Of This Gospel, a Servant Be

Ephesians 3: 1-12     Preached FCCW    January 7, 2018

In the present day city of Jerusalem, stands the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built on the hill where tradition claims, Jesus was crucified and buried.  Due to the sacredness of its location, possession of the structure has changed hands numerous times through history.

Today, custodial rights and responsibilities for the church are shared between six Christian denominations: the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox. Although, to say that this holy place is “shared” can be misleading.  It might be more accurate to say it is “divided” among followers of those denominations. Only strict regulations about when and where members of each group are permitted to celebrate worship there have maintained a semblance of peaceful coexistence among them.

One day, that peaceful coexistence fell apart, in a very public way. A disagreement broke out between Greek and Armenian monks; both claiming the right to be in a certain area of the building at the same time during the Feast of the Holy Cross. The argument escalated into an all-out brawl. Punches were thrown and kicks delivered until this battle royal was finally broken up by the Jerusalem PD. Nobody was seriously injured. Christian monks are not exactly trained to be warriors. But the spectacle created by priests and monks duking it out on the hallowed site of Christ’s crucifixion, sure gave Christian unity a black eye.

I guess the monks of Holy Sepulchre didn’t get the memo that the Apostle Paul delivered to the churches in and around Ephesus about 2000 years ago. The one in which Paul tells Christians that God had chosen the Church of Jesus Christ to demonstrate to the rest of the world how it is possible for people of all walks of life to live together in peace, no matter their differences.

Paul calls it the mystery of the ages, which is that God’s eternal plan for the Church is for it to be the community where all the man-made divisions that incite conflict and injustice could be healed. He was confident in the success of God’s plan because he had already witnessed the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles under one roof. The roof of the Church.

Truth be told, this mystery of the ages is often still treated as a mystery, even in, and maybe especially in, our churches. Our disagreements seldom lead to bruises and black eyes. But it’s not unusual for people to be wounded by uncivil words and behaviours from fellow church members.

The Epistle to the Ephesians actually gives us some clues to solving the mystery of how to be the inclusive Church God created us to be. The first clue is Paul’s description of himself as a “prisoner for Christ Jesus” for the sake of the Gentiles. Paul’s mission in life was to bring the Gospel of Jesus to the Gentile world. This had literally landed him in prison numerous times.

By virtue of our baptism, we all are united with Paul in being prisoners for Christ. Not in the sense of being behind bars for our faith, but because being a disciple of Jesus calls us to grow beyond a life where we are imprisoned by our own impulses and inclinations that complicate our chances for loving others as we love ourselves. Worship, prayer and service, help us to mature beyond the building of barriers to the harmony with others that the Gospel describes. Becoming a prisoner for Christ means being liberated from old ways that keep us from surrendering to God’s better purpose for us.

A little further on, Paul says, “Of this gospel I have become a servant.” A lot of the time, where churches go wrong is when they get that backwards. Instead of considering ourselves to be servants to the message of the gospel, we treat the gospel as a servant to our own preferences and prejudices. The Gospel can be, and has been, used as a weapon to exclude others, instead of a foundation for unity. Sometimes in a manner that is as open and ugly as that unseemly donnybrook in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The reason we read our church Mission Statement before meetings is to remind us that the words written there: “The purpose of this church shall be to … preach the gospel of Jesus Christ” mean we don’t let personal agendas, differences of opinion or personality conflicts to interfere with what we are there for, which is to be of service to the gospel.

Lastly, Paul, speaks of himself as “the very least of all the saints.” Actually, the exact opposite was true. Paul contributed more to the establishment and growth of the early church and the spread of the gospel than any of his contemporaries. But, Paul resisted taking too much pride in his accomplishments. He’d rather be known more for the transformation that Christ had brought about in him, so that he might serve as an example of what anyone can achieve through the grace given them.

Sometimes, what disrupts the unity of a church and disarms its witness to the gospel, is a false sense of “my way or the highway.” We need to be careful to avoid thinking our way is the only way to do things based on how long we have been members of the church, how much financial support we give, or how superior our way of thinking is than someone else’s.

We of all people should know this. Congregationalism was founded on the conviction that we are all on an equal footing as “members of the same body, and sharers in the same promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Our system of governing ourselves rests on the belief that the grace of God can be expressed equally well through someone I may disagree with, as it can through me.

What unifies us is not conformity of thinking but that, as Paul states, “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” may be made known. As we venture forth into a new year, with all its unforeseeable blessings and challenges, let us approach our common future as fellow prisoners for Christ. As servants of the gospel; not holding the gospel hostage to our own opinions. And let it be as respecters of the way that the grace of God is working through each other; together earnestly striving to discern God’s will for us and our future.

Because that is the most precious gift and the sincerest homage, that we can offer to Jesus.

Copyright 2017        Raymond Medeiros