5/13/18: Signs of Fullness, Ephesians 1:15-23
Signs of Fullness
Sixth in the series, Resurrection by Candlelight
First Lesson: Luke 24:
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1:15-23
I feel some obligation to tell you upfront that this is not a sermon on the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we’ve just read.
I think Ephesians is a fine letter, that Paul may or may not have written, and this is a beautiful passage, in which he praises this ancient congregation for their support and ministry and wishes all sorts of good things for them. But for the purposes of our time this morning I’m really only interested in that beautiful final sentence where Paul describes the church as Christ’s “body, the fullnessof him who fills all in all.” The church as the fullness of Christ.
As this Easter story goes, we won’t formally mark the beginning of the church until next week, when we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, and remember when the Spirit descended “like tongues of fire” on all those left behind in Jerusalem 40 days after Christ was raised. But this Sunday, the last in this Easter season, and the one when we mark when Christ left them behind in his Ascension, I want us to go ahead and start thinking about the church—and not simply “The Church,” but this church, our congregation, and what it might mean for us to be “the fullness” of the one who fills all things and all people. So you could say this is a sermon on the church, which is to say, it’s a sermon on you, and me—is’t a sermon on us.
This past week I was invited to travel to Indianapolis to gather with about 25 other pastors, professors, denominational officers and non-profit leaders for something called A Convocation of Christian Leaders, a program through Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, funded through the Lilly Endowment, which many of you know is truly the Church’s One Foundation.
This was the first of four short gatherings spread out over the next 12 months to bring together young-ish leaders from various parts of the ecosystem of the church to have extended conversation about theology and ministry, share resources and ideas and inspiration. It was rich couple of days that I’m still processing, but I was struck during our opening time together Tuesday afternoon by the working assumptions ad to why we were there, all presented by Craig Dykstra, who served for many years as head of the Lilly Endowment’s religion grant division.
It was so simple, so scriptural, and so clear, and began with our theme for the week, which was “abundance,” drawn from that powerful statement in the tenth chapter of John when Jesus tells the disciples that he came so that we “might have life and have it abundantly”—a passage we looked at just a few weeks ago. You could make an argument that this is the chief promise of the good news: that in Christ we are promised abundant life—life that’s “more than we expect,” as we said some weeks ago—not just in the sense of life beyond our death, but in the here and now.
And the here and now, Craig argued for us, is where we come in as the church. It’s the church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that commits to take this promise of abundant life seriously, and practices a way of life together that embodies Christ’s abundant life for the world: living how he lived, loving how he loved. From generation to generation, dating back to those first disciples standing there watching Jesus ascend into heaven and wondering what they’re supposed to do next, the church has put into practice this way of abundant life. They’ve shared it together, formed each other in it, and passed it down, and passed it down—each generation taking the best from the generation before and adding to it the best of what they have, and through all of this, the church continues in the world. On a wider scale of course, but most vividly, most concretely, through these many smaller, local “communities of practice,” Craig called them, “in which children, youth and adults are formed in faith and enabled to take up their personal and shared vocations in the church and in the life of the world.”
This stuck with me: this idea of the local church, a congregation, our congregation, as “a community of practice” that through the rhythms we take on and pass down, the traditions, the songs, the values, the calendars, the cookouts, the shared words and phrases and memories—all of it— embodies Christ’s promise of abundant life. Or as Paul put it here the “fullness of the one who fills all in all.”
Now, it’s probably true that this isn’t how we usually talk about what we do here in the church: practicing Christ’s abundant life for the world—it may sound a little too fancy, a little presumptuous. And I think we can confess there are plenty of times when we gather here and don’t feel or see abundance. The church is sadly as guilty as any human institution in focusing on scarcity and what we don’t have, not to mention all the lesser things that just keep us busy, not abundant—and think about the difference between those two: busy and abundant. But this is who we are, or at least who we aim to be: bearers, practitioners of abundant life: signs of the fullness of the one who fills all in all.
And when we do think about the ways in which we practice this abundance, we typically focus on what we do together here—all the rhythms and traditions I mentioned just a moment ago. And those are important—of course they are. But an important part of this calling to embody the fullness of Christ is that we’re to embody it not solely for own sake, but also for the sake of the world. In other words, all that we do here as the church should be done with an awareness of those who aren’t here with us doing them—they should be done with an eye to our community.
And this is not something the church in Americas over the past 100 years or so has emphasized. We’ve tended to be more inward facing, building our beautiful buildings and then staying in them. Welcoming most anyone who would to climb the steps and open the giant heavy door and join us in whatever we’re doing behind them, but the invitation is always to come here, to join in what we’re doing here. Which can have the unfortunate effect of us thinking of ourselves as something apart from the community instead of a part of our community.
I can’t remember just where I heard this question first asked, but it’s a good one: If our congregation were to be no more, if we shut our doors tomorrow, who in our community would take note? Put another way: in what ways would our community be a little less abundant—how would Macon, central Georgia even, be a little less full?
That’s a question, isn’t it?
If the First Baptist Church of Christ were to be no more, how would we be missed?
Would we be missed?
What do you think?
Now, if that makes you uncomfortable let me assure you, you are not alone. It makes me uncomfortable too—not just imaging our beloved church no longer existing, but also the valid point that this framing of the question does perhaps put us too much at the center of things. So let’s ask it another way:
In what ways are we sharing the abundant life, the fullness of Christ we know here, with our community?
In what ways are we making our community just a little more full—recognizing that we don’t have a corner on this abundant living; Christ is certainly bigger than our church, and bigger even I believe than the church—the Holy Spirit moves where it will, and often this is outside the church. But how are we doing our part to bear this abundance?
I like to think we’re doing this in more ways than could be properly noted in a sermon, but in thinking about this over the past week, a few rose to the top. I thought of the 200 families we serve each month through the Crisis Closet, our food distribution ministry. Or the folks from our church who work with people from several other churches in town to pack bags of food for elementary school kids to take home with them over the weekend. Direct emergency aid like this has it’s limitations, and we know that, but food is food and people need it, and we work with the local food bank to get it to them—to literally fill them up.
I thought of the dozens of people and families who are impacted week in and week out by our language ministry. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning and Wednesday evening, folks from around the community descend upon our church to learn English and American culture, but perhaps even more importantly, to learn that there is a community of people here who care for them and want them to make it. We hope we can fill their minds and their mouths but also their spirits. We’ll actually get to hear from some of these next week when we recognize our language ministry as part of our Pentecost worship.
I thought of the dozen or so folks from our church who partner with our brothers and sister from New St. to tutor over at Ingram Pye Elementary School. It was National Teacher Appreciation week this week and Julie happened to ask the principal of there was anything planned for the teachers. She said they didn’t Julie called over to New St. and she and a group of folks from our two church took coffee and donuts Wednesday morning to let the teachers there know we see them and love them, and that we hope our being in their classrooms isn’t more trouble than it’s worth!
I think about the larger work we continue to do with our brothers and sisters at First Baptist on New St. to try and model a different way for churches to engage our country’s troubling history with race. One that lifts up painful history while building relationships in the present. We’ve got work plenty of work left to do, but we’re doing it.
And there are so many other ministries we could name: the Liberian Student Ministry supporting Liberian students coming over to Mercer University, the last of which—at least for the time being—graduated yesterday.
Circle of Hope and their Christmas Shop; Global Women, raising awareness and providing support for those working in women’s issues in our region—hosting our area’s only International Women’s Day celebration, which we’ve been doing for years now and has turned into a truly special event, bringing in dozens of women from other congregations and even some who are surprised to find themselves in a church.
And beyond, this, I think of the members of our congregation who take the abundance we practice together here and apply it to so many other worthwhile organizations doing good work in town: Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Macon, working with housing in our community. Daybreak serving the homeless. Georgia Women, an advocacy group that’s coalesced in the past year or so we’ve provided space for recently. And not just work with organizations, but the ways so many of you take this fullness to your work, to your neighborhood, even to your hall-mates. I found out recently Anne Gardner, one of our dear members who lives over at Morningside Assisted Living on Peake Rd, has been passing around DVDs of our service to the other folks on her hall. She told me most of them are Presbyterian, but they’re surprised at how much they enjoy this Baptist worship. If we can evangelize the Presbyterians we’d really be doing something!
And over the past few weeks in particular I’ve thought of how our sanctuary was filled with people—about half of them from outside the church—for the dedication of our beautiful new organ. Hearing them talk on the way our about the choir and the beautiful space we gather in so often we risk no longer standing in awe of, and the hospitality they received. And then a week later seeing this sanctuary filled again for Hunter and Jon’s wedding. Feeling the Spirit in the room, having folks come up to me afterward with tears in their eyes, and say they’d lived in Macon all this time and never knew a church like this could be here. But now to know that it does makes all the difference. We were all filled with the fullness.
There are more. I know there are. The truth is, there are as many cases of abundance in this congregation as there are members, and that’s just what Paul had in mind. It’s just what Jesus had in mind when he looked out on the faces of all those who had traveled so far with him for the last time. And he blessed them, and he assured them he was with them, and he told them: you are witnesses to all you have seen and heard in me, and the Spirit is coming to guide and direct you—in other words: you have everything you need. Isn’t that something?
You’ve seen and heard all these things, you’ve walked in my way all this time. Now the Spirit is coming, and you have all you need to be my body in the world. You have all you need to fill the world, to fill your community, with my love and compassion and forgiveness and joy. You have all you need.
You are the fullness.
Christ has ascended, church.
And you’re who he left.
Isn’t that terrifying?!
Maybe even mystifying.
But isn’t it inspiring?
And in the end, clarifying?
The Spirit is coming.
We’ll celebrate it next week, but it’s already here.
It’s already here.
You already are the fullness.