Grace United Methodist Church
January 2, 2011
Ephesians 3: 1-12 (NIV)
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—
2Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
7I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
Imagine sitting in your living room relaxing, just enjoying some time off with family in this holiday season. Maybe you’re watching TV or reading, perhaps there are some children busy with their new toys somewhere nearby. Then you hear your doorbell ring. As you open the door, you are surprised to see your neighbor standing there crying. She has just learned that her mother passed away quite suddenly and totally unexpectedly. She is beside herself with grief as you try to comfort her. So you sit with her for a while and simply listen as she shares stories and wonderful memories of her mother. You never met her mother; this woman is a neighbor and a friend, but not a close friend. When she’s done, she tells you that she will be leaving immediately to go to her mother’s home out-of-town. She asks if you will watch her house while she is gone. You agree without question and tell her you will get her mail and paper as well. She thanks you and heads back to her home to pack.
A little over a week later, the neighbor knocks on your door again. This time she has come with some quite different news for you. It turns out her mother was an extremely wealthy widow and you are going to receive a part of the inheritance with the same rights and privileges as any other member of the family! That, indeed, would be amazing and surprising new, would it not?!? Without any blood relationship, without any history or service, you are being offered a share in a great inheritance!
What an incredible piece of news! It would be difficult to believe. But this is precisely the news that Paul is bringing as he writes to the church at Ephesus. Paul is sharing with the Gentiles the great news of God’s son Jesus Christ! Today, we celebrate Epiphany, which quite literally is the moment when the Wise Men arrived to worship the newborn Messiah. But more fully, Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Epiphany means “appearing.” And in Jesus Christ, God appeared to save humanity, all of humanity. So Paul is telling this to the church at Ephesus. And, he is telling the Gentiles that they are to share in this inheritance from God, this new kingdom that God is now busy establishing through the work begun in Jesus Christ!
God has promised his people Israel that they will inherit the world; that when God renews his whole creation, his people will be kings and lords over it. So, quite understandably, the Israelites have been wondering when all the words of the prophets are going to be fulfilled, when all the promises of God are going to come true. Paul is now telling them that it has happened. And it’s not what the Gentiles think, and it’s especially not what the Israelites have imagined. The promise of God’s new covenant is that in Christ Jesus, the prophecies have been uncovered and the promises fulfilled, that the centuries-old purpose of the one true God has come to fruition. And here’s the great epiphany: God in Christ Jesus is the one true God of all nations. This is the God of the Israelites, but this is also the God of the Gentiles. Jesus Christ is for all people! And when word about God entering history to bring salvation gets out, no part of the world is unaffected! And now, Paul is saying, the Gentiles are to share in this inheritance! They will be fellow members of one body, and they will have an equal share in God’s promises!
Such a pronouncement would be incredible news to the Gentiles; even more amazing than sharing in the inheritance of a neighbor’s rich mother. For years, even centuries, the Gentiles have been reviled by the Jews. They were looked down upon as a lesser race because they were not the chosen people of God, like the Israelites. They were hated because they exiled the Israelites from their Promised Land. They were scorned because they did not believe in the one true God. Quite simply, the Jews despised the Gentiles as worthless in the sight of God.
It’s hard to wrap our heads around the idea that we could share in the inheritance of a little-known neighbor. But it would’ve been even harder for the Jews and Gentiles to imagine that they were family together, fellow heirs in God’s kingdom. You see, there were really only two divisions in humankind — Jewish and Gentile. “Race” as we talk about it today was not a factor. Even as Christianity had begun to spread, it was probably 80-90% Jewish Christians, hardly Gentile at all. There were some ethnic differences among Jewish people and some prejudices to be sure. But basically you were either Jewish or Gentile, period. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul boldly declares the lived reality in the world at that time, the single important dividing wall in humanity, that between Jewish and Gentile, had been broken down by Christ. And that in Christ, God was making one new humanity in place of the two.
Could you imagine sharing such a message today? While Paul spoke of only one dividing line, that between Jew and Gentile, there were (and still are!) many divisions among humanity. We can easily recognize divisions of culture, ethnicity, race, social class, religious practices and many other things. Even amid the Christian community, the continual fracturing of denominations and even congregations serves to reinforce the many divisions of our world. Perhaps this makes Paul’s message even more relevant today that it was 2,000 years ago. God does not desire that his people would be divided. Our God is a God of grace and love for all. And as Christians, as recipients of that inheritance of unconditional love and grace, we indeed have to share this message with the world, just as Paul did. But we also have to remember that this is the message, the “good news” of Jesus Christ, it is not our message.
Paul did not claim to discover this message from God. Rather, he claimed only that God revealed it to him. God uncovered for him what had been God’s plan and intention all along, to establish a kingdom of peace and justice for all people. As we think about sharing this message in our world today, we have to see our task in the same way. This is not our message; it is meaningless if it is. Rather, we now have the privilege of sharing God’s good news in Christ Jesus, and Jesus is the one that must shine through; transcending every barrier and breaking every division.
Arturo Toscanini was one of the great orchestral conductors of all time. A story is told of a time he was working with an orchestra preparing one of Beethoven’s powerful symphonies. As they rehearsed, Toscanini stopped them at one point and said, “Gentlemen, I am nothing; you are nothing; Beethoven is everything.” He knew well that his duty was not to draw attention to himself or to his orchestra, but to obliterate himself and his orchestra and let Beethoven flow through.
Our Christmas celebration continues with our faithful worship of the God who came in Jesus Christ for all people. As Paul says, this is a great and wonderful mystery, good news that must be shared. And amid the continued divisions of our world today, we have to reveal this mystery just as Paul did. But even as we do so, we must obliterate ourselves and let Jesus Christ flow through. I think one of the tragedies of Christianity today is that too often we make the message about us. We selfishly claim some sort of ownership and try to corner the market with the only “right” message. Quite predictably, that only leads to more and more division. It makes us look like the Israelites as they persistently declared themselves, and themselves alone, the chosen people of the one true God. We are certainly chosen and claimed by God, but we must remember that every other person is as well. Like Paul, we have to share that good news in this world. And we must never lose sight of that hope that one day through the work of Jesus Christ, we will all live as a united body.
I believe that indeed, one day, God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven, and our world will be made new, with no barriers, no divisions, no differences. But I have to admit to you that I do not really expect this to happen in my lifetime. Still, I want to live my life knowing that it is possible, and seeking to see it happen as completely as is possible with all our flawed humanity. I want to share the message that in Christ Jesus we are all one. I want to see peace among all people in this world; Jews, Muslims, Christians, Iraqis, Afghans, North and South Koreans, African, Asian, and American. I want to love people and not judge them. I want not only to have faith in what Jesus Christ began; I actually want to see it with my own eyes. And here’s what I know. I know that for that to be possible, I have to humble myself. I have to serve Christ, and I have to love others not just the same as I love myself, but more than I love myself. I hope that all Christians will do the same, that we can all follow Paul’s examples. So that someday, we will not only hear the good news that we are fellow heirs in the greatest inheritance of all time, but we will all actually receive the great inheritance!