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.
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