By the time that the Apostle Paul is writing to the folks in the church at Ephesus, he is already in prison, where he will eventually die. We consider the Apostle Paul to be a hero of the faith; a man to be emulated and admired. But in order to gain that status among the truest followers of Jesus, he had to suffer greatly. Even today he is greatly admired, but rarely emulated. We cannot say that the apostle led anything that resembled a charmed life. Because of Paul’s calling to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness, he often found himself in serious danger. And that is a difficult thing for us to comprehend. We expect heroes of the faith to live lives that are victorious over loss and danger, and we wish the same for ourselves. In spite of what we might wish for ourselves, though, a life of committed and consistent faith, and a life that is filled with the blessings of the material world, are often completely antithetical to one another. The life and death of the Apostle Paul is clear evidence of that.
At some, unspecified point in his ministry, Paul underwent a dramatic change in the focus of his ministry. Paul was a Jew. He was born a Jew and he died a Jew. He was born into the covenant that God made with Abraham. And not only was he born into that covenant, but he was born into it in a very privileged way. In a world that has always distinguished some people from others, Paul was born into a very elite tribe of Hebrews. In the Jewish world, he was the cream of the crop, the top of the heap. We can read all about his extremely privileged pedigree in Philippians chapter three.
And then, one day, in spite of, or maybe even because of his incredible heritage, Paul, whose given name was Saul, became a follower of Jesus. It was a rather dramatic conversion that anyone can read about in Acts chapter nine. And as a result of that conversion, Paul at first, directed his evangelistic energies toward his fellow Jews. And this actually seemed quite right, and quite proper. As a Jew, Paul was uniquely suited to interpret the message of the gospel to his own people. As a Hebrew scholar, Paul could convincingly explain the coming of Messiah into this world, especially to those people who were eagerly anticipating the arrival of Messiah.
But along the way, God either gently, or perhaps roughly nudged Paul in his spirit, and Paul understood that the primary focus of his ministry should no longer be directed toward his fellow Hebrews, but rather toward everyone else. You see, there were, in Paul’s day, only two kinds of people in the world; there were Jews, people of the covenant, and then, there was everyone else. The Jews called everyone else, “the Gentiles.”
Paul says that the change in the focus of his ministry came about as the result of a revelation from God. Sometimes, in our minds, we overdo this business of revelation. We tend to make it into something far more dramatic that it really is. I think that we want revelation to be something that is big and important, so that it doesn’t have to involve us. And so we sometimes imagine that revelation involves loud voices booming out of the heavens, shouting out authoritative commandments, all accompanied by hosts of angels, singing the latest and newest heavenly oratorio. This is, of course, a sure-fire way of distancing ourselves from ever running into the possibility of receiving a revelation.
Suppose Paul’s revelation to minister to the Gentiles came to him as simply as this: “Um, Paul, are you listening? Look, there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t know anything about Jesus. What are you going to be doing about them?” Does that qualify as revelation? Does that qualify as a word from God? Is it possible, that we, ourselves, might in fact, hear something from God that sounds a whole lot like that?
But however it was that Paul’s revelation came to him, it is good news for us. Not many of us are Jewish by birth. Not many of us have been born into the covenant. Not many of us are privileged to be called the children of Abraham. Instead, most of us come from somewhere else. Here in Maine, we call that being “from away.” And being from away means being from anywhere at all, that doesn’t happen to be here. It is our uncertain heritage that makes us Gentiles.
But because it was God’s intent to demonstrate his love for the whole world, God sent his son into the world to demonstrate that love in person, and then God called people like the Apostle Paul to continue that ministry to all who would believe.
And so no matter what our heritage, no matter where we came from, and no matter what the circumstances of our births, if we become followers of Jesus, we are joyfully adopted by God, into God’s great and glorious family. By virtue of our new births, we become members of God’s eternal and everlasting family. As Paul himself puts it, we “have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Now that is supposed to be good news, and it is supposed to give us the holy shivers, because it is, after all, the stuff of revelation, and it has everything to do with our eternal disposition. But perhaps, in real life, in the normal workaday world, with all of the trials and troubles and concerns that we all deal with on a daily basis, not to mention the threat of the coronavirus that hovers over our lives at every moment, we just don’t feel those holy shivers. Perhaps what we’re feeling, instead, is that our eyes are glazing over, and our eyelids are getting heavier and heavier. Huh? What? Fellow heirs, same body, sharers in the promise? Who cares? Why is he even preaching on this stuff? Surely there’s something more interesting than this.
Well, the truth is, that there probably is something out there that is far more interesting, and far more relevant to our lives as we live them on this particular day. And it just might be hidden away in this passage!
We live in a world where love and acceptance of one another as fellow human beings is in very short supply. It has always been the nature of unredeemed people to live by the dictates of indecency and hatred. It has long been the human propensity to draw sharp and divisive lines of distinctions between one another. And all of this leads to the violence and the destruction and the death that we witness on our newscasts. No one will disagree that the world is completely out of control. We humans have behaved this way from the very beginning, since the day that Cain brutally murdered his brother, Abel. The unredeemed human spirit craves division and will fight to the death to maintain that division. This is who we are. We are despicable creatures who delight in dredging up and dragging the powers of hell all over God’s beautiful creation.
But suppose there was something that could put an end to all of this hatred and division and the resulting violence and destruction and death that is daily attempting to destroy even our own souls? Suppose there was something that could unite all of humanity into one loving family? Suppose there was something that could bring peace to troubled souls? Suppose there was something that had the power to abolish the hatred that dwells in our hearts, and to erase the lines of distinction that so effectively separate us, one from another? Suppose there was something that could restore the dignity of every human being to the place where God originally created it to be?
There is, something, you know, that has the power to do all of these things, and it is exactly what the Apostle Paul is talking about in our passage today. That something is the church of our savior, Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus Christ, and in Christ alone, where the divisions that ravage our world dissolve, and it is in his church, where persons of every kind imaginable come together to learn the tenets of loving one another, and it is through the church that that message goes out into the world that God is love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” That’s love, that’s unity, that’s glory. And it is in accordance with the eternal purpose that God has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is what we are a part of. This is what we ought to be all about.