Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Swanson, John August. Celebration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56538 [retrieved January 27, 2022]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com - copyright 1997 by John August Swanson.
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Co-inheritors of the Promise
Do you know what a murmuration is? It’s when a whole bunch of birds... sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands... fly together in sweeping, swirling patterns. You’ve probably seen murmurations of starlings like the one in this video:
Yes, starlings are invasive, introduced onto this continent by people without a clear sense of what affect they might have on our environment. I am aware that the birders among us may not appreciate them very much. That being said, this behavior is fascinating. I read a reflection by Sierra Pickett on murmurations while preparing for annual meeting. She said:
“Starlings’ murmuration consists of a flock moving in synch with one another, engaging in clear, consistent communication and exhibiting collective leadership and deep, deep trust. Every individual bird focuses on their seven closest neighbors and thus manage a larger flock cohesiveness and synchronicity (at times upwards of over a million birds).”
I read this in the midst of a blizzard yesterday. Every dog walk and every look out the window reminded me of the power of small things moving together forcefully. Did anyone else have to go outside in the blizzard? Even if it wasn’t the worst one you’ve ever been in, wasn’t it still so obviously a force not to be underestimated?
Blizzards are so overwhelming because the snow, teeny tiny flakes, joins with the wind, a force we feel more than see, to make it impossible to navigate outdoors. Our entire region, save folks running plows, putting out fires, and working in hospitals and gas stations, was pretty well shut down by hundreds of millions of snowflakes sweeping through the air, across the land, and into every possible nook and cranny. Blizzards, though, are unintentional, a result of just the right weather patterns colliding at the right time (though we’ll likely see more because of climate change). Starling murmurations are full of intention. They are individual beings, motivated by both need and intuition, to work together for their common good.
We would do well to understand church, the Body of Christ, as being more like a murmuration than a blizzard. We are individual beings motivated by our faith to work together for the Gospel. When we are doing church well, we are joining together with intention, not simply by accident. When we are living the mission we’re called to, we aren’t just reacting to the world around us. We are paying attention to one another and the Holy Spirit, and moving together, often in beautiful ways, towards our goal. Our shared ministry, at its best, is a murmuration... evidence of our communication with each other and God and the world around us.
We aren’t actually sure who wrote the letter that we have come to the Book of Ephesians. According to the scholar Bart Ehrman, while within the letter, the author claims to be the Apostle Paul, there are enough differences in theology, personal history, and writing style that many modern scholars think the writer was likely a follower of Paul, but probably not Paul. Questions of authorship aside, the goal of the letter is pretty clear: How does one help Christians from different ethnic backgrounds to understand themselves as on Body of Christ? The Unity of the Body of Christ was something that concerned Paul and whomever wrote this letter and remains important to Christians to this day.
In the time of the writing of this letter, it seems that one barrier that was keeping devout people from feeling like one body was their different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Given that Jesus was Jewish during his lifetime, that his first followers were Jewish, and that they understood him to be the incarnation of the Jewish Messiah, some who would come in the generations after the first disciples would argue that in order to follow Jesus, you must be Jewish and follow Jewish religious rules. Starting with the disciples in Acts and through the letters of Paul into these letters that follow in Paul’s tradition, the earliest preachers of the Gospel traditions that we have inherited affirm, as Dr. Wil Gafney says, “the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ is for all persons.” The writer of Ephesians wanted to make sure that Gentiles, in particular, knew that they had been fully and wholly incorporated into the Body of Christ.
Letters like this one to the Ephesians were passed around to Christian communities to help them navigate all the issues that come with bringing individuals together into one body. They became theological foundations to guide them, and eventually us, as we move together, sweeping and swirling our way to the Kindom of God. So, we have these words to remind us of the broadness of God’s love stretching from the first hearers to us. This wide and deep love is what allows us to move together, out of our needs, inspired by our faith, as one whole body. As we make plans for the coming year, having celebrated how we have moved together, in faith, over the last year, may we remember what it means to tend to each other, guide each other, and trust each other as sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the Gospel. God’s love is wide. Who can we help make sure knows that they are a part of it?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.