Sermon: Outside the Party?

A very important note about sources: Several structures, themes, and ideas of this message, especially some text enclosed in quotation marks, has been lifted from the course, available on the udemy platform, entitled, “Paul and His Letter to the Ephesians,” the copyright for which belongs to N.T. Wright Online, 2016. Also see the relevant sections of Wright, N. T. Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. London Louisville, KY: SPCK Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Please see also Wright, N. T., and Lin Johnson. Ephesians: 11 Studies for Individuals and Groups. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Connect, 2009.

 

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Hello everyone, thank you guys very much for coming. If we haven’t met yet, my name is Keanu Heydari, I’m one of your teachers on the youth team here at Pacific Crossroads Church. I’m going to pray for us really quick: Heavenly Father, I thank you so much for this time that you’ve given us to think about your word and why it matters for us today and for our lives. I pray that you’d give us ears to hear and eyes to see, that you’d open up the eyes of our hearts to the power of your Spirit to transform and change us. It’s in your Son’s name that we pray, amen.

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So, I really didn’t like my middle school experience—for me, it was one of those seasons of life that I really did my best to forget; partly because it was so painful and partly because it was so lonely. Actually, I just recently moved from my apartment near UCLA—the college I went to—back to my parents’ place. And as I was cleaning up the garage (to make more room for my stuff), I found a box with some of my old journals from when I was younger. I picked up the journal that I kept while I was in the 8th grade and I started reading; I had to stop after a while because I needed to clear out a few more shelves of space before dinner and, as you can imagine, that’s hard to do when you’re getting tears and snot over everything. I don’t know, maybe your experience is or was very different from mine, but from the entries that I was reading, what I saw page after page was a kid who was genuinely alone—someone who felt abandoned and isolated; like there was no one I could talk to or trust—no one who really understood me or what I was going through. I was just standing there flipping pages and ultimately, I felt like my life at the end of middle school was a depressing coming-of-age film without any good vibes or happy notes. I remember one entry that I’d written especially well: I was sitting by myself in the quad and I was looking at a group of people laughing together at a corner of the space. These were the “cool kids” of my grade; they looked like they had everything together. At my middle school, gossip was everywhere, and even a kid as uncool as I was, knew what was going on. The kids I was looking at were all doing well in school, they were all attractive and in shape, they all did well in sports and P.E., they socialized with each other very often, they had everything that the culture said middle schoolers should have: strong friendships, happy relationships, and lots of fun. I knew from the two years I’d already spent at that campus that I wasn’t welcome in that clique—I was too weird, too nerdy, too socially-awkward. I wasn’t into all the latest trends and fashions and movies, videogames, and music. I could barely relate to myself let alone the rest of my grade. The last line of that journal entry really got to me:

“I shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, I have to get used to this, I am going to be alone forever, I’m always going to be outside the party.”

And believe it or not, I was weirdly comforted by what I wrote. Track with me, this is going to make sense in a couple minutes. You see, I had written this before I knew Jesus; before I knew about the limitless and infinite love of God. Back then, I genuinely and authentically believed that I was really out of bounds, that I was outside the circle of significance. I didn’t matter; no one except my parents, maybe, would be upset if I suddenly disappeared. Whenever I wrote those words, maybe at the end of the school day or later, in my bed at home, I said, “I’m always going to be outside the party.” However alone I felt at that moment, I had something in common with every single human being in the world, even those who apparently had it all together. Now, I want to read a small section from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus to give us some room to better understand what I’m talking about. This is from verses one through seven in chapter two of Ephesians.

[1] So where do you come into it all? Well, you were dead because of your offences and sins! [2] That was the road you used to travel, keeping in step with this world’s ‘present age’; in step, too, with the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is, even now, at work among people whose whole lives consist of disobeying God. [3] Actually, that’s how all of us used to behave, conditioned by physical desires. We used to do what our flesh and our minds were urging us to do. What was the result? We too were subject to wrath in our natural state, just like everyone else. [4] But when it comes to mercy, God is rich! He had such great love for us that [5] he took us at the very point where we were dead through our offenses, and made us alive together with the king (yes, you are saved by sheer grace!). [6] He raised us up with him, and made us sit with him – in the heavenly places, in King Jesus! [7] This was so that in the ages to come he could show just how unbelievably rich his grace is, the kindness he has shown us in King Jesus.

You see, I was outside; languishing, without friends and really, without hope. And in a way, this is how Paul speaks about all of humanity before Jesus came to rescue us and show us forgiveness. This rescue didn’t come because I met some special standard. It wasn’t because I was particularly important or had accomplished some set of tasks or obedience that God suddenly felt sorry for me. And that’s also true for humanity, as well. It was purely out of the goodness and kindness of God that Jesus was sent to remind us about who we really are and to rescue us from the mess that sin has caused. In fact, Paul says this in verses eight through ten:

[8] How has this all come about? You have been saved by grace, through faith! This doesn’t happen on your own initiative; it’s God’s gift. [9] It isn’t on the basis of works, so no one is able to boast. [10] This is the explanation: God has made us what we are. God has created us in King Jesus for the good works that he prepared, ahead of time, as the road we must travel.

You see, we were on the outside; dying, alone, and without true friends. God saw our suffering and came to us in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, to open the door. He went outside for us so we could come back in. And because of the lovingkindness and infinite mercy of God, we don’t have to feel shame as we come back into his house, because Jesus took that on himself as he died for us on the cross.

I look at the words I wrote back then in middle school today with a sense of great joy and even celebration: I once was lost in the wilderness, but now am found safely in the care of the King Jesus. Jesus Christ is the picture of the victory of God over death and shame; his resurrection confirms the truth that Paul is talking about here, that the suffering and groaning of our world is not going to go to waste; God has not left us to deal with our own sin, or with our own brokenness. He has entered into our reality and wants to remind us of the celebration he intends for each one of us.

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So, let’s take a step back and talk a little bit about the text we’ve just read. What we’re seeing going on here is sort of like what would happen if Paul, the Apostle, tried to go for a run. In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul is going at a hundred miles an hour, telling us about the amazing love and grace and power of the Messiah, and then when he realizes he’s out of breath, he comes to a screeching halt and actually crashes straight into a wall. For him, this is the wall of sin; the reality of our fallen, broken world. Paul catches his breath, and lets us know what God has done—both for the world and especially for his people in Christ. To do this, he has to begin by having an honest conversation with us. He needs to be real with us and tell us what’s truly gone wrong, like any good friend would do. And what does Paul actually tell us? He says that we “were dead because of [our] offences and sins.” Unlike a lot of us in middle school, this sort of death actually is on us, it is our responsibility, at least in part. The reason I was bullied and mistreated and isolated in middle school wasn’t because of bad choices I made—to be honest, a lot of it really couldn’t be helped. Bullying in general has to do with the brokenness of the world, and it’s never okay to blame someone who has been victimized, regardless of their level of coolness. On the contrary, each of one of us, because of the suffering that we have inflicted on others, and because of our radical turning away from God, we were in a certain sense dead. Paul says that we were “keeping in step with this world’s ‘present age.’” But what does Paul want to tell us when he says that we ‘were dead’? Well, have you ever gone to the doctor, expecting everything to be fine, and then later find out that everything’s not actually fine? Maybe you told your parents about a sore throat you’d been feeling for a few weeks, and after the examination your doctor tells you that you have a pretty bad case of strep throat. Well, in this part of this chapter, Paul is sort of taking on the role of our spiritual doctor. He provides us with the true diagnosis of what’s wrong with us. Looking at this, and looking at Paul’s claim that we were actually dead, it may sound a bit pessimistic or even offensive. But you see, if we have the right diagnosis, that’s good news. Once we have a thorough understanding of what’s wrong, we can see what the problem is and move forward.

And a lot of us may have asked the question, “Well why does God take this so seriously? Why does sin lead to death? Isn’t God just being kind of harsh?” But sometimes we forget that this is a very old story. We have to go all the way back to the beginning. God tells us about it in the Book of Genesis: the whole point of everything is that “we as human beings are made to reflect God. We’re made to bear God’s image—we are designed to work at our peak when we’re worshipping God and celebrating his love in the world, using the gifts and talents we’ve got to his glory so that we can be genuine, fully flourishing human beings, [and that’s] what it means to be alive [in Christ].” Even more profound, we’re made alive together in Christ. However, “if we turn away from the source of life then, by definition and not by some arbitrary [say-so from God], we are [then] heading [towards] death. And of course, in the Bible, it’s clear that all human beings have done that. We have all turned away from the source of life. More than this, there are also dark powers that are let loose in the world, let loose by human sin, because [we] have worshipped and served other gods, [other idols.]” But there is good news!

God decided that he would not let his creation rest in its own misery. God is so rich and abundant in mercy. And we know this because something happened at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. A massive wave of spiritual energy swept through the universe which can only be comprehended through the eyes of faith, but when we happen to find ourselves caught up into the movement of God, when we are reconciled with our Heavenly Father in Union with Christ, we then discover something wonderful, something marvellous—we are not in this alone, as mere people, but we are part of a great company—millions upon millions of people, past, present, and future—you don’t know the vast majority of them, but they are your family! You belong to this family, a family that has been brought through death and out the other side into new life along with the spirit of Jesus Christ, which will never abandon you.

Now, what do we think about when we use the word “resurrection?” When Paul uses the word, what he means is both something that will happen to you at the last day when God finally brings the New Heaven and the New Earth to completion, and also something that has happened to you already in faith: in baptism, if you’ve been baptized, and especially in God’s calling of you which has brought you into the body of Christ. In this family, we are made alive together, and as Paul says in verse six, God made us sit with him in the heavenly places in King Jesus, in the messiah. What Paul means here by the idea of us sitting at God’s right hand really means that we are, as far as God is concerned, given a status and power in which the world is going to be rescued. Not only are we invited into the party, the greatest celebration in the history of the world, but we are given the keys to the house—we are to shepherd it and care for it; this is an immense responsibility, and a great amount of power. But you see, if Jesus redefined what it meant to be happy, what it meant to live a meaningful life while he lived, then he radically redefined what power means as he died on the cross: power is now defined around the self-giving love of God in Jesus.

But we often hear a lot of this kind of talk at PCC; we hear so much about “transformation,” and “renewal.” What are we talking about here? Is this some mindless charity to fill up our free time? Is this simply cleaning up all the ugliness and sweeping it under the rug? Not at all! So much of this transformation happens in secret, N.T. Wright says that it is “going on in a stealthy way as human beings loyal to Jesus are giving themselves in love to other people, to the world around, making the world more what it ought to be.”

How can we ever fill this role? Even today, I still feel like I can’t get most things right. As I grow in my faith, my sins become more and more evident to me. Sometimes I feel like I just can’t win, and I bet you do too. Paul reminds us of the hope of God at the end of our reading for today. You see, God doesn’t just drive us up to the city limits of his kingdom and kick us out and yell, “Figure it out,” as he drives away. Jesus saved us in order for us to become what we were always intended to be, fully flourishing, genuine human beings. We have been saved by grace through faith—this forgiveness is God’s gift to us, and he’s not letting go of us. What does Paul tell us about the confidence we can have about our God in Philippians chapter one verse six? He says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Verse ten says something very surprising: “God has made us what we are.” What does this mean for us today? Well, we can learn something about the imagery that would have been going through Paul’s mind when we look at the original Greek: autou ger esmen poiEma—for we are God’s poem. PoiEma is better translated as workmanship or creation. But it’s not out of the question to suggest that, as people made in God’s image, people made by the greatest artist of all time, that we really are God’s poem. N.T. Wright reminds us that “we are the work of art which God has made, and in this work of art we are not just ourselves to be a work of art, we are to be co-creators, we are created in King Jesus for the good works that he has prepared ahead of time as the road we must travel.” So much more than being rescued from death, we are made alive, together with the church in spiritual friendship, in powerful communities of action and fellowship, to bring forward God’s plan of restoring his fallen and broken world to the garden it was always intended to be. In everything we do, if we truly lived as if what Paul was saying were true, if we walked with the confidence of knowing that the Holy Spirit breathes into our lives the resurrecting power of restoration and joy, if we truly believed that we were invited to the party as honored guests, clothed with the charge of reigning alongside Jesus Christ in restoring the world through sacrifice, service, and justice in all of the little, seemingly insignificant acts of small rebellion against the cynicism and darkness of this present age, think of the difference we could make.

You see, this is so much more than keeping your nose clean. It’s about God’s mission in a world that is not only fundamentally opposed to this mission, it’s not even thinking about it. As God’s people, we have spirit-empowered work to do—the work of love and kindness. We love and practice charity because of the great love and charity with which Jesus Christ has shown us. The Holy Spirit is our constant companion, and in the endless outpouring of God’s grace and love in us, now we are given the joyful commission of giving the thirsty a cup of this gracious loving kindness, in words and in actions. This is not a compulsion; it’s not homework we have to do. This is a joyful work that is kindled in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

To close, let’s remember that, in the words of Karl Barth, “God is He who, without having to do so, seeks and creates fellowship between Himself and us. … [God] wills to be ours, and He wills that we should be His. He wills to belong to us and He wills that we should belong to Him. He does not will to be without us, and He does not will that we should be without Him.”

Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you again for this time to talk about your great love for us. Let the love of Jesus empower us and give us hope for the week. Give us the strength to be a friend to the friendless and to give hope to the hopeless. Let us rest in faith and in security, in and through the work of your Son, the messiah, redeemer, and liberating King, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, amen.

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