Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Any Colour You Like - Ephesians 3 (part 2)

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Ephesians tells us of a new reality for all of humanity. In the pages of this book, the writer reaches back to before the beginning of time to describe a divine plan for reconciliation, redemption, justice and peace for humanity. In Christ, everything in every way is brought to unity and fulfillment. In Christ, the barrier between the human and divine has been transcended. In Christ, even the most violent and unlikely of enemies can be made one, in perfect unity and peace.

Beginning with this passage, and continuing to the end of the third chapter, Ephesians describes for us a legal, moral, social, and practical order by which our citizenship, family, and very beings are changed in him. Once we were bound by legal, national, and cultural differences that separated us from each other. Beginning with Abraham, God’s covenant with humanity even included a long list of laws and regulations that set the people of God apart from the rest of the world. This separation of the Jewish people was a sign to the world that they were part of God’s family. Their God was holy, so they carried in their very bodies, lives, and relationships the mark of that perfect and holy God. Their God was a just and peaceful God, and their society was meant to reflect that justice, peace, and compassion.

For thousands of years the world changed around the Jewish people. Through slavery and empire, through nationhood and exile, God remained true to the Jewish people, and the symbol of their special relationship continued. Imagine the significance of a statement like this one in Ephesians, that would suggest a change in what it means to be a person of God. Suddenly all of the exclusive history, culture, family, and law has been opened wide for the whole world to enter. Our citizenship, our family, our lives are now able to change, to be open to God, and to be open to all of humanity in all of its’ diversity. What a challenging thought for all of God’s people from all time.

Ephesians 3:14-21
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Immeasurably more than we can ever even imagine, according to his power that is at work in us.

Long before Jesus came, the Jewish people had something very special. Their relationship with Yahweh was different than the rest of the world. Their books of law, their traditions, and their festivals all pointed to their set-apart-ness. And they were. And the laws that governed the social functioning of the community showed that they were set apart in the best way. It was a beautiful community. At its' best, it reflected the character and nature of God.

Ephesians 3:6
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

I think the radical nature of the opening passages of this chapter could be lost to many Christians. 2000 years in, the Jewish foundation and roots of our faith are often easily forgotten.

When Paul, a Jew, says in verse six that Gentiles (non-Jewish pagans) can inherit salvation through Jesus Christ, he's dropped a bomb in the religious world much bigger than Rob Bell (or whoever the controversial Christian du jour may be for you). This likely hit the Jewish people harder than any conversations about Universalism would hit an Evangelical Christian today.

For thousands of years this ancient faith tied to a specific ethnicity has had the doors locked on how to meet with God. Paul is suggesting that those multi-breasted idol worshipping, temple-prostitute using, homosexual bathhouse visiting, secular humanist Gentiles of all people could actually be made righteous in the eyes of God through the person of Jesus Christ. Through faith and repentance they could be made righteous, and adopted into the family of God as though they had been Israelites their whole lives. They did not have to take on one iota of Jewish cultural law or ever participate in a single Jewish festival to do so. If you pause and consider, this is actually just as potentially offensive today as it was then.

This is, of course, usually considered to be good news for us Christians, many of us Gentile ourselves. From our perspective here in the twenty-first century, it's usually those secular humanists that we would expect to be offended by the gospel. But let's consider this from a first century perspective. For thousands of years, Jewish faith has stood (mostly) alone as a monotheistic religion. For most other faiths, many of them idol worshipers, there was always room for one more God. People traveled, and got to know other people who lived and believed and worshiped differently from them. As they got to know each other, doing business and sharing life, they'd get to know one another's gods and start participating in their religious practices. The Israelite people were different. It wasn't just rules of worship that set them apart from other cultures and peoples, it was every piece of their life and law. Rules about what they could and couldn't eat, rules of what they could and couldn't wear, laws regarding business and trade, all of these things would serve to set them apart very significantly from the nations around them. While everyone else was having a grand old time learning new recipes, enjoying the latest fashions, and trading idols with each other, the Jewish nation was sitting in the corner with long beards and flatbread and circumcision and clothes made from only one fibre, as separated from the nations around them as a vegan from a Southern Albertan rancher would be today.

These specifics in the laws and culture of the Jewish people were part of what allowed their faith to endure. They loved God with all their hearts. They were created and chosen for a special purpose. They were a holy nation. They were a signpost of the kingdom of God. And every Jewish child grew up knowing that they were different, they were special, they were set apart. It was burned into the fibre of their being every day as they lived life completely counter to the world around them. This was a highly significant part of their cultural identity, and they loved it. They had good reason to love it. They had communion with Yahweh.

So 2000 years later, consider who looks like these set apart people today? From my view, I think that a lot of us North American Evangelical Christians would have been just perfectly comfortable with the deal that the Israelites had. We have a Christian version of everything. If we want to, we can listen to "Christian" music, that we purchase in a "Christian Book and Supply" store (what exactly are Christian "supplies" anyway?), where we can also get "Christian" novels and "Christian" self-help books, and even "Christian" clothing. We can subscribe to Christian magazines, listen to Christian radio, watch Christian sitcoms and television dramas. We can watch Christian movies. We can vote for Christian politicians. We can send our kids to Christian schools. After work, we can relax in a Christian coffee shop. When our toilet breaks, instead of the yellow pages we can grab our copy of the Shepherd's Guide and get ourselves a Christian plumber. We could even look through the guide for a good place to find employment, making sure we have a Christian boss. We make up rules about modesty and alcohol and hanging out in bars or arcades that make it just a tad more difficult for our kids to hang out with anyone but the youth group. For the more edgy among us, we can get our tattoos from a Christian at a Christian tattoo studio.

Through all of this, we have made it possible to live as Christians in the world without ever having to have contact or connection with anyone outside of our isolated church communities. But was this what God intended?

When Paul says that the great mystery is that even Gentiles (of all people) can be included in the people of God, this changed the whole world for the Jewish people. Completely setting aside the personal offensiveness of the idea, consider the other practical consequences. If uncircumcised, shaven, pork-eating pagans could be part of God's family, how will God's family be visibly set apart from anyone else? And worse, if people of God can now live among and as Gentiles, what will protect the community from being affected or infected by the cultural and religious practices of others?

These are relevant and serious questions. Serious for first century religious Jewish Christians, relevant for twenty-first century religious North American Evangelicals.

It seems to me that in Christ, Paul doesn't seem to be so concerned about these questions anymore. Instead, Paul tells about a circumcision of the heart, a change that happens from within (Romans 2:29). John tells us in his gospel (John 13:35-By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.) and in his epistles that children of God are known by their love for one another (1 John 3:14, 4:21, and others) . This is the mark that sets us apart, so we don't need a mark in our skin anymore. Against the law, Jesus touched lepers to heal them (Matthew 8:3, Luke 5:13), and even touched the dead when he raised them to life (Mark 5:41). He taught his disciples to go and live among and love the poor, lonely, disadvantaged, and imprisoned (Matthew 25, John 12:8, Acts 4:32-35). The truth is that this would have been very difficult to do while also living under this law that set them so apart from the rest of the world. It's just as difficult for us to do when we wrap ourselves in a protective blanket of Christianized popular culture. In the parable Jesus tells of a good Samaritan, he directly challenged his disciples that the blessing God had called his people to be in the world meant that they would have to cross uncomfortable cultural barriers to do so (Luke 10). Jesus even began his ministry in the multiethnic Galilee (Matthew 4:12-17), rather than Jerusalem the centre of Jewish religion and culture.  Followers of Jesus practice mercy and justice and faithfulness among those that are not their own.

On the cross, Jesus shouted "It is finished" (John 19:30), and with his shout the curtain in the temple was torn (Matthew 27:50-52). For thousands of years the Spirit of God dwelt among his people behind curtains, in tents and buildings. Access to God was made through a mediating priest, by the practice of sacrificing animals. Jesus is God incarnate.

He is Emmanuel. He is God with us. He put skin on and moved into the neighbourhood (John 1- The Message). He has become our perfect priest (Hebrews 4), our perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10), and our perfect mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). With his resurrection, Jesus opened the door for God to dwell among his people within his people. We, the body of Christ (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4:12), are the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). The Holy Spirit lives inside you (1 Corinthians 6:19). This is what sets you apart. This is what makes you the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13-15). This brings the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth, for the Kingdom of Heaven is within you. We live now among all nations as a blessing, as a seasoning, as a seed of justice and mercy and faithfulness.

Matthew 5:14-15
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.

We are light, and the property of our life is to shine. We cannot be hidden. We are a city on a hill. We look like Jesus. Our lives of service to Jesus will bring us to the most unlikely and obscure and dark places on earth, and yet we will shine.  The cross was the darkest and most obscure place and time that ever has or will exist, and yet it has been displayed for all the world to see. We are on a lampstand as well.

On the cross, Jesus took on himself all evil, and all the punishment for that evil. He took every eye, and every eye taken in punishment. All eyes and all teeth have been repayed. From the cross Jesus experienced the violence of the greatest of all violent offenders, those who would violently put to death the sinless son of God. Of them he said “Father forgive them”.  And he loved them. Through faith in him we live as disciples, walking in the image of that same radically forgiving love.

This is the good news Paul is talking about at the beginning of Ephesians chapter three. These are the consequences of this good news. We should really let this sink in. Paul has blasted the doors of salvation wide open. Followers of Jesus may not look a certain way anymore. There will be many ethnicities. There may not be one single language. There will be different worldviews and levels of education and ways of being human. If we're following a man-made religion, this might be kind of scary. It isn't something we can neatly package and control anymore. But if we believe that God is real, and living among us, and even in us, we have nothing to be afraid of. We can be free. And we can offer that freedom to others. We are free to live among all of the people of the world, to love them, serve them, know them, and be known by them. And we can share Jesus with them, not as a cultural or philosophical lifestyle choice, but as a person who is alive and active in the world. We don't need to try to make the world look like us. They may not. We introduce them to Jesus, and together we all look more like him. We don't need to be afraid of the world. Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33, 1 John 4:4). He is with us. Let us be agents of his love, even among those we might humanly believe to be the least likely candidates of that love.

Matthew 25:37-40
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

This last half of the chapter is one of the most beloved passages in the New Testament. As you read, do not forget to everything that has come before it. Paul is kneeling before the Father from whom all of his family derives its' name. He is so overwhelmed by the goodness of God to open his arms of love to the whole world that he erupts in worship to God for it. He is so happy to see the result of the cross being a gift of salvation offered to everyone. This is huge.

He wants us to be as fully blown away by the hugeness of God's love and grace as he has been. He quickly reminds us of why we do not need to worry about our separation from the world, because we have been strengthened in our inner being by the Holy Spirit, and Christ now dwells in our hearts by faith. God's love is so huge. And if we believe and receive the power of the Holy Spirit to comprehend it, he will expand us to truly begin to know the unknowable reaches of the transcendent love of an infinite God.
Finally, Paul challenges us to recognize that the freedom Christ bought for himself and for us by now dwelling in us as a church is the freedom to do through us even more than we could possibly ever hope or imagine. It is through us and in this world that he wants to make his presence known. It is here and now that his Kingdom of Justice and Peace and Love and Grace is being established. Everywhere. Always. And bigger than we could ask for or imagine.

This is an outward focused life. This is a life of power and affect. Let's knock down the walls we've built, cultural, religious, and imagined, between ourselves and the world God loves and wants to love through us. Let's get to know some new people, some naked people, some hungry people, some criminals. Let's remove our expectations from them. Let's remove our expectations from God. Let's do more in love and grace than we ever imagined we could.

And let God be glorified always and everywhere.


You should probably read this, too.

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