Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
As many churches will do this Epiphany Sunday, my last church often celebrated the Epiphany of our Lord with a careful study of the story of the Magi in Matthew 2. Guided by that singular star in the western sky, those 3 wise men from the East represented the nations of the world coming to see the manifestation of God’s glory in a little child. We often concluded our Epiphany service with a commitment to carry the light of his glory into the world, symbolized by holding candles high and singing “This Little Light of Mine.” The simple beauty of that candlelight service never failed to move me.
Our reading from Ephesians today takes the Epiphany of our Lord to a whole new level. Here we have not a single star and a few wandering human beings and “This Little Light of Mine.” Here we are pointed to the entire star studded sky, the whole universe, filled with rank upon rank of heavenly beings, gazing in wonder at the great mystery of Christ. And our ears are filled with the majesty of a full orchestra accompanying a thousand voice choir as they thunder, “O Light Everlasting.” Ephesians shows us Epiphany on a cosmic scale, as the mystery is “made known,” “revealed,” “made plain” not only to the Gentiles, but also “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In this letter to the Ephesians, Paul was not addressing a knotty problem as he was in Galatians or a fractious church as he was in I Corinthians. When he wrote to the Ephesians, his intention was to expand their horizons and evoke a sense of awe. He does this by explaining the wisdom and forethought, the purpose and plan of God on a grand scale, larger than planet earth and human history, transcending space and time. So he opens with that great doxological sentence of 1:3-10, which concludes with a revelation of the mystery of God great plan “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Our text for Epiphany is part of Paul’s explanation of that great mystery, the third step, in fact, of that mysterious plan. An Epiphany sermon based on this text should explore that whole concept of the mystery of Christ.
We’ve just celebrated the “Magnum Mysterium” of the Incarnation, but that was just the beginning of the mystery of Christ. The word mystery is found 28 times in our New Testaments, a strong suggestion that mystery is at the center of the Christian faith. In his provocative new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat shows how heresy always springs from the desire to simplify the mystery. “What… distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy… is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mystery abides at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God surpasses all our understanding.”
“Thus orthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament’s God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that find room in God’s kingdom for all extremes of human life—fecund families and single minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.”
“Time and again, in the early centuries Anno Domini, the councils of the Church had the opportunity to resolve the dilemmas and shore up the fragile synthesis—to streamline Christianity, rationalize it, minimize the paradoxes and the difficulties, make it more consistent and less mysterious. They could have joined the movement called Gnosticism in attempting to minimize the problem of theodicy—of how a good God can allow evil to endure—by simply declaring this pain-filled world the work of a foolish or wicked demigod, and portraying Jesus as an emissary from a more perfect deity than the one who made our wounded earth. They could have fallen in line behind the second-century theologian Marcion’s perfectly reasonable attempt to resolve the tensions between the Gospels and the Hebrew Scriptures by abandoning Christianity’s Jewish roots entirely. They could have listened to the earnest British theologian Pelagius instead of Saint Augustine, and replaced the mysteries of grace and original sin with the more commonsensical vision of a God whose commandments can be obeyed through straightforward exertion.”
In that long quote Douthat uses the word mystery in several senses, ranging from that which is merely hard to understand to that which we cannot finally understand. The latter sense is very popular in Christian circles today, leading to a kind of Christian agnosticism that scoffs at the whole idea of certainty and assurance in matters of faith. While it is certainly true that we cannot fully comprehend an infinite God, Paul does not use the word mystery in that sense here in Ephesians. Mystery doesn’t mean utterly unknowable; it means unknowable by human means. It refers to that which was hidden in God and thus inaccessible to human investigation, but is now revealed by God, not only to a few elite (as in the ancient mystery religions), but to all believers. The mystery of Christ of which Paul speaks cannot be discovered by Sherlock Holmes, but it has now been revealed by the Holy Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.
What is this mystery? There is much that is mysterious about Christ; what specifically is Paul talking about here– his incarnation (O, Magnum Mysterium), his death (I Cor. 2:1), our resurrection through his resurrection ( I Cor. 15). In Colossians 1:26 and 27, a passage that sounds very like our text in Ephesians, the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So, is Paul talking about the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, Atonement, Indwelling?
No, he is talking about something even bigger—not just a baby, or a cross, or the Holy Spirit, but the universe. Or, more accurately, he is talking about how God will use that baby and that cross and that Spirit to reunite a fallen and fractured universe. Paul has already explained how God has brought sinners back to himself by his grace in Christ (2:1-10). Then he showed how God has brought warring humanity (Jew and Gentile) back together by his grace in Christ (2:11-22). Now he delves deeper into that union of humanity in Christ. This is the “mystery of Christ” of Ephesians 3:6, “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.” The mystery, in a word, is the “church” (verse 10) composed of Jew and Gentiles in full equality.
That’s the mystery hidden for ages in God. Oh, God had revealed that the nations of the world would be blessed through Israel (Genesis 12:3). And he had revealed that the nations would come to the God of Israel. So it was not a huge epiphany when the Magi came to worship the promised Jewish Christ. What was totally unexpected was the complete inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant with all its blessings. They wouldn’t be junior members, members by exception, members who could worship in the court of the Gentiles but not in the places reserved for the real Chosen People. No, in Christ Jesus, the Gentiles would be completely equal to Jews in the family of God.
Paul communicates this with three words beginning with the Greek prefix sum, translated together in the NIV. In God’s plan for the world, there is no longer a nation called Israel with whom God deals in a special way, into which Gentiles might be adopted as ugly stepchildren. No, now there is a new body, the church, in which even the deepest and most ancient of all divisions are united in Christ. In God’s house there are no “boarders” or “squatters,” only beloved children.
In the church, the great unification project of God (announced in Ephesians 1:9 and 10) is revealed to the world. But not just to the world! Here’s the surprise of our text, the surprise of Epiphany. The church reveals God’s plan (like a sneak peek, a preview, a movie trailer), not just to a waiting world, but to a waiting cosmos, to the “heavenly realms.”
What on earth, what in heaven, can that mean? Most scholars take Paul’s words about “rulers and authorities” in verse 10 to be a reference to angels. That seems to be the way Paul uses the same terms in 1:21 and 6:12. In I Peter 1:12 the apostle says that “even angels long to look into these things.” So perhaps Paul is painting a picture here of the angel hosts, whether good or evil, peering over the edge of eternity or hovering in the air all around us, watching the drama of redemption being played out in human space and time. As finite created beings, they don’t know everything. Particularly the evil angels will have a jaundiced view of what their Divine Enemy is up to. In the birth and growth and continued existence of the Church, the angels have an Epiphany of “the manifold wisdom of God (verse 10)” that will unite all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ.
That’s what most scholars think, and that’s a marvelous picture. But let’s speculate a bit further about this mystery. What if Paul is talking here about human beings who have been transformed into rulers and authorities in the heavenly places? I mean, remember how Jesus answered his disciples’ question about what would come to them after they had forsaken all for him? “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matt. 19:28) And doesn’t Rev. 4:4 say that there are 24 thrones around the throne of God in heaven? That makes me think of the Narnia Chronicles in which the children are royalty in Narnia. Picture the departed saints leaning over the edge of eternity. All their lives they wondered at the mystery of God’s will in their lives and in the world. What on earth is God doing? Now, glorified in heaven, sitting on their thrones, these royal ones get an Epiphany of God’s manifold wisdom by seeing the multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic church.
Or, take this a step further, as C.S. Lewis did in his space trilogy. Undoubtedly using our text in Ephesians as his launching pad, Lewis imagines that the universe is full of sentient beings who are watching the drama of redemption on planet earth. In the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, a man named Ransom takes a rocket ship to Malacandra, which is what its inhabitants call Mars. There are three kinds of sentient creatures on Malacandra, none of whom has fallen into sin. But they know that earth has, and they know that Eldil (God) has set out to redeem that planet. Now, they are watching with bated breath to see how God’s plan will work out. Lewis gives an unexpected, but not entirely warrantless interpretation of Ephesians 3:10. That is Epiphany in outer space, a truly cosmic take on the journey of the Magi.
Whatever Paul meant by “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” his overall intention is clear. He wants us to understand that in Jesus Christ something big happened, something bigger than a moment in time and a place on earth. What happened in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was “according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And God’s great plan fulfilled in Christ Jesus our Lord has a very practical result, says Paul in verse 13. “In him and through faith in him, we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” The mystery of Epiphany gives us permission to pray, not just with fear and trembling, but with freedom and boldness. “O Magnum Mysterium!”
A more modern and more shocking take on the relationship between Christianity and outer space is presented by Maria Doria Russell in her two books, The Sparrow and Children of Men. The first one ends with such horror that it has rocked the faith of many readers, while the second resolves the horror of the first in a way that enables some readers to hear “the music of the spheres.”
Here’s the premise of the two books. A group of Catholic scientists decide to launch a space probe in response to a message from outer space. Russell writes, “The theological rationale for this mission had been worked out decades before there was any evidence of other thinking species in the universe. Now there was proof. God has other children. We have to know them. They went to know and love God’s other children. They went for the greater glory of God.”
In this age of renewed exploration of Mars and deep space probes, many people wonder how the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would affect the Christian faith. Both Lewis and Russell suggest that such a discovery shouldn’t do anything to the Christian faith, except show us that God’s plan is larger than us and the earth. Ephesians 3 gives us a little room to imagine that God intends the existence of the church to be an epiphany of God’s glory to inhabitants of the heavenly realms, whoever they may be. This gives fresh meaning to the thread worn chorus, “Our God is an awesome God, he reigns in heaven above….”
As a way of getting people to think into the concept of mystery, I would refer to all the TV shows that focus on solving the mystery, usually about murder. “CSI” and “Elementary” do a terrific job of depicting the details of careful investigation of the crime scene, exacting analysis of evidence, critical thinking about alternative explanations of the crime, and a well reasoned conclusion about the solution to the mystery. Human effort is usually able to solve the mystery.
Paul’s point is that the mystery of Christ is accessible to us through divine revelation by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and prophets. Apart from that revelation, the agnostics are right. We don’t know, and we can’t. But because of such revelation, the agnostics are wrong. We do know. But such knowledge should be the source not of arrogance, but of awe that leads to humble but bold prayer.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Ephesians 3:1-12 Commentary