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St. Stephen's Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, January 4, 2015

The Mystery is Revealed

Text: Ephesians 3:1–12

In the days when our church was over at the old facilities in Heathsville, after Lynne and I had moved out of the rectory, we used a room there to store file boxes. Various people would need access, so they would borrow the key I kept on my key ring. I didn’t like taking the risk that somebody might misplace my key ring. So I had an extra key made for the storage room. The hardware store made the key just a little imperfect. When I went to try it, it took a good deal of jiggling and pushing in and out, but it worked. I didn’t want to take the time to go get it remade.

When I would lend the key to people, I would tell them to jiggle it and push it in and out, and it would unlock the door. Most of them would come back and tell me it must be the wrong key, because it didn’t work. So I would go with them and unlock the door using the same key. I had the confidence to stay at it until it worked, because I knew for certain it was the right key and it would work. They didn’t know that for certain, so they gave up easily.

The last verse of our reading from Ephesians Chapter 3 talks about the boldness and confidence we have in our access to God. It says that boldness and that confidence come through our faith in Jesus Christ. We know with certainty that what Jesus has told us and done for us is true. Lacking that confidence, many have never tried the key. Many others have given up because they did not hear from God the way they expected. Had they known His truth for certain, and trusted His promises completely, they would never have given up. They would have kept on seeking Him, knowing they would eventually hear from Him.

What a precious thing it is to have access with confidence and boldness to the creator of the universe! It is something God reserves for those who are members of His family, a family formed not through the will of man, but through the will of God. When God visited Abram the Mesopotamian Nomad and made a covenant with him, He was taking the first steps of creating that family. And that family became the Hebrew people, on whom God bestowed His special favor.

Was that favor all for their benefit? Did God constitute them as His family just because He loved them? Or did He have a much broader purpose? In fact God did have a much broader purpose from the very beginning. It was His plan and His intent to bring His salvation to the ends of the earth. That is what this passage in Ephesians is about. We read it on Epiphany, because on this feast, we celebrate the coming of the Magi, gentiles from the east, who came to where Jesus was born to pay homage to Him.

Our passage from Ephesians speaks several times of the mystery that has now been revealed. What is that mystery? Why was it a mystery? And why is it still mysterious today?

Verse 6 tells us explicitly what the mystery was:

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. [Ephesians 3:6]

The mystery was that the favor God had shown the Hebrew people was not for them alone, but for the Gentiles as well:

•  God’s promised blessing was available to them.

•  The inheritance promised to the Jews was available to the Gentiles.

•  And they were to become members of the same body, that is, the family of God.

The term “Gentiles” takes in every person around the globe. To the Jews, the word “Gentile” meant foreigners, people of other races and ethnicities. It meant people who did not know the God they knew. It should not have been a mystery to them that God intended His salvation for people of every tribe, language and nation. When God made His covenant with Abraham, He said that Abraham would have a multitude of descendants, and all the people of the earth would be blessed through them. I guess the word “blessed” was ambiguous enough to leave some mystery. But there were more explicit statements later in the Old Testament. We heard one this morning from Isaiah 60: 2–3:

Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Again, I suppose it is possible to hear this in a way that did not cause the people to imagine receiving Gentiles into the family of God. But how about this one in Isaiah 49:6, where God said,

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant

to restore the tribes of Jacob

and bring back those of Israel I have kept.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,

that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

It ought not to have been a mystery to the Hebrew people that God intended to use their knowledge of Him and their faithfulness to expand the family of God to reach the ends of the earth. And yet, they couldn’t imagine such a thing.

•  What they must have pictured was people from all over the world worshiping God, but still not becoming as special to God as they were.

•  They couldn’t imagine the Gentiles sharing their inheritance.

•  They couldn’t imagine becoming one family.

That is what Paul meant when he said in verse 5, the mystery “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 3:5)

The truth of God’s plan was there all the time, but His people were unable to see it. The early Church struggled to see it. The Book of Acts (see Acts chapters 10, 11, 15) tells about Peter reporting that he had baptized a family of Gentiles. And he said that the Lord had shown him the Gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews. The Apostles wrestled mightily before deciding it must be God’s will. For sure, in their deliberations, they went back and looked at the promises to Abraham, and the prophecies of Isaiah and others. And there it was, hiding in plain view.

In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul tells us of the overarching mystery of God’s purpose, and that is, “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10) This, too, is a profound mystery. In this world of division and wars and genocide and conflicting philosophies, it is hard to imagine all things being unified. But that is God’s purpose. It springs from God’s nature, for He is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We call this the Holy Trinity, and we don’t understand—we have never understood—how it can be. But it is a glorious thing. And Jesus prayed that God’s oneness would be reflected in the Church:

“that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” [John 17:21]

He is saying that the oneness of the Church is critical to God’s mission. And why is that? — because it is through our unity that the world will come to believe that Jesus, our chief cornerstone, was sent by the Father. And why is it critical that they believe that? Because it is through believing in Him that they will be saved.

God wants His unity to be reflected in marriage between a husband and a wife. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:31) This is a profound mystery. But those who have been married many years in Christian marriage can testify that in some unexplainable way, they feel God’s hand making them one. Why is this critical that husband and wife be one? Because it is God’s plan that in their oneness the family is conceived. In their oneness, the family is nurtured and becomes unified, healthy, and Godly. And such families are what build a unified, healthy and Godly society.

God’s Word tells us that this oneness of husband and wife illustrates the unity between Christ and His Church. (Ephesians 5:31) And it says the Church must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [Ephesians 4:3-6]

That is why the New Testament talks so much about how we in the Body of Christ are to treat each other:

•  Love one another.

•  Pray for one another.

•  Bear one another’s burdens.

•  Put up with one another.

•  Encourage one another.

•  Teach one another.

•  Admonish one another.

•  Forgive one another.

•  Build one another up.

God’s purpose is that our oneness as the Body of Christ will be the springboard for God’s saving message to go out to the ends of the earth—to every race and tribe and language and nation. And why is that a mystery? Because, in our human flesh, we see only what we want to see. That is what hampered the vision of God’s people long ago. We human beings want to be special. We want to be God’s favorite. We want to be the unique inheritors of the Promised Land and the citizenship in heaven and cherished membership in the heavenly family.

Jesus has been very clear with us. He appointed the Church explicitly to go and baptize all nations, and to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. And yet, God’s mission remains a mystery for us. Our flesh asks:

•  Why would God want to save people like that?

•  Doesn’t God deserve to be worshiped by people like us, rather than by that rabble?

•  If we bring in those people, our church will change.

And so, we hesitate. We equivocate. We quibble. We hole up in our comfortable churches. We invite people like ourselves to come and see, and we shun the rest. And God’s global project goes slowly.

Our flesh definitely gets in the way. But God has ways of dealing with our flesh. He gives us something to keep us humble. God works through those who suffer:

•  The martyrs who give up their lives as witnesses for Christ;

•  The missionaries,

-  who leave behind their families and comforts,

-  who are always short of funds for their missions,

-  who are lonely,

-  who are in danger,

-  whose children get sick from unfamiliar microbes.

•  Even here at home, Christians who insist on the truth of God—

-  suffer ridicule.

-  Their families are divided.

-  Some lose their livelihoods.

•  Christians are often called on to make sacrifices.

But it is in our suffering and our sacrifice that we are the light of the world.

•  We don’t attract people to Jesus by being rich and beautiful.

•  We don’t attract the hurting people of this world by having it all together ourselves.

•  We don’t heal the sinner by being self-righteous.

•  We don’t comfort the down-and-out by being proud.

•  We don’t become one by insisting on being treated as special. That is why Jesus told us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

•  We don’t become one by insisting on getting what we think we deserve. That is why Jesus told us that we must become the servants of all.

All of that is mysterious to us. Even though the mystery has now been revealed, it still hides in plain view.

As you ponder this passage we read this morning from Ephesians Chapter 3, think about these things. And picture the magnificent climax in verses 10 and 11.

10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Above us is a heavenly amphitheater stretching as far as the eye can see. And all the seats are filled with seraphim and cherubim, angels, and spiritual beings of every description. And they are hanging on every word God says, as He reveals to them His cosmic plan. And they will see how beautiful His wisdom is. They will shake their heads in awe. God’s plan looks so risky and uncertain—

•  that He would trust a nomad like Abraham,

•  and use a stiff-necked people like the Hebrews

•  and rely on a fractured body like the Church

to reconcile all things to Him. But then the host of heaven will see His Holy Spirit, working His amazing grace through those reluctant, stumbling, imperfect people.

And they will see how, miraculously,

•  People who once hated God and fought Him at every turn are now at peace with Him.

•  People who lived in wickedness and depravity are now washed clean in the blood of the lamb.

•  People who would put that key in the lock and say, “This is the wrong key,” would now approach God with boldness and confidence. For they would know with certainty that He would hear their prayers.

And they will be intimate with Him once more. And all things will be united under one Head, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

© Jeffrey O. Cerar 2015

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