt that could save the day for the team. I made the putt! Woo-hoo! It was my moment of glory.
So how many of you have played a sport with a coach? You can have a coach for things besides sports. There are job coaches, voice coaches, acting coaches and birth coaches, too. Can you think of any other kinds?
So I have a coach, Harry, and he is a coach for pastors. I met him at a training conference organized by Auburn Theological Seminary nine years ago. All of the participants at the conference were assigned a coach. And I’ve stuck with Harry ever since. I haven’t seen Harry in the last nine years, but we usually talk on the phone for an hour once each month. I send him some of my sermons, and also talk about some of the challenges that I face as a pastor. Harry’s guidance is spiritual and practical.
This week I was on the phone with Harry and we got to talking about my message for today on the subject of “mystery”. In today’s reading from Ephesians I notice that the word mystery appears four times. And there it is, in verse 4, Paul writes about the “mystery of Christ”. So with Harry I talked about two ways to understand the word “mystery”.
The first way to understand mystery is to think of a TV show that features detectives. We seem to watch a lot of these at our house. One that we’re watching right now is called “Shetland”, a murder mystery set in the remote Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, in the cold North Sea. Robin and I are actually planning to go there next summer on vacation, so it seems like a good orientation to life on the islands to watch this show. But with a murder in every episode I finally wonder why we are going to what appears to be the murder capital of the British Isles. Surely there must be safer places to go!
But you have seen murder mysteries centered in New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Seattle, the detectives interview witnesses and suspects, sift through seemingly unconnected bits of evidence, run DNA tests, and finally narrow down the case to name perpetrators, who are charged and brought to court for trial and sentencing. So there was a crime, and the mystery is to figure out who did it, and at the end of the show the mystery is solved!
But there is a second kind of mystery, and this is what Paul is talking about in his letter. When Paul talks about the mystery of Christ there is not a crime to be solved, there is not a perpetrator to be found. The mystery is that God has a plan with Jesus that we barely understand. But for Paul this is not a problem, it’s is meant to leave us in awe of the power and miracle of Christ. In seeking to understand Jesus there are going to be some things that will never be fully explainable or understandable. Someone who likes solving mysteries on TV or in novels will be frustrated by Paul’s use of the word. If you want Jesus Christ all spelled out in detail, if you want something to be solved, you may be disappointed. Because mystery in this second sense may leave you dangling.
This is where Harry came in with a helpful insight. He remembered something written by St. Augustine, a leading church figure from around 400 AD. You may not know much about Augustine, but his many writings have helped steer the course of the Christian Church even into the present day. Here is what Harry remembered of Augustine’s words: “If you understand, then it is not God.” It almost perfectly defines Paul’s use of the word “mystery”, “If you understand, then it is not God.”
I think Augustine realized that the effort to define Jesus exactly is an attempt to control him for our own purposes. We see this all of the time as people justify their self-serving actions by claiming to understand God’s intentions. So Augustine’s words are both a warning about the temptation to try to control God, but even more a poetic appreciation for a mystery that draws us into the intersection of the human and the divine, and that transforms us far beyond anything we could have anticipated.
Paul’s’ concern as he discusses “mystery” is to try to offer the idea that the Gospel that some had tried to limit to only certain people is actually for people of many different backgrounds. Some of the early Christians had defined Jesus as only for people of Jewish background, but Paul offers this mystery that God’s circle of love is much broader than they had previously thought. Paul’s word continues to challenge us in our present day in all of these very public debates that try to define who is included and who is not in churches, families, communities and nations.
I think Paul’s use of the word “mystery” is very helpful when it comes to communion. There are multiple mysteries happening as we come to the table. Here are a few of them: This is a simple loaf of bread, baked in an oven, or bought at the store, but it will stretch your imagination beyond all of the boundaries you have created for yourself. This is the cup, filled with juice from grapes, like the kind you might find in the produce section, but a taste of this cup will connect you to eternity. I can’t tell you exactly how the bread and the cup accomplish these things. I could try to produce a simple formula, like “eat + drink = salvation”, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the mystery. I could hook you up to electrodes and monitor your brain waves on an oscilloscope to see what changes as you eat and drink, but that would hardly explain the mystery of communion and its possibilities. It’s all a mystery, one that we are glad to immerse ourselves in when we gather at the table. To define the mystery of communion limits all of what it can be.
The world is getting turned on its head at this table. The lost are remembered. The marginalized are embraced. The undeserving are at the head of the line. God’s grace bends and twists in ways we are still trying to grasp. So, in the end, it’s not certainty we seek, but a deeper experience of grace.