Epiphany strictly speaking is on January 6, that is, last Thursday. It marks both the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of a new liturgical season in its own right. The Gospel reading today is the well-known story of the visit of the Magi. They bring three gifts, but as to how many of them there were, we are simply not told. The reason that this Gospel reading is chosen is because Epiphany celebrates the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The Magi represent the Gentiles.
Of course to us this is no big deal. We just assume that Christ was born to be the Saviour of the world, but for many in the early days of the Church. It was not nearly so straightforward. After all, the very word ‘Christ’ that we now use as a name was originally a title meaning Messiah. And the Messiah was to be the Messiah of the Jews fulfilling God’s promises to his chosen people.
At first in the Church, there was resistance to even telling Gentiles about Jesus. But as a result of a direct and unmistakable intervention by God himself through the Apostle Peter this resistance was decisively overcome.
The next question was to be the basis on which Gentiles could become members of the Church once they had accepted and believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For many in the Church this was obvious: the Gentiles had to keep God’s Law as God himself had revealed it. This Law was clear that men had to be circumcised and all men, women, and children had to obey the commandments of God.
It wasn’t, however obvious to one person: the person we now know as the Apostle Paul. St Paul adopted not only a controversial position, he was himself a controversial person. Very briefly: St Paul had been the leader of violent opposition to the Church. He was a zealous and committed Jew who was fanatically opposed to the Church. Quite why he was so opposed to the Church is not as easy a question to answer as is sometimes thought! (This is something we will have cause to consider at the Lenten Studies!)
This committed Jew was dramatically converted on the Damascus Road and called by God to be an Apostle to the Gentiles. Not only that, St Paul developed what was to be a highly controversial understanding of what is meant for Gentiles to become part of the people of God.
We need to be very careful here. St Paul is often presented today as someone who reinvented Christianity. Someone who took the simple teachings of Jesus and made them altogether something different. This, of course, is assumed to have been a bad thing.
The reality is, that as St Paul himself acknowledges, most of his understanding of key Christian teachings he got from those who were ‘in Christ before him’. These concern such things as the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. His present Lordship. His future return. And the gift of the Holy Spirit. Where he differed from those who were ‘in Christ before him’ was over the place of the Gentiles in the Church and the purposes of God.
Ironically, those who dislike St Paul nowadays don’t even think to disagree with him on this one area where he really did come up with something new.
All of which brings us to Ephesians and this morning’s reading, Ephesians 3:1-12. Please consider what follows as something of a ‘taster’ for the Lent Studies.
Ephesians is one of the more general of St Paul’s letters. It doesn’t have a co-sender, and it contains very little by personal references. Only one other person is mentioned, Tychicus, who is to deliver the letter. Actually, we do not even know that the letter was written actually written to the Ephesians, that is, to the Church in Ephesus. The words ‘in Ephesus’ in Ephesians 1:1 are missing from some of the best manuscripts of the New Testament. This has led many commentators to suggest that the letter we now know as the letter to the Ephesians was originally written as a circular letter to several Churches in the general region of Ephesus.
Well we will talk more about this in Lent!
Suffice it 1to say that in the letter we now know as Ephesians, St Paul takes a big picture view of the Gospel. He writes of how we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. What is especially significant, however, but perhaps not surprising, is that St Paul spends a great deal of time writing about the nature of the Church and of Gentiles place in it.
In Chapter 3, he writes how his present imprisonment is for the Gentiles. By this he means it is his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles that has landed him in prison. He writes of how a mystery has been made known to him by revelation. A mystery that was not made known previously. What is this amazing mystery? Verse 6:
‘that is, the Gentiles has become fellow–heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.’
But fellow-heirs with whom? Members of which same body? Sharers with whom in the promise? The answer of course is the Jews and the people of God. This doesn’t seem so mysterious to us, does it?
It is this good news that was given to St Paul to bring to the Gentiles. But he then says something that really is amazing. As amazing today as it was then. Verse 10:
‘so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’
It is this that I now want us to dwell upon for the rest of the sermon this morning.
The phrase through the Church is inevitably a problem for us today as we can only hear and understand the word, ‘church’, in the light of 2,000 years of Christians history and, therefore, we miss what St Paul is saying
For us the word ‘church’ inevitably means in the first place the building. So the question: ‘are you going to Church today?’ means are you going to the building on Waterloo Road or wherever? Secondly, the word ‘church’ conjures up the organization: synods, committees, bishops, priests, and so on. Thirdly, it suggests the different denominations: the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, etc. When we hear the word ‘church’ then we hear a mixture of all three with the first, the building, predominating.
All of which is highly ironic as when those to whom St Paul was writing heard this word they would have not heard any of these three meanings. What is more they couldn’t hear any of these three meanings. It was simply impossible for them to do so.
Firstly, for many years, Christians simply did not own any buildings. Not only did they not have the financial resources to do so, as they were often a persecuted group, owning property was not an option.
This is very difficult for us to understand as the church building has taken on an existence of its own. Not only do we see the building as the place where the Church meets, the building has become the Church. Even to the extent that we are sometimes more concerned about the building than we are the people who meet in it!
The first Christians, however, met in the houses of those rich enough to afford one, or in small groups in apartment buildings, or in the open air, wherever, in fact, they could gather in reasonable safety.
Secondly, again, for many years organization was relatively basic. There was some structure within the different Christian groups, but not much between them. The idea, for example, of forming Mission Committees would have been something they would never have thought of. Mission, after all, was something you did!
Thirdly, although there were arguments and disagreements - and we see them happening from the very beginning - the assumption was that Christians should be united not divided. The idea of Christians being divided into different groups, separate to one another, would, again, have been unimaginable. It was 1,000 years before there was a formal split in the Church and that was between the Church in the West and the Church in the East. It was another 500 years before the Church split in the west.
This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of that split, and it is a subject we will have cause to return to. ‘Celebrations’ have been in the planning for many years. I, for one, will not be celebrating. I see the Anglican Church, the denomination to which I belong, for example, as a necessary evil. I do not see the continued institutionalized division in the body of Christ as something to be proud of.
No, when St Paul wrote the word ‘church’, he was referring to small groups of people scattered throughout the Roman Empire meeting when they could, where they could, to share their faith, eat a meal together, and support one another. And yet St Paul says it is through these few powerless and numerically small and socially weak groups that God had decided to make his wisdom known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This might have seemed ridiculous were it not for the fact that these Christians, though few in numbers, believed that Christ had triumphed over all powers and authorities and now ruled over all.
That they believed this is itself amazing. Roman imperial power was everywhere to be seen. At times, it was turned directly against the Christians and they suffered the most terrible persecution, but still they continued to believe that the real power lay not with Rome, but with the Lord who they believed was with them whenever and wherever they gathered in his name.
In many parts of our world the Church is in decline and morale is low. This is especially true in the developed world. The Church of England, for example, continues to experience a serious falling in numbers.
It is common in this situation for people in the Church to look back to the days when the Church appeared to be more powerful and successful, to a time when it had more influence in and on society. Of course, that power was often a delusion: a false power. The power we are called to exercise, however, is altogether different.
We are to make known the wisdom of God in its rich variety to the ‘rulers and authorities’ NOT, notice, on earth, but in the heavenly places. How on earth - you may ask – are we to do that?
First of all, by ridding ourselves of any aspiration to earthly political power. By seeing that real power is spiritual and resides with our Lord, who, says St Paul, has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). God, says St Paul, has raised Christ and seated him in these heavenly places where he rules over all things for the sake of the Church, which St Paul then goes on to define as Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:20-23).
Secondly, by ridding ourselves of all the false notions of what the Church is and by rediscovering that it is we, you and I gathered here this morning, who are the Church, the body of Christ. It is you and I made of flesh and blood who are God’s building, his house, and not any made of brick and mortar however special they may be.
And then, thirdly, by proclaiming the Gospel of Christ: telling people what God has done in Christ and how forgiveness and new life are to be found in him. In doing this we make it possible for people to escape all the false powers that hold them captive and to become instead members of the body of Christ.
It is when we do this that we fulfil God’s plan for us as his people and it is then that we make known his wisdom. A wisdom always opposed to the wisdom of this world and its rulers.
‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’ (Ephesians 3:20-21)