I had the privilege of witnessing Pastor Lionel Otto’s funeral this week. He was laid to rest in the Nuri cemetery Wednesday. Lionel at one point was Bishop of NSW and Assistant Bishop in the LCA.
As a young church youth worker, I sometimes worked with Lionel. It was inspiring.
Lionel was a pastor with true church vision. He was deeply committed to the sharing of the gospel by God’s people with all other people.
I know where he got that vision. Right here in Ephesians 3.
Sounds big. Sounds impossible, given the conflict, division and violence from the top to the bottom of our world. But Paul speaks God’s vision of who we are anyway… and from a Roman prison!
We need help in catching this vision. It is easy to settle for less.
I so often hear that we as local churches are just here to survive as long as we can.
It often goes like this in many places around our state:
“Well, the doors are still open. But, we are all seniors and the group is dwindling. The kids have not come for ages and the grandkids have never come. That is just their way.
My grandfather and his friends and family built the place. Luckily, we do have enough money to keep fixing the building. So, the church will stay open on my watch. As for what happens after me, I don’t know. We will just ‘keep the doors open’ as long as we can, and it should be alright for as long as I am alive…”.
We seem to have settled for ‘church’ being a building more than a people, where the building is an end in itself and not a tool for different people, where the church we belong to is more a fixed institution than an adaptable movement, only a weekly gathering more than a daily relating, something we ‘attend’ more than a life we ‘do’ together; a spectator sport we watch rather than a sport we actually play.
As a result, the focus is often not so much building community but maintaining a building; keeping the known community going way more than seeking the unknown community around us; living OUR vision rather than the one here, with or without a building.
But, God’s mission still stands:
We might think, “Big deal – Jews and Gentiles are now one in Christ …”. So?
It is a very big deal. I read this from the late great Dr Joe Strelan …
No division ran more deeply through humankind that that which existed between Jew and Gentile. The Jews of old simply lumped all other races together under one term ‘goyim’ (the nations). The Greeks, in a similar way classified all non-Greeks as ‘barbarians’….
This division ran deeper than division between Nuri and Tanunda, Crows and Port, Labour and Liberal; even U.S. Democrat and Republican.
This great divide ran through your whole day, every day – from the food you ate and never would eat, to the shops you frequented and would not be caught dead in, to the cups out of which you would drink and the cutlery you would share, or not, to the clothes your wore, the holidays you had, the celebrations you had in your home (Passover) to the stories you taught your children and bed time to how you viewed the whole of the universe and all of creation. This was life in the great divide.
And, like any divide, it brought out the worst in people. Jews called Gentiles shaming names and assumed inaccurate and dismissive things about them, and Gentiles returned the favour. At times it got violent and entirely unjust.
And Paul himself was a living breathing carrier of this great divide for the first part of his life – schooled in all the names and all the wrong assumptions and dehumanising of anyone not Jewish enough.
But, as we know, in that Damascus Road moment when the resurrected Jesus found Paul and chose him, of all people, to be carrier of a new thing – not a great divide but a great unity, Paul now was a living sign of God’s great plan; God’s great mission to remove this deep and high and wide divide.
In Jesus, Paul says, (from a lonely jail cell, let’s not forget) that God began removing this great divide in the world with the power and grace of Jesus’ forgiveness for it all. That is the mystery of which Paul speaks.
It is BIG and it is now, and it is us.
We have been created to be a community that is a living sign God’s ultimate desire for his world. Dr Joe puts it this way;
“[all God has done in Jesus is so that] the church might be an exhibit, a microcosm of the vast cosmic order which will be the final product of God’s redemptive plan”.
Now we are talking ‘church’ properly!
We are a community of life and love and hope that needs to serve and speak and give as long as we are here.
And this ‘wisdom of God’ in Jesus, is to be proclaimed and lived not just in some hidden quiet way that no one really notices or that does not really cost anyone much.
No, it is apparently to be proclaimed and lived out even among “rulers and authorities in heavenly places”.
How does that happen?
What are they? These are the powers that you sense threatening life in the world; powers of evil that might be visible in political and social life of a country or the whole world – spiritual powers but also enmeshed with and the like.
This forgiveness and love of God in his Son’s birth, teaching, suffering, death and resurrection to new life, which we carry, gets everywhere to everyone – even to the powers behind the horrible suffering we know that shows itself in our world – economic injustice, military oppression, social ills like racism, war, hatred, ecological destruction, greed, corrupt power, vengeance, economic and political manipulation of whole peoples…….
I read a comment on this:
“In the face of such (evil) realities, the church is not called to survive, or to increase membership, or to make people feel better. It is called to be the sign, promise, and embodiment of what God intends for the whole world, and to do so in the face of, and in witness to, the opposing powers of the world. The church is called to be a living declaration that the hostile powers cannot stand; their final defeat is assured.
That is church, from the tearoom at work on Tuesday to the violence being perpetrated on Ukraine by a super-power today. And that is what we are all called int, however old, young, unwell, fit, wealthy, poor, we may be.
See how for Paul, this mystery was personal, not merely professional. It was practical, not just nice ideas.
It came from a moment of epiphany – an “Ah-ha” moment. He tells us;
7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 ……though I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.
Is this your personal “Ah-ha’ heart? Has Jesus’ plan and call dawned on you?
Can his promise and calling be how we face the rapidly changing culture into which the Lord has sent us? It will take some adjustment. It always does.
For Paul this mission he was chosen to live in, meant that this concrete divide in which he had been born, raised and schooled was wrong, useless, redundant, irrelevant to what was now possible in Jesus.
Same for each of us. Some of our beliefs about church and world and why we are here might end up the same if we hear Jesus today.
As we let Jesus’ light in and ponder our life together in 2023, always best to pray…
Could you, will you pray this kind of prayer for 2023: