(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday 2015)
It was 1969 and Timothy Leary was running for Governor of California. He asked John Lennon if he would write a song for his campaign, the theme of which was “Come Together.” Lennon dashed off a song that got played a few times in ads on California radio stations. Lennon and the Beatles then worked on it some more and recorded the version that became track #1 on the Abbey Road album. Leary was a bit irritated that Lennon had made such use of the song that was written for him; Lennon’s response was that he was like a tailor and that if someone orders a suit and never comes back for it you give it to someone else. Some of you will know that the opening line to that song is “Here come old flattop”; what you might not know is that it was lifted (perhaps unintentionally) from a Chuck Berry song so Berry’s publisher sued Lennon for plagiarism. Lennon agreed to record three of the publisher’s songs to settle the lawsuit [Steve Turner, The Beatles A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Song (New York: MJF Books, 1994), p. 304].
Come together, indeed.
It’s pretty ironic that a song about coming together caused so much division, don’t you think?
Well, it’s nothing compared to the irony with which we live in the Church.
After all, the stories of Jesus’ nativity make it very clear that the coming of Christ into the world was for absolutely everybody. The family into which Jesus was born was common, not elite. The first ones to hear the announcement of the birth of the child were shepherds who were considered disreputable by the “reputable” and unclean by the “clean”—but at least they were members of the chosen people of God. At least they were “us” and not “them”; at least they weren’t Gentiles.
But then God gave the good news of Jesus’s birth to some Persian or Arabian astrologers, to people who practiced a different religion and who came from a different culture than the ones to whom the promises of God had come steadily and faithfully ever since the time of Abraham.
What in the world was going on? What in the world was that all about?
What was going on was that God was making it plain that his Son had come into the world not for the sake of a privileged few but for the sake of anyone and everyone. What it was all about was the amazingly gracious if mysterious plan of God that had been in God’s heart from before time.
God’s plan—the critical element of which was the coming of Jesus into the world—was and is a plan designed to bring all people and all things together in Christ. Christ came for all, Christ demonstrates the love of God for all, and Christ died for all. Paul says that the great truth that Jews and Gentiles all had access to God in Christ without having to depend on the works of the law had come to him in a revelation; we can perhaps assume that it came to him as part of his vision of Christ on the Damascus Road [F. F. Bruce, “The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 311-312]. Regardless, the good news that in Christ everyone has equal access to God was a basic part of his message. As he put it, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6). And they had done so not by following some rules and regulations and not by becoming identified with a certain ethnicity or nationality or religion—they had done so by and only by the amazing grace of God.
Still, after the Wise Men visited the Christ Child and his family, they went back to where they had come from. And that’s what we tend to do: we retreat to our corners and if we come out to meet at all, we all too often come out fighting. Some of our divisions are cultural; it is hard for human beings to cross the lines that have been passed down to us or into which we have allowed ourselves to get settled.
It’s easier for us to talk about what God was up to “back then” or to affirm the general principle that Christ came and died for everybody than it is for us to live out of such a reality in our own day and time. But the Church is meant to be an amalgam and a conglomeration of every type of person on the face of the Earth; we are meant to bear witness here and now to what will one day be the eternal reality.
Isn’t it ironic that Christ came to live and die for all of us and to bring all of us together in him and yet we all too often seem determined to build all the walls we can and strengthen all the divisions we can find?
We will do well to begin practicing right here the unity that Christ came to bring; we will do well to begin by reveling in the diversity of the makeup of our own congregation. We will also do well to be open to an expansion of that diversity. We will furthermore do well to be grateful for the great kaleidoscope of humanity that makes up the Church Universal. We will furthermore do well to practice grace with each other rather than to judge each other in a legalistic fashion. We will furthermore do well to live in the church and in the world in ways that will cause others to know that they will be accepted and embraced in the church rather than be judged and looked down on—how we treat each other lets them know how we would treat them.
Yes, the coming of Jesus was good news for everybody. It is good news even for someone like “them.” It is good news even for someone like you. It is good news even for someone like me.
What is that good news? It is that in Christ we can know and live in light of the fact that we are loved by God. And related to that good news is some more good news: in Christ we can come together, right now, over him …