Sunday, 26 November 2017

Christ the King

Ephesians 1.15-end SERMON
Paul’s Prayer
15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I 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 him18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far 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. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

My text this morning is written in Ephesians 1:15-16:

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.

In this passage we see the essence of the characteristic of the Church: loyalty to Christ and love to others. These two are inextricable linked together because true loyalty to Christ will always, if it is authentic, lead to love for others (verse 15).

There can be a loyalty to Christ that does not issue in love for others. Some monastic orders shut themselves off from the world, and I have to confess that this makes little sense to me, unless its purpose is to be of service to others. If not, it strikes me almost as a form of selfishness because the individual concerned might feel closer to God and have a sense of peace and tranquillity, but this is of little worth unless it also leads to love for others. At the same time, I have enormous respect for those monks and nuns who live this way so that they might be of more use in caring for the needs of others. The Jesuits, Fransiscans and Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity are notable and wonderful examples as was the case of the Community of the Resurrection in South Africa with their school, colleges and hostels and a notable example being Trevor Huddleston. This was true of early Methodism as well: when people came to Christ and became part of the Church, the society they lived in was transformed. Loyalty to Christ must issue in love for others or it is meaningless.

Indeed, whatever we do, unless it results in love for others, is worthless. The Spanish Inquisition and the Pharisees are examples of those who were guilty of trying to be so right that this led them to do the most hurtful things to others. I believe Paul here gives us a practical yardstick with which we can measure if something is truly right; anything that does not issue in greater love for others should make us seriously question what we do, because it is only in our loving of others that we show our love for Christ.

In our Gospel reading we are told of the very practical way this love ought to be demonstrated: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the cold, visiting those in prison. Jesus, in this parable identifies with each person in need, because on the cross he took their place. We meet with Jesus when wee minister to those kin need – indeed that person becomes the presence of Christ for us. De Dietrich, in her commentary on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats explains what Jesus is implying here: “How many times will we have passed by Jesus without recognising him.” She continues:

He comes to us under the figure of the stranger, the refugee, the person of another race, or the sorry bore. And we turn away, or treat such persons with humiliating conceit. Ione day he will say to us: “That was I.” Could he then not say to us: “You pretended to know me, but I did not know you!”

I am glad to hear that in some cities there has been a revival in attendance at Cathedral worship. I love Cathedral worship with all its pomp and beauty; but there is a real danger that this can cover all sorts of dreadful things. We have all heard of times when Cathedrals have been in the press because of conflict, strife and general inappropriate behaviour. Sadly, I have also experienced this first hand, and in fact, it is a major reason why today I am ordained as a Methodist and not an Anglican! Gladly, most Cathedrals are beacons of love and hope in Christ in the heart of our cities. Beauty only really becomes beautiful when it is an ingredient in showing love for others.

This refers to some theological debates as well. The ‘truth’ will become evident when the theology issues in greater love for others. All too often, in debates and discussions, Barclay accurately states that ‘... we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.’

Paul then prays for a Church that he loves and that is doing well. He prays that they may have wisdom using the word Sophia (which refers to the deep things of God) and so asks that the Church might be taken deeper into the knowledge of the eternal truths. This reminds us of an important dimension of our life and ministry. It is necessary that we are a people of depth – that the Church be a thinking people. We must beware of dumbing things down; but rather, always strive ourselves to go deeper and deeper into the depths of truth which issues in love. At the same time, this is worthless unless we make it a personal discovery as well. Socrates said: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Barclay suggests that an unexamined religion is not worth having and adds: ‘It is an obligation for a thinking man to think his way to God.’ Lionel Swain adds that knowledge here also means something else; it is knowledge in the sense of ‘intimate experience’. Thompson adds that here, Paul is praying for ‘... a deeper understanding of the ...Gospel and its implications, so that one can move closer into line with God’s mind and attitude.’

The ministry of the Church must be a teaching ministry. The exposition of scripture from the pulpit is a vital element, because we know that the scriptures are God’s primary way of communicating with his people of every age and generation. The paradigm was set on the road to Emmaus when Jesus expounded the Word to the disciples and they felt their hearts warmed within them – as was the case of John Wesley on that important evening in Aldersgate Street in 1738. As we listen to the scriptures read and the preacher’s exposition, we should not only be interested in what the preacher thinks but more importantly we should also asking: “What is God is saying to us as a Church; and what is God saying to me as an individual within the Church?” We come seeking knowledge that touches us and moves us, challenges us and blesses us – we come – as verse 18 explains: to have the eyes of our hearts enlightened.

But as our Lord reminds us in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, unless this enlightenment leads to love, as de Dietrich explains, we may have the most orthodox of beliefs, but we remain in death.

We are therefore in this passage, challenged to get things into proportion. So much time is spent in the church discussing mundane matters and these often result in conflict. How much time do we, as a Church, spend discussing the ‘... eternal verities of God?’ How many hours do churches spend discussing ‘problems’ for every one that is spent discussing the depths of theology? Paul here is praying for the people to be led into a deeper wisdom of the eternal things of God and this prayer will never be answered unless we give up time to listen to what God is saying to us; time prayerfully discussing what this means and then acting on what we feel God is calling us to do.

Paul then prays for a greater realisation of Christian hope. We live in days of despair. The economy is terrible and the myth that money is the root of all happiness and security has been destroyed. But many in our society have nothing to replace it with. We need to offer the world an alternative – the alternative – the universal and eternal way. The insight we can offer the world is that even in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, there is always hope and this hope is sure. We know that God’s cause and ways will win the day eventually, for this has been the testimony of history – for even if we do not get to experience it in this life, there is nothing – not even death – that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (as Paul stresses in Romans 8).

Paul continues in his prayer for a new realisation of the power of God. For Paul, the proof of the power of God was in the Resurrection of Christ. Sin had done everything in its power to destroy Christ; people had done everything to get rid of Christ; but God raised him from the dead. The Resurrection proved that his power is greater than any human agency and that no human can thwart the power of God. Even though we can’t fully understand it all the time – God is ultimately in control. The last verses also make clear that all in the heavenly realm are also under God’s ultimate control. But even more importantly, this same power is available to us, to help, to strengthen and encourage those who are committed to being faithful to God’s call. Our assurance is not based on mere wishful thinking, but on a fact of history: God did raise Jesus from the dead. Think of Jesus and the disciples at the time of his death. Everything seemed hopeless, crushed, ended – but God raised Jesus and he appeared to his disciples and the ministry continued and still does. As we gather together as a community of faith, Jesus continues to meet with us, especially in the breaking of the bread, nourishes our relationship with him, and encourages us to go out into our world giving expression to his love for others. This is the focus of the Gospel reading appointed for today where Jesus tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

The last verse is of great significance for us – because it refers to the Church in every age as the body of Christ.

Despite reforms and improvements over the years, the 20th century was a human catastrophe and disunity still remains throughout the world between different races, languages and religions, sadly even within Protestantism. Jesus died to bring unity – but we still seem far from it. This ideal of unity is expressed in the next chapter where Paul speaks of Christ breaking down the wall that separates. As Barclay puts it: ‘Jesus Christ was above all things God’s instrument for reconciliation.’ He uses the analogy of a doctor finding a cure for a deadly disease: unless that cure is taken to the different parts of the world where the disease is prevalent, sufferers will not be cured! Doctors must get to know about it and must be trained as to how to use it.  The cure is there – but it needs a corps of people to take the message and the technique throughout the world. The same is true of the Gospel – it is there – but unless it is taken into the world, it remains ineffective. It is only in Christ that all can come together; it is only in Christ that there can be unity and peace and flourishing – and the Church is the agent that is given the task of taking this good news to all people. The church ought to be the corps of Christ but so often it has become a corpse!

Christ is the head – the Church is the body – and the wonders of salvation cannot become real in the world unless the Church takes it to the peoples of the world. Barclay explains: ‘... God’s plan for the world is in the hands of the Church ...’ It is God’s plan that the warring elements of the world be brought together in peace; and to make this possible he sent Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but this message and this power must be taken out to all people. The Church is the body, with Christ as the head, and so it is in the hands of the Church to bring all this to fulfilment.

The Church – we – are called to be a living organism with the ascended Christ as the head, called to do his work in the world ‘... as once his own body and flesh and blood had done it.’ This is the essential nature of the Church, as A M Hunter explains: the Church is‘... an organism truly responsive to the impulses of the mind and heart of Christ, an organ sacrificially expendable in the carrying out of his great and gracious purposes ...’

I know that this circuit is committed to being faithful to this calling and so, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus:

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.


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