March 3, 2009
The Church: Masterpiece of God
I’ve seen Paul Hostetler’s handiwork many times before. The bookshelves in the library, prayer room and staff offices. The kitchen cabinets in our old house. Virtually everything in the office in the townhouse that Deb and I now live in. We have a loft there where the former owner kept his pool table. We asked Paul to convert it into an office, and he did. He made the cabinets, book shelves, counter tops and filing cabinets, all out of wood. Paul even hand-crafted a double-sided desk so that Deb and I could work at the same time, across from each other. Paul does beautiful work, doesn’t he? Just stop into the library sometime if you haven’t seen it already.
But beyond these more visible and perhaps notable creations, Paul did something “small” for me that left an even deeper impression. I wanted to put a Lazy Susan in the corner base cabinet in our kitchen last year, so I ordered one on line. The shelf in the cabinet is permanent, so I actually had to buy two individual Lazy Susans rather than a single unit with a pole running from the top to the bottom. Each of these units had a revolving base, and I had planned to mount one of them on the shelf and the other on the bottom of the cabinet. I was quite certain that the platforms themselvesthe moving shelveswould fit through the opening of the cabinet and past the existing shelf. But they didn’t. They were just an inch or two too long.
What was I going to do? Tear out the back of the cabinet and move the platforms in through the rear? Remove the existing shelf, place the Lazy Susans inside the cabinet, and then somehow build a new shelf upon which to mount one of the revolving bases? Though somewhat inclined mechanically, I was in over my head. I had made a mess of things in our kitchen, and I didn’t know what to do.
Then a thought entered my mind. Ask Paul. So I did. Paul came over, surveyed the damage, thought for a minute or two, and showed his true genius. He carefully cut out the existing shelf, leaving a three-inch flange all the way around. Then, he drilled four holes in the flange and made four clamps, each with two pieces of wood and a large bolt. In essence, Paul made the permanent shelf removableI could now take it in and out. So I took out the shelf, mounted the Lazy Susan on it, put it back in place, tightened the clamps, and Presto! The problem was solved. I simply stood back, stared and said to Paul, “I’ve admired your beautiful work for many years, but this removable shelf reveals your true genius. In my mind, this is your masterpiece.”
What is God’s masterpiece? What has he fashioned or created that reveals his true genius? The writer of the creation account in Genesis 1 thought human beings were it. When God looked at the man and woman that he had just made, he saw that they were very good (Gen. 1:31). The Psalmist, in response to the same question, suggests the heavens, the moon and the stars (8:3). These are enough to take a person’s breath away. In Acts 14:17, Luke refers to rain and the fertility of the earththe way seeds sprout into crops. And in Revelation 4:11, John lumps these and the other components of creation together:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor
for you created all things,
and by your will they exist and
What is the masterpiece of God? The possibilities are seemingly unlimited.
What is Robert Frost’s “best” poem? Da Vinci’s “best” painting? The Beatles’ “best” song? The Office’s “best” episode? Take your pick.
What is God’s masterpiece? Just when you think you’ve considered all of the options, Paul throws a surprise into the mix here in Ephesians 3:10. Rather like Paul Hostetler’s removable shelf, this latest suggestion is unexpected, to say the least. What is the masterpiece of God? The church. Yeah right! But that’s what this text says. “…so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” In a real sense, the church is the masterpiece of God.
But why? Or how? Look at v. 10 more carefully. The church, Paul suggests, is a channel or conduit through which God himself is made known. In the same way that the Sistine Chapel provides a window into Michelangelo or the current best-seller, The Shack, into the life and mind of its author, William Young, so the church tells the world and its rulers something about God. In the wider context of Ephesians, it is not so much what the church says or does that’s at issue here, although both are unarguably important. Instead, it is who or what the church “is” that is on the line. The church, simply by being the church, reflects images of Godwhether good or badto the world.
Think about it this way. When I meet children and young people, I sometimes wonder what their parents might be like. If I encounter, for example, an unruly child who is disrespectful and totally disengaged, I at times ask myself about their parents. What are they like? What were they doing while this child of theirs was growing up? I do the same, in all honesty, with adults as well some times. You’ve heard the expression, “An apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” haven’t you? At the same time, when I meet a delightful, inquisitive and hard-working student, I can’t help but think that their parents must be proud. They certainly did something right, I’ll often think to myself. Children are at times reflections of their parents. So the church, Paul points out here, is a reflection of God.
Notice, next, what we as the church reflect about God in this particular text. Other biblical writers refer to our reflecting such things as the love and grace of God, and Paul, as you will recall from the opening chapters of Ephesians, does so as well. But in this case, Paul refers to “the wisdom of God in its rich variety….” What a stunning thought!
Here is what Paul has in mind. We humans have made a mess of God’s good creation, and we are no more able to “fix” it than I was to solve my Lazy Susan-in-the-cabinet dilemma. In place of the peaceful relationships that existed when the world was createdpeaceful relationships between people and nature, people and other people, and people and Godwe now argue, push aside those who are different from us, destroy, fight and even kill. Instead of sharing, we horde. Instead of serving, we seek to rule. Instead of hanging out with God, we fill our lives with everything but God. There is a problem, and we all know it, but we can’t fix it. All we can do is stand back and stare at the mess that we’ve created, much like I did with my kitchen cabinet and the Lazy Susans last year.
God, however, has a solution. Fortunately for us, he hasn’t chosen to throw away the mess and start all over again. I made some energy bars a few days ago, and they didn’t turn out quite the way that I had hoped. They are still at home, although I’ve been tempted to deposit them in the trash can. God didn’t and isn’t planning on throwing the world away. Instead, by transforming people one by one through the blood of Jesus Christ, he is setting up a new kingdom, a new community, right in the middle of the mess! How audacious.
But here is where his true genius comes in. When earthly rulers seek to establish kingdoms, they tend to push for homogeneity and conformity. They want everyone to look alike, act alike and think alike. In such earthly kingdoms, outsiders are often marginalized and the opposition either kicked out or, in worst case scenarios, even killed. Behaviors are strictly regulated, controversial books banned, and alternate points-of-view silenced. The poor and weak are left to fend for themselves, and the sick at times are used in scientific experiments. Everyone knows, after all, that people who are vastly different from each other cannot live together side by side.
God, however, is not building a mere earthly kingdom. His kingdom is entirely different. In this new kingdom, prophets are not silenced, but celebrated. In this new kingdom, the opposition is not squelched, but loved. In this new kingdom, the poor and weak are not abandoned, but embraced. In this new kingdom, people are not killed, but cuddled. In this new kingdom, arguments and disagreements are not grounds for rejection, but fertile soil for conversation. In this new kingdom, freedom is not defined as the right to do whatever we want, but the ability to set aside personal agendas for the good of the whole. In this new kingdom, the red carpet of grace and love is not reserved for the lofty and elite, but is instead rolled out to everyone who would confess that Jesus is Lord. This is God’s solution to the problem of a broken and sinful worldcreating a new kingdom through his son, Jesus Christ, a kingdom that we call “the church.”
In Paul’s mind, this remarkable plan of God’s to create a unified and loving community is the ultimate demonstration of God’s genius. God can, from all indications, create such splendid places as the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, and Mt. Everest without even breaking a sweat. God can pierce rock-hard macadam with tiny dandelions, hang the stars in space, send rain to arid regions, hurl lightening bolts across the sky, and feed wild animals in barren landseffortlessly. But do you know what is tough, even for God? To get people to live together in peace. To get people to love those who are different from themselves. To get people to forfeit their own rights for the sake of others. That’s a challenge of epic proportions.
And that’s why Paul concludes verse 10 with this reference to the “powers and authorities in heavenly places.” So great is God’s plan for “the church” that its potential
influence transcends even this worldly arena of ours. To be sure, the church is called to be such a vital witness for God in the world that people in every nation long to join its ranks. When the church truly lives out its calling as a redeemed community, citizens and rulers alike will stand up and take notice. But, Paul contends, so will the powers and authorities in heavenly places. So will whoever and whatever lives beyond our own sphere of awareness. Just imagine, if you can, the devil himself catching wind of God’s great plan. “You must be kidding,” I can hear him saying to God. “You’ll never get all of those people to live together in peace. You’ll never get fighting people to lay down their weapons. You’ll never get argumentative people to set aside their differences and worship you together. You’ll never get selfish people to share their resources with the needy. It just can’t be done.” “Oh yeah,” God responds. “Look at the church. Look at how they love and care for each other. Look at how they welcome everyone. Look at the church.” In the face of all who would mock his great plan, God dangles the church as living proof of his wisdomhis genius.
Think about it. The implications are enormous. When we welcome strangers here at the Grantham Church, we demonstrate to the powers and authorities in heavenly places that God’s plan works. When we settle our differences and disputes in healthy ways and live together in peace, we demonstrate to the powers and authorities in heavenly places that God’s plan works. When we set aside our own agendas and work together for the common good, we demonstrate to the powers and authorities in heavenly places that God’s plan works. And when we deny ourselves and live lives of radical discipleship and generosity, we demonstrate to the powers and authorities in heavenly places that God’s plan works. We show the world, here and beyond, that God knows what he is talking about. The church reveals the true genius of God. The church is his masterpiece.