by Daniel Harrell
If you follow the church calendar you know yesterday was Epiphany, January 6, a day that commemorates the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem. Historically, Epiphany is better than Christmas, ranking right after Easter and Pentecost in terms of theological importance. Beyond we three kings or wise men traversing or lords-a-leaping for that matter, what mattered most was that these Magi weren’t Jewish. Their meeting Jesus meant heaven’s door was now open to Gentiles—and not just any Gentiles—but strange astrologers from back east who’d tracked a star they said they saw move all the way to Bethlehem. For these bizarre dudes to get access meant the door must be open to everybody .
This was God’s plan from the beginning. According to our Epiphany passage from Ephesians, God’s hidden intention was to retake the cosmos and fill everything with Christ, from the bottom up. Already the spirit had tapped two lowly, overlooked and underestimated women—one a scandalized child bride, the other an aged wife who’d failed to give her husband an heir. Shabby shepherds working the night shift were the first to greet the newborn king. But Mary and Elizabeth and the shepherds were still Jewish. When you’ve got nothing else going for you, it’s good to know the Bible says you’re chosen and favored by God. But then those astrologers rode in and suddenly the whole horoscope flipped.
The apostle Paul, writer of Ephesians, a self-proclaimed Hebrew of Hebrews, self-righteous Pharisee and Christian-hater, had presumed with everybody that Gentiles were yard dogs, not worthy to come in the house. But Paul got his own epiphany on the way to Damascus one day, his own come-to-Jesus moment, such that now he not only loved Jesus with his whole heart, but suffered his love in jail, persecuted for the faith he prosecuted, tied up in his own chains, “the very least of all the saints” he says, a prisoner on purpose for the sake of God’s purpose.
“The mystery was made known to me by revelation,” he writes, using a synonym for epiphany. Mystery is a Greek word meaning hidden, there all along but never known known until God made it plain. Nobody fully saw it coming. How could they? To call something a mystery means it defies human reason and planning. Christ gets born in a barn, scandalized and humiliated, to rejected and executed, but then risen and vindicated. What looked to be unrighteousness turned out to be God’s righteousness. The Lord chooses the unchosen and remembers the forgotten. Those who glut themselves on prestige and privilege and position all get dragged down. God speaks through the mouths of the silenced. He performs through those deprived of standing and worth. The Lord moves out of the temple, out of the palace and the corner office and every high place, descending down the back stairway into women’s kitchens, factory floors, laborer’s fields, shepherd’s caves and Gentile country. The marginalized and the otherized not only get to come in the house, they get a seat at the table.
More than that: “Gentiles have become fellow heirs,” Paul writes. They’ve been written into the will. Adopted into God’s family. Abraham’s our daddy too. Paul calls us “members of the same body,” Christ’s body, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, “sharers of the promise.” More than merely included, Gentiles are now fully incorporated and made brothers and sisters, full partners and partakers of an entity now known as church, the bodily presence of Jesus on earth, and on a trajectory that in time enfolds all creation in Christ.
Gentile was Bible code for unclean and unrighteous, and this before committing any sin or doing any wrong needing forgiveness. A Gentile’s chief sin was genetic, being born at the wrong time to the wrong parents. The people of God, whether Jewish and Christian, have had a long history of excluding others solely on the basis of birth, be it race or gender or sexuality. God picks Paul of all people—a first rate excluder—to show how trying to keep others out of the kingdom only succeeds in walling ourselves off from God. We worship a Lord who created heaven and earth and promises to draw all things to himself. God chose Israel as to be exemplary rather than exclusive, sharers of grace and never owners. True for Israel and truer for the church: we are blessed not for our own sake, but that we might bless the whole world.
Thankfully, churches are starting to get this. I had the delight last Sunday of attending First Covenant Church downtown, a congregation that happily identifies itself as a loving place of Christian community for all kinds of people. Paul describes the church as evidence of the “wisdom of God in its rich variety,”—a unity so striking that that even the angels and demons to take notice. First Cov, though small, is richly varied, visibly male and female, black and white, gay and straight, old and young. I went there to bless them for blessing us with a new pastor: Sara Wilhelm Garbers, a member of their staff called to join ours tomorrow as our Minister for Congregational Life. Though different congregations, we remain one church in Christ. I wanted to assure them that Sara’s move was in no way our poaching their talent or stealing a draft pick. A beloved pastor’s move can leave ill will and cause tension between congregations. I wanted to make sure they understood there’s only one church in Minneapolis and we’re all on the same team. We have to work together.
I got to say a few words on behalf of Colonial, expressing both our gratitude to God and to First Covenant for Sara, as well as our promise to love her and let her extraordinary gifts shine. They so appreciated my coming, since this isn’t something pastors from competing churches ever do, and welcomed our prayers and our potential partnership in ministry. They didn’t care that I was a middle-aged white male, or a Congregationalist, or a Southerner or suburbanite from Edina. All are welcomed in God’s house, no matter what, they insisted, and I believed them.
First Cov sits opposite US Bank Stadium, home of the beloved Minnesota Vikings and the host of Super Bowl LII. Starting today, First Covenant’s sanctuary is draped in trademark purple, with iconic horns and Viking heads shrouding the stained glass and covering its crosses. The whole building is decked out for the game, hoping it won’t be a jinx. Some of you may think that sounds awesome and why can’t we do that here? Already a couple of you confused our purple Advent adornments with Viking fan gear. The NFL has rented and taken over First Covenant for the whole month, seizing both its building and parking lot, using the space for volunteer training, forcing the congregation on Super Bowl Sunday to worship at St. Mark’s Episcopal down the street. They’re glad to do it.
In my own comments I made the mistake of saying I was a New England Patriots fan. So much for everybody being welcomed. They booed me.
The New York Post once compared football to a powerful drug with dreadful side effects. Super Bowls are regularly the most watched TV shows in history. Gamblers wage millions. “We may say that we are terrified of allowing our sons to play football and risk brain damage, that we are wary of the message the NFL’s domestic-abuse cases sends to our daughters. Maybe we tsk-tsk-tsk the way the NFL conducts its business, … but we can’t get enough. It is our drug of choice.” It is our religion of choice too. Author Marcia Mount Shoop, in her book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse, writes how football “captures our imagination and elicits our deepest emotional outpourings much more than any religion.”
Football is taking over a lot of churches this playoff season. For months we’ve anticipated the results from our Reforming Discovery Phase—a presentation on the outcomes of the big survey and focus groups we held last fall. Our consultants are flying in next Sunday for the reveal, a full morning of worship and wonder as together we take this next step is discerning what God is calling us to next. What none of us anticipated in planning for next Sunday was the Vikings getting a first round bye and playing for a shot at the conference title. Who thought that could happen? It’s not like they’re the Patriots. Thankfully, our planning prayers were answered. The NFL, in its mercy, has slated the Vikings to kickoff at 3:40PM. We’re can go ahead with our game plan: worship at 9, brunch and then presentation at 11 with childcare, out in time to get home and get out the guacamole and the remote. (Except for those with tickets to the game).
Upper Room, on the other hand, has been forced to punt. They’re readjusting their worship schedule, moving their 5PM service back to 2PM next Sunday, and possibly the Sunday after that, if the Vikings make the conference title game. Some churches meeting at night are cancelling their services altogether these next few Sundays. Why fight it? For years, back in Boston, I’d insist our church hold its night church services as a matter of principle during Super Bowl season, even with the Patriots playing (which meant eight Super Bowls and five rings, but who’s counting?). Of course, aside from international students from China and math majors, nobody came to worship God.
I don’t know if there’ll be football in heaven. The Bible doesn’t say. But there is a game plan. Ephesians describes how “In former generations, God’s mystery in Christ was not made known to humankind.” Things kick off in Genesis with God coaching behind the scenes, shuttling players and prophets on and off the field, scoring a few touchdowns, but never enough to run up the score. The first half ends with the outcome in doubt. Halftime adjustments need to be made. Gabriel appears to Mary at Christmas to announce God has decided to put himself in the game, and without pads it appears. Born as a baby, Jesus takes a brutal beating, seems doomed to lose, discounted as dead, but then miraculously rises up, intercepts the pass and takes it in for the lead. The crowd goes wild with delight. The game in hand, it seems, God then inexplicably pulls himself from the field in the fourth quarter, signals to the crowd and makes us the team: a motley bunch of walk-ons, replacements, yard dogs, has-beens and math majors. We get filled with the Spirit and told to go out and win it, a dumb strategy if ever there was one. This is mystery indeed—“a gift of God’s grace” Paul calls it, “the outworking of his mighty power.”
Among people, God’s power in us does look different than we typically think of power. We usually think of power in terms of power over, the ability to get someone else to do what you want, whether by persuasion or coercion, a vicious hit on the playing field, the knock-out punch. Power as a zero-sum game: the strong win out over the weak. There is another kind of power; namely power for, where the strong work on behalf of the weak, winners give a portion of their spoils to the losers. This is classic mission and benevolent power, giving out of our abundance to help those who can’t help themselves. But it’s also zero-sum—merely a transfer from the haves to the haves not.
But God’s power—gospel power—doesn’t work from a limited pie, but expands as it exerts. Instead of power over or for, gospel power is power with—it neither pushes nor prods or makes a donation, but comes alongside and joins in with real solidarity. Power with is relational power, God with us and in us, fueled by mutual concern and care, power that flows not from strong to weak or from rich to poor, but between equals, back and forth, us and our neighbor, Jew and Gentile, Viking and Patriot. Power with is the power of love.
In Christ there’s always more grace and more love, Paul calls it “boundless riches.” Translators stumble over each other to express the wonder of it all: inexhaustible, unfathomable, endless and unsearchable. You just can’t get your arms or your minds around it. Like the wonder of creation itself, from quarks to quasars, language can’t do it justice.
So Paul uses sports. Later in Ephesians he’ll talk about wrestling, in the other epistles he’ll resort to running and boxing. He talks about how athletes train hard to win a mere scrap of shiny metal. How much more should we devote ourselves to love for the sake of true riches? Sportswriter turned Minneapolis Lutheran pastor Angela Denker describes sports as “a microcosm of the resurrection story of Jesus in their sweeping arcs of devastation and redemption. Sports empower, whether its little girls playing soccer in Africa, or men tearing it up in wheelchair basketball, or my dad as a senior playing pickleball, or me in introducing me to my husband, with whom I still play tennis for date night, and yes, who can still dunk after ACL surgery.”
God inexplicably pulls himself from the field in the fourth quarter, signals to us and makes us his team, the church: a motley bunch of walk-ons, replacements, yard dogs, has-beens and math majors. We’re told to go out and win the biggest game, a dumb strategy and therefore sure proof that God’s in it. The Lord empowers with his spirit, Jesus himself in us, his own body and blood, “emboldened and confident,” Paul writes, cocky even though he’s chained up in prison, seemingly cursed, fourth and long with time running out, crucified, dead and buried, just like being down by 25 points in the third during last year’s Super Bowl—and we all know how that turned out.
What is God calling us to next? Whatever it is it’s a game we can’t lose because victory’s been in the bag all along, “hidden for ages in God who created all things;” Paul writes, “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made visible to all creation, in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The only way we can blow this game is to stay in the stands and refuse to play.