This Holy Mystery

Scripture:  Ephesians 3:1-13

In general we love a good mystery.  One of the consistent, enduring, and endearing qualities of humanity is that we are insatiably curious.   We want to know how things work, we want to know why things are the way they are, and we want to find answers to what we do not know.  Often mysteries that seem fairly mundane turn out to be far more complex and wondrous than we could ever imagine.  Sometimes what we think is the right answer turns out to be completely off the mark and a new discovery or observation can completely change our understanding.   As an example of this, consider the mystery of the European swallow.  Every year in the spring several species of birds, including swallows just showed up in Europe.   To those living there, the birds would not be present and then they would.  Just as quickly as they showed up in the spring they would disappear in the fall.   It led the academically minded nobles, monks, and clergy of the time to wonder “where did the birds come from and where did they go?”   In the middle ages there were two competing theories.  The first is that birds changed form in the winter.  For instance, swallows underwent a transformation and became robins in the winter.  This theory did not hold up though because robins still were around in warmer months and there were not as many robins in the winter as there were robins and swallows combined in the summer.  The second theory was that birds hibernated in the winter.  For swallows specifically it was believed that they hibernated in the mud on the bottom of lakes and rivers.  This belief arose because swallows do spend a lot of their time by bodies of water, flying low to hunt insects.  The belief was enforced by a wood carving which spread far and wide across Europe.  This image showed fishermen bringing swallows up in their nets.  In the fourteenth century a German falconer proposed that swallows and other birds did not hibernate but they migrated.  However, at the dawn of the renaissance, the entrenched academic view was that many birds hibernated during winter.  Over the next several centuries more and more people began to question the idea of hibernating birds, and the idea of migration as the mystery behind the birds gained traction.   However, it was not until the 20th century, until 1911, that the migration of swallows was undeniably proven.  It was this year that a swallow tagged in England was caught eighteen months later in South Africa.

The mystery was solved, but the truth was almost as amazing and unbelievable as the idea of birds hibernating in mud underwater.  The swallow, a bird small enough to be held in an adult hand makes a journey of over 6,000 miles across the entirety of Africa twice a year, every year.   The mystery of the swallow is one that took centuries to finally get to the bottom of, and the truth of where swallows go in the winter turned out to be very different than what people had at one time thought.  This morning’s scripture describes another mystery that evolved over time.  The truth of this mystery, revealed in this morning’s scripture, is still a truth the world needs today.

Going all the way back to Deuteronomy and then being fully expressed in the writings of the prophets, Judaism of the first century was full of messianic expectation.   There was a hopeful expectation for the full redemption and restoration of God’s kingdom.  There was hope that the messiah would bring in a new golden age where God’s people prospered.   For centuries there was a mystery of a promised messiah and most people thought it pointed to a military and political savior.   Jesus himself was quick to point out that his kingdom was not of this world, and earlier in Ephesians Paul also makes the point that the messiah did not come to establish an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one.  As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:19, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household built on the foundations of the apostles, prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

However, this was not the big reveal of the messianic mystery.  Before Paul begins his ministry to the Gentiles in Acts, the focus is on Jesus’ Jewish believers sharing the good news with fellow Jews.  At first, the focus seemed to entirely be that the messianic promises were still for God’s chosen people.  Yet this morning’s scripture clearly states what most of the book of Acts and Paul’s writings are dedicated to making clear.   The salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and citizenship in God’s kingdom is not just reserved for one group of people.   It is good news for all the peoples.    Much like the migration patterns of birds, from our 21st century viewpoint this seems to be fairly firmly established.  But just like the idea that birds do not hibernate in mud, the suggestion that Jesus is for everyone was a shocking revelation when it was first made.   It was a piece of the mystery of the messiah, that previously had not been considered as Paul states plainly in verse 6 of this morning’s scripture: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

The mystery of the messiah that was proclaimed by the prophets of old was fully revealed.  The messiah was not a military leader but the very son of God, the kingdom was not an earthly political one but a heavenly one without end, and this messiah was and is for everyone.  In this morning’s scripture Paul reveals one more huge aspect of this mystery that has now been revealed.  In verse 12 Paul wrote, “In [Jesus] and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”  This revelation is just as incredible as the savior being for Jews and Gentiles and it is still part of the divine mystery that should cause us wonder today.

Again, the idea that God is approachable and accessible to us is a common place belief today.  After all, one of the lessons that we regularly teach children is that they can talk to God whenever they want in prayer.  That has not always been the case.  For most of human civilization, the belief has been that we needed priests, that only special intermediaries could connect us or our request for the divine.  The approachability of God is a mystery that I think we far too easily take for granted and do not fully consider enough.

There is a special category of mysteries called a paradox.  This is where two things that seem to be at odds are both true, and I believe the approachability of God falls into this.  One of the beliefs we hold is on the bigness of God.  We believe that God is not just our creator but the creator of all things, and the scale of all things is massive.   We live on a planet with complex environments, an incredible diversity in wildlife, and more than seven billion people on it.  This is possible because our planet is positioned almost perfectly so away from a star, the sun that is big enough that it could a million earths inside of it.  Our sun is just one of many stars in our galaxy.  There are an estimated 100 to 400 billion stars that make up the Milky Way galaxy, and our galaxy is only one approximately 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe each with hundreds of billions of stars.    There are stars beyond number, and yet we believe that God created and placed each and every one.  We believe that God is enormous enough to create, order, and sustain the entire universe.   Yet at the same time we believe that this enormous creator knows our name, has numbered the hairs on heads, and is a being we can fully approach.   We believe a God whose greatness is beyond our wildest comprehension wanted us enough to spend eternity with us. We believe the one who sets galaxies in the sky wants to listen to us and will not only hear our prayers but actively work to bring those prayers in to existence.  A God who is beyond our understanding but also available to hear our most intimate confessions and dreams is a paradox.  It is a mystery that even though it has been revealed and plainly stated in this morning’s scripture should still leave us in awe and wonder.

The good news of the gospel proclaimed in this morning’s scripture is that all people have the ability to be reconciled with their creator, become part of God’s household, and be able to approach the maker of all things.  We need to remind ourselves of this good news from time to time or else we tend to lose sight of it.  We let other concerns take up our focus or we begin to take for granted how amazing grace truly is.   Fortunately, in Christian practice we have a way to regularly remind ourselves of the good news from this morning’s scripture.   The sacrament of communion tangibly reminds us of the boundless riches of Christ.   We believe that communion is a means of grace.  In a document called “This Holy Mystery” which outlines the United Methodist belief on communion there is an explanation of what this means: “Holy Communion is the sacrament that sustains and nourishes us in our journey of salvation. In a sacrament, God uses tangible, material things as vehicles or instruments of grace. Wesley defines a sacrament, in accord with his Anglican tradition, as “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same”

Through the sacrament of communion, the elements become physical embodiments of the grace of God.   God’s grace and love is not just symbolically represented by the bread and the juice.  God’s grace and love is experienced in the partaking of the bread and juice.    The act of communion should lead us to once again experience the awe and wonder that comes from knowing that God sent his son to redeem the world, this gift of love is for everyone who receive it, and it allows us to approach God with freedom and confidence.   Our communion liturgy, that we use whenever we partake of the sacrament, state why it is so important for us to receive this means of grace in our lives.  In the liturgy we pray, “Make [these gifts of bread and wine] be for us the body and blood of Christ that we may be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.”

The sacrament of communion should sustain us spiritually so that we can take the good news of this morning’s scripture out into the world because there are a lot of people who really need to hear and believe what this morning’s scripture proclaims.   There are people whose heart has been hardened to God because of judgement and condemnation that has been heaped upon them.  They believe the grace of God made known by Jesus Christ is not for them.   There are people who believe that because of their shortcomings, failings, and constant struggles that God is not accessible to them, that they are not good enough for God.  There are so hurt, lonely, and lost people in this world who desperately need God’s grace in their lives.  As those who have experienced the profound mystery of Christ, we are the best equipped people to share it with them.  As this morning’s scripture states it is God’s intent that the now through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known.

So may we be quick to share the mystery proclaimed in this morning’s scripture:  Through Jesus we can be reconciled with God, this is available to all, and because of it we can approach God with confidence.   May we never take this holy mystery for granted but every day may we be in wondrous awe of the fact that creator of the entire cosmos is there for us.  May we remind ourselves of God’s divine love today and regularly as we proclaim through our words and actions the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.

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