Ephesians 3 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 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. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
A group of Christian scholars was gathered once in England some years back to discuss and discern if there is anything unique about the Christian faith among all the world’s philosophies and religions. It was hard going at first to come up with anything truly unique. Other religions have resurrections and virgin births, laws and love. Then C.S. Lewis spoke up and said one simple word: “grace.” While other religions and philosophies use the word “grace,” most often what they are talking about is how to earn or attract divine favor or good fortune. Or what certain things you can do so that God or destiny owe you more favor and fortune than you would get in other ways or on other days, and how to get more than others might. Either way, you do a lot of calculating, comparisons and keeping score.
By “grace” I mean what classical Christian theologians like Martin Luther and St. Augustine say the Bible means by “grace:” the extravagantly un-merited and un-measurable love and favor of God toward us, such that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more than he already does, and nothing we can do that would make God love us less. Some actions and attitudes God loves more than others, but never persons. Grace is less about us and our merits, and much more about God’s nature, God’s love, God’s doing. And God’s love goes so way far beyond any human score-keeping, calculations and comparisons of merit and reward that they are not only impossible, they are pointless. The only question is whether we surrender and avail ourselves of God’s absolutely unmerited and unmeasurable favor simply by trusting God to be as good as his word.
Out of all the very deep, grand and cosmic thoughts in today’s Bible passage, Grace is the one word that stood out and tied it all in together, three times. Now usually we talk about grace as if it were the opposite, the antonym, of law. Almost as though grace were a sinning license, one of those Medieval indulgences that people used to buy to prepay for sins. Except that now, grace is free for the asking, a spiritual “Get-out-of-jail-free” card, like in the Game of Monopoly. If that’s all that grace is, then how can Paul write in verse 2, about “the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you?” That actually sounds sacrificial. If grace is just a cost-free indulgence for sin, how can Paul say,“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace?” Grace as servanthood? And if grace were just a sinning license, a spiritual “Get-out-of-jail-free” card, then how can Paul say in verse 8 that, “this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ?” Grace as a calling to ministry? A ministry that cost Paul his life?
Precisely. Those words suggest that God’s grace not only frees us from things, like guilt, grace frees us for things, like virtue, mission, service and relationship. Grace comes to us not only as a gift, but as a call. Grace is still the un-merited and unmeasurable love and favor of God for us, but it may come in disturbing forms, even, in strenuous and sacrificial forms For Paul, grace is to his life and ministry what gasoline is to the internal combustion engine.
We need to talk about grace because of how stubborn, subtle and entrenched are its opposite numbers. In Ephesians 3: 1-12, God’s unmerited and unmeasurable grace stands in contrast to three things: one of which is our confidence and tendency to earn or achieve what God alone gives. That’s by definition. But in today’s passage, the first thing grace stands against is alienation, estrangement or separation not only between God and people, but between people and people. The second opposite number to grace in today’s passage is a life with no calling, no grand ministry, vision nor direction greater than ourselves, our comfort, our security and our status.
About the first opposite number to grace, grace versus alienation, estrangement between people. Its not just because people hurt each other. Its not just because of bad history between persons and people groups. Its because of how we can keep this alienation and separation alive, through our compulsive score-keeping, through our systems of rewards, merits, debts and credits, by which we convince ourselves that we are ahead of others, and more deserving in the game, while others are less deserving, and behind. We may even think of these systems of rewards, merits, debts and credits as “Christian” systems, if we calculate them according to Christian values. Every Christian value, that is, but forgiveness or reconciliation.
While such score-keeping might seem “fair,” its most unfair because, once you’ve done something wrong, the game is over, the winner declared, and the loser stuck in the losers’ column. Such drop-dead time-sensitive score-keeping works for NFL or Major League Baseball, but not for families, communities or churches. In real life, the clock is keeps ticking after the winners and losers are declared; sometimes even into the lifetimes of our descendants. We need new starts all the time.
Otherwise, we end up like the village schlemiel in the Yiddish story. “Schlemiel” is the Yiddish word for “fool.” One particular schlemiel would start out every morning by buttering his toast and, before eating it, he would accidentally drop it on the floor, butter-side down, on the same spot by the table, where there was already a big grease spot from all the previous morning accidents. Then he would mutter, “Oy, I’m such a schlemiel.”
But one morning, he dropped his toast and it landed butter-side up! What a breakthrough! He was so thrilled, he ran outside, down the street and caught the rabbi on the way to his morning prayers. He said, “Rabbi! I’m not such a schlemiel anymore!”
“What makes you say that?” asked the rabbi.
“Well, you know how every morning, I butter my toast, but before I can eat it, it falls to the floor butter-side down?”
“Yes, we all know that,” said the rabbi. “That’s why its so dangerous to sit at your kitchen table.”
“Well, this morning, I buttered my toast, and it fell out of my hand again, but this time, it landed on the floor butter-side up!”
“Oy, my friend,” said the rabbi. “I hate to tell you this, but that only shows that you are such a schlemiel you even buttered the wrong side of your toast this morning.”
Actually, that only goes to show how hard we can work at pigeon-holing people into the roles and judgments we have for them, and how hard we can work to keep them there, with no room for grace to set them free and become someone else than whom we have defined them to be. Somebody supposedly has to be the village schlemiel, at least so that the rest of us can feel smarter by comparison. And if the village schlemiel won’t stay in his place, then God forbid, someone else will have to occupy it. And God knows, I’ve dropped enough things in my life!
But in today’s passage the grace of God pushes the reset button, making all things new and setting people free on both the great cosmic scale, and on the personal level.As for the grand cosmic scale:When Paul wrote the words we heard today, the biggest, most long-standing, intractable estrangements in his world were between Rome and Persia, and between Jews and Gentiles. Each of those groups had their opposite numbers pegged as implacable enemies beyond any hope of reform or reconciliation.
But we see breaks of light in both of those conflicts in today’s Bible passages. On this Epiphany Sunday, when the church celebrates the appearance of the Magii to the Christ child, it would do us well to consider and remember just what a breakthrough that was. The maggii were priests of Zoroastrianism, the official state religion of the Persian empire. If you were here on Christmas eve, you got a sense from the drama that we did, how those magii to cross the militarized, fortified border between the Roman and Persian empires. Both armies and empires had fortresses strung out in a line by which soldiers in one fort could communicate with their comrades in the next fort in case of attack, with mirrors by day or torches at night. They were often busy, because there often was war. But that the Persian maggii should show up in Roman territory to worship the King of the Jews shows just what kind of power God has and uses to reach into even the thorniest, bitterest, longest-lasting grudge fests, to soften people’s hearts and to reconcile them. That power, exercised in that way, for reconciliation, is grace.
And that was just a warm-up. Paul and his missionary team waded right into the middle of the biggest conflict within the Roman Empire: that between Jew and Gentile. It would soon flare up into war. One of the worst hotheads in this conflict had been Paul himself, when he was Saul of Tarsus. But as a result of meeting Christ, and getting taken down from his high horse, Paul came to see and accept the Gentiles as in verse 6, “heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” That, again, is the working of God’s grace.
On a more personal level: Today, walking the streets of Minneapolis or riding the buses, you meet middle-aged men in heavy green hoodies, MADDADS, (Men Against Drugs, Delinquency And Social Disorder) who are out keeping the peace, being like fathers to troubled, fatherless youth, and acting as peacemakers, especially between gangs. This is all the more remarkable because many of them were gang members in their earlier years. They had once pledged undying enmity to rival gangs, and to avenge any loss or insult to their own gang. Now these are often the second generation of rival gangs with whom they are working. By the grace of God, a leopard can change his spots; an old dog can learn new tricks, if we say yes to the invitation to reconciliation that God in his grace is always offering us.
Speaking personally: think for a minute about who we might have locked up in the prison walls of our negative assessment. Someone who, yes, did something wrong, or not well enough by our lights, and who now can do nothing right, not even if they should win the Nobel Peace Prize, the NFL MVP player of the year, and be voted number one on Dancing With the Stars and The Singer in the same year? Someone whose growth and goodness today we can’t see because of something they did wrong last year? Into such relationships comes the grace of God offering new chances not only for the outcasts in our lives, but for the outcast-ers, because rejection is just as heavy a burden to keep laying on someone else, as it is to carry from someone else.
That was the first manifestation of grace in today’s passage: the ministry of reconciliation on both the grand, social, cosmic levels, and on the personal one. The second operation of grace in today’s passage grace does not get us off the hook but actually puts us on the spot: Will we accept the offer of lives of engagement and involvement in majestic and meaningful things much bigger than ourselves? Like this ministry of reconciliation? Or did we think that grace was just another name for the American dream of ever-increasing comfort, prosperity, status and security until an even more prosperous, secure and comfortable retirement? For Paul speaks not only about his ministry and calling, to share God’s grace, he speaks of his ministry and calling as God’s grace. Yes, the same ministry of racial reconciliation through the gospel of Jesus Christ that got him imprisoned, beaten, shipwrecked, stoned nearly to death and finally beheaded. As costly as it was, it was still grace, because it gifted him with a life more loving, meaningful and fruitful than any life he could have cooked up on his own.
So as we begin a new year, let me ask us, Do we accept both the gift and the challenge, the comfort and the cost that come with God’s extravagantly unmeasurable and un-merited grace? The grace that offers us both lives of ever-expanding and ever-deepening reconciliation, as well as lives of engagement and involvement in majestic and meaningful things much bigger than ourselves, like this ministry of reconciliation? Think of that as we share the same loaf and the same cup of communion today. Let the cup and the bread serve as symbols of this infinitely much bigger grace of God, and of our willingness to partake of this grace, and to share it.