You Gentiles!

. 5 min read

Jan 2020, Christ Mountain Top, Epiphany, Lord’s Table
the Scripture, Psalm 72, selections (6:00 pm only)
Isaiah 60.1-6 (darkness covers, your light has come – use large sheet and phone
Ephesians 3.1-12 (Gentiles!!)
new in town: picked last for kickball at recess
are made … [to be broken].  But it is
only the rule breakers who tell you that. 
Rules are made because we need to protect ourselves.  Some examples.  Zoe and the boundary of the yard.  Insisting that our children wear helmets when
bicycling.  The rule protects us, and it
does so by establishing a border, a boundary, across which you must not pass.
first century Jewish life, the Torah, the law/rule/way, functioned in just such
a protective capacity.  The world was
becoming more and more interconnected in politics and commerce, immigration and
emigration reshaped the demographics of neighborhoods and towns, and the people
of Israel were being freshly exposed to religious influences that did not fit
with the story and promise of the God of Israel.  This protective feature of the Law is positive
and important, but it can, and often does, lead to an insularity, a smallness,
an exclusiveness.

       The Law includes much legislation on
matters such as what you can and cannot eat, how to clean your hands, how to
prepare your food.  And, if you don’t
share those rules in common, you cannot eat together for fear of contaminating
your Jewishness.  Interestingly enough,
most folks never considered the possibility that the holiness of God’s people
could possibly rub off on others, just that others could make me unclean.  It is no surprise that in such a cultural
context, one of the Jewish expressions for Gentiles, for those who are not
Jewish, was “dog”.

       Paul grew up in just such a context, and
was a leader among a Jewish sect that paid rigorous attention to the borders,
to the rules, that defined and protected Jewish society and religious
life.  And yet, here in Ephesians 3, he
is almost giddy at the mention of “Gentiles”. 
In fact, verses 1-12 are only two sentences in the Greek text, two long,
run-on, compound-complex sentences with nary a break to catch your breath.  This breathless apostle LOVES Gentiles!
I wrote above in a few words”.  Chapter 2
of Ephesians is all about this mystery: That in Christ Jesus, specifically in
the body and the blood, those who were, in terms of spiritual geography, “far
away” (that is, the Gentiles), have been brought “near”.  Formerly, Gentiles were “aliens from the
commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, hopeless and
godless in the world”.  Now, however,
Christ has “abolished the law” – “the dividing wall of hostility” – and made
the two into one new humanity.
       Paul is giving praise.  Paul is speaking of a new spiritual reality,
a deep truth.  But, are we living
it?  Don’t those dividing walls of hostility
persist in one form or another?  Don’t we
live behind protective rules and define those outside the circle as outside of
grace, “far away” from God, and perhaps barely even human?  In the last eighty years, “holocaust” and “ethnic
cleansing” have entered our regular vocabulary. 
It wasn’t that long ago that black and white did not share the same public
restrooms or church pews, never mind dinner tables.  And we struggle to understand the
complexities and to handle the emotions around human sexuality.  It is so much easier to define boundaries.
       Yes, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got
a long way to go.  For a moment, though,
let’s step back from the big ticket items, the -isms and -phobias of our time,
and look at the micro level.  All of us
have those people around whom we are defensive, just as a starting point in
every interaction with them.  Even if
they are well-meaning we’ll interpret their words or actions as offensive.  We’ve erected boundaries for self-protection,
and they have become “dividing walls of hostility”.  Ever found yourself on one side, or the
other, of such a wall?  The only way to
destroy such a wall is by taking the risk to assume the best (what some call a
“hermeneutics of grace”), but it is so much easier to define boundaries.
       Nevertheless, Paul writes in Ephesians
3:8 of the “boundless riches of Christ”. 
And, in chapter 2, he speaks of Jesus abolishing that “dividing wall of
hostility”.  Paul is giving praise for a
new spiritual reality, focused on Christ at the center rather than on the rules
at the border.  But are we living it?
       We greet each other in worship with the traditional
words: “The peace of Christ be with you. 
And also with you.”  Those words
are rooted in this very truth that we celebrate today at the Lord’s Table:
Jesus died to bring us to God and unite us to each other. 
I was the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to
the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ.”  “For surely you have already heard of the
commission of God’s grace that was given me for you [Gentiles].”
       The mystery of Christ’s boundless riches
comes along with a boundary-crossing mission. 
Paul, the “Hebrew of Hebrews” in his own language, is now in mission to
and with the Gentiles, even eating at the same table.  Paul is commissioned to this work, and he is
thrilled with the privilege.  My father
was commissioned “an officer and a gentleman”. 
But Paul has a greater claim: commissioned an apostle to the Gentiles.
       And, despite the boundaries set up in his
time, the Gentiles are coming to Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, in tone the most
Jewish of the four gospels, the story opens with wise men from the East –
Gentiles – coming to worship Jesus. In John’s gospel, in Holy Week, for the
first time one of the disciples brings Greeks to see Jesus and his response, in
the context of his imminent death, is “The hour has come for the Son of Man to
be glorified” (John 12:20-24). In Isaiah’s vision of the rising glory of the
LORD (Isaiah 60), one of the main features is that the nations, the Gentiles,
those on the other side of those spiritual boundaries, are streaming to the
light. And it happens because people like Paul receive the mystery of Christ’s
boundless riches as their mission for life.
       For Paul, that meant welcoming the
“other” and crossing or removing barriers that keep people from Jesus. No
matter what stood in the way, he was going to offer Jesus to those unacceptable
pagan sinners – Gentiles. For Paul, this was NOT natural behavior. It required
a conversion. It required that he discover that God truly does love everybody,
even those outside his comfort zone, even those whom he considered unclean
simply by virtue (or by vice) of their ethnicity. It required that he pick the
new kid for his kickball team, that he go out of his way to become friend with his
enemies, that he accept those he had learned all along were unacceptable.
       When we are captured by the gospel, by
this mystery that God desires to be reconciled and connected with everyone,
including me and you, including our enemies, including those we don’t
understand and accept … when we are captured by this gospel, by this mystery,
we find ourselves out on the frontiers, out on the fringes with Jesus, hanging
out with the kids who aren’t picked at recess but are nevertheless picked by