Uncovering the Secret! (A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22)

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

These are the unmistakable words of St Paul (for those of you who know him) – Paul-the-passionate, Paul- the-controversial, Paul-the-Apostle-to-the-gentiles.

I get the feeling that if Paul had initially been preaching these words rather than writing them on a parchment, he would have pounded the pulpit as he spoke. For Paul was a passionate man. He believed deeply in the things he believed deeply in, and here in his letter to the church at Ephesus he speaks about the things he feels most passionate about.

And the main subject of the letter, and the main subject of the passage we are looking at this morning, is ‘the mystery’ – a great secret that Paul believed had been hidden for ages but that he had re-discovered.

Now Paul doesn’t actually use the word ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’ in this passage, though it is very much his core topic. He introduces his mysterious terminology a few paragraphs later:

for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:2-5)

The Mystery!

I don’t know if you’ve ever discovered a mystery or a secret – some hidden treasure, buried in the back yard perhaps, or an insight into life that had long been forgotten?  I believe I have.

I talk about the hidden treasure that I discovered all the time in fact – boxing!

It’s no secret around here that I consider boxing training to be a wonderful tool for helping young people make the transition into adulthood –boys into men in particular – and I believe that this truth had been lost (to the white Australian community in this country, at least) for about a generation.

I won’t go into details as to how I think we lost this great truth, except to say that I think we confused boxing with violence, and that we rightly wanted to put an end to male violence.

Whatever the reason, I believe our community lost a great truth, and it’s a truth that quite a number of people around the world have recently been re-discovering, and it’s like digging up a treasure that’s been hidden in your own backyard!

Speaking of mysteries hidden for ages and uncovering secret treasures reminded me of that movie and novel that came out a few years ago, entitled “The Secret”.

It was six years ago, in fact – in 2006 – that Australian writer and television producer, Rhonda Byrne, came out with “The Secret”, which then remained on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly 3 years!

The ‘secret’ that Rhonda Byrne was talking about was the secret of how to attract to  yourself anything that you want – health, wealth, fame, better sex, better relationships. You can have it all if you know ‘the secret’!

No surprise, but Rhonda Byrne’s secret had a lot to do with positive thinking, and she herself obviously learned ‘the secret’ because she managed to sell over 19 million copies of her book, and she attracted all sorts of things to herself!

Now … regardless of what you think of Rhonda Byrne’s secret, I can assure you that the secret St Paul has in mind – the mystery of Christ, the mystery hidden for ages, the secret made known to him by revelation – has absolutely nothing to do with attracting greater health and wealth to yourself!

So what is ‘the mystery’ according to St Paul?

What is the secret hidden from humankind for generations but which has now finally been revealed through God’s holy Apostles and prophets?

If it’s not the secret to greater health, wealth and happiness, what is it?

It is the secret about the end of the world – when and where it’s going to happen, and what countries in the Middle East we should be supporting to hurry it along?

Is it a theological mystery perhaps, concerning the true nature of God and of Jesus (or do we already have that in the Athanasian Creed)?

What is the mystery-made-known to Paul and the prophets which had been hidden from the world for so many generations?

… I quote from St Paul in Ephesians 3: the mystery hidden for ages but revealed to God’s holy Apostles and prophets is that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Jews and non-Jews, in other words, are equal before God!

And you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit of an anti-climax!

So black and white people are equal?  Is that really the mystery hidden for ages in God? I reckon we could have worked that one out, Paul!

And it would be easy for a 21st Century white guy like myself to think that way. After all, I didn’t grow up as a slave in 19th Century America. I didn’t grow up as a black man in apartheid South Africa.  I only have 2nd-hand knowledge of being an Indigenous person in this country. And I certainly have no first-hand understanding of what it would be like to grow up in first century Judea – to be a man like St Paul, whose who life, prior to his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, revolved around his being Jewish!

“circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3:5-6)

Paul was a Jew amongst Jews. His whole life and identity revolved around his ethnicity. Prior to his uncovering of ‘the mystery’, Paul would not have considered a gentile his equal any more than he would have considered a monkey his equal, but listen again now to the way he speaks in Ephesians 2, with unparalleled passion:

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

You who are ‘called the uncircumcision by those who are called the circumcision’, using a turn of phrase that is entirely dismissive of these real differences! Surely?

You who are called ‘black’ by those who are called ‘white’, you who are called ‘immigrants’ by those who are called ‘Australians’. Paul treats these distinctions with contempt!

Yes, we were separated in the past, but now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ!

Yes, we were as dissimilar as black and white, and we did not talk to each other, and we did not eat with each other, and we certainly did not pray with one another, but now you who were once far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ, and now we can share our lives together in love and in community.

This is what Paul discovered on the road to Damascus, where he met Jesus.

It’s painful if you think about the road to Damascus today – again an area of violence and upheaval with Syrian government and rebel forces shedding so much blood!

So much of the violence going on in Syria today is tied up with racial, ethnic and religious tensions, just as so much violence we see around our world is tied up with this sort of ethnic, racial and religious tribalism.  And of course St Paul was on his own mission of violence – trying to wipe out the embryonic Christian community – when he was struck down on the road to Damascus and met Jesus.

And why did Paul (then normally referred to as ‘Saul’) hate the Christians so much? It was because they were trying to open their doors and their hearts to people who were not kosher and were starting to water down the Jewish legal framework that made his people ethnically and religiously distinctive. And then Saul met Jesus, and Jesus opened Paul’s eyes to a much larger world!

And if we want to understand the full significance of Jesus’ revelation to St Paul, we need to appreciate that the distinctions that he had previously based his life on were not simply ethnic and racial distinctions. Non-Jews for the early Paul were not just ethnically different, but they were immoral, idolaters, unholy, irreligious, and they smelt funny! In other words, they were all the things that people we don’t like are!

And that’s why when the distinction between Jew and non-Jew fades for Paul, all the other distinctions fade too – between rich and poor, between male and female, between slave and free, etc.  Because in the end the only real distinction that Paul knew was between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Either you’re ‘one of us’ or you’re ‘one of them’. And now, Paul says, there is no more them, but only us!

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and yet all are loved by Christ – the Jew and the non-Jew, the rich and the poor, the slave and the free, the gay and the straight, the good, the bad and the ugly! All have sinned and yet all are loved, and so all are one in Christ!

This is the deep and enduring truth upon which our community is based, but rather than have me eulogise on this further in my own words, let me rather conclude with some further words from St Paul in Ephesians chapter two, as he speaks again of the mystery of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He 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, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.


First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 22, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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1 Response to Uncovering the Secret! (A sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22)

  1. Father Dave’s sermons are really very well simplified and explain with reference to modern day situations. It has been not only a spiritually enriching session reading through his sermons but also very enlightening. However the website could do with a little dash of colour and spice. For Web Design in Brisbane

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