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Multi-Ethnic Community

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Spritually United Multi-Ethnic Community--in the 'now' and the 'not yet'

Notes & Transcripts | Handout
Welcome; Kyle—one of the pastors; we’ve spent the last six weeks thinking about how the Gospel brings us together and keeps us together. And of course, concluding the series doesnt mean concluding the conversation and the journey we’re on regarding this issue of racial unity. We’re going to be having ongoing discussions about this as a church. And so as we finish up the series, I think it is appropriate to reflect on the book of Ephesians. Because of all the books in the New Testament, the book of Ephesians gives us the clearest and most explicit theology of the church. It is the Apostle Paul’s quintessential document, summarising his ministry as an Apostle. Unlike his other letters, Ephesians was not written to address any specific problem. Rather, Ephesians is a circular letter (meant to be circulated amongst the churches; perhaps it got the name Ephesians because Ephesus was such a major city [the “mother city” of Asia Minor]) and so functions as a manifesto for the church; Ephesians is a church manifesto. If you want to understand the essence and function of the church, then read Ephesians. So the big idea that I want to talk about this morning from is: Spiritually United Multi-Ethnic Community. When Paul talks about the church in Ephesians, he is thinking about God’s new community; his spiritually united multi-ethnic community. In , Paul gives his audience a picture of this community, and he also prays for power for this community. And those are the two headings we have for this morning: the picture of spiritually united multi-ethnic community, and the power for spiritually united multi-ethnic community.
It’s appropriate to be closing the Embrace Series by reflecting on the book of Ephesians. Of all the books in the New Testament, the book of Ephesians gives us the clearest and most explicit theology of the church. It is the Apostle Paul’s quintessential document, summarising his ministry as an Apostle to the Gentiles. Unlike his other letters, Ephesians was not written to address any specific problem. Rather, Ephesians is a circular letter (meant to be circulated amongst the churches) and so functions as a manifesto for the church; Ephesians is a church manifesto. If you want to understand the essence and function of the church, then read Ephesians. And the big idea that I want to talk about this morning from is: Spiritually United Multi-Ethnic Community. When Paul talks about the church in Ephesians, he is thinking about God’s new spiritually united multi-ethnic community. In , Paul gives his readers a picture of this community, and he also prays for power for this community. And those are the two headings we have for this morning: the picture of spiritually united multi-ethnic community, and the power for spiritually united multi-ethnic community.
Interestingly enough, the ancient city of Ephesus was called “the mother city” because of its population size and powerful economy. And writing to those in the mother city, Paul teaches them about the spiritually united multi-ethnic community that God had created. But more than giving them the vision, he also tells them what they need to achieve that vision, and nowhere in the letter do we see that coming together more clearly than in chapter 3.
Several times in the first few verses, Paul talks about a ‘revealed mystery’ (see verses 3-5). He says that this mystery had been hidden and is only now being revealed. I used to think I knew what Paul meant and I always thought he was exaggerating a bit because salvation to the Gentiles wasn’t really a new idea. You see, it’s very clear in the Old Testament that Gentiles could be saved and drawn into the people of God. Salvation blessings for all the nations had been announced to Abraham, foretold by the prophets, etc. So God’s plan to save all nations wasn't a mystery—so why was Paul saying that all of a sudden this mystery had been freshly revealed? Well, notice the word “administration” (verse 2, 9). Here’s what I think Paul means: it wasn’t a mystery that salvation would become available to the Gentiles. But what was a mystery was HOW God was going to do that. How would God administrate that plan? What was God’s strategy in accomplishing that? In other words, it wasn't the ‘what’ but the ‘how’—how will God do this?
Because i f you had to ask a first century Jew, how will God’s saving grace reach the gentiles? The answer you would have recieved was simple: through submission to the law of Moses. Gentiles could be circumcised and join the religious disciples of Israel. Gentiles could be saved at any time—through submission to the law and embracing Jewish customs. Let me put it this way: God’s salvation was administrated through the law. So can you see how scandalous it is when Paul comes along and says: no! God’s salvation isn't administrated through the law. The Gentiles don’t get saved through the law, they get saved through the Gospel (read verse 6).
Now, let’s pause for a second. If you had to ask a first century Jew, how will God’s saving grace reach the gentiles? The answer you would have recieved was simple: through submission the law of Moses. Gentiles could be circumcised and join the religious disciples of Israel. Gentiles could be saved at any time—through submission to the law and embracing Jewish customs. Let me put it this way: God’s salvation was administrated through the law. So can you see how scandalous it is when Paul comes along and says: no! God’s salvation isn't administrated through the law. The Gentiles don’t get saved through the law, they get saved through the Gospel (read verse 6).
And the answer, of course, is (verse 6) through the Gospel.
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The revealed mystery is that it is through the gospel (and not through not the law) that the Gentiles are brought in. Paul says that gentiles (as well as Jews) can be saved without obeying the law! Salvation is available to anyone, and obedience to the law is not required. Embracing Jewish customs is not required. Observing religious rituals is not required. The only requirement is faith in Jesus, because it is “through the Gospel” and not the law that anyone can be included in God’s saved people. In other words, the Gentiles didn't need to become Jewish. They didn't need to change their culture when they entered the household of God. The nations come into God’s family, from a cultural perspective, as they are. To use language from Ryan’s sermon last week: salvation is available, and no cultural assimilation is required. When you come to God, you don’t need to change your culture. You don't need to change your accent. You don't need to assimilate to anything. We enter the family of God through the Gospel, which means that the family of God is not ‘mono-ethnic’ but multi-ethnic. The mystery was that, through the Gospel, God’s people could become a spiritually united multi-ethnic community.
This is one of the reasons why Christianity is a multi-ethnic faith. The other major religions of the world do require a level of cultural assimilation. But Christianity has one requirement: faith in Jesus. Because this is the only basis for acceptance, someone can place their faith in Jesus and still hold onto a distinct cultural identity. In other words, God has intentionally created his new community to be multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.
Christianity is a multi-ethnic faith. The other major religions of the world do require a level of cultural assimilation. But Christianity has one requirement: faith in Jesus. Because this is the only basis for acceptance, someone can place their faith in Jesus and still hold onto a distinct cultural identity. In other words, God has intentionally created his new community to be multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. the mystery is that, through the Lord Jesus, we can become a spiritually united multi-ethnic community.
So the Gentiles come in through the Gospel, but more than that, the Gentiles are not simply brought in without needing to change their culture, they are brought in at a fundamentally equal level, verse 6: heirs together, members together, sharers together. Paul here highlights three massive unifying realities that characterise God’s multi-ethnic community.
Firstly, Paul says (verse 6) the Gentiles are “heirs together” which means that God’s people (as one new community) share the same inheritance. What does it mean if you share an inheritance with someone? It means that you are family. In other words, Christians don’t just join Old Israel, but we have been formed (along with believing Jews) into one new people of God, into one new community, into one new spiritual family, with the same heavenly Ftaher. And together, we will inherit the kingdom of heaven. We are heirs together.
Right at the beginning of the series, Stephen mentioned this: all Christians are spiritual family and will spend eternity together. Now, we may be more or less good at expressing that unity in our relationships, but the spiritual reality is that we’re family. And that doesn’t just have implications for now, it has implications for eternity. Because we have the same inheritance; we are heirs together. And so, of course, we should seek to live in a way now that reflects this reality. Let me suggest one possible application (of course there are many): if you read some of the literature regarding restitution, one idea that gets suggested is that those who have benefitted from the unjust practices of the past share some of their inheritance with those who have been disadvantaged from the unjust practices of the past. Now that is a very difficult thing for most people to think about doing, and probably most people will dismiss the idea. But one of the wonderful resources we have as Christians, that enables us to think and live differently, is our belief regarding our inheritance. One day, we will all equally inherit the Kingdom of God. And if I really believe that, if I really believe that I am going to share a spiritual inheritance with my brothers and sisters, then it makes the idea of sharing my earthly inheritance far more plausible. We are heirs together—and that must shape our lives now.
The second aspect of our unity is (also in verse 6) that we are “members together of one body” which means that we are one. We are as connected to each other as my different body parts are connected to me; we are as interdependent as the different organs and limbs in the body are. And, of course, we are equal—each part of the body should be concerned about every other part. Lex helped us think about this a few weeks ago when he reminded us about leprosy. One of the worst things about leprosy is that you stop feeling things you should feel. You stop feeling pain, so that if one part of your body is in agony, you simply are not aware of it. Sadly, in South Africa, it sometimes seems as though the church body has had a form of relational leprosy. There are different parts of the body in lots of pain and the other parts of the body are completely unaware. This should not be so, because we are “members together”—we have been united by Jesus into one body, and that must shape our lives now.
The third aspect of this deep unity is that we are (again verse 6) “sharers together in the promise” which is a reference to the promised Holy Spirit. Through the Gospel, through faith in Jesus, we share in the same Holy Spirit. We have been united experientially by the Holy Spirit, we have tasted the same Spirit. The same Spirit that has taught you about Jesus has taught me about Jesus; the same Spirit that has given you new life has given me new life; the same Spirit that has gifted you for serving has also gifted me for serving—we share together in the promised Holy Spirit.
So we are heirs together, members together, and sharers together. Through the Gospel, this multi-ethnic mystery has been revealed. Through the work of the Lord Jesus, we have been constituted into a spiritually united multi-ethnic community.
Illustrat
God’s multi-ethnic community displays his multi-coloured wisdom. Take a look at verse 10 (read). Polypoikilos is “a word that means ‘variegated’, and that was used in classical Greek writers with reference to cloth or flowers, and so here it suggests ‘the intricate beauty of an embroidered pattern’ (Robinson) or the endless variety of colours in flowers.”
Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 10, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 105.
Think of a beautiful flower display, with the stunning variety of colours and shapes. When the church looks like that, it displays God’s wisdom. Local churches display God’s wisdom, and they generally do this better the more diverse they are. The multi-ethnic community displays God’s multi-coloured, multi-faceted wisdom. God is more glorified in diversity than in uniformity because diversity does a better job at displaying the breadth and beauty of his wisdom.
This is a very powerful apologetic for the Gospel to a watching world. When South Africans see the church as a spiritually united multi-ethnic community, there may be a deeper desire to investigate the claims of the Bible. We want to show South Africa what South Africa could look like if Jesus was Lord. But more than being a display to a watching world, Paul says that this multi-coloured wisdom is displayed to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms”, that God’s wisdom is displayed in the spiritual dimensions. In the spiritual dimension, the hostile evil powers are forced to recognise that God has triumphed in the Gospel, and He is bringing all people together under the Lordship of Jesus. Let me give you an illustration: spiritually united multi-ethnic churches are like those open-top bus champions celebrations: wherever that bus goes, they display and celebrate that the soccer team has been victorious. Now, when local churches live out the multi-ethnic unity they have in Christ, they display and celebrate God’s victory in the Lord Jesus.
So God’s spiritually united multi-ethnic community displays His multi-coloured wisdom. This is the picture that Paul paints for us. This is the vision he wants Christians in the mother city to be aware of. Let use an analogy that might help summarise this point: a quilt! Each part of this quilt was made separately. Many of these squares were made by different individuals. And they are all quite different—dragonfly, elephant, tortoise, etc. But Joanna took these diverse squares are sewed them all together into a beautiful and cohesive pattern. And I cannot look at this multi-coloured quilt and NOT think about the wisdom of Joanna. The quilt is a marvellous example of diversity and unity and it points back to the wisdom and skill of its creator. God has taken different people and knitted them together. We are very different from one another. And yet, when people (and the spiritual realm!) see our unity, they marvel at the wisdom and skill of our God.
Let me close up this point with two applications.
Firstly, if God has brought us together, we should seek to maintain what he has created (read ). Maintaining unity might sound easy but it’s hard! Especially when we have been talking about the things we have been over the last few weeks. Maintaining unity means, at the very least, sticking together to figure this out together. No one person has all the answers or all the insight. We need each other. Which leads me to the second application...
(which we don’t have time to look at) gives us an amazing formula. It teaches us that unity + diversity = maturity. In the united people of God, all the diverse gifts have to be exercised and used if the church is going to move into spiritual maturity. Practically, this means that we need everyone to get involved. We need everyone to participate. We need everyone’s input, everyone’s contribution. We need all the diverse gifts and people working this out together, serving each other together, getting practical together. Only when every part is doing its job, will we move into maturity.
So maybe now is a good time to ask: are you doing these two things? Are you maintaining unity (by staying committed) and pursuing diversity (by getting involved)? Are you sticking around, and are you getting stuck in? We need your commitment, and we need your involvement! Only once everyone is committed, and only once everyone gets involved, will we reach maturity.
So we should maintain unity, pursue diversity—lastly, I think an important application from this beautiful picture of multi-ethnic community is . Whatever our ethnicity, culture, socio-economic class, or family background, we may approach God with freedom and confidence. Because of Jesus, we can enjoy equal access to the Father. As Paul says in , through Jesus we all “have access to the Father by one Spirit.” Their are no second class citizens in the kingdom of heaven, and we are enjoy equal and unfettered access to God’s presence through the work of the Holy Spirit.
So this is the first part of : the picture of spiritually united multi-ethnic community that displays the wisdom of God. A spiritually united multi-ethnic community points back to the wisdom and love of its heavenly Father. Paul paints a beautiful picture for us, doesn’t he?
But even as he passionately explains this amazing picture, Paul also knows that a picture is not enough. We need more than a picture—we need power. And so Paul goes into a prayer, praying for the power we would need in order to pursue this picture.
This prayer could be divided up into two petitions: in the first, Paul prays that the Ephesians would be empowered by the Spirit to welcome Christ into their hearts, the second is that they would have the power to grasp the limitless dimensions of Christ’s love.
Read verses 16-17a. Paul prays to the Father, asking that the Holy Spirit would strengthen us so that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith. Notice the connection between the strengthening of the Spirit and the indwelling of Jesus; one of the ways that we can be sure the Holy Spirit is truly working in us is that He gives us a greater understanding of (and love for) the Lord Jesus. The Spirit strengthens us to welcome Jesus into our hearts.
However, this might raise a question: surely Jesus already came into my heart when I first became a Christian? And of course that is right. But the word “dwell” in verse 17 doesn’t just mean arrive, it also means settle down. So Paul isn’t praying that the Holy Spirit will descend upon them for the first time; Paul is praying that Jesus would make their hearts his home.
Let me give you an analogy to help unpack this: when Kirsty and I bought an apartment a few years ago, it was a fixer upper of note. The floors were stained and dirty. The walls were a very dreary colour. There were strange fixtures and fittings. A number of things were broken or outdated. So we owned it (gratefully!) but we needed to make some changes before we felt at home. We had arrived but not yet settled down. And so we went to work: painting, tearing up the old carpets, adding security, putting in safety glass, removing a strange wall that was randomly halfway in the room, and a bunch of other things. After a lot of work, the apartment started to feel more like home. We had changed it so that it reflected our desires and priorities. We had already owned, but we had turned it into our home. Of course, there are still things that we would like to do but we need to be patient and hopefully over tie we will be able to do those as well. But over time, more and more, we are making ourselves at home in our apartment. Increasingly, the apartment reflects us and what we like.
And Paul is saying that Jesus goes through the same process. When Jesus comes into your heart, he finds all sorts of things in there that need renovation. All kinds of things that need to be changed: anger, racism, fear, pride, falsehoods, slander, gossip, and the list goes on. And even though he sees these things, Jesus doesn’t leave. What he does start doing is getting to work—he sets about turning your heart into his home. He wants our hearts to be places that reflect his desires and priorities, to be homes in which he is comfortable. There is a lot of work to do! There is a lot of renovation that needs to happen—cleaning, repairing, expanding. But his goal is clear: he wants to make our hearts his home. And Paul prays that the Holy Spirit would empower us so that, through faith, Christ would (more and more) settle down into our hearts.
So can I ask myself and you: is this happening? Is Jesus taking up residence in our hearts? Is our confidence in his love growing over time? Are we getting to know him better over time? Do we love him more than we did a year ago? Are we more humble, more hardworking, more peaceful, more just, and more godly than we were a year ago? Is Jesus renovating your heart? What about us as a community? Is Christ more at home in our hearts today than a year ago? Are we growing together? Are we maturing together?
In order for Christ to make our hearts his home, we need power. Power from the Holy Spirit for a stronger personal trust in Jesus.
The second prayer is that we might have the power to grasp the limitless dimensions of the love of Christ. Read verse 17b-19. This is a prayer that we would know the vast scale of Jesus’ love. Paul reckons that if we are going to grow up into a spiritually united multi-ethnic community, then we (all together, did you notice that?) need power from God to know the limitless love of Jesus. Now, obviously Paul knows that in some way the Ephesians already know about the love of Christ—but Paul assumes that they do not fully appreciate it they way they should. That’s true of all believers and all local churches: we do know the love of Christ, and yet we do not know it as we should.
Let’s think about the metaphors that Paul uses to describe Christ’s love: it is wide, long, high and deep. Bible teacher Richard Coekin points out, in his fantastic book on Ephesians, that this actually resonates with themes in the book of Ephesians. Firstly, Christ’s love is wide in that it is accepting of anyone from any background: Jew or Gentile (read ). You might be here today and think, am I too far away for Jesus’ love to reach me? The answer is: no! The love of Jesus is wide—wide enough to reach you and to bring you in. Secondly, the love of Jesus is long—from before the foundation of the world God has loved his children (read ). And it’s a love that goes from eternity past into eternity future. Some of us know the hurt of being abandoned, or being given up on. And perhaps we are worried that Jesus will abandon us, or that Jesus will give up on us. But he won’t, because his love is long; Jesus’ love is lasting, permanent. On and on and on and on it goes. Sally Lloyd Jones, who wrote the Jesus Story Book Bible, describes it as God’s Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Always and Forever Love. So Jesus’ love is wide, it is long and thirdly, it is high: it exalts us, he raises us up into heavenly places (read ). Jesus has lifted us from the bottom to the top, from the pit to the palace, from hell to heaven. Jesus’ love for us is a love that exalts us; it is high. Finally, the love of Jesus is deep: it is sacrificial. Think about the Gospel: the high and exalted one came down for us; but not just down to earth, he went down into death for us. He went into deep agony as he was crucified and separated from the Father’s love. Look at the depths of his love for you. He went all the way down so that you could go all the way up. The limitless dimensions of Christ’s love are breathtaking—and ultimately even beyond our comprehension (read ). Paul wants us to know this love! All too easily, we end up under appreciating the love of Christ. Whether from ignorance or amnesia, we forget how massively loved we are, with a love that is wide, long, high and deep.
One of my biggest problems is that I don’t really know how much Jesus loves me. And one of our biggest dangers as a church is that we would underestimate the love of Christ. That we would forget just how much Jesus truly loves us. Paul wants us to know this, he wants us to experience this, he wants us to swim in the love of Christ (even if we will never reach the bottom of it!).
The Challenger Deep Gorge in the great Mariana Trench is the deepest part of the ocean known to scientists. It is 7 miles deep! Currently, there is no submersible able to survive the pressures at the bottom to explore it. But even though we cannot plumb the depths of the ocean doesnt mean we cant enjoy the ocean. It doesn’t mean that we cant go to the beach and swim and surf and even dive! We will spend all of eternity grasping the love of Christ, exploring the enormity of its dimensions. But we can, in the here and now, start to swim in His love. To have daily moments where we revel in his love, where we seek to grasp just how much he loves us.
So what does that look like for you? In what ways are you grasping the love of Christ? How are you seeking to be empowered to know his love better and more deeply? In your everyday life, what are you doing that helps you to more deeply appropriate the love of Christ?
Finally, as we come to close, notice why Paul wants us to grasp this love. Verse 19b (read). Paul wants us to have the power to grasp the love of Christ so that we might become mature. In other words: Paul assumes that unless we know the love of Christ, we cannot reach maturity. Grasping the love of Christ facilitates maturity. No grasp of Christ’s love = not reaching the level of maturity that Christ would have us reach.
As we reflect on God’s desire for a spiritually united multi-ethnic community, we must also reflect on God’s desire that we know his love. Because these things are connected: we will only be able to realise the picture of multi-ethnic community to the degree that we experience the power for multi-ethnic community (which is the love of Christ). The biggest obstacle to a mature expression of our unity is an under appreciation of the love of Christ. To the degree that we grasp the love of Christ, to that degree will we be able to reach maturity as a multi-ethnic community.
So as we close this series can I point you towards the love of Christ. His love is wide, wide enough for all of us. His love is long—it will never give up on any of us. His love is high—he has exalted us. And his love is deep—he went to the grave so that we could go to the sky. And it’s this Jesus, this loving Jesus, who has called us into a new family, co-heirs together, members together and sharers together. He has brought us together, and for all eternity, he will keep us together.
Let’s pray.
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