The Mystery of Christ
"In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This 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.
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His 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, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Ephesians 3:4-11)
It's my privilege today to preach on Ephesians chapter 3 - our Epistle reading.
'Oh great' somebody says. 'Finally somebody is preaching on Ephesians 3!'
Well, ... somebody might say that. I've been here almost 13 years and no one yet, so far as I remember, has ever preached on Ephesians 3 during that time. It's probably about time someone preached on it. Perhaps someone has been waiting anxiously for this to happen? It's not likely of course. No one is likely to say 'Great, Ephesians!' You're more likely to ask me to spell the word for you, and this despite the fact that we read from the book only a few minutes ago.
This is always the problem with the Epistle reading I think. And I've noticed that those who determine our weekly readings keep trimming the length of the Epistle reading down. And this makes sense to me, for unless you're a bit of an enthusiast it seems to be pretty hard to keep the Epistle reading in your head for too long.
Oh, we remember the Old Testament reading, which was about David and Bathsheeba. And we can probably remember the gospel reading. But we have trouble remembering the Epistle reading, and perhaps especially this Epistle reading. It seems to be particularly forgettable.
Does anyone remember what it was about?
In Ephesians 3 Paul talks about the 'mystery of Christ'.
"When you read this" Paul says, "you will perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ".
This is one of Paul's last letters. This is a letter written from prison. This is the sort of letter you write to people who you know you are probably never going to see again. It's the sort of letter where, if you've got something important to say, this is the time to say it, because you don't know how much more time you've got left. And for Paul, the important thing he wanted to talk about was the 'mystery of Christ.'
"You will perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ" Paul says. It is a mysterious truth, he says, "that was not made known to the sons of men in other generations", but that has been revealed to him and to his Christian contemporaries by the Holy Spirit! And what is this mysterious truth kept secret for so long but finally revealed in Christ?
- That Jesus is the Son of God?
- That He was crucified, died and was buried, but rose again on the 3rd day?
- That Jesus reconciled the world to Himself on the cross?
No. None of the above. The mystery of Christ, now made know, Paul says is ... "that the Gentiles are fellow heirs" - that Jews and non-Jews are members of the same body, equally partakers of the promises of God, brothers and sisters in the same church!
This is not the climactic answer we might have expected from Paul. What's so mysterious about the equality of the races? But listen to him eulogize further:
"Now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace."
Is Paul talking about the mystical 'peace' between humanity and God? No, he's talking about the peace that Christ brings between people of different races.
"For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility ... that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end."
And so he continues.
This is the heart of Paul's theology in Ephesians. Does it surprise you? Didn't Jesus come into the world to save sinners? The death of Jesus on the cross spells for us forgiveness and the possibility of a new beginning. Isn't that what it's all about? Well, according to the book of Ephesians, the climactic work of Christ on the cross is that by his blood he broke down the dividing wall of racial hostility between Jew and Greek!
That may seem to trivialise the significance of the death of Christ for us. Of coursed this may be related to the fact that we don't live in Israel!
It's easy for us to preach the equality of all races when we live in a situation that is relatively tolerant of different cultures. Put yourself in Israel and start preaching that all Jews and Palestinians are sisters and brothers. See how popular you are. And don't just preach it quietly over coffee to your friends. Preach it the way Paul did - setting up churches made up of Jews and Greeks and Palestinians and Arabs - all publicly worshipping together in the middle of the hostility.
If Paul were alive today, I believe I know exactly where he'd be right now on a Sunday morning. He'd be in the middle of the Gaza strip, leading a magnificent service of joint worship between Jewish and Palestinian Christians. He'd be doing it in the open air, with tanks visible in the background, and people looking on through cracks in the wall out of their bombed-out homes. And he'd be preaching 'Peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near, for Christ has made one new man out of two and has brought our hostility to an end.' The message of reconciliation takes on a different feel altogether when you relocate yourself a bit.
Some of us have just returned from a historical tour of the US. One of the places we visited there was the John Brown wax museum in Harpers Ferry. John Brown was a fiery preacher in the mid nineteenth century who preached the equality of blacks and whites, and who tried to start an armed rebellion amongst the slaves, beginning at Harpers Ferry. Whether you agree with Brown's methods or not, no one could doubt the integrity of his zeal, nor the fact that his convictions grew out of a fundamentally Biblical mandate that through the death of Christ all the races have been made one!
John Brown was hanged in Harpers Ferry. In the years that followed his death many thousands and tens of thousands went off to war because they believed that they had to fight in order to make that proclaimed equality a physical reality by ending slavery.
Preaching genuine equality is dangerous business. It cost Paul his life too.
The details of Paul's ultimate end have always been a little hazy, but we know that the prison letters were the last letters he wrote, and we believe that he was executed by the government - probably beheaded -not long after writing this letter to the Ephesians.
Why did Paul have so many enemies? How is it that he stirred up so much trouble such that the authorities had to keep stepping in to silence him, and eventually felt the need to silence him altogether? Was it because he went around telling people to be nice to each other and to live good middle-class lives? I don't think so. It was because he challenged what was at the heart of the religion and culture of his own people - the idea that his people (the Jews) were God's special people, and that the rest of the world were not.
In my understanding, there are some things that are essential to being Jewish in this world and there are other areas where there is a great degree of flexibility.
As to how you envision God and His relationship with the world, I understand that there's plenty of room for discussion within the Jewish community. As to your beliefs about the Messiah, again, traditional Judaism, I'm told, takes a fairly liberal attitude in terms of allowing different people to believe different things. You might think Jesus is the Messiah. I might disagree. This in itself would not necessarily mean that we can't worship happily together in the same synagogue.
But there's one point of dogma in Jewish understanding where there is really very little room for maneuver. That's the understanding that the Jews are God's chosen people. That's the fundamental basis of the faith. The Jews are God's chosen people and for that reason they are different, and so much of what we associate with traditional Jewish religious practice was developed to reinforce exactly that point.
As a Jewish parent you would teach this to your children - that we dress differently and eat differently and live differently because we are different. We are God's special people - chosen at the beginning of history to be the guardians of God's law and the messengers of God's truth to the rest of the world. We are a holy people, a separate people, and that's why we don't associate with people who are not of our race.
Paul comes along and says 'Well, that was yesterday. But now that Christ has come, that wall of hostility has been broken down, and these two people have become one!'
Paul started out on the other side of the fence of course. He was brought up as a strict Jew and trained as a Pharisee. And we know that he spent much of his early career trying to wipe out the church for exactly this reason, because he saw the threat that the inclusive attitude of the Christians posed to his own community. But Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and so he came to say that all that good breeding and upbringing that had once made him feel so self-important and unique he 'counted as crap' for the sake of knowing Christ and making him known.
In Paul's understanding, whatever distinctive role the Jewish people had to play in the historic plan of God for the world - whatever role they had as guardians of the law and messengers of the truth - was now over. The time of separateness was finished. Through Christ all people were being reconciled and brought together. The hostility had to come to and end! This was the stand that would ultimately get Paul killed.
They say that Martin Luther King Jr. was a very shy and retiring man who probably would not have upset anybody too much if he'd kept his radical preaching and ideas about equality squarely inside the walls of his own church. The problem was that he started doing those marches, and thrusting the whole thing into everybody's faces.
Paul, likewise, was a guy who pushed the issue of racial equality into everybody's faces. He had a public showdown over the issue with the apostle Peter early on (you can read about that in his letter to the Galatians). He organised a worldwide aid fund at the end of his life, designed both to relieve the poverty in Jerusalem and also to bring together the churches of the different cultures. And throughout his ministry Paul deliberately fashioned the churches he was involved in to be living testimonies to the rest of the society of the new reality of racial integration and harmony that Christ made possible.
This brings us back to what I think is the climax of Ephesians chapter 3:
Paul says that it is his mission in life 'to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.'
Let me unpack that for you a little. Paul's mission is to make known the mystery, which, as we have seen, was the mysterious coming together of the different peoples of the world through Christ. Paul now goes further and says now that the wonderful consequence of this mysterious coming together is that through the church the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.'
Here is one of the few times that I, as a preacher, am glad that I know a little Greek (the original language in which this letter was written) for I can tell you that the word 'manifold' here (the 'manifold wisdom of God') can more be literally translated as 'multicoloured'.
The church proclaims, Paul says, the 'multicoloured' wisdom of God around the world - and not only around the world but even beyond the world and into the heavenly realms, so that even the principalities and powers in the heavenly places can see the wondrous mystery of Christ made known! And they see it through the church, not simply because we're talking about it, but because, as a multicoloured community, we proclaim the wisdom of God just by being who we are!
- Think about that friends! We proclaim the coming of a new Kingdom:
- A world where every tear will be wiped away
- Where lions and lambs lie down side by side
- Where war is no more because people can genuinely get on with one another
- Where black and white, rich and poor, male and female, slave and free are all equal.
We proclaim the coming of Christ's kingdom, but we must admit that there are very few indications in this world that this Kingdom is really on its way.
Someone said to me only the other day "I'll bet you all I've got that this Kingdom of yours ain't coming". I said "I'll take that bet", but I know full well that as you look around the world you don't see people coming together everywhere. You see more and more people and nations splitting further apart!
But this is where St Paul says to us, 'But wait. Look at the church! In the church you see people living in genuine community. In the church you see black and white, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female all living together as one! In the church we see a living sign of the world to come, for in the church the multicoloured wisdom of God is being proclaimed to the very principalities and powers in the heavenly places!'
Of course the church doesn't always look quite that good. Often the church is just as divided as the rest of the world.
Even here, we have not been immune from the natural phenomenon that 'birds of a feather tend to flock together'. OK. We don't have a huge issue with Jewish people not being treated as equals in our midst, and I'm sure that we would state very dogmatically that nobody is consciously excluded from our community. And yet, like any group of human beings, we'll tend to mix with people we feel natural with. We'll tend to gravitate towards people who have a similar cultural background to what we do and a similar educational level to what we have, because those are the people who are likely to understand us best and so those are the sort of people we are most likely to enjoy.
What would St Paul say? I think he would simply urge us 'people, be the church!' You are the church of God, called to be a sign to the rest of the world of the Kingdom coming, called to be a living example of true community, assigned the privilege of proclaiming to the world, and to the worlds beyond our own, the multicoloured wisdom of God through the very multicoloured beauty of your own congregation!
Let's not forget! It's too easy to forget the Epistle reading, to easy to forget what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 3, and to easy to forget who we are supposed to be as the church.
Around the world I think much of the church has forgotten who we are supposed to be, and it is quite possible that we will let this go in one ear and out the other, just as we did with the Epistle reading when it was first read to us today.
Let's not let that happen. Let's not forget who we are and who we are called to be. We are the church of God. We are the people who, in our very communal life, make known the mystery of Christ to the rest of the world. We are the people who proclaim to the principalities and powers in the Heavenly places the multicoloured wisdom of God. And we do this just by being the church, and by living together in love as Christ taught us to.
Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, June 25th, 2003