January 5, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church
Sometimes when I am looking for an entry point into a passage of scripture I look for which words are repeated. In our Epistle reading from Ephesians the word of the day, if you will, was undoubtedly “mystery,” repeated four times within our passage.
Now when I think of mysteries, I primarily think of them as a literary genre or type of movie. Something solved by Sherlock Holmes in an English countryside, Veronica Mars in Neptune, California, or Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove, Maine. Often in these contexts mysteries are essentially questions, especially “whodunnit?” that end up having one clear answer or explanation. Colonel Mustard in the Ballroom with the wrench, something like that.
But that is not what Paul means when he uses it in this passage. The way he frames it is more as something that has been revealed that was not known previously. In a way it works in the opposite direction of mysteries as a genre, first God reveals something and then prophecy is referenced to see if it lines up. It’s not that prophecy wasn’t pointing to a more expansive kingdom of God, but that it was simply more than the contemporaries of the prophets could’ve fathomed or thought to look for.
Augsburg University professor, Jennifer V. Pietz frames it in this way:
“The assertion that this mystery was unknown to previous generations (verses 5, 9) raises the question of whether or not the Old Testament prophets, whose words Christians interpret as pointing to Christ, had any understanding of the mystery. Some interpreters assert that the “as” (os) that begins the second part of Ephesians 3:5 signals a comparison, meaning that the mystery was not made known to previous generations to the full extent that it has now been revealed. Others think that Paul is in fact claiming that earlier prophets did not envision God uniting Jews and Gentiles in Christ in the way that Ephesians describes, even though doing so was part of God’s eternal purpose (verse 11). In either view, Ephesians 3:1-12 is clear that the decisive revelation of this mystery is occurring now (verses 5, 10).” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4347)
Just reading this text with a modern lens could lead us to believe that Paul was just musing to himself on these sorts of things. That his understanding of God’s promises for humankind were simply that, his understanding. But what he is claiming is that the mystery of God’s design of unification and reconciliation must be from God by the Holy Spirit because it is beyond what the human brain could come up on it’s own.
Today is Epiphany Sunday, most closely tied to the narrative of the Wisemen’s arrival after the birth of Jesus and the revelation of Jesus as the expected messiah. If “mystery” is the word that Paul uses to frame the question, then “epiphany” is the answer. Jesus is the epiphany to the mystery of how God will redeem humanity. And radical inclusion of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, is the epiphany to the mystery of who are included in the humanity to be redeemed.
This has major implications for Christians of every time. It means that all people are able to receive the grace and redemption offered by Christ’s resurrection. And if all are able to inherit Christ’s redemption then all are to be invited to claim their place as known and beloved by God.
It reminds me of a blessing that my seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson pronounced at the end of each class. The ending of it goes something like this:
“May joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.”
The part that came to mind especially with this week’s text is the line about light guiding others “whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent.” This is the truth that seems to stop Paul in his tracks, that God’s invitation is so much larger than what the prophets could’ve imagined.
And while this epiphany of God’s expansive inclusion is incredible in its enormity it’s also incredible in its specificity. Because it is for everyone, that means it is for every one. Whoever you’re thinking of right this moment, it’s for them. And that other person who you might think beyond saving, them too. And you in the midst of the worst thing you’ve ever done? You too.
It really means something that this message comes to us in the person of Paul. After all, we are first introduced to Paul as a man known as Saul, a persecutor of Christians. The first few verses about him in scripture in Acts 8 he is introduced approving of the death of Christ’s followers and then “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [and] committed them to prison.” The fact that it is this man that becomes such a voice for the church is honestly rather staggering. Redemption for him, really? Co-inheritor of heaven with Christ? Him?
For Paul, receiving this epiphany that he too was able to be redeemed, wasn’t just some abstract reality, but genuine Good News. God was able to use him, all of who he was to revolutionize the church, spreading the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection far and wide, both in this time and also in ours.
Presbyterian Pastor Michelle Wahila explains it in this way:
“Like Paul we are planted in a particular place and time with a particular holy purpose. Don’t be afraid to claim your story and who you are. You can say, “this is me: brave, bruised, but who I am meant to be.”
Paul’s testimony was that “God’s grace was sufficient.” Our God is the God who answers our failings with affirmations. Jesus whispers to you: I know your imperfections. I know you who are, but do you know who I am?
On your very worst day, when you think your story is finished, Jesus calls you beloved. If you aren’t hearing this, you aren’t hearing Jesus. He chose you before creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love, he claims you.” (https://upcendicott.org/sermons/2018/8/19/merry-christmas)
What a mystery, what a revelation, what an epiphany! Thanks be to God. Amen.