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     Sunday sermons | Passionate worship

    This sermon was preached by Pastor Keith Cardwell at Swift Presbyterian Church.

    Jan. 7, 2018 | Baptism of the Lord Sunday

    The Mystery of Grace
    Ephesians 3:1–12

     O NE OF MY FAVORITE mystery writers died last week. Sue Grafton wrote the “alphabet series” of crime novels featuring the female private investigator, Kinsey Millhone. The first book was titled A Is for Alibi; her last book was Y Is for Yesterday. I’ve been an avid fan of mysteries ever since I started reading Nancy Drew mysteries as a youngster, then moved on to Agatha Christie.

    Paul writes about mystery in our reading for today. For some, Paul’s writing is a mystery. He starts a thought and then dashes off in a completely different direction for several verses, eventually coming back to his original idea. We see that in today’s reading. Verse one begins, “For this reason I …,” then zooms off on a tangent returning in verse 14 to “For this reason I ….”

     † † † 

    WHAT PAUL SAYS, in that tangent, is important. A mystery has been made known to him. It’s a mystery about Jesus. No one has really understood this mystery before. It has been hidden through the ages, but revealed to Paul. So far the passage has all the makings of a best-selling novel. Listen in and you, too, will come to know the mystery.

    Like me, some of you find it hard to resist a good mystery. The mystery that Paul speaks departs from the standard patterns of a mystery story in at least three ways:

     † † † 

    FIRST, THE HEART of the story is not something tragic, like theft and murder, but something wonderful, a gift. This is an inheritance case. In a typical mystery story, one of the heirs to an estate usually plots to seize the whole inheritance. The idea is to exclude others from the gift, so that one heir can have it all.

    Paul grew up believing that his people, the Jewish people, were the only people God loved. Nobody else mattered. You might remember that early on, Paul (whose name then was Saul) was a Jew’s Jew. Look up Jewish in the dictionary and it has Paul’s picture. He didn’t like anyone who wasn’t Jewish — by race or religious practice. He especially didn’t like religious Jews who became followers of Jesus. Paul got permission to hunt down these traitors and have them arrested. Like a bounty hunter, he would track them from town to town. His name brought fear to Christian lives. No one was deserving of the inheritance except the Jewish family.

    In Ephesians, however, the mystery revolves around God giving the inheritance away too freely. What is so mysterious is that God has written a whole new group of heirs into his will. Paul speaks about the Gentiles coming into the inheritance of salvation. This does not shortchange those who were heirs before, because there are “boundless riches” in Christ (3:8). There is plenty to go around. So the mystery in this case is the mystery of grace.

     † † † 

    SECOND, CRIME NOVELS generally center on a small cast of characters. Sue Grafton has recurring characters. Of course, Kinsey, the PI. There’s Henry, the landlord; Rosie, who owns the diner; a few police officers. Each novel presents new characters just for that book. But Paul does not work with a small cast of characters. Paul speaks in cosmic terms about what God is doing. It takes up the whole world. This is a story about a vast group known as the Gentiles;, that’s anybody who’s not Jewish. Now, the Gentiles are an unlikely group for God to be including in the inheritance. Traditionally, Gentiles were those who worshiped other gods. They were not the devotees of the God of Israel.

    When Paul heard Jesus’ message that God loved all people, at first he really, really did not like it. But, he finally got it. Paul then exerted the same energy sharing that good news that he had spent before persecuting people he hadn’t liked. Paul spent the rest of his life telling people who were not Jewish that God and Jesus love them.

    The mystery revealed to Paul is that God is not content to let the Gentiles be separated from him. Instead, God acted to bring them into a new relationship with him. And Christ is the way God did that. People become heirs by the mercy of God. Moreover, all people are called to the same faith. To be a child of God is to relate to God in faith.

     † † † 

    THIRD, THE USUAL PATTERN is that once the mystery is revealed, we can close the book. The case is solved. The suspense is over. But for Paul, the revelation of the mystery is not the end of the story. The revelation of the mystery is just the beginning. It creates a new beginning of a story — perhaps a sequel, if you will. If God has extended the promise of an inheritance to the Gentiles, this opens up a vast new chapter. Paul is in the business of making the news of what God has done public.

     † † † 

    WHAT AN AMAZING, wonderful change! His work changed the whole church forever. We used to not know that God’s love was for everyone. But now we do know that. God loves all people and Jesus died for all people. God loves all people.

    That’s good news! God’s love is not confined to a few. God’s love is for all people. The sharing that good news — that revelation of the mystery of grace — remains the heart of his story, our story.

    Keith Cardwell   

    Ephesians 3:1–12
    Holy Bible, New International Version

    God’s Marvelous Plan for the Gentiles
    3 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—

    2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

    7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although 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. 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

    — This is the Word of the LORD.        

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