August 28, 2016 – The fullness of Christ

Pentecost 15   August 28, 2016    Acts 20:7-12, 21:7-14; Ephesians 4:4-16

The fullness of Christ

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I’ve come to especially appreciate our first story today – the coming back to life of a young man named Eutychus (in the Greek language) – his name in Latin is Fortunatas – meaning fortunate in any language. His nickname’s got to be Lucky.

I bet some of us can identify with Eutychus – getting sleepy, listening to the preacher go on and on… Till he (poor Eutychus) falls out of the window. Making for one very unforgettable sermon for Lucky Eutychus… (Even if he can’t remember a word of it…He won’t forget it…)

My sermons probably go on a bit longer than some would prefer, sometimes. But nobody’s fallen out of their pew yet, let alone a third floor window…. And so far I don’t think I’ve ever preached more than twenty-five minutes in a sermon. (Even when it seems like hours, it’s usually actually less than twenty minutes)… And not to be too defensive, but notice how the apostle is speaking for quite a bit longer than that in today’s first reading…  Maybe a subtle hint to us from the word of God… to not be in any hurry to be done with church…

Our daughter Rohi’s been studying the Pilgrims. The other day she read to me from one of her text books, about how Pilgrim preachers would sometimes preach for more than three hours at a stretch. I imagine that could make me sleepy – especially in hot weather like we’ve had this summer….

But people were used to longer sermons then – and spending most of the day, Sunday, in church… And falling asleep was probably rare in the pilgrim church –because they had guys walking around, carrying long poles – waking any wannabe sleepers, by tapping or smiting their shoulders…

And even pilgrim pastors sound relatively concise…  compared with St Paul today – who is literally preaching all through the night… Till our guy Lucky falls out of the window, down to the ground, three floors below, in the middle of the night, where he’s lifted up and pronounced dead. But Paul goes down, picks him up – and pronounces him alive again.  Then goes back upstairs, has a little bread-breaking snack – and continues teaching till dawn… As if raising someone from the dead was something we do everyday… A minor interruption to the sermon.

Coming back from the dead is probably going to be the main thing we remember  from that night – at least if we’re Eutychus, or his parents, or friends. But for the apostle Paul, the main event actually seems to be about getting people to hear the word of God better. The word of God, is, of course, the context in which all resurrection happens. Raising Eutychus from the dead is a beautiful sermon illustration. We wish we could always make it happen as visibly and certainly as this, every time… But even the apostles Peter and Paul do this only once each in the book of Acts. And it’s always God who does the raising up, as the book of Acts makes clear… We are supporting actors in God’s drama of redemption.

So Paul doesn’t take credit for the wondrous sign. And he likewise doesn’t blame himself for Lucky falling out of the window. Many oil lamps have been burning in the room, we’re told. That will use up a lot of oxygen and add to our sleepiness. But as far as we know, nobody else besides Lucky Eutychus falls asleep. Probably Paul wasn’t just preaching. Most likely he was teaching and taking questions as he went along. Probably this was more like a class room then a formal church setting. And people know this is the last time they’ll see Paul – and they want to hear and remember all they possibly can…They deeply appreciate the word of God… and instruction in it…

And here in this very brief scene we see – what Christian maturity looks like – in the focus and devotion of St Paul – and of all those listening and learning together. Seeing, together, even beyond the miraculous – to what really matters most. The Spirit of God, the Word of God, alive and active among us – saving, healing, transforming… Bringing new life, even to the dead.

We’re talking about spiritual maturity today… And we probably should start by acknowledging – the word maturity is not always a popular word. Maturity comes with some baggage…

I remember, back before the movie industry settled into our current rating-system – (G, PG, PG-13, R) – when I was younger, the movie announcements used to say: “The following content is suggested for mature adults.” The movie that followed would be rated PG-13 or even PG now. But movie ratings no longer use the term “mature adults.” Market research has doubtless revealed that nobody wants to be called a “mature adult” any more… “Mature adult” just sounds a little too much like…. Old

Which was probably the first reason why I resisted, on and off, for many years, even the idea of maturing in Christ. I’ve never liked – still don’t like – the idea of getting old… (I grew up in the ‘60’s… One of our theme songs was My Generation“things they do just seem so cold – I hope I die before I get old…)

Well, good news – spiritual maturity – our main topic today – has nothing to do with getting old… We know for sure, because we can plainly see – some of us in the second half of life are every bit as immature in faith as the day we were born.

And – there are some young people out there who are mature in Christ, even in their twenties and thirties…A bit like Jesus, who was grown-up-in-faith before he touched thirty… (In the last book of the bible we get a glimpse of Jesus with white hair – probably from listening to the prayers of the church – but that doesn’t mean he’s old…No matter what his hair color is, I see Jesus as fully adult yet forever young in heart, in mind, and in outlook…)

Which is not to say…maturity does not mean growing up… We are of course meant to be adults in faith, no longer children, as Ephesians says, tossed to and fro by every argument we hear. As adults in Christ we should be able to keep our focus on the essentials of faith at all times… Remembering…

As our reading from Ephesians also tells us – that all the spiritual gifts God gives are all ‘for building up the body of Christ…(in) the unity of the faith’ – “in the knowledge of the Son of God… (Building us up, all of us, together…) to maturity – to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

We don’t need to act like old fuddy-duddies. But – we are meant to keep growing up in Christ, much the same way we expect our children to keep growing – not just physically, but emotionally, socially, spiritually….

As Bible commentator of old Matthew Henry has said: “There is a fulness in Christ, and a fulness to be derived from him…and we never come to that (full) measure till we come to heaven. [But–] God’s children, as long as they are in this world, are growing.”

Maturity – growing in Christ – means becoming more like Christ. Filled with the fullness of Christ… Which, I suppose, is the other reason why I have often been resistant to growing up in Christ. I confess the concept of being completely mature in faith, like Christ himself, can still be a bit scary for me at times…(That’s probably a good thing, but – )

Hearing what Paul says in our second reading from Acts can be unsettling. When the prophet Agabus testifies Paul will be bound and imprisoned if he goes ahead with his plans to go to Jerusalem, the apostle is ready to go anyway. Like Jesus heading for Jerusalem before him – Paul insists he must go wherever God calls him… He’s completely willing to take up his cross and follow Jesus, wherever, whenever…

Which is still difficult for me – some days more than others, even after all these years…

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But, then again – I keep trying to keep growing in Christ – in spite of my natural disinclination to volunteer for self-denial – because, as the word of God tells us, Christian maturity is never a solo act. As we were talking about last week – a fundamental doctrine of our faith is that all Christians are members together in the one body of Christ – members, also of one another.

The gifts of service named in Ephesians – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – are for all the church. We all have some gift in at least one of these areas. It may not be obvious, we may not hear a lot about it. But God is working in us, just as God has been working in the evangelist Philip, whom we met twenty years earlier in Acts 8, spreading the gospel throughout Samaria. Now he’s still serving God, raising daughters who prophecy – meaning interpret the word of God. We can all learn to do simple prophetic teaching and pastoral care…   in the power of God’s Spirit… (Because it’s not about us… it’s about the power of God…And…)

All our growing in Christ all happens in beloved community….And together we  keep growing in Christ, because as Ephesians reminds us – Jesus reverses the curses of sin and death. Jesus has taken captivity-to-death-and-sin-itself-captive – so we can be free indeed, wherever we are, in Christ…Free to help God set others free…

We need each other to keep growing in Christ… And one thing I’ve learned, again from the word of God, and again with plenty of help from teachers, mentors, family and friends – is that in all of our growing up in Christ – there is great joy.

A different joy, to be sure, then the joy of first meeting Jesus with a child’s first faith. The joy of maturing in faith – becoming more and more adult in Jesus – is like the joy of parenting… or grand-parenting…or being an aunt, an uncle, an older sibling, a close friend of many years…  It’s a different joy from the joy of teenagers or newly-weds.  But it lasts much longer… And yields deep joy…forever…

Reah and I have been looking at old family pictures this week… Pictures of Rohi when she was little… Walking down the aisle of the first church we served in Vermont – two years old, very happy… Then pictures of our very small youth group, two or three or four kids, depending on the week – playing together and learning about God and church through games, stories, prayers, and singing… on a late Sunday afternoon…. Remembering, looking at these pictures, how we’d be tired after two services, but very glad just to be with the kids… There’s even a picture of me and Rohi, vacuuming up cracker and cookie crumbs after our session… Both of us smiling big smiles…

And every time I look back over life so far… And consider all the ways God has always been there for us… Every time we’ve been there, even a little, for God…

I don’t feel old at all now, as I remember – the steadfast love of God… which always includes all God’s friends, all God’s adopted family that we’re together all part of…

And now I remember again… How all the work of growing up into the fullness of Christian maturity is all about learning from Jesus – the very best of all teachers – one small act of faith, hope, and love at a time… Not keeping track, just enjoying the awesome company of God and the friends and family of God… However long it takes… Knowing God’s enormous blessings…

Remembering to say…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.