A sermon preached to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on November 6, 2022, All Saints’ Sunday. By Fr. Justin Clemente.
Who’s in God’s Trophy Case?
If God had a trophy case displaying the wonders of his grace and power, who or what would be counted worthy to be in it? God has one, you know.
Apparently, Paul is not a big fan of grammar – our passage from Ephesians 1 today is basically one long run-on sentence. But what’s clear is that church of Jesus and the saints of Jesus are the display of the riches of his grace. Saints (v. 15) is, of course, an overused and confused term. “He’s such a saint,” we say. There’s even a football team with same name, which is puzzling. The New Orleans Saints were originally named after the jazz standard “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But saints in the Greek literally means God’s “holy ones.” Set apart, consecrated, beloved of him. One of the questions this passage raises is, will we allow our lives to be in the display case of grace? And don’t miss it – that means being intimately connected with and to Christ’s Body.
As Derek Webb once wrote in his song, “The Church”:
…I haven’t come for only you
But for my people to pursue
You cannot care for me with no regard for her
If you love me you will love the church
In verse 18, Paul prays that “eyes of our hearts would be enlightened” to Jesus and all that God give us through him. Verse 21 teaches that in Christ’s Ascension, he has been exalted far above every rule and authority and power and dominion. This is now displayed then in the church and the lives of the people in the church. Recently, my family and I learned about the life and work of Joni Erickson Tada. If you know her story, you know that, tragically, she became a quadriplegic as a teenager, as the result of horrible diving accident. But, if you know her story, you know she is also in the trophy case of grace. Something that caught both Brooke’s and my attention was the way she processed what was at stake in how she responded to her suffering. In so many words, she knew that authorities beyond even this world, angels and demons, spiritual principalities, were looking to see how she would respond. She rolled the same questions over and over again in her mind: Is Jesus actually Lord? Is he good? Is to be trusted with my life? Joni chose to trust Christ – she chooses still.
On All Saints’ Sunday, we are invited to embrace and hold dear again, that fact that Jesus is Lord, displayed in the lives of his people. More than that, we are invited to be on openly on display ourselves, seeing our life as an opportunity for the goodness and power of Jesus to be exhibited and known by all.
This morning, I want to focus on two points from verses 22 and 23: And [God the Father] put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Seeing the Church Differently (v. 23)
First, I want to urge you to catch the vision of these verses. Be renewed in your vision of what “church” is! According to Paul, the Church is the place where the fullness of Christ, who fills all in all is known! When the church is true to her Lord, there is nothing like her on earth.
The church, the ekklesia, is a place brimming with God’s activity – with the life of God! Commentator Paul Kretzmann says, “It is a wonderful and most intimate union…between Christ and the believers, for it results in making the Church like a vessel which is filled to the top, brimful with blessings.”[i]
Time and time again, when I go out into our community, I hear the note of indifference towards the church. Some have seen the failures of leadership, some of have seen what the church becomes when she forgets who she is – a very pitiful and sorry thing. Some have been deeply wounded by outright false and vampiric leadership. Others, have left because the church loved them by not allowing them to remain in sin. These verses challenge us to see the Church for what she is: a place where Christ abundantly fills to overflowing each one who will come. She is the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
In the movie Silence, based on the book by Shūsaku Endō (not for the faint of heart), a group of Jesuit missionaries seek to bring the Gospel to 17th century Japan, a place of intense persecution. Inquisitors are sent to utterly crush the Faith by horrendous means of persecution. Throughout the movie, the inquisitors face the Christians with a challenge: step on face of Christ, or face torture and death. In the end, all of priests cave, and the church is scattered. But there is one curious character, whose name is Kichijiro. When faced with denying Christ, again and again he quickly and gingerly steps on the face of Christ. But he also keeps coming back for forgiveness and absolution. Even after the priests have denied the Faith, he even secretly comes back for confession! Although it’s kind of a weird illustration, Kichijiro understood that the Church is place of abundant blessing, and he wanted to put himself where the blessings come out. Do you see the church that way? Do you need the blessings Christ imparts here? I do.
Paul is straining to find the words of just how Jesus gives and pours into his people. If we’re honest, that doesn’t always match how we come at community in Christ.
Seeing the Exaltation of Jesus (v.22)
Look at verse 22 again. Since Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of Father, he now reigns over all! But it is not in creation generally, but through the church specifically that his reign is known. Let me put it this way, if you were to ask God where you should go to see Jesus’ Exaltation, he would not send you to his most impressive mountain range, his best valley, or his widest river. He would send to an extremely ordinary looking group of saints and sinners – one just like this morning.
The Body of Christ is the place where we see the exaltation of Jesus lived out in real time and in flesh and blood. She is the proof of his victory. Moreover, she is the place where creation begins to be full of the glory of God. Commentator Thomas Winger likens the church to an ever widening circle within the circle of Creation: “The church, the inner circle, is ever widening and laying claim to the rest of creation.”[ii]
Back up to verse 18: Paul prays that eyes of our hearts may be enlightened. That we would know the hope to which we are called, the riches of his glorious inheritance, and the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. Towards us who believe. The power of Jesus of seen through world-wide, all peoples encompassing, gathering of believers we call the church. I said it last week, but I’ll say it again: our gathering on the Lord’s Day is a quiet and overlooked miracle. It is a miracle that will continue, drawing more and more people into it until Christ comes again.
Today, All Saints’ is the opportunity to see this fleshed out – not only into the future, but into the past, as well. Jesus’ promise to be Lord of his Church until the end of the age is known in the weak, frail, flesh and blood of you, me, and all the saints of God. So, wherever you are at on the road with Christ – take courage. His saints show that he is able to guide and preserve your Faith in a way that is glorious. You can be part of the trophy case of grace, too.
And, don’t miss this – he is able to put us on display for the sake of others, too. As his church, we are not just like his body, we are his body. His life is coursing through us, renewing us, shaping us, conforming us to Christ, and working through us. As Martin Luther so provocatively and memorably put it, “We are Christs – with and without the apostrophe.”[iii]
Let me end by praying the words of Hebrews 12:1-2 over you:
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
[ii] Ephesians by Thomas Winger, pg. 274
[iii] As quoted in Ephesians by Thomas Winger, pg. 276