(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday 2014)
January 6 is the Christian “mystery date”; it is the date that we celebrate the uncovering of the great mystery to which Paul refers in our text: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6). The great mystery that had been hidden away in God’s heart and that was revealed only in the coming of Christ Jesus was that Jews—who had been regarded as God’s chosen people—and Gentiles—who had not been so regarded—were in fact all God’s people through the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.
The mystery that was revealed was that Jesus came to draw both Jews and Gentiles into God’s family. And, since in the first century way of looking at things there were only two kinds of people, namely, Jews and Gentiles, the mystery that was revealed was that Jesus came to make a way for all people to be in God’s family.
So what do the Wise Men have to do with the revelation of the mystery? Well, the Wise Men were Gentiles; they were learned astrologers who most likely came from Persia. Even though they were “outsiders”—that is, supposedly outside the promises of God—God revealed to them through the star where the Christ child had been born and by the light of that same star led them to him. The Wise Men recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah but it was God who drew them—who called them—to the Christ Child.
The fact that Gentiles are part of the family of God is old news to us; we are all Gentiles and we are the heirs of a 2000-year-old tradition of Gentile Christianity. Back in Paul’s day, though, the inclusion of Gentiles was still a new development and it was for many people a troubling one. This whole “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9) business was still radical.
Who are we kidding? It is still radical. We still tend to think that to be one of God’s people—to be part of our family—you need to look certain ways and to be certain ways. We still—some of us despite our best efforts to change and others of us because we make little effort to change—remain very narrow and limited in the ways we view the identities of our sisters and brothers in Christ or of our potential sisters and brothers in Christ.
But let’s not kid ourselves over the possibility that we can change, either. Think of the Apostle Paul. He started out as a man so committed to protecting the religion in which he had grown up and in which he had been trained that he was willing and even eager to participate in the arrest and execution of the members—Jewish members, mind you—of the new Christian sect that had arisen since the resurrection of Jesus. Following the vision of the resurrected Christ that he experienced as he traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians, though, his heart was changed in regard to the people who made up the Church and when his heart was changed his mind followed. As he progressed in his understanding, he came to the realization that salvation in Christ was for everybody; he was not only tolerant of the inclusion of Gentiles but rather became an enthusiastic advocate for their inclusion. He did not cross his arms and say, “Well, if we must take them, we must take them”; instead, he threw his arms wide open and said, “Come in, my friends.” And to those in the church who did not want them, he advocated for God’s way over their way.
A young man named William Wilberforce was elected to the British Parliament in 1780. After a few years of being interested in nothing but self-promotion and a period of reflection on his life, Wilberforce experienced a spiritual rebirth. Soon, he became committed to ending the slave trade in the British Empire. He and his allies introduced bills to ban the slave trade in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805, all of which were defeated. After much sacrifice and after enduring many personal attacks, Wilberforce finally saw his bill passed in 1807. His Christian faith changed the way that he viewed people who were different than he was and it caused him to do whatever he could to end oppression against them. The grace of God changed his heart, his mind, and his actions (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/activists/wilberforce.html?start=1).
Wilberforce had a great gift to offer and he offered it. We have a great gift to offer, too: full inclusion in the family of God with no respect of persons. God will change our hearts so that we will offer it gladly.
On Thanksgiving morning as we were driving to Yatesville to be with the Ruffin clan we pulled off at a truck stop to get gas. While I was pumping the fuel, Debra headed into the store to get us something to drink. A man guided a golf cart up to her and a little blond-haired four or five-year-old girl hopped out and said to Debra, “You’re invited to join us at the Trucker’s Chapel for a delicious home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner!” Then she threw her arms wide open and exclaimed, “And it’s free for everybody!” We had a great dinner waiting for us but her enthusiasm made us want to stay.
How are our hearts? How are our minds? What do our actions say?
What if we lived lives that said, “You’re invited to join us in the family of God. And it’s free for everybody!”?