There was a television show not long ago that caught my imagination because it was about treasure hunting in various parts of the world. It reminded me of my friends (although I want to use the term loosely) that I associated with while growing up in Bermuda, because they decided to make a summer job leading tourists on treasure hunts around the Bermuda waters. My friends had absolutely no idea where the treasures were, but they found it extremely lucrative to entice unsuspecting tourists to go diving with them. They would often comment, “Well, this happens. You can’t guarantee you will find the treasure....” and that was the end of that, but they all had a nice dive – for which they paid my friends very well!
I thought about that because Bermuda is noted for its treasures, as many of you might know. There have been massive treasure hunts around the waters of Bermuda because in many ways it is the graveyard of the Atlantic – a place where many ships have gone down because of the coral reefs. From the Sea Venture in 1609, to ones that have become more prevalent even in the twentieth century. One of them, the Colon, went down in 1936 and the Constellation in 1943, all left significant treasures at the bottom of the sea. So people would come to Bermuda hunting these treasures. Of course, it took experts, like the famous Teddy Tucker and George Maddox to find them, but there was always the possibility, and this is my point: that you just might stumble upon some. It enticed people. It made them feel good that there might just be hidden riches under the sea waiting to be claimed.
One of the great challenges that comes to our Christian faith is that people often treat the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of the Scriptures as if it is a guide book to hidden. There are those who quite frankly are charlatans, who go around telling people that if you look closely enough at the Scriptures or if you are faithful enough to Jesus, you will get great riches and that your life will be full of all kinds of wonderful things. People are often gullible and treat the Scriptures and the Bible as if it is a roadmap to a lottery jackpot.
Many people have commented with what is known as “the prosperity Gospel” that this has an appeal. It implies that there are those who have a unique and mysterious power to draw you to riches if you will only listen to them, and them alone. It is not that the Scriptures in themselves are enough, but you have to follow and adhere to the teachings of these individuals who will give you the roadmap or the source of these great riches. Particularly enticed by this are poor and vulnerable people who feel that they can get out of their financial mess and get the riches that they feel they deserve. People buy in to this Gospel; they go hunting for treasures in the Scriptures. It doesn’t help of course when you read a passage like this from Ephesians 3, for it uses the word “riches” on three different occasions. Paul talks in this great letter to the Ephesians about the “boundless riches of Jesus Christ.” He refers to the wisdom that “gives a variety of riches” and then he talks about the “riches of the glory of God.”
The problem lies when people read a passage like this, and what they read into it is the materialism of our age and culture. In other words, they see the word “riches” and immediately assume that what we are talking about are worldly riches, riches that are based on money and the accumulation of wealth. It is not surprising in a world dominated by materialism that none of us are immune from an ideology – a consumerist ideology – that says that the greatest pleasures in life are found in these material things or the ability to have access to those material things. It is not surprising then that with that ideology in mind, we read a passage like Ephesians and we see the riches of Christ and the variety of the riches of God and the glorious bounty of God, and we think: “There you go! You see, the riches are there for us!”
The danger in that is when the riches aren’t delivered. People find themselves still destitute and consider it a sign that: (a) God is not active in their life, (b) that they have done something wrong or misread the signs, or (c) that the person who has been telling them this is like my friends in Bermuda who go diving where there is no treasure. It could be any of those three things. If you come to your Gospel on the belief that it is going to give you great material riches, you are going to be disappointed, because it is a false Gospel. It is not what Paul had in mind. What did Paul have in mind, and is there something deeper to what he was saying than simply the accumulation of wealth and listening to the soothsayers who tell you that you are going to be rich?
Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison. If anyone was poor at the time of the writing, it was Paul. He had been imprisoned in Caesarea for two years and was now in Rome, where he has also been imprisoned for two years. Twice he has been incarcerated for his convictions and faith. Now, he is writing to the Ephesians. The Ephesians are wondering how he is doing. They are concerned for him. But there is, as some scholars have suggested, in Ephesians almost a tinge of disappointment that Paul, who was supposed to lead them to great things, found himself in poverty and in prison. They are starting to wonder about Paul’s leadership, and whether he is really the real thing. Paul isn’t worried about any of this. He is fixated on one thing, namely that his ministry is to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. To show them what was previously hidden from them and has only been understood by the covenant people of Israel. And so, the language that he uses is of incredible joy and praise! It is language of incredible hope, because he knows the Gentile world is going to get the wonders of the Gospel. He uses language that also seems to suggest that these things are not found normally. He uses words such as “unsearchable” or “mysterious”. In other words, you don’t just go out and find these wonderful things that come from Jesus Christ. There is no a roadmap for it. Rather, it is revealed by God, and because it is revealed by God, as we are going to see in a moment, having a relationship with God is the most important thing. But, it is unsearchable, it is mysterious, and it requires what we celebrate today, an Epiphany, a revealing understand what it is Paul is talking about. Human beings have always tried to capture what we think is the essence of the riches of Christ by creating figures – avatars, to use the language of computers.
Recently, I was looking at the rendition of Rembrandt’s The Supper at Emmaus in an art book. It is a magnificent painting of Jesus appearing to the disciples, like an Epiphany, on the road to Emmaus. What was fascinating for me is that if I was to take that photograph of this painting and take away Jesus’ beard, with no disrespect to the Netherlands, that the Jesus who was underneath that beard looked very much like a Dutchman. There wasn’t anything particularly Semitic or Jewish or middle-eastern about the Jesus in Rembrandt’s painting: he was a Dutchman with a beard – and there are a lot of those, right?” You look at it and think it is a wonderful depiction, but Rembrandt is painting from the basis of what he knows. We do the same in literature. We know thousands of Christ figures in literature, where we try to capture in our own sense what Jesus is like; what he looks and sounds like. I think King Arthur, for example, in Tennyson’s Idyllus is a classic example of a Christ figure that has been created by an English writer – or Colonel Newsome in Thackery, or perhaps the one that young people might appreciate, Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. All of these characters in literature are Christ figures. They are not the real thing, but they are a depiction of what Christ might look like from our own perspective.
The danger with this, with looking at Christ and therefore interpreting the riches of Christ through this particular lens is that the Christ-figures that we create, are nothing more than a manifestation of our own projection of what we think Christ should be like. In other words, we create images of Christ based on our own cultural norms, or based on our own assumptions of what we think Christ is like. We all do it. It is like those who think that they can create their own church community on the basis of shared values, not God, just shared values. The problem is that any community created around shared values in the end is simply going to look like and be like the people who participate in it. There is nothing transformative; nothing metaphysical; nothing supernatural; nothing beyond what they know; there is no corrective. After a while, it will become an exclusive group because there will be those who don’t share values, and who feel that they don’t belong. The real danger of trying to create our own Christ is always there, hence when we look at the riches of Christ we understand them in the materialistic culture in which we find ourselves.
If the Apostle Paul was standing here this morning what would he tell us to do? What would he offer that would be transformative? Well, he would say principally what we really need in our lives is God. Paul says this: “May Christ dwell in your heart.” I love the original Greek, because it really literally means “take up residence in your life.” In other words, we don’t create a Christ that is a projection of our own cultural norms; rather we receive the living, vibrant presence of Christ in our lives. Christ is not something that is kept at a distance, but rather Christ who becomes near and who works in our lives. That is the difference between those who want to make Christ the God of the rich and the wealthy and the prosperous, and those who genuinely open themselves to the presence of God. After all, Paul was sitting in prison – let me remind you – and he was an abject failure. He wasn’t able to get to the churches that he needed to get to. Nevertheless, he had something that was of greater value and richness than anything else. He had Christ, and to use his own phrase, “in his inner being”.
In the Greek culture of the time and the language that the Ephesians would understand, “inner being” had three components to it. The first component was reason. It is having God in your inner being that affects your reason, and your reason distinguishes primarily between right and wrong. It is reason, it is your ability to think and discern and decide the right path. This reasoning was such a big part of Greek thought and such a key idea in Greek literature that it dominated political and philosophical discourse. Reason was a way of accessing truth, and truth as distinguished from a lie. Paul says, “When you have Christ in your inner being, your reason is influenced by Christ. Your decision making about right and wrong is guided by Christ. Christ becomes part of your entire life. Another component of the Greek “inner person” or “inner man” is conscience. Conscience might know and understand by reason right from wrong, but it is conscience that motivates us to do right. When Paul says to the Ephesians that Christ will be in your inner being, that Christ will dwell and make his residence in you, he is making his residence in your conscience. If there is anything that the Protestant Reformation, which is celebrating its 500th Anniversary this year in 2017, has brought to the fore, it is the importance of that conscience that has been touched by Christ to be motivated to do the right thing. The law may say one thing, but the conscience is the motivation to go beyond what the law suggests. The third component in Greek is “the will”. In the “inner person” there is will. If reason can distinguish between right and wrong, if conscience is the motivation to do it, will is the strength to act upon it. It is no good having a conscience that is moved unless you do something about it and you have will to change it.
I was thinking about that this last week on one of the very cold days here in Toronto. I watched a person who I see on a regular basis finding shelter outside, and we know these dear souls are all around us. I thought about the fact that it moves the heart to see someone suffering like that, and the conscience is moved out of concern for the individual, and my reason tells me that person, if they are going to stay where they are, is going to end up dead in the cold temperature, but the will to do something about it, the will to talk to the individual about options for them, the will to support a system that helps the poor, not only has a conscience for them, the will becomes the means of carrying out both what the reason and the conscience tell you. That is why the will is important. But it is will that is informed by Christ. It is not just will that is self-serving. It is will that is motivated by Christ himself. If there is anything we can do in this New Year to carry out our Christian duty, to have a sense of what it means to be a disciple, it is to bring our reason and our conscience and our will in line with the person of Christ who is present in our lives. He is present even at times when we don’t know it. This is perhaps the mystery that Paul is talking about. It is not only the fact that Christ might appear hidden, but that he is also the Christ of Epiphany who reveals himself to us.
There is a wonderful story I read some years ago about the great newspaper baron, William Randolph Hearst. He had a great love for art. One day, he saw a depiction of a particular painting that he felt he must have in his collection. He sent out representatives to go out into the world to find this particular painting. For twelve months they searched high and low for the painting, and they came back and reported their findings. Hearst was shocked, for they informed him that the piece of art that he loved so much was already his, but sitting in a box in a basement! I think the Church is like that. I think we are like that. We have the riches of Christ. We have Christ’s presence in our lives. We have reason and conscience and will that can be moved by Christ, but at times we don’t know it is there. Maybe at times we are just looking in the wrong place, maybe our materialism has caused our eyes to wander to the things of this world rather than on the things of God. May we this Epiphany, while we are taking Communion, taking the bread and the wine, say from the bottom of our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus, and make a permanent residence in my life.” Amen.