Sunday 23 August 2015

United in the Son (Ephesians 3:1-13)

[ This talk was a difficult one. Not simply because it was much longer than the first and the children wanted to join in (which was wonderful!) But mainly because it dealt with suffering. The bible teaches us that our unity or “togetherness” is costly. It cost God the death of his Son on the cross. But it is also costly in terms of our own willingness to suffer for the gospel. ]

A mother was scooping ice-cream for her two sons on a hot summer’s day. As she was doing this, her two young boys were fighting over who would get the first scoop of ice-cream. “I want the first scoop.” “No, I want the first scoop,” The mother, who was a Christian, saw the opportunity for a moral lesson and said to her two sons, “Boys, I think that if Jesus were here, he would say, ‘I want my brother to have the first scoop of ice-cream.’” The older brother turned to the younger and said, “OK, you can be Jesus.”

All of us as Christians want to be more like Jesus. But most of us want other people to be more like Jesus.

Good morning. It is our second day of camp and today we are thinking about being “United in the Son”. Last night, I asked you to think about the question: Do I know God as my Heavenly Papa? Am I united to God as my Father?

Today, the question is: Am I living my life for Jesus? Do I want to be more and more like Jesus?

Today’s passage (Ephesians 3:1-13) is longer than yesterday’s, so before we begin, I want to pray for God’s help to understand his Word.

Heavenly Papa,
Please teach us to hear, to understand and to obey
everything you are saying to us today
We want to be more and more like your Son, Jesus Christ
We pray this in his name,

Ephesians 3, reading from verse 1:

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 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. 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.
Ephesians 3:1-6

Three points from this passage:
  1. We must be united in Jesus (as one body)
  2. We must be united for Jesus (as one church)
  3. We must be united with Jesus (in his suffering)

In Jesus, for Jesus and with Jesus. Very hard to translate in Mandarin! [Note: At the camp, I used the points (1) One body; (2) One church and (3) One another]

United in Jesus

Look again at verse 6, but this time, pay attention to the word “together”.

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.
Ephesians 3:6

And the question is this: How does Jesus bring us together as one body? Verse 6 talks about two different groups of people - the Jews and the Gentiles. They speak different languages, they eat different kinds of foods. It is like the Mandarin and Cantonese congregations; or the English and Chinese ministries; or the Sunday School children sitting in front and the Poh-poh’s sitting behind. How do you bring all these different people together as one family?

Some people will say: Don’t even try! Just separate everyone and let them do their own thing. I grew up in Malaysia where I was the only Chinese student in an all-Malay school. When they had Islamic lessons, they would separate me to another room (to study moral education). And some religions teach that. You must separate yourself from the world, otherwise you will be contaminated. In some places in Malaysia (long ago, not so much now), you would go to the cinema and the boys would sit on one side and the girls would sit on the other (and lights would be on!).

Or the kids who were born in the UK, don’t you feel different sometimes from the other kids, especially in terms of size? A friend of mine who was Chinese growing up in sports-mad Australia used to tell me he could only play sports with a net to separate him from the other kids (like badminton or tennis). No contact sports like rugby or football, otherwise he would be crushed by his schoolmates.

We separate ourselves based on our size, our race, our likes and dislikes, why? So that we can still be together… but each doing our own thing. That’s one strategy.

The other strategy is to compromise. Unite all the different groups based on what everyone likes. You know, find something everyone loves and that becomes our focus and our mission. Problem is, it never works! Just look at this morning. We had Pei Tan Chok (Congee porridge with century egg). Half the church went, “Wow, this is so luxurious - century egg!” The other (younger) half went, “Yuck, I’m not eating that!” Every mother knows this, “You can’t please everyone all the time.” Not at the dinner table, especially. You can try to bring everyone to Letton Hall and lock them up for three days to three months and say to everyone, “Be united!” But the truth is: the longer you lock people up together, the more they might want to kill one another! “Why did you clog up the shower?” “Why do we have to eat pigs feet?”

God does not unite us together the way the world does - through separation or compromise. He united us to one another by first, uniting us to himself. Paul calls this the “mystery of the gospel,” in verse 6. If you look back to Ephesians 3, Paul keeps talking about this “mystery”, over and over again, meaning this is something that no one could ever figure out; this a problem that no one has ever been able to solve. In that sense, it’s a mystery, yes; but a better word than “mystery” is the word “secret”.

You see, the reason why no one could understand what God was doing was not because it was so difficult to understand (it was!) but because God was keeping his plan a secret. In verse 5, he says, “this mystery was not made known to people in other generations”. It’s like a chef cooking a special meal in the kitchen. You can smell the aroma and you say, “Wow, what’s he making?” But the doors are locked. Then suddenly, the doors burst open and the chef goes, “Tadaaa! Here is my secret dish!”

Verse 6 is God going “Tadaa!” revealing his mystery, and verse 6 says that the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel; they are members together of one body. What that’s saying is: Jesus died for Gentiles to bring Gentiles to God. And Jesus died for Jews to bring Jews to God.

Paul is saying to us: Look at the person next to you. Jesus died for him. That’s why he is here and that’s why you are here. Do you know that? Jesus Christ came to die for sinners… sinners like you. Sinners like me. That’s what we have in common. You and I rejected God. You and I deserve to be judged under God’s anger. But Jesus came to die on the cross to take your punishment, to take my punishment, to take the Poh-poh’s punishment, to take the Sunday School kids punishment all on himself, so that we can have equal access to his Father. Don’t let anyone say to you, “You are second class.” Or, “You are second-generation, so you are lower class.” In Jesus Christ, we are equally sinful and we are equally saved.

But how does that bring us together? When you become a Christian, if you are a kid, you are still a kid. If you don’t like Pei tan chok, you still won’t like Pei tan chok. If you are Chinese, you are still Chinese. How does Jesus bring us together as one body in Christ?

By bringing us closer and closer to God. That’s the secret. We come closer and closer together by coming closer and closer to God. Think of a triangle. The top point of the triangle God and the two bottom points are you and me. As Jesus brings us closer and closer to God, he brings us closer and closer to one another.

That’s true of husbands and wives. As you learn to love Christ more, you will learn to love one another more. That’s true of parents and children. As parents, you learn to put Jesus first in your lives, your children will learn to put Jesus first in their lives; and Jesus will bring you closer to one another.

It is true of friends when you have a big argument with your good buddy. In such situations, I don’t just say to one person, “Why are you so angry with your brother/sister?” I always make it a point to ask, “Is there something inside you that is angry with God as well.” And I focus on that relationship with God first. Why? Because often times, when the bigger problem is identified, the smaller problem isn’t so big. When we realise how Jesus solves our biggest problem, how Jesus forgives us our sin, how Jesus sacrificed himself for our sin; then knowing God’s forgiveness in Christ helps me to forgive my brother easier (than waiting for my brother to make it up to me).

Together. That’s the word that keeps repeating in verse 6 (It’s actually just a preposition ‘su’ in the Greek; ie. together-heirs; together-body; together-sharers. Note: I didn’t mention this at the talk). God brings us together as one body by first bring us together to himself in Christ. A lot of people don’t know that. It’s still a mystery to them. They try and try to use food or jokes or money to create unity, even in the church. But they are trying to solve the smaller problem between you and me. Jesus solves the bigger problem between us and God. He dies on the cross so that we can be here at the camp, learning more about God and learning more about loving one another.

United for Jesus

Secondly, we must be united for Jesus. That’s a strange motivation for unity: To be united, not for our sakes or for our good, but for Jesus’ benefit. Why? Because, according the next few verses, our unity makes Jesus look good.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 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, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 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, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ephesians 3:7-11

Notice that last verse where God’s intention was that now, “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known,” or as I would put it, “showed off”. God is putting the church on display, like a painting.

When I was five-years old, my kindergarten teacher took a picture I drew and put it on the wall in my class. I was five-years old but I can still remember that day. It was a picture of a chicken (a bit like the one I drew here, except I used crayon). My friends used to say, “What’s that? Is it a bird? Is it a duck?” And I would say, “It’s a CHICKEN!” I was so proud of my masterpiece.

Paul is saying: God took a masterpiece that his Son painted and put it up for the universe to see. That masterpiece was … CCCC! It was the church. If you look again at verse 10, the “manifold wisdom” of God can be translated the “multicoloured wisdom” of God. It’s talking about the different races, tribes and people groups that God has gathered together in the church.

God says to all the universe, “Look at what my Son has done! Look at the church!”

Friends, do you realise that right now, the whole universe is looking at you? The “rulers and authorities of the heavenly realms” are staring down at the kids, the parents, at us here in Letton Hall, because God is saying to them, “Look! Look at these guys! Isn’t it amazing?” Do you think your church is amazing? God does. Because Jesus Christ paid for each one of you with his blood.

Who are these “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms”? Some say they are angels in heaven. But Ephesians Chapter 6 tells us, quite clearly, that these are demonic forces opposed to God. Ephesians 6:12 reads, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Meaning: Right now, the devil is looking at you going, “What? God sent his Son to die on the cross… for that guy? For that loser? He gave up his son for that sinner?”

And Paul writes, “See the manifold wisdom of God… accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Friends, our unity as a church makes Jesus’ sacrifice look good. It says to the universe: His death was worth it. God is proud of a his Son’s achievement on the cross because it resulted in people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation coming together to worship him. Verse 12: “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”

I know that we have a smaller number this year at the camp, and next year, we will want more of our friends to join us. But I wonder: Who will you ask? Or: What kind of person does God want to be part of his church?

If we understand that God’s wisdom is “multi-coloured”; if we understand that Jesus’ body has many different members; then, friends, doesn’t it make sense that we people we should try hardest to reach may not necessarily be the ones who are most like us (ie. Chinese, black hair, glasses, who likes Pei Tan Chok) but those who might be most unlike us? Would be strange for the Chinese Church to one day have non-Chinese worshippers? Of course not! Should we ever say to a non-Chinese person visiting us: “Maybe you should try StAG down the road?” I hope not! If anything we should be even more welcoming and even more intentional about reaching non-Chinese people for the gospel!

Why? Because it’s not our uniformity that makes Jesus look good. It’s our unity. Our unity of different races and language groups. It’s our unity in the death of Jesus Christ for our sins. The biggest motivation to love one another as the Mandarin, the English, the Cantonese groups here in CCCC is not so we can get along. No, our biggest motivation if the glory of Jesus Christ. It says to the universe: His love binds us together as one church. His death unites us as one church.

United with Jesus

Finally, we must be united with Jesus. I get this from verse 13. We must be united with Jesus in his suffering.

I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.
Ephesians 3:13

Paul is writing from prison. Imagine Pastor Stanley being locked up in prison for telling people about Jesus. What would you do? Of course, the whole church will meet at the church centre and everyone would be praying for him, wouldn’t we? But imagine, as you were praying, the phone rings… and it’s Pastor Stanley. You say, “Pastor Stanley, we are all praying for you to be released! This is such a horrible thing, we feel so sorry for you!”

But Stanley replies, “No… no. This is not a bad thing. This is actually a good thing.”

How can that be? But isn’t that what Paul says? “Don’t be discouraged.” Why? “Because … my sufferings… are your glory.” Paul doesn’t ask for prayer to be released. In fact, if you look to the end of the letter, he asks for prayer to keep on preaching the gospel.

You see, Paul understands that his suffering is a gift from God. Elsewhere, in Philippians, he writes:

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
Philippians 1:29-30

“God has given you two gifts,” Paul says. “To believe in Christ - that’s the first gift. But also… to suffer for Christ.” We don’t want this second gift. We say to God, “No, thanks. I just want the first gift.”

But both are from God. And both bring us closer to Jesus Christ. “I want to know Christ - yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10) Paul wants us to have the right perspective about suffering when it happens here in the church. When we suffer for Christ; when we are willing to suffer for the gospel; that is actually a good thing and a godly thing for us to do as a church. Preaching the gospel in Cambridge is going to cost us. Doing ministry in CCCC is going to be difficult and possibly, dangerous. But when we suffer for Jesus, we suffer with Jesus. “I want to know the participation (or some versions have: the fellowship) of his sufferings.”

Our suffering does not save us. Only Jesus’ sacrifice can pay for our sins. But our suffering is God’s gift to share in Jesus’ glory on the cross.

That’s a scary thing to hear, I know. Right now, the parents and Sunday School teachers are freaking out, I know. What if your son or daughter says, “I want to be a missionary in Africa!” Will you say, “Haiya! Dangerous lah! Just be a professional and give money to the church.” We say that out of love and concern. We don’t want our kids to waste their lives.

But Paul is telling us very clearly, as a prisoner behind bars, “this is for your glory.” He’s saying, “Don’t be embarrassed for me.” He’s saying, “Rejoice with me.” He might even be saying, “Join with me in suffering for the gospel.”


It’s a hard message isn’t it? Being united in Jesus means three things.

We must be united as one body in Jesus; remembering that a body has many members; so a church has many different parts. Jesus’ death unites all the different parts together so that we function as one, so that we are equal as one.

We must be united as one church for Jesus. God wants the universe to look at CCCC and see his manifold wisdom. Look at that guy! Look at the girl! Look at those kids! What brings them together? Pei Tan Chok! No, nothing but the blood of Jesus Christ can unite us as one church. Our unity makes his sacrifice look good!

Finally, and this is the hardest lesson: We must be united with Jesus in his suffering. I don’t need to tell you that we have to go through some difficult times as a church. Some of you know that from experience.

But the amazing thing is this: Our suffering is not punishment but glory. We know this from experience, too. God uses suffering to change us to be more and more like Jesus - in his humility, in his submission, in his sacrifice. That’s true of personal suffering - cancer, depression, death. But it is also true of the church’s suffering. When a church group gets kicked out of its premises. When a pastor gets thrown in jail for preaching the gospel. When Christians get killed for simply continuing to trust in Jesus Christ. These are sad things but not necessarily bad things. God is able to bring good out of bad. God is able to bring glory out of our suffering.

It won’t surprise you to know that the word “witness” can also mean dying for Christ. It comes from the word “martur” where we get the English word, “martyr.” And our theme for this weekend has been “United to Witness.” I didn’t choose this theme, but I think, it is a good theme for us to have as the Chinese Church. We want to be united in witnessing to Christ. And we want to be united in suffering for Christ.

For it has been granted to you, on behalf of Christ, not only believe on him. But also, to suffer for him. Let’s pray.

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