Text: Ephesians 3:1-13
The 1998 Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movie, You’ve Got Mail, featured America Online’s classic highly-anticipated welcome message played (at least hopefully) whenever a user logged on to the Internet provider’s service. If, when logging on, a user had unread e-mail messages waiting for them, the computer’s sound system would declare, “You’ve got mail!” In the movie, Tom Hanks’ character and Meg Ryan’s character are exchanging messages over the service and, through those messages, fall in love with one another. They would pace the floor, bite their nails, and in general wait very impatiently for the computer and its software to go through the modem-dialing ritual and connection steps that would allow it to determine whether or not there was indeed a message waiting for them to read.
Similarly, whenever I open the door at the house after being away for a while, the first thing I do is to look at the telephone that hangs on the wall next to the hallway. I’m not admiring stellar design; the phone isn’t that amazing to look at. Rather, I’m looking to see if a little red light on the top right of the phone is blinking. Just like Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan, I want to know if I have messages waiting for me to listen to. The little red light will blink if I have unheard voice mail messages waiting. And whenever I find that the light is blinking, I hurry up to do whatever has to be done so I can dial into Fairpoint’s system and listen to the recording.
We like having messages, especially personal messages that mean something to us. It is so disappointing to dial in to Fairpoint’s system, wait for the automatic voice prompts to allow me to press the appropriate button, listen to the timestamp information, and finally get to the message only to find that instead of something personal and important, it’s halfway through a political advertisement or telemarketer’s spiel. But when the message is personal, from a friend or a family member, then the message has a special place. I listen to it intently. I glean from it anything that I am supposed to know or do.
For the last several weeks and continuing for a number of weeks, we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul has a lot to say about ecclesiology in this message. Ecclesiology is a big word, but it simply means the portion of our theology and doctrine that relates to the church. Paul is addressing in this letter who we are as Christ’s church, His body on earth, His people. This relates in a straightforward manner to whom each of us is within the body of believers, who we are as members of this church, and what our responsibilities areas a local expression of God’s body here in our community.
In the first half of the third chapter of his letter, Paul declares emphatically: we are a people with a message. There is a message that we have been told that is important to us. It is a message that changes the core of who we are, if we allow it to do so. It is a message that takes us from being outcasts from God to being fellow heirs with Christ.
This message has not come to us via a blinking light on a telephone, a letter in our mailbox, or a beeping tone on our phones declaring a new text message. No one ran a marathon to deliver it to us. So how is it that we have this message? We have this message the same way that Paul had the message: it was revealed to Paul, and it is revealed to us by the grace, mercy, and will of God.
You remember the account of Paul’s story from the book of Acts. Paul originally was known by the name of Saul. He was a student of the renowned Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. Saul was a Pharisee, an avid and ardent supporter of the Jewish law and all that he had been taught it meant. When we first meet Saul in Scripture, he is standing outside a crowd, holding their coats for them while the rest of them throw stones at a man named Stephen who had just seen a vision of Jesus at the right hand of God. This vision was too blasphemous for the Jews who were overseeing Stephen’s trial, and so they stoned him to death in their anger while Saul watched on approvingly from the sidelines.
But Saul was no sideline Pharisee. He quickly ascended to a position of defender of the faith against this new cult of those who believed that this Jesus had risen from the dead. Heading out from Jerusalem one day towards Damascus to take care of more of those Christian troublemakers, Saul and his entourage was stopped. They all saw a tremendously bright light, but Saul heard a voice speak to him. It was Jesus asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And so Saul had the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ – the message – revealed to him in a dramatic fashion. Saul was blinded by the encounter and had to be led on to Damascus by his fellow travelers.
Saul never sat under Jesus while our Lord walked the earth. He never held long discussions with the disciples in Jerusalem or other parts of Judea after his Damascus Road experience. All that he knew and taught of Jesus was what was revealed to Him by God and the Spirit directly. Truly, God revealed Himself specifically to Saul, who went on to be known as Paul. Our stories may not be so dramatic as Paul’s story is, but the truth is that God is just as active in revealing himself to any one of us as He was active in revealing Himself to Saul.
We have this revelation, this Gospel, this message because God wants us to have it. It is by His grace, by His love, by His mercy, by His will that this news, this message, this hope has come to us. There is no other way. There is no other source. We have a message. And we have a message because God Himself has given this message to us. It is an important message indeed!
Sometimes the one who gives us the message and the one who sends the message are not the same. Some times the messenger is simply a courier, delivering something on behalf of someone else. But that is not the case here. God is both the means of delivery, and He is the sender. Specifically, the message has been revealed by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What are some of the means of this revelation to us?
In Romans, Paul cites creation itself as being of evidence that no person is innocent. Beyond this, we have the words of Scripture, and as Paul writes to Timothy, they are useful to teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness. Fellow believers can be tools that the Spirit uses to gently (or not so gently) nudge us back onto the right path. And then there is the method God used with Paul: direct announcement into the world. In reading, paying attention, listening to others, and the regular practice of prayer, God makes himself known, revealing himself to us and challenging us to respond to Him and His message.
But in all of these means, it is God Himself in the person of the Spirit who is doing the work of revelation. God is the sender of this divine love letter that is the message that we, His people, hold.
Just yesterday, I opened the church’s mailbox and inside was a letter sent to 1737 Grit Road (the church’s address), but mailed to a Jerry Lewis. It was junk mail, so I just trashed it. We have moved around a number of times now, and any time that we move, we receive letters and other mailings intended for the home’s prior resident. I received it. It came to me, but it’s not intended for me. Just because we have a message from God does not necessarily mean that the message we have received is for us. So, who is this message that we possess for?
Throughout the history of the church, questions of vital church doctrine have been settled at what have come to be known as Councils. There have been councils at places like Chalcedon and Nicaea. They settled such questions as the Trinity, the personhood of Christ, the humanity of Christ, and other mattters of orthodoxy that are of great importance to our faith. The first such council occurred in Jerusalem. It is recorded in Acts 15. The serious matter of orthodoxy considered by the apostles and other leaders gathered there under the leadership of James was the path of salvation. It boiled down to this: did someone have to first become a Jew and practice all of the Law before being saved and forgiven by Christ?
This was a tremendously important question, because it outlined the breadth of the new church’s ministry in and to the world. Believers in places like Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia were already coming to the church from the Gentiles. The Jerusalem Council went on to decide that it was not necessary for believers to follow the law – specifically regarding circumcision. They recognized that Jesus had fulfilled the law that none of them had ever been able to keep. Through this, they recognized God’s already-present work to take the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to both Jew and Gentile.
Jew versus Gentile was the greatest distinction, demarcation, and separation of the day. For Jews, it mattered more than whether or not one possessed Roman citizenship. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul builds on this, stating boldly that this message that he had been given was unrestricted in to whom it was to go. Everyone is an appropriate addressee of the message. God desires to reveal Himself to all people. It is not possible for this message that we have been given to land into the hands of someone for whom it was not intended. It is a message for me. It is a message for you. It is a message for your dearest family member, closest friend, and most bitter enemy.
Beyond that, Paul says remarkably that this message of the Gospel is also for those for whom the message does not accomplish salvation. God also intends for this message to be seen, heard, and witnessed by those in the heavens – the powers and principalities and rulers – so that they, too, may rejoice and glory in the majesty, grace, and love of God.
We have a message, it is a message from God, and it is a message to everyone – literally all of creation. But messages can also be time-sensitive. Sometimes messages are urgent, needing immediate attention. Sometimes, particularly around special occasions and holidays, messages may be marked, “Do not open or read before” a specific date. And in the world of Mission Impossible, some messages destroy themselves within a certain timeframe. So what about this message from God?
This message that we have from God is a unique message indeed. Paul points out that the message was in fact long hidden from everyone everywhere. It remained a secret until the proper time. According to verse 5, the generations of the sons of men that came before Paul were not privy to the knowledge of this message – even that this message existed. In verse 9, the plan had been hidden for ages. But now the Holy Spirit has done the work of making this message known. And the purpose of God is to bring the message into the light for everyone to know and comprehend its contents.
So we have a message. It’s for everyone. And the time to share it is now. God has opened the floodgates and desires that everyone know that this message is their message. It’s contents are for them to accept and understand.
And then there is one final surprising twist. Sharing of the message may come at significant personal cost. Paul bookends this portion of his letter with reminders of his present condition when the letter was written. And just what was his condition? He was in prison. What was Paul in prison for? He was imprisoned for sharing the Gospel. After his third missionary journey, Paul was seized in Jerusalem and accused by the Jews of blasphemy and citing insurrection against Rome. Not making any headway with the local authorities, Paul finally decided to appeal his case to Caesar, and so he was sent by ship to Rome for his case to be heard. And there he remained in prison or house arrest, freedoms stripped of him, because of his persistence in sharing the contents of this message.
We share the message at our own risk. Paul maintains that the risks and punishments endured are more than worth the privilege of being able to share the message. He is content and at peace with the turn of events in his life, and he asked his readers to share that peace. Don’t worry about me, he says, I did this for you and the glory of God. I have no regrets.
So what about you? Each of you was given a special message this morning. You are holding it in your hands. I invite you now to open it and look at it. You see, we are each of us recipients of a marvelous message. We hold it near and dear. We depend on it for our sustenance, for the hope of our future, for our guarantee of what will be our fate when this life’s course has run to its end. One day we opened our mailbox or looked at our phones or read our e-mails and God spoke to us. Like Paul on the Damascus Road, our lives were completely altered.
Paul’s task was very specific. He was uniquely equipped by God specifically to reach the Gentiles with the Gospel message. Our task may look much different, perhaps smaller in our eyes, but I promise you that it is no less significant. If you have already responded to the message from God that He loves you and desires a relationship with you, then God has a purpose for you just as He had a purpose for a man named Saul traveling down a road between Jerusalem and Damascus. What are you going to do?
We are both recipients and messengers. It is our task, once we have received this message, to pass it on. But passing it on may require much of us. It will require financial resources. It will require commitment of time and energy we may not have to spare. It will require getting outside of our comfort zones. It may even cost us conveniences, privileges, and freedoms that we hold dear. You have to weigh those costs and ask yourself: is sharing this message worth it? Is God’s love for me enough that I’ll risk so others can know that God loves them just as much?
We have a message. It is for us, and it is for us to share with the whole world. What are you doing with it?