The Epiphany | Day of Epiphany

Ephesians 3:-12

1 This is why I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles. 2 You’ve heard, of course, about the responsibility to distribute God’s grace, which God gave to me for you, right? 3 God showed me his secret plan in a revelation, as I mentioned briefly before 4 (when you read this, you’ll understand my insight into the secret plan about Christ). 5 Earlier generations didn’t know this hidden plan that God has now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets through the Spirit. 6 This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

7 I became a servant of the gospel because of the grace that God showed me through the exercise of his power. 8 God gave his grace to me, the least of all God’s people, to preach the good news about the immeasurable riches of Christ to the Gentiles. 9 God sent me to reveal the secret plan that had been hidden since the beginning of time by God, who created everything. 10 God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church. 11 This was consistent with the plan he had from the beginning of time that he accomplished through Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In Christ we have bold and confident access to God through faith in him.

The Epiphany

One question with which the church wrestled in its earliest days was whether certain racial and ethnic groups could be included in the church. It’s probably not all that difficult to believe given the past and present racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious discrimination in the United States.

And, before any of us raise our eyebrows about the religious discrimination part, remember that before John F. Kennedy was elected, no one thought a Roman Catholic could be president. The fear was that a Catholic president would be a puppet of the Pope. That’s religious discrimination. The United States has a long, ugly history of discrimination that persists as a part of our national identity. To be sure, so, too, do other nations. The United States certainly isn’t the only one now or historically.

But it might come as a surprise to learn that the early church had to wrestle with matters of this nature, too. This was the church in its infancy. Many of these people—women and men—were disciples who had walked with Jesus. So, how could people in the church have held the idea that race or ethnicity could keep one apart from the salvation of God?

I’ve mentioned in previous sermons how the Judaism of Jesus’ day had evolved from its earliest roots. The architectural layout of the Jerusalem temple differed from that of the original tent of meeting in that it had various courts which excluded certain people. Gentiles could go no farther than the Court of Gentiles. Jewish women could go no farther than the Court of Women. Jewish men could go no farther than the Court of Israel. Only priests could enter the Court of Priests. The architecture of the temple, itself, shows us that access to God was being limited based on the consequence of a person’s birth: male, female, priestly family, non-priestly family, Jew, non-Jew. One’s physical nearness to God was limited by these factors. Dividing walls had been erected between people and God: walls designed and built by people. These demarcations were not from the Bible.

The first Christians were Jewish women and men, so these ideas of barriers and exclusion that existed in the Judaism of their day persisted into the early church, especially the idea that salvation was for Jews, not Gentiles. If a Gentile wanted to be saved, then he or she must become a Jew first and follow the law of Moses. Otherwise, they didn’t have access to God’s promises or salvation. Judaism of the first century could not imagine the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s plan.

Gentiles were known within first century Judaism as sinners. The word Gentile was practically synonymous with the word sinner. So, it wasn’t entirely a surprise that many—if not most—Jews who believed in Jesus Christ held that view of Gentiles. The salvation of Jesus was for Jews. The light to the nations was imagined as a beacon that would draw Gentiles to Israel so they could become Jews (c.f. Isaiah 60) and follow the law of Moses. Gentiles were on the outside looking in unless they were circumcised into the Covenant of Israel.

You might remember the event recorded in Acts 10, where Peter had a dream and went to visit the Gentile Cornelius. Even when he arrived at Cornelius’s house Peter was hesitant about the whole matter, and he confessed to Cornelius, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35 CEB). Note that Peter didn’t say that he’d learned that lesson fully, he spoke as if it were still in progress, “I really am learning…” He was on his way. Getting there.

After sharing the good news about Jesus with these Gentiles, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his entire household, which surprised Peter and the Jewish-Christians who were with him. We’re told Peter and the circumcised believers “…were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45 CEB). Since these Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, Peter decided they should probably be baptized, so this household of Gentiles were baptized into the church.”

And not everyone liked it. When Peter went back to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and laid accusations against him for going into a Gentile home and eating with them (c.f. Acts 11:1-18). Peter’s actions were unacceptable to them. So, Peter had to explain himself and his actions to these men.

(And we know his critics were all men because they’re described as “the circumcised believers” in verse 3).

After Peter’s explanation, the critics concluded that God had apparently enabled Gentiles to repent—to change their hearts and lives—so they might have new life. But it was unexpected, and it took a lot of God-led intervention before anyone—even Peter—came to that conclusion: two visions, that of Cornelius and Peter (note that Peter had to see his vision three times!), and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles before the eyes of circumcised believers.

Accepting non-Jews into the church was neither automatic nor easy. There was resistance to it. The circumcised believers didn’t understand how the church—let alone a holy God—could possibly accept people whom they knew beyond the shadow of a doubt were sinners. Because, to them, the fact was that Gentiles were sinners. Period.

Later, in Acts 15, the situation with the Gentiles had become such a hot-button issue that the church in Jerusalem held a council to determine what to do about the matter. And Scripture doesn’t perfectly agree with what happened at that council. In Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a somewhat rosy picture in chapter 15, while Paul’s version of events in Galatians 2 is much less so. (Paul was actually there, Luke wasn’t). Paul even described how he called Peter out after Peter began to treat the Gentile believers differently—he stopped eating with them—when some Jewish believers who came from James to promote circumcision among the Gentile believers.

Paul had a heated disagreement with the circumcised believers who promoted circumcision for years. In fact, Paul got so mad at them that he wished they wouldn’t stop at circumcision. They should just go all the way and castrate themselves (c.f. Galatians 5:12).

The author of Ephesians, whether it was written by Paul or not, nevertheless echoes Paul’s insistence that God has unexpectedly and surprisingly expanded a formerly well-defined, black-and-white, clear-cut orthodox religious belief. God showed the author of Ephesians God’s secret plan in a revelation—an Epiphany. This grand plan of God, which had been hidden from all previous generations, had now been revealed by the Holy Spirit to the apostles and prophets. “This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesian 3:6 CEB).

It’s like feminism for Gentiles. Feminism says that females are equal to males in all aspects of culture, religion, and society. The author of Ephesians says that Gentiles are equal to Jews in the eyes and plan of God—that we have a place in God’s plan as co-heirs. Elsewhere, Paul declares that in Jesus Christ there is no longer any separation between us based on the consequence of our birth. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, circumcised nor uncircumcised (c.f. 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). We Gentiles share with the Jews in the promises of God in Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel: the good news.

Moreover, the author of Ephesians declares that his special mission from God is to declare this good news—that Gentiles are recipients of God’s immeasurable riches. It begs the question, if this is good news, for whom or for what is it bad news? Usually, good news for the outcast is seen as bad news by insiders. Good news for the poor is seen as bad news by the rich. Good news for the immigrant is seen as bad news by citizens. Good news for women is seen as bad news by men. It’s the established, the beneficiaries of power, and the rule-makers who want to keep the other fenced out, walled off, contained, divided, separate.

Yet, the author of Ephesians tells us that God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of God’s wisdom through the church. The “rulers and powers” in the heavens are a part of God’s creation. They’re representative of the forces at work in human life, such as political systems, social systems, institutional systems, even religious systems, among others.

In and of themselves, these rulers and powers in the heavens are not evil, but sin does work in and through them all the time. These rulers and powers also claim our allegiance in place of God. Sin exhibits itself in the rulers, powers, and principalities in many ways. Whenever institutions, political parties, governments, or governmental authorities express actions or even ideas that are contrary to God’s design—including discrimination—those authorities and powers act as agents of sin. When they woo human allegiance to themselves and their designs, thus away from God and God’s designs, then they’re acting as agents of sin.

What’s interesting about this text is that the church is explicitly described as something that confronts these rulers and powers with God’s wisdom. We, the church, are called by God to act in ways that confront and ultimately counter the sin of the rulers and powers. That’s why the church’s primary allegiance is to God, not to any particular nation or politic.

That allegiance to God, first, frees us—the church—to speak truth to power and bring the good news to bear on all parts of society. We don’t sit idly by. We don’t silently accede while the rulers and powers do their work. We—the church—bring to bear the rich variety of God’s wisdom that is within us against those sinful official policies and authorized mandates of the rulers and powers.

This good news—God’s eternal plan that was once hidden but now revealed—is that there is equality between those who were formerly not seen as equals. In Ephesians, that means there is equality between Jew and Gentile. For us, today, how might that reorient our imaginations about the way things are?

There’s something inherently subversive to the gospel: the good news. The dominion of God is more than a little subversive in its inbreaking-activity in our world. It came in a new and powerful way as a baby born in Bethlehem. It was announced to the rulers and powers by Gentile Magi from the east. And those rulers and powers responded by slaughtering the children all around Bethlehem and sending the parents of Jesus fleeing for their lives into Egypt.

The rulers and powers are terrified of the gospel. Jesus Christ was more than a little subversive to the rulers and powers he faced, and those rulers and powers responded by killing him. Yet, God thwarted their intentions by raising Jesus from the dead.

The thing is, we—God’s church—have bold access to God through faith in Jesus Christ. The author of Ephesians tells us we can have confidence in this. We can speak truth and wisdom to the reigning disorder of those rulers and powers so that the world might be transformed by God’s grace. As the author of Ephesians reminds us, God created everything. One day, the rulers and powers will answer to God. Until then, we are servants who are called to distribute God’s grace, just as the author of Ephesians was.

Jesus Christ came to reveal God to all people, including those people who were once considered outside the bounds of God’s grace and care. That’s why we celebrate Epiphany: because God’s hidden plan has been made known. The oneness and inclusion which God intends for humanity is good news, and it will not be thwarted.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

God’s Glory | Proper 10

Ephesians 1:3-14

3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. 9 God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. 10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory. (CEB)

God’s Glory

The Book of Ephesians might not be the book to the Ephesians. The oldest Greek manuscripts of this book actually lack the words, “…in Ephesus” found in verse two. It’s possible that Ephesians was not originally written to the church at Ephesus. For one thing, there’s evidence in Ephesians that suggests it wasn’t written to that church. For example, Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” (1:15). But we know that Paul spent three years in Ephesus. He wouldn’t have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love, he would have seen and experienced it first-hand. (c.f. also Ephesians 4:21).

And, there are some possible references in other letters of Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16 CEB). This tells us that Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea, but we don’t have a letter of his that is addressed to that city. It’s possible that what we call Ephesians was originally his letter to the Laodiceans.

Either way, this letter eventually became associated with Ephesus. So, we call it Ephesians whether it was originally written to the Ephesian Christians or not.

So, that’s your little interesting tidbit regarding the history of the New Testament text. Whoever the original recipients of the letter might have been, they got a powerful letter.

Maybe the people Paul addressed in this letter had forgotten just how gracious and good God is. Maybe they had forgotten that God has a plan that includes everything in creation. Maybe they had forgotten that God is the grand designer and creator of this world, and God won’t let our shortcomings or failures get in the way of fulfilling everything God has intended to accomplish. Maybe they had forgotten that the story of salvation, itself, is God’s story. It’s about what God has done on our behalf. God is the main actor. We’re the ones for whom God acts, and we’re the ones who have been acted upon.

In this letter, Paul sets out to remind them—and us—about these things. First, we’re reminded that we have had an abundance of grace and blessings heaped upon us. Because of Jesus Christ, we have every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. In other places, Paul lists some of those blessings.

God has chosen us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. Paul asserts that this choosing was before the creation of the world and, if you recall that God’s original plan for creation was to have human beings living in perfect relationship with God, then this statement is a reminder that God hasn’t given up on that original plan. God made us for that purpose—to be holy and blameless in God’s presence—and even though we fell from that holiness through sin, God intends to make us holy again by restoring our holiness through Jesus Christ.

God made it, we broke it, God fixed it. Even though we turned away from God, rejecting God as our parent and the love of our lives, God still chooses us. God isn’t going to let us go. God chose to adopt us despite our rejection of God because, before the world was made, God designed us to be holy and blameless and to live as children in God’s household. That’s our purpose. That’s who we’re supposed to be. That’s the kind of relationship with God we’re supposed to have. And God isn’t about to let us not fulfill what we were created to be.

The idea that God destined—or predetermined—us to be adopted children is rooted in God’s original plan for us to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. In that sense, the word destined has little to do with the Calvinistic idea of predestination and everything to do with God’s unwavering action to accomplish that original plan for us. It isn’t about individuals, but the whole human race. We will belong to God again, one way or another, because God loves us. God will not let us go. In fact, God has worked around our sin and crushed it by sending Jesus Christ. Our salvation was God’s initiative, and God has done this because God loves us. Everything God has done for us has been for our good, which has always been God’s plan. God has nothing but goodwill toward us.

The problem is, we became captives to sin—and in some ways we still are. But we also have forgiveness for our failures because of God’s overflowing grace. The blood of Jesus Christ has ransomed us from that captivity to sin. Paul writes that God’s grace has been poured over us with wisdom and understanding, which means we have the God-given ability live into God’s plan for us. We can choose good over evil because of God’s grace. While the fullness of salvation is a future event, the effects of what Jesus has done for us are real, now. We can choose to love because of God’s grace. We can choose faithfulness to God and to each other because of God’s grace.

We have the example and teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal God and God’s design for our salvation to us. Again, the plan for our salvation was initiated by God because of God’s goodwill toward us. And God intended to accomplish the plan through Jesus Christ.

One way we can look at sin is as though it’s an infectious disease that we all contract simply by being conceived as a human being. The Greek words for saved and salvation, in their normal sense, mean healed and healing. Sin is the disease, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is the cure.

According to Paul, this plan of God’s is universal. “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph. 1:10 CEB). God’s great plan will come to its climax when all things are brought together in Christ.

All things, Paul writes. It’s reminiscent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all things to myself” (John 6:32, my trans). Jesus told us that in his crucifixion, he would drag us to himself. That word drag is not a soft word. It’s often translated into English as a softer word, such as draw. But it’s not a gentle word. Jesus is going to drag all things to himself. It might require some hog-tying, but Jesus isn’t going to be denied any little part of all things.

That word, all, which is πάντα in Greek, leaves no room for exclusion. There is nothing that exists outside of God’s power, and if God wants all things, then God’s gonna get all things. Some people become aware of our identity in Christ, others might not become aware of it in their earthly lifetime. But not being aware doesn’t mean that person isn’t equally loved, equally desired, equally precious, and equally hoped-for as a child of God. What Paul’s telling us is that getting all things together in Christ is exactly the climactic finale of God’s plan. All means all. And God will accomplish it.

That idea is pushed further by Paul’s mention of an inheritance in Christ. Once again, Paul says God destined us according to a plan. Again, that plan points back to God’s original intent for humanity in creation: that we should live in perfect relationship with God and stand in God’s presence as holy and blameless children. It isn’t that only a small number of people are predestined to salvation. That idea completely ignores the truth of God’s intent “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Galatians 1:10 CEB). God will accomplish everything according to God’s design, and God’s design includes all.

Those of us who are aware of our place in God’s design are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We, who hope in Christ and who know the good news of salvation in Christ as truth, are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit because we believed in Christ. In fact, Paul tells us that “The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:14 CEB).

This is to say that our inheritance is to become family with God. Our inheritance is to become a part of God’s household. Children inherit. Our inheritance is the very thing that was originally supposed to be ours—the thing for which God had destined us before the world began: that we would be God’s children, that we would be holy and blameless, that we would live in God’s presence.

The down payment of the Holy Spirit is for our sake. It’s meant to reassure us that God is taking care of things, that God’s plan for the human race and for all things will, indeed, be accomplished. Our redemption by Christ, and our living as redeemed people, results in the honor of God’s glory.

If we want to honor God’s glory, if we want to glorify the God of our redemption and salvation, then we live as redeemed people. We love as those who know the love of God so deeply that we can’t do anything else but love others as we have been loved. As children of God, we have a purpose and a call.

The fullness of salvation, which is life with God as a family, is a future reality. But it’s when we begin to live that way, now, as people who live and love as Christ lived and loved, that we bring glory to the God of our salvation. It’s then that we bring honor to God for the grace and blessings we’ve received.

We’ve been given the grace to do so. What remains for us is to choose how we’re going to live in the light of that grace, and in the light of those blessings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay