Demonstrating Grace

Scripture: Luke 4:14-21

Intro: Translation & Context

Translation matters.

In case you need a reminder, the bible was not written in English—neither that of King Jimmy, nor that of your uncle Jimmy. It was written in ancient Hebrew and Greek (and some Aramaic), and even these ancient languages are quite distant from their modern counterparts. Some of you may recall encountering Beowulf in a high school English class and discovering that Old English might as well be a different language entirely—which, in some ways, it is. The same goes for these ancient versions of more modern languages.

All that means that the bible that most of us read on a daily (or occasional) basis has undergone translation in order to get it into a form that is accessible to us. 

Translation is, of course, of great benefit in that it gets the bible into the hands of everyone who can read. But with translation comes interpretation—it simply cannot be helped. And here at the start of our scripture reading, I can’t help but think that the translators may have lost something important—or at least: they did not choose to make something important stand out.

Jesus’ Pentecost

You see, when Luke speaks of Jesus and the Spirit in the opening verse of our scripture lesson (slide with multiple translations), he builds on a movement in Jesus’ life that he has been underscoring since Jesus’ beginning. 

At the onset of Jesus’ ministry, he has what we might call a Pentecost moment. In Luke’s second volume (which we call “The Acts of the Apostles”), Luke will talk about the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church. The Spirit rushed among them like “a violent wind” (Acts 2:2 NRSV), and “rested on each of them” (v.3). Luke then tells us that the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit” (v.4), and that everything that follows is because of this abiding presence of the Spirit. 

Of course, Jesus told them before he left that with the presence of the Spirit comes power (Acts 1:8), and Acts tells the story of how this power is wielded by the early church to great effect (cf. Acts 8 & Simon, which we discussed the last two weeks).

All of this Pentecost and Spirit-power stuff is paralleled in the life of Jesus himself. Back in Luke chapter 3, Jesus submits to the waters of baptism. And just as in the Pentecost story later on, the Spirit “descends upon him” (Luke 3:22 NRSV). 

The result of this is that the first verse of chapter 4 describes Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit,” a status that Jesus did not previously have—but one that is desperately needed to face the difficult physical, emotional, and spiritual temptations and trials that characterize that first part of chapter 4. 

So then—continuing to parallel the Pentecost story (or perhaps that story parallels this one?)—our scripture lesson begins by referencing that now—NOW, after baptism, after the coming of the Spirit, and after a time of testing—now Jesus is described as being “in the power of the Spirit” (NIV; KJV) or being “filled with the power of the Spirit” (NRSV).

Jesus Needs This Spirit-Power

Hereupon lies the challenge of translation. What might be most literal here is not all that accurate—not in terms of what Luke is trying to communicate. Because what Luke insists upon is that Jesus—in the fullness of his humanity—is only able to do what he does and be who he is because of power of the Spirit that is with him.

The incarnate Jesus does not have endless reserves of magical strength.

He is not able to do anything apart from God.

I realize this sounds like Pastor Michael went all radical and rogue again, but this is exactly what Jesus says about himself in John 5:19:

“Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 NRSV)

The Rhythm

When we read the gospel story of Jesus’ life, a certain rhythm emerges. It’s almost like a dance, really. Engagement and retreat. Engagement and retreat.

Jesus goes from baptism to retreat in the wilderness where he faces temptation.

This wilderness time is followed (Luke 4:14-15) by a time of teaching, including (further in our scripture text) the proclamation in the synagogue of Nazareth of the kind of ministry he would be carrying out—back to the engagement of service and active ministry.

As Luke 4 comes to a close, after a number of healings and other wieldings of Kingdom power, Jesus “departed and went into a deserted place” (Luke 4:42 NRSV)——withdrawing to reconnect and refill.

After calling the first disciples and performing more healings and teachings, Jesus retreated again. In fact, the way Luke 5:16 is worded in Greek, it communicates that this retreating was a habitual pattern in his life.

The pattern continues throughout Luke’s gospel, but it is apparent in the other gospels as well. Early in Mark’s account, we read that “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35 NRSV). It seems that Mark intends us to see this as a daily pattern in Jesus’ life.

The Spirt Tank

All signs in scripture suggest this to be the rhythm by which Jesus lived his extraordinary-yet-ordinary life—empty self in service, and retreat to refill…… dispense the kingdom power, and reconnect with it. 

Author Gary Chapman has popularized the image of a “love tank” in his books on marriage relationships. For those who might be unfamiliar, Chapman encourages us to imagine we have something like a fuel tank that is filled when we experience love. Similarly,this “love tank” gets emptied through our expressions of love and our encounters in life.

Jesus’ life rhythm communicates very clearly to us that we have a “Spirit tank” that operates much the same way. When we dip into God’s kingdom power and God’s joyful presence, this “Spirit tank” is filled. When we do the kinds of things that Jesus taught—love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, care for those most vulnerable, and so on—when we do these things, we expend that Spirit-power that we obtained from God’s heavenly kingdom. 

Just. like. Jesus.

The gospels are clear that Jesus routinely returned to the deep well of the Kingdom to refill and reorient to God’s ways. Yet it seems so few of Christ’s followers believe they require such help. And those who do see the necessity of this rhythm too often do not really know how to access the living waters of the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Demonstrating Grace

But don’t be deceived into thinking of this only in terms of the BIG THINGS that Jesus does—the healings, the miracles, etc. Jesus is sustained and enabled by this power to live out the more mundane (but just as challenging!) dimensions of the life of faith.

Take our scripture lesson, for instance. In v.22 we see that what amazes people is not some impressive and unexplainable embodiment of Kingdom power, but rather Jesus’ “gracious words.”

Forgive me if this seems pedantic, but the definition of “gracious” is “showing grace” or “demonstrating grace.” Jesus speech demonstrated grace—and this was a cause of amazement.

 

For this reason alone, I believe this is a text is one worth going back to again and again. We ourselves (as you well know) live a world where discourse is rarely civil. Speech that is far from gracious permeates our political climate, our social engagements, our youth culture, our news media, and virtually every other avenue of life. We have built a world that is fermenting in hate, and then we act surprised at the obvious result.

To utilize speech that demonstrates grace is as shocking today as it was back in Jesus’ day.

The Tongue

The scriptures often speak of the tongue (symbolizing speech) and its destructive capabilities. A few (of many possible) examples:

Speaking of those who harm him, the psalmist says that his enemies “whet their tongues like swords” and “aim bitter words like arrows.” (Psalm 64:3 NRSV)

The proverbs perhaps offer us more material to work with here than anywhere else. Proverbs 18:21, for instance, insists that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:21 NRSV)

Of course (and as you would expect) the New Testament picks up this theme as well. Jesus in Matthew 5 reminds us that we can murder people with our words (vv.21-22).

But it is James, however, that perhaps offers the strongest caution (and condemnation) of the dangers of un-gracious speech. In the first chapter of that work, he says:

“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26 NRSV)

Later in chapter 3, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, which (despite its diminutive size) manages to steer the whole ship. He says: 

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:5–10 NRSV)

Back to the Fount

“This ought not to be so.”

Here is where we come back to the Luke 4 text and the rhythm of Jesus’ life: We must recognize that cannot do this all by ourselves. 

Our lives as followers of Jesus—as disciples learning to live under his rule and in his Kingdom—our lives are to demonstrate grace analogous to how Jesus himself demonstrated grace. 

But even Jesus could not do this under his own power. 

Even Jesus needed to regularly refill his Spirit tank in order to conduct himself with grace and compassion. 

Even Jesus needed to access that Kingdom-power that enabled him to submit his rule to that of the Father—to trust (in the end) that God’s ways really are better than our own.

If Jesus could not “be Jesus” to the world without God’s help, how do we dare expect to be able to confront hate with love, to embody peace amidst violence, to “cast out fear,” or any of the multitudinous other things that Jesus is about: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and announcing the present reign of God (to name a few).

 

No one can love their enemy without relying solely on the power of the Kingdom.

No one.

 

To simply try harder and expect success is to fall into the trap of the Pharisees.

They are the ones Jesus is critiquing in John 6:63 when he says “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63 NRSV).

The flesh is useless; trying harder on your own won’t get you anywhere.

But the Spirit gives life—transforming and enabling new and otherwise impossible possibilities for life—real life—both now and in the great Beyond.

Because the kingdom of the heavens is at hand. It is now already accessible. The power that enabled and fueled Jesus’ own life and ministry is available even (and already) to you and I today. 

We need only to submit to Jesus’ rule in order to discover how truly wonderful those words of life really are……and how deeply they matter for the real life of the here and now.

The Irony of Simon Magnus

Scripture: Psalm 36:5-10

Simon Magnus

This reading from the Psalms is a kind of response to last week’s story, even though it chronologically precedes it. I get a sense that it sort of logically follows the story of the Samaritan mission, and particularly the story around Simon Magnus (that we discussed last week). We might (perhaps) even imagine that this psalm was used by the apostles as part of their response to and correction of Simon’s misguided desires. 

To remind you, the Samaritan mission of the early church is recorded in Acts 8. There’s been a crackdown on the Jesus movement, and many of the apostles are forced to flee their homes and community and seek refuge among both neighboring- (and further flung) nations and cultures. And as much because they can’t help it as anything else, all along the way they proclaim this amazing, life-changing, reality-affecting, deeply present reality of the Kingdom of God.

Philip (as one example) ends up in Samaria, where many are attracted to this genuinely good news. There are all sorts of healings and miraculous signs that demonstrate the reality and power of Christ’s present kingdom. But the Spirit does not come upon them the way it did in Jerusalem.

So up come Peter and John to help sort this out. With them present, and for reasons not fully explained in the text, the Spirit then moves further among the Samaritan church in yet again a powerful and undeniable way.

One of those Samaritans was called Simon Magnus, and he was what we might today call a magician. For some time he had worked wonders that impressed and amazed. But when Philip came to town, Simon too became convinced of the reality of Jesus and this Kingdom life, and even he experienced the transforming love of God. 

But he was soooo impressed by this transformation that the presence of the Spirit wrought in their midst, that he sought to wield this amazing power himself. He tried to buy it as if it were some kind of commodity, and was resoundingly rebuked for falling into such temptation. The story ends with Simon’s repentance, but it leaves us wondering how Paul Harvey would tell the rest of the story.

Psalm 36

Psalm 36 exposes the irony implicit in Simon’s story—the irony that he sought to purchase what is, in fact, fully and freely available to all.

“Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O LORD. 

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” (Psalm 36:5–7 NRSV)

Who is it that is able to experience these amazing qualities of God and incredible consequences of life in Him?…… “All people”

But I think it is important that the psalm clarifies “all people may“…… “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”

It does not say all people do……

It does not say all people must……

It says all people may…… Because: The possibility is there for all; but all must accept it.

You see, God is a god who creates possibility, not one who forces through compulsion.

Choices

One of the mysteries of the Christian faith is that the kind of realm God wants to create can only……only……come into being through free choice and volunteered love and loyalty. As incredible, overwhelming, and powerful as is the love of God, it is somehow restrained in such a way that leaves room for our own freely made choices—including the choices to accept God’s rule or to reject it.

In Psalm 36, like in so many other wisdom texts, a polarization of these two choices is offered:

One can choose to take refuge in God—as indicated in v.7—or else one rejects that refuge and becomes vulnerable to a host of threats.

One can choose to feast at God’s table (v.8a)—or one’s choice will lead to all sorts of famine in life.

One can choose to drink from the overwhelming plenty of the Living Water (v.8b)—or one remains susceptible to drought and a dry, desert life. 

One can choose to side with the “fountain of life” (v.9a)—or else choose death.

With God there is light (v.9b)—and without we remain in darkness.

 

And to that point, I find the expression here remarkable: “In your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9b NRSV). We don’t even really know what light is without God’s graceful empowerment. 

Author Dallas Willard illustrates this with the image of flying an airplane. There was a news story he encountered wherein a jet pilot was practicing maneuvers and accidentally flew straight into the ground—unaware that she had been flying upside down. Reflecting on this, he says:

“This is a parable of human existence in our times—not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that—but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right side up.” (Divine Conspiracy, 2)

“In your light we see light.” In God, we discover which way is up, and thereby are enabled to truly live and thrive.

Wrap Up

As our scripture reading comes to a conclusion, we are offered an important reminder. You see, rather than expect all these blessings because we think we deserve them as “Christians,” or expect them because “that’s just who God is,” verse 10 encourages us to continue to reach for them…… to reach into them.

The Kingdom of God is not yet fulfilled, but it is already here; it is already available. That is Jesus’ message; and that is what Philip, Peter, and John lived out. That is what the Samaritans were learning, and that is what Simon missed. 

So where are we in the story? Where are we in the psalm? The answer to those questions may well be a matter of life and death.

Buying into the Kingdom of God

Scripture: Acts 8:14-17

Samaritans

The book of Acts tells the story of the expanding Christianity community, focusing particularly on the ways the Spirit of God makes available the Kingdom of God to peoples and places that were believed to be excluded from it.

Our reading this morning comes in the middle of a larger section devoted to how the Spirit and the Kingdom are available to those in Samaria—to the Samaritans. ……and yes, we are talking about those Samaritans, the ones referenced in that parable of Jesus we call “the Good Samaritan.”

You see, Jesus didn’t just use a Samaritan as a convenient motif. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were the epitome of the “other.” They were disqualified from worship, from religion, from leadership…… you get my drift. That Jesus chose such a person to demonstrate the epitome of godly life and love was radical enough to sign his death warrant. But it was also prophetic, in a sense.

At the very beginning of the book of Acts, as the author (Luke) records Jesus’ parting words to his followers, Jesus verbalizes their task. He says:

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRSV)

In Jerusalem…… in all Judea and Samaria…… and to the ends of the earth……

“In Jerusalem,” as those early chapters of Acts describe—the Spirit descending on the church of Jerusalem at Pentecost, and it’s rapidly expanding influence.

“In Judea and Samaria,” as the early church is scattered by the persecution that rises up against them…… That’s where Acts 8 begins. The day of Stephen’s martyrdom coincided with a rise in violence against Christians, for (as we know) one outburst of violence can embolden those looking for a reason to explode. By the time we get to v.4 of Acts 8, we learn that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (NRSV).

“In Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” “To the ends of the earth” is the final part of the story of Acts. It will coincide with the ministry of Paul the apostle, as his missionary journeys and his legal troubles take him all to the way to the capital of the world: Rome.

This Samaritan portion of the story of Acts is fascinating in itself, especially because of the inclusion of one Simon Magnus, sometimes called Simon the Great or Simon the Magician.

Simon Magnus

There’s a wealth of fascinating legend about Simon, but we’re going to concern ourselves exclusively with the actual biblical story recorded here. So let’s read around today’s scripture lesson:

“Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:5–8 NRSV)

So here the Samaritan mission begins. Philip, like many other leaders of the Jerusalem Church, is forced by the rising tide of violence to get out of Dodge for a while. He ends up in Samaria (here presumably the capital city) and he preaches the availability of the Kingdom to them. Drawing from its power, Philip and the people witness incredible things—impressive things—entertaining things—but also things that made a real difference in the real life of those who were discounted by society: those seeming to be possessed by demons, the physically disabled, the mentally ill, and so on. It was they who received the Kingdom of God with such power. And the response was widespread joy.

Enter Simon:

“Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.” (Acts 8:9–11 NRSV)

Simon had a history in Samaria before Philip came to town. 

He was the one who seemed to perform deeds of power that amazed and entertained.

He was the one to whom all ears bent, from the greatest to the least. 

He was the one who was heralded as “the great.” 

“But when they believed Philip”…..

“who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.” (Acts 8:12–13 NRSV)

No longer was Simon the only game in town. Many were convinced of Jesus and his Kingdom. In fact, even Simon was convinced. And since he and Philip seemed both to share the trade of miracle-workers, it may have been inevitable for Simon to attach himself to this apostle. Which further gives some “oompf” what was happening there, because even Simon—who himself worked what others called “miracles”—was amazed at what he witnessed.

 

So here come Peter and John in our scripture lesson, sent by the regional office to see for themselves how true the reports might be of this Samaritan mission and its success—or maybe to help out, somehow. You see, the Samaritans have been baptized, but the Spirit has not yet come upon them. 

Luke does not tell us more about this curiosity, though we keep trying to wring certainty out of this dry towel. In the New Testament stories, sometimes spirit-baptism precedes water-baptism, sometimes it follows; sometimes it all happens at the same time. 

Where we want things to be consistent and clear, we find only more ambiguity about “how it works.” It almost seems as though this is one more example of how God is not restricted to acting in the ways we expect.

For Simon, however, this spirit-baptism received through Peter and John seems a whole new level of miracle-working, and one that the Enemy uses to renew his desire for vainglory. Continuing to read: 

“Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ 

But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.’ 

Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.'” (Acts 8:18–24 NRSV)

As far as the biblical saga is concerned, this is the end of the tale of Simon. He, a believer in Jesus, has fallen into temptation, has been called to account by the leader present, and has offered what sounds like genuine repentance. But we don’t know what happens next…… because that’s not part of the story that Acts is telling us.

Commodification

The story of Simon is a story of grace. But in order to be a story of grace, it has to be a story of failing. As Paul reflected in Romans 5:20: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (NRSV).

In some ways, we might easily gloss over Simon’s story. I mean: Can you think of anyone else who’s literally tried to buy the power of God with money? I struggle to find so blatant an example.

I do know, however…… that for a small fee you can buy an ordination certificate online that gives you legal authority (in some states) to marry and bury, and to present yourself at hospitals and public meetings as a bonafide clergy person. And that does feel kind of similar.

And when we start picking at this, a lot more starts coming out. 

I’ve also known an individual who confided in me that he hoped he tithed enough to get into heaven—and he was not joking.

I know another person intimately, who was directly told by a pastor that if she gave enough money to the church her mother wouldn’t die. She cashed out their life savings. Her mother still died.

You see, what Simon essentially falls into here is a kind of commodifying of God and God’s action. He treats this limitless force and Divine Being as though they were a pack of gum to be purchased at the supermarket. God here gets objectified in a most disturbing way. 

And when we start thinking in these terms, then the story of Simon starts to hit a little too close for comfort. 

Christian Consumption

The consumption of Christian commodities is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. 

T-shirts. Jewelry. Music. Movies. Fiction. Candy. School curriculum. Video games. Recipe books. Internet service providers. Guitar strap manufacturers. Travel agencies. Online streaming services. Self-help books. Candle companies. Exercise videos.

The list goes on and on.

Anything that exists, it seems there is now a “Christian” version of it.

 And maybe most of this stuff is innocent, really…… as long as we remind ourself that (first) these things exist to make someone money. And (second) as long as we’re ok paying more money for a lower quality item, which is too often the case. 

But in some circles, these things are as central to the identity of “Christians” as the notions of baptism and communion.

If you’re not wearing those t-shirts…….

Or if you haven’t seen that movie……

Or if you play secular video games……

Or if you go to an actual therapist instead of buying a self-help book by Joel Osteen at Lifeway……

well then…… you just don’t fit.

The Challenge

Now don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that we don’t have such extreme cases in this community here…… or at least I hope we don’t. 

But how much of your Christian identity is rooted in external things: like your appearance, or your hobbies, or the language you do or don’t use, or the places you do or don’t go, or whatever?

How much is based on those things?……And how much is based on pursuing that ongoing transformation of every part of your life that God desires to bring about? How much is based on your diligent, intentional practice of the disciples of prayer or study or meditation or fasting or simplicity or service or confession or others? 

How much of being Christian is managing your public image?……versus experiencing the Kingdom of God in ways that render you vulnerable and lay your failings open?

 

Because one of these things is not like the other. 

One of these things is to follow our own desires… to rule our own lives… to control and shape things as we see fit…… This is to sell out to the Enemy.

The other one is to submit ourselves to God’s desires… to allow God’s rule to invade our lives… to obey and be conformed as God sees fit…… This is to fully buy into the Kingdom of God.

Though they did not seem too far apart a few moments ago; in truth, the gulf between the two could not be greater. And the temptation to substitute this cheap imitation for the expansive grace and inclusion of God is constantly with us.

So as Simon implores: Sisters and brothers, pray for each other to the Lord. And pray for me.

The Mystery of Christ

Scripture: Ephesians 3:1-12

Mystery

I do like a good mystery…… especially if that mystery comes with a British accent. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Tom Barnaby—they all readily capture my attention with their ability to penetrate the inky darkness of vague clues and deception, and riddle out the truth.

Of course, if I were the only one in history who liked a good mystery, there would be no Sherlock Holmeses, Hercule Poirots, or Tom Barnabys. We human beings have had a taste for this kind of thing for millennia now. There’s an apocryphal tale about Daniel—the Daniel of the Bible—where he intervenes to save a woman named Susanna who is about to be killed for infidelity. She’s on death row, so to speak, and he—in true Poirot fashion—takes up the case, separates and interrogates the two witnesses, and discovers in the process that their testimonies are false. 

Have you ever wondered why we find these tales so alluring?

Certainly, one reason must be that we like seeing unjust people get their just desserts. A villain that is obviously a villain is a luxury compared to the villainy we experience in real life. We desire a black-and-white kind of justice and world—we want obvious categories of good and bad—and so these stories are in some ways caricatures of the way we wish the world would be.

In the same way, I wonder if (consciously or subconsciously) we desire the same penetrating abilities. Perhaps deep down inside, we experience the world around us as a quite mysterious thing—something whose workings we do not understand, whose rules we cannot discern, whose code we cannot crack. Should we, like Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, have the ability to see what others cannot see (what we cannot now see), perhaps we could figure out this thing called life, and truly find fulfillment.

The Mystery of Christ

In a way, this is what Paul is exploring here in Ephesians. 

There is something strange about this God…… something mysterious concerning Christ. Paul isn’t using this as an analogy to make a larger point; rather, he’s confronting head-on a reality that is obvious to anyone who knows much about Jesus at all.

Here’s a guy who was obviously different:

He readily used for himself the terms that were reserved for God’s anointed leader.

He said that if you saw him you saw the Almighty.

He turned the tables on our expectations about who is blessed and good.

He accused the mainstream “church” (so to speak) of leading people to the devil instead of to God.

He performed all kinds of incredible signs—bringing healing, wholeness, and restoration to those the world had given up on. 

He hung out with the wrong crowd, and considered his time with them more valuable than with the good religious folks of his day.

He did not fight the false accusations that led to his arrest.

He chose not to defend himself during his sham of a trial.

He spoke words of forgiveness and grace even while hanging on the cross.

He also…… did not stay dead.

And when raised from the dead by God, he was somehow transformed and even more mysterious than he was beforehand…… until that day when he sort of levitated into the sky and disappeared.

There is something undeniably strange about this Jesus…… and thus about our God. 

……Something mysterious that led people to talk…… and ponder…… and wish for the penetrating insight of Sherlock Holmes to unlock this enigma.

But as the early church reflected on all this strangeness, there was one dimension that rose to the top and seemed in the end to make some sense it all. That singular entity that came to be called “the Mystery of Christ” by Paul and others.

It is the mystery that was made known to Paul by revelation (Ephesians 3:3a).

It is the mystery that Paul has already in Ephesians been hinting at (Ephesians 3:3b-4).

It is the mystery that was not made known “in former times” (Ephesians 3:5a)…… but had been hidden by God (Ephesians 3:9

It is the mystery that was revealed to the disciples (now called apostles) and others by means of the Spirit—there is no other way to penetrate this mystery except through a revealing of it by the Spirit herself (Ephesians 3:5b)

But what is the mystery of Christ itself? What is this puzzle that has stopped the world in its tracks and brought it to its knees in wonder?

The mystery itself is revealed in v.6:

“…that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6 NRSV)

What does that mean? 

It means that everyone, everywhere, from every background and culture…… now has the same access to God and the Kingdom of Heaven and its abundant life…… because of Jesus Christ.

It means that the fulfillment of who we are—that a truly good life—is not barred from anyone because of any walls or obstacles that exist in this realm.

It means that even and especially those that are believed to be incompatible with true and abundant or faithful life are equally able to reach into and realize it.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

I cannot overstate how revolutionary this is—then or now. 

The term Gentiles is used in the New Testament in place of the Hebrew term “goyim,” which is often translated “nations” in the Old Testament. The “goyim”—the nations—the Gentiles were by definition people who were outside of a covenantal relationship with God. They were not the people descended from Abraham, the people whom God promised would be his special people in special relationship and (in this way) unique in the world.

There was this wall between God’s-people and not-God’s-people. There were those “in” and those “out.” And as far as the faithful people of the time were concerned, that wall was built by God—which made it both insurmountable and sinful to think it should be surmounted. To use the sort of unbiblical and unchristian language popular among evangelists a century ago, these people existed as fodder for the fires of hell…… They have no further value.

Maybe you could think of ways this type of language is used to talk about people in our world.

Or even if we do not use this type of language, then think about how we often treat people as though we believed this about them. 

For example: just days ago, amidst freezing temperatures, the police and fire departments in a nearby city turned firehoses on a group of homeless people in order to get them to move from the out-of-the way place they were huddled against the elements. 

These authorities offered nowhere for these folks to go to be warm and dry. They knew fully that once drenched, these people would be even more vulnerable because they had nowhere to go. But to the decision-makers in that standoff, the lives of these without homes were worth less than nothing. Their choice to endanger these lives betrayed how little value they saw in these people who carry the divine image in their creation.

Access for All

And so—with our walls fully built to keep the rabble out of our eternity, here comes Jesus. And in one fell swoop, that wall comes tumbling down. 

There is now no obstacle for anyone

nothing to stand in the way of reaching God

nothing to block access to the kingdom of heaven

nothing to discount, or preclude, or invalidate your chances of true life

nothing to prevent anyone being able to become who God made them to be

nothing to limit or destroy your value—because your value is set by God and not the powers of this world

nothing to taint the welcome of love and hospitality and grace that God the loving Father wishes to bestow upon all who reach into God’s realm.

This is the mystery of Christ, and truly worthy of our contemplation. It is, perhaps, the most important teaching that Paul communicates—as it is, in fact, the continuation of the most important reality that Jesus communicates: that the Kingdom of God is at hand, ready and accessible, available now to all who have faith in Jesus Christ.

From Galatians 3:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV)

From Colossians 3

“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11 NRSV)

From Ephesians 2, just verses before where today’s scripture reading began:

“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [that is, Jews and Gentiles—insiders and outsiders: “he has made both groups] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him, both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:14–19 NRSV)

The mystery of Christ is that you—even you—are included. That you are valuable. You are worth it to God.

And if we can discover—by the power of the kingdom of heaven that is available to us—how to hold onto that mystery and recognize that it is more real than anything else in the world, then we will find that it is also more than enough…… that it provides a foundation for true life…… abundant life…… fulfilling life…… even and especially in the real life of the here and now.