Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
My mom likes to put together puzzles. When our family travels to our cabin my mom will often bring along a jigsaw puzzle. Now, when I think about puzzles I think of what a headache they are. When you purchase the box, the picture on the front looks great, and perhaps you think that this puzzle will look great once its complete. Then it comes time to opening the box and looking at the hundreds of pieces. It’s at this point I loose interest. My mind just doesn’t work to well when it comes to finding which pieces go where.
Finding the edge pieces, grouping the colors. People have different strategies when it comes to their puzzles. My strategy is to let someone else do it. But for some people, including my mother, putting puzzles together is fun or at least relaxing. To me, all the pieces dumped out just are kind of stressful.
Oftentimes it feels as if the world we live in is as divided as a spilled puzzle. Things and people are just so divided. It seems that every two weeks we are faced with a political crisis and automatically people fall into their predictable camps. I don’t know if it is the Russians manipulating what people think or if people really think so differently. It seems that any disagreement about a particular policy is characterized by some as dislike for certain politicians or an entire political party.
There is one family that I know where the spouses hold completely opposite political positions. One is a staunch democrat and the other is a staunch republican. On social media, the democrat posts political messages talking about how evil Trump is and how crazy his supporters are. All the while, he lives in the same house with a republican and a Trump supporter. The same goes when it comes to the things posted by the other spouse about democrats. The only thing I can assume is that they don’t talk politics at home because I can’t imagine how their marriage would continue if they did.
I saw a recent report of how our political divisiveness is impacting our families. In a study recently published in Science magazine, researchers found that Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 was impacted by the 2016 presidential election. Researchers found that when a family was divided in their political beliefs their Thanksgiving dinner was 30-50 minutes shorter than it would have usually been. If we can’t put politics aside to enjoy turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie, we have a serious problem.
It’s not just American politics. Communities are divided. Though official school segregation ended in the 1950s, many communities around the country continue to be very segregated. This has to do with a multitude of economic, cultural, and racial factors, but regardless of the reasons, its a fact that communities are divided. As Martin Luther King Jr observed many years ago, while millions of Americans gather for worship, Sunday remains the most segregated hour in America. In 9 out of 10 churches 80% of the membership comes from a single racial group. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/06/why-sunday-morning-remains-americas-most-segregated-hour/)
This is a global issue too. Within Christianity, it is estimated that there are about 33,000 Christian denominations worldwide. That means that globally there are 33,000 different Christian traditions that at some point divided from a different Christian tradition. Even within The United Methodist Church there are some that want the denomination to split because they feel it somehow harms them to be in fellowship with people that disagree with them on certain issues.
Some may not mind this divided world. I have heard some talk about how it can be good to allow people to live with and be in community with people who agree with them. In many ways that is a very easy thing, but the problem with people and the world divided is that God created the world for unity. In creating the world, God created it in order for things and people to live in harmony and in unity. After God did all this initial creating, “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good” (Gen 1:31).
This initial unity would not last. Sin entered the creation when the first man and first woman broke their unity with God. Then in the next generation the unity among humans was destroyed when a brother killed his brother. This same disunity has seemed to continue with jealousy and division and hate driving much of humanities interactions. Not only have we become divided from each other, we have become divided from the rest of creation. We have destroyed habitats, burned the rainforests, hunted animals to extinction, contributed to climate change, and made life difficult for may things. But this disunity is not what God wanted nor is it healthy for us or the world.
Ever since division entered the scene, God has been working to repair it. Time and again through the stories we find in the Bible, we see God working to repair this disunity and God working to redeem all of creation. Today and over the next few weeks we are going to open and explore the Book of Ephesians, which is really a letter written by Paul. Paul was an early Christian leader, who knew clearly of God’s work of working to repair our unity. And what he presents in this letter is, in many ways, kind of a guide letter on how God uses the church to rebuild unity in the midst of division.
As we open Ephesians and begin to explore these words of Paul, we find again God’s goal of unity. In fact, what we will find is that God’s ultimate goal is to reunify all of reality. Here’s what Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus 1:3:
3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding.
This is Paul’s opening in this letter. Here is saying how both he and the people to whom he is writing have been blessed in Christ. This is a form of thanksgiving, where Paul is saying that the people called Christians have been adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. Even though we have failings, God’s love is so big to cover those failings and bring us close to God. Next Paul switches from giving thanksgiving about Christ followers to talking about God’s ultimate goal for all creation, for all reality. And he tells us that God has revealed this ultimate goal to us. Here’s what he says in verse 9:
9 God revealed his hidden design[b] to us,
Some translations refer to this hidden design as the mystery of God’s will. This hidden design, this mystery, this goal has been revealed to us, Paul says…
which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son.
Not only is this plan, this hidden design, this goal something revealed to the church, it is something that is only possible through Jesus. This goal of God is what God set forth or planned to happen through Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that whatever we believe about Jesus, this is what God’s ultimate goal in Jesus was all along.
10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.
Paul is telling us that the ultimate goal of God is to reunify all things in heaven all things in earth. The ultimate goal of God through Jesus Christ is to reunify all of creation, but not only all of creation—the ultimate goal of God through Jesus Christ is to reunify all reality.
That means all those thanksgiving dinners that are cut short by politics. That means all the Americans and those wanting to come to America. That means all democrats and all the republicans. That means all families torn apart by addiction. That means minority communities and white communities. That means conservative Christians and liberal Christians. That means gay people and straight people. That means lions and lambs and sharks and minnows. That means our enemies and people different from us. That means people who prefer the beach and people who prefer the mountains. That means urban cities and rural communities. God’s ultimate goal is to break the barriers that separate us from each other, the rest of creation, and that separate us from God. Paul tells us, this is what God planned to accomplish through Jesus Christ.
To us, putting this puzzle of disunity together is impossible. We see evidence, time and again, that humans create disunity and divide ourselves from one another. To us, reunifying all of reality seems impossible, but to God, whose ultimate goal is to reunify, it is possible and it is happening. You see, Paul tells us that this is not just some goal that God hopes to accomplish some time in the future it is already happening in real ways now. Paul continues addressing this community of believers and says:
11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory.
Here, Paul says that in the church God has already brought about this reunification. We will talk more about this next week, but we see it here. This kind of gets technical, and the English teachers or grammar nerds might have already picked up on this.
You will notice in Paul’s language that he switches pronouns. In verse 12 he says, “we are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ.” What’s he talking about here? The message of Jesus first came to the Jews, the Jews were the first to hope in Christ. Now for us, this doesn’t make much of a difference, but for the time when Paul is writing this letter, the Jews basically considered that there were two races in the world: Jews and Gentiles. They thought Jews were God’s chosen people and Gentiles were somehow outside of this. After Jesus, there is no guarantees that Christianity spreads outside of Jewish society, in fact, some thought that you had to become Jewish before you could become Christian.
Paul is speaking against this division and already sees reunification happening in the life of church, because he says in verse 13, “You too heard the word of truth in Christ, [and] … you were sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ.” Through this, Paul is saying that already if you are not Jewish you have been included in God’s plan to reunify through the Holy Spirit and power of Christ. Next week, we explore this more, but if you are not a Jewish believer in Jesus, customs, boarders, barriers, traditions, religious doctrine, has been broken to reunify you with God and with the church.
What Paul is saying here, is that God’s plan of reunification is possible because God is already doing it in the life of the church. In fact, the church is “down payment” of this unity. When the church is one we are living into God’s ultimate design for our lives, for our faith, and for all reality. That’s why we say in the Apostles Creed, we believe in the “holy catholic church.” We don’t mean that we are members of the Roman Catholic Church, catholic is another word for universal. When we say this, we affirm that we are members of Christ’s universal church, that has unity through the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
It’s because of this that I believe it is sinful for people to preach division and us to work for anything other than unity. One of my professors once wrote about this, he wrote, “if the church is to be the sign of God’s reconciling power at work in the world, then it must actually manifest that unity in its life” (LTJ, Writings of the New Testament, p.365). As Paul is opening this letter this is his desire and prayer. In his own words:
18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.
Paul prays, that our hearts will see God’s call to reunify, and that our lives will manifest this unity in all we do and say, and that we and other will recognized this unity as “the overwhelming greatness of God’s power” working amongst us. Make us one, oh Lord, make us one.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.