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Good morning, everyone. Welcome to Vieux Carré Baptist Church. Happy Mardi Gras, happy birthday to my incredible wife! She’s turning 29 again this year, isn’t that amazing?

Our text for this morning is in Ephesians, chapter 3. If you want to use one of our bibles to read with us, you can just raise your hand and we’ll get one to you.

This is the last sermon in a series about the gifts of the Spirit in our lives. Giving a gift is an act of love, so it makes sense that whenever we find in the Bible mention of spiritual gifts, we almost always find, alongside, teaching on what it means, practically as Christians, to love each other.

Throughout the history of the people of God, the Spirit has been empowering us toward a single end: God coming to dwell richly with us, his church. So often when we talk about spiritual gifts, we’re so focused on what we are able to do in the power of the Spirit, we lose sight of what the Spirit is wanting to do in us. In our churches, in our cities, in our individual families and lives, God wants to dwell with us and fill us with abundant life.

We talked about charismatic gifts, and finding your role in the life of the church, how we’ve been given spiritual gifts as Christians in order to pour out to the people around us, not building ourselves up, but building up the community as a whole. And we talked about hospitality, our dependence upon the spirit and each other, what it looks like to be led by the Spirit. God’s grace is varied, so we have to depend upon each other to experience the fullness of life in Christ, which includes welcoming each other in, giving honor to each other, especially for the work which is often overlooked. “The gospel comes with a house key,” as one author writes, and part of the Christian life is opening your life to other people.

Our passage this morning is one that has a special meaning to my wife on her birthday. I fell in love with her sixteen years ago, and in all of my earliest memories of her, she had this verse in pen written on her wrist. She was trying it out, thinking she might get a tattoo of it on her wrist, and I think she would have, except that she hates needles. She spent that summer working in an orphanage in Ethiopia, and the Spirit of our God very clearly called her to bring children without parents into family in our own community, which is something she’s done now for seven years, and I’m grateful for her obedience to God and all the beauty and richness which the Lord has poured out in our lives in and through that work.

I’ll never forget, on our second date—second date!—she told me she was intending to foster and adopt children, and if that wasn’t in my plan, we shouldn’t waste our time. That was the ferocity and commitment with which she has pursued the calling of God in her life. If only we would all pursue the callings on our lives with such abandon. What an incredible wife, and what an incredible journey this has been to be called alongside her.

Ephesians 3 speaks, and this sermon is about, the unity God brings to his church in the Spirit, a unity founded upon his own love of us as his children and founded in his vastness. We serve a God who is so vast as to be incomprehensible, and yet so loving as to enter into our lives and churches to dwell with us and be known. Let’s read it. Ephesians, starting in chapter 3, vs. 14. [Ephesians 3:14-4:7]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

“That you may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” How do you know a thing which surpasses all knowledge? May we learn through paradox this morning that in the kingdom of God humility is greatness, and admitting mystery is knowledge. The way to go further in and further up in the kingdom of heaven is the way down into service of each and every person around us. May we learn through paradox this morning to comprehend a love which surpasses knowledge.

The unity of the Church universal is a work of the Spirit of God. It’s a work strong enough that Jesus said the church would stand even at the gates of the enemy. The unity of the church is a work strong enough that it does not need a defender, even in fractious ages like the age in which we live, the church is one in truth. We can make divisions, but they aren’t real. The reality is, the church is one; every person who confesses and believes in Christ is your brother, your sister, your father, your mother. We who are in Christ have a bond that is founded in love, the love of a God who would leave his throne and empty himself to ransom us when we were still enemies, a love which Peter says is able to cover a multitude of sins. May we learn in this passage, the breadth and length and height and depth of that love this morning.

Again, so often when we talk about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we talk about what we are able to do in the power of the Spirit, and we forget what the God is doing in us. The Spirit of God is binding his church together in unity. I’ve seen the unity of the Spirit all week long, as people from all over the country have merged here on this church to take part in the mission of God in this place, I’ve seen the Spirit at work. Helping brother recognize brother; people who only see each other a few days out of the year recognizing each other as family.

Unity is a work of the Spirit of God. Many theologians will tell you the Spirit of God is what binds the father and son together in the mystery of the Trinity, and every Christian will tell you of the unity of the church, how the Spirit creates in a healthy local body a true family. I don’t mean likemindedness, I don’t mean mere agreement. Show me a family in your church that is always likeminded and agrees. That’s not my experience of family. Take my family for instance. My son is a jock. Complete athlete. I am an utter nerd. He will grow up knowing the stats of his favorite team, I grew up knowing elvish. It’s not likemindedness that binds us, it’s love. Love that covers a multitude of sins, forgiveness, and the Spirit of God.

So Galatians 3 tells us. The Spirit binds us together in peace. Humility, gentleness, and patience are meant to define our interactions with each other as the body of Christ. I love the phrase Paul uses: bearing with one another, he says. This is a man who knows what it means to be in a family. This isn’t always going to be easy. Bearing with, that word, is used elsewhere to talk about the Christian response to persecution! Bear with one another, he says, and be eager to maintain unity in the Spirit. The Spirit binds us together in peace.

Another lesson from this passage: unity and peace are the outflow of humility and patience. Humility and patience. Are there any two virtues more despised by our culture than humility and patience? If you want to live counter-culturally, if you want to be a rebel, if you want to not be conformed to the pattern of this world as a Christian, more than Christian t-shirts, more than being positive and encouraging, I would tell you to pursue humility and patience. The largest company in America was founded on two-day shipping. The second largest company was the one that figured out how to instant stream television without commercials. In such a society, patience is radical.

We are not a patient people, and if we are honest, we are not a particularly humble people. We believe in ourselves more than we believe in God. We insist on our own way more than we love. Even after we know the Lord, we almost always believe ourselves to be right, and if we ever doubt ourselves, we go online to find a community who agrees with us. Humility and patience are the ground out of which unity springs, and may the Lord plant us like a tree beside that spring. May we learn to value unity more than our own way, more than two-day shipping, more than likemindedness, more than even being right and on the right side of history, may we value unity in the church.

Why? Why is unity so important? Why does the Spirit of God work day and night to bind the people of God together across nations, ethnicities, denominations, state lines? Why is it so important to know, when we gather together like this, that we are not merely gathering like a convention around shared interests, but we are a band of brothers? This is a family reunion. Though we spend our days arguing different opinions in different parts of the country, we will spend eternity at the same feast table in Zion, in the same house, as part of the same family, no longer seeing and knowing only in part, but face to face with truth, himself. Humility, patience, and the unity of the Spirit. Unity is important, because unless we are a family, we can have no part in the work of God in the world.

I was talking with Rachael on Friday, here at the church, upstairs in the kitchen. She’s taking a class at the seminary called supervised ministry, which just means she joins in with the missions work happening here year in and year out, and they give her questions to ask me to prompt discussion. This week and last week, we were meant to have a conversation about the missio dei, which just means the mission of God. What is the mission of God? What is it that God is doing in the world?

The answer, in short, is redemption, and the idea of redemption is one we need to sit with, comprehend, and as our passage says, to know even though it’s beyond knowing. Redemption is God’s desire for each and every one of us this morning.

Isolation and disunity are the opposite of redemption. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce imagines hell as a place where you can get anything and everything simply and cheaply just by thinking it, and even though everyone began in a great city center, the people there are constantly moving ever outward to get away from everyone else, thinking up new houses just a little further out of town, because they can’t stand the mess and the argument of living around other people. The men living at the edges of the map are thousands of miles from anyone else in houses filled with everything they could imagine. That, in his imagination is a picture of hell: a place of anything you could ever want, but nothing of good quality, your life devoid of relationship, especially relationship with God. Isolation is the opposite of redemption.

Let’s take some time to understand and dwell upon the redemption of our God. Even though God is redeeming humanity throughout the Bible, use of the word redemption begins in the Bible with the Passover. The entirety of God’s people was suffering in slavery, and it took death to free them, either the death of the firstborn of each family or the death of a lamb in his place. Someone had to bear the suffering of sin. That’s where the idea of redemption begins, and very quickly, the word begins, in the law, to apply to all kinds of difficult situations: a family who loses their land and becomes destitute can be redeemed from their destitution by another family member taking their place, buying the land back, which is their livelihood. A daughter sold into slavery could be redeemed by her family by buying her back from slavery and restoring her as a daughter, a wife, a mother, instead of a slave.

The book of Ruth is probably the clearest picture in the Old Testament of redemption put into practice by the people of God. Ruth is barren, coming from a previous marriage. She’s an immigrant from a hated nation, and a refugee of famine. By the time she comes to the people of God, she’s begging, gleaning in the fields trying to feed herself and her mother-in law. She’s desperate. I’ve met so many people like this.

Here in the French Quarter, and a lot of our neighbors are in similar situations. I can tell you firsthand, there are many people being bought and sold in our city as slaves. We, as the people of God in this time and place, need to buy them back and make them daughters again. There are many people in our city, who have fled here because of hunger, many of them immigrants, many others grieving loss, like Ruth. I mentioned my wife and I foster, and in foster care, every family you interact with has lost their children, and every child is in need of a family, at least for a while. There are a lot of people here in New Orleans like Ruth, in need of redemption.

Ruth’s life, her entire trajectory, is changed in chapter two of the book. Ruth’s mother-in-law tells her, you have a relative who can stand in the place of your husband according to the law—if he’s willing to actually follow the law and heart of God, you can have a family again. The book ends with a small genealogy—Ruth has a child, and through that child God brings about the line of David, ultimately the birth of Christ, who through his work on the cross would bear the suffering of all of our sins. Someone who has lost their family—because of sin, slavery, destitution—someone who has lost their family being wrapped up into family again. That’s the idea of redemption.

Redemption is God’s heart for each of us, and redemption is central to our faith practice as followers of Christ. Redemption is powerful. It has the ability to fill the practice of your church, of your faith community, with incredible meaning. Children who need family finding it among your people. People with broken families finding love and forgiveness among you. But as with every powerful thing, the higher the angel, when it falls, the fiercer the devil. Many of the scriptural authors note that if redemption is absent from your religious practice as a faith community, the rest of your religious practice is worthless, absurd—Isaiah uses the image of lifting hands up in worship when you have blood on them. It’s an intentionally disturbing image. Redemption is powerful; it’s life-giving when put into practice, and the lack of redemption from a faith community is deadly.

Through the psalms and writings, we start seeing this idea of redemption, this need for family applied to each of us. Not just widows and orphans, not just refugees and lonely hearts. You and I, too. God is really the only good father, and when it comes to it, we are all in need of redemption in our own ways. No matter how cohesive our families, no matter how loving our relationships, there’s still sin separating us. We still need to begin to understand God as our father.

In the New Testament, the idea of redemption is used to explain the way in which God saves us in Christ. Each and every person God saves he saves through family—adoption as sons and daughters, marriage of a bride made new. God’s salvation, throughout the entirety of scripture, is wrought through redemption, wrapping people up in family, the church standing in the place of those they’ve lost for as long as we need to be there. And again, the authors of the New Testament insist, this is something we all need. If you’re here today asking who redemption is really for, who is in need of connection and loving family, who are the sinners and the sufferers in our world—the Scriptures answer, we all are. This is something we all need, only some of us are in desperate need.

In our work drawing other people into family, we realize our own need. Or to say it differently, we are allowed, we are invited, to admit our own need. Bonhoeffer lays out a choice we all make in his book Life Together: “Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.” Every one of us makes a choice between isolation and confession, between family and the outer dark.

Strangely, when you follow along Christ’s way, the further you go, the more you become like all of the people in our society who most need redemption. God doesn’t save us to be put-together and honorable—he saves us by calling us into suffering and hurt. In Christ you begin to understand yourself as a child in need of adoption into the family of God. You become a refugee in exile and longing for community. You become a sojourner, a traveller, longing for home.

This mission of redemption is given to all of us. Because we’ve been adopted into the family of God, we’re able to draw others into it as well. Dear friends, more than being right I long to be a part of a family. More than change I long for home. More than likemindedness I long for love, and a love at that which is able to cover a multitude of sins, which is to say I long for the love of our God which is given to us in the Spirit. May we be a people who cling to the love and unity of the Spirit more than we cling to anything else. May we be a people who have forgiveness on our lips before we say anything else. And may we be a people who long to draw others into the family of God.

Adam is going to come a lead a time of response. May we learn through paradox this morning that in the kingdom of God humility is greatness, and admitting mystery is knowledge. The way to go further in and further up in the kingdom of heaven is the way down into service of each and every person around us. May we learn through paradox this morning to comprehend a love which surpasses knowledge.

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