Becoming the Church: From Hostility to Harmony (Ephesians 3)
Today’s reading, the whole chapter of Ephesians 3, really is one of the most elegant passages in all of Scripture, I think. It’s very moving to read it. And it’s powerful for the church to hear it. So I want to try to help us hear it a little bit more this morning. And there’s a lot here we could talk about — too much to cover in one sermon.
Maybe most famous of all is v. 18, which is a sermon in itself, speaking of how far and high and wide and deep is the love of God in Christ — and that we may know it.
It’s kind of surprising, though, I think, that — when Paul starts to talk about the mystery that is being revealed — what does he say? That Jews and Gentiles, through the gospel, would be members together, belonging fully and equally to the same body — that this is the mystery! I almost want to say, really? Is that it? That’s the mystery? That Jews and Gentiles? I would have guessed he’d say something like, the mystery is that God became human, took on flesh, was born of a woman and into a humble place…
Or maybe the mystery is that Jesus rose from the dead, or forgives our sins — actually, all of these things are part of the mystery too, and they are rightly called mysterious, as key aspects of the gospel message. But the coming together of Jews and Gentiles just may not seem quite as impressive or scandalous to us…
But it reminds me of the relationship that the Jewish people had, in many ways, to their Greek, Roman and Gentile counterparts. Because as you all may know, the history of Israel prior to and during the time of Jesus’s own life in relationship to other people groups was extremely troubled and tense. They had been conquered by one Empire after another and treated with extreme brutality in many cases — especially by the Romans, most recently.
And at a broader level, this really characterizes so much of our human history today, and in particular our own history as a nation — as the United States of America. Whether we’re talking about slavery, or the treatment of indigenous populations here, or even more recent history of involvement in the Middle East, or Central America, or other places. There are more examples than we could name of not even American, but contemporary political conflicts that are ethnically, or racially or religious motivated.
The norm of humanity in terms of relationships between different people groups and nations is hostility. That’s the natural thing. That’s what we tend to do. Or, if we are allies with anyone, it’s usually because we have a common enemy, a common skin color, perhaps a common religious history — something like that. War, poverty, distrust, resentment, rivalry, hate, division. These things are our status quo and sadly characterize the nature of many of the relationships between people in the world because of our sinful state.
I was on my way back from Charleston on a plane this past week, and had the chance to watch a movie on the plane because I was tired and didn’t feel like doing much else! And I also watched it by myself, which was unusual, because Whitney my wife was doing something else. And you know how sometimes airplanes are like the time that I watch moves that I wouldn’t normally watch. Normally, Whitney and I would have to agree on what we’re going to watch, because there’s one TV in our house. But on the plane, we each had our own.
So, this movie was called Hostiles. Not Hostel. That’s a different that I haven’t actually seen and looks terrifying and bad. The movie takes place in late 19th Century New Mexico and follows the story of a captain in the U.S. Calvary who’s asked by his commanding officer to escort the native American prisoner, a Cheyenne Chief named Yellow Hawk, who in his earlier days was a fierce warrior against European colonialist and settlers, back to his homeland in Montana before he dies and where he can be buried.
It was a difficult movie to movie to watch not even because of a few violent scenes, but more so, I would say, because of the loss of life that is depicted — the loss of a husband and of children, and parents, to attacks by both native American tribe members and U.S Calvary. And I’m not necessarily recommending that anyone watch it, if you haven’t. And I have no doubt that there are problems, for example, with how the indigenous people in the film are depicted.
But I was nonetheless very moved by the story. And I bring up this movie because of how I think it illustrates something being described in the Ephesians 3 reading for this morning, which I’ll try to explain.
Captain Blocker, Christian Bale’s character, who’s asked to take Yellow Hawk back to his homeland, so that he can be buried there, only very reluctantly agrees to do this, because he remembers how Yellow Hawk had led attacks years before in which several of his friends were killed.
But Captain Blocker is no saint himself. In fact he was famous for supposedly taking as many scalps of the native peoples as they did of the white colonial settlers. So both of these guys are guilty of committing crimes against each other’s people, and probably fairly heinous ones at that.
This is why I was struck by the narrative or the storyline of the movie — and how it ends. Yes, spoiler alert, but I’m just going to go there, and this shouldn’t ruin it for you if you want to see it, but after this very dangerous journey across the country from New Mexico to Montana, the hostility, the hate, the bad blood, bitterness, the division, the discrimination between Captain Blocker and Yellow Hawk — and between the other soldiers and Yellow Hawk’s family who are also on the journey — all that stands between them begins to melt away.
And there are many dramatic events that take place on their trek across this dangerous territory that create the possibility for their reconciliation, and part of it is that the end up having to work together to defend themselves against people who are attacking them. But that’s not the only reason.
Along the way, the horseback caravan that Captain Blocker is leading comes across a woman who has lost everything because she and her family were attacked by a Comanche war party, and her whole family was killed. And it is the Cheyenne family, Yellow Hawk’s daughter-in-law in particular, who has compassion on this woman — Mrs. Quade is her name — offer her a dress and a blanket and comforts her in her grief.
So the Cheyenne family, and the Anglo people, are both beginning to become more human to each other, and the walls start to come down. They start to warm up to each other and care for each, despite the very ugly and conflictual history that they share.
And finally, when the Captain is confronted by some men who threaten his mission and give him the chance to abandon the Yellow Hawk and his family, he stands his ground, and risks his own life — shows a willingness to sacrifice his own life — to save Yellow Hawk and his family. And they end up demonstrating the same willingness to give their lives for him.
This particular part of the movie is what I found so profound. It brought me to tears! Which doesn’t happen very often. So it forced me to ask, why was I feeling this way?
And I think it has to do with how the movie pointed to something that we all long for. I’m always amazed when Hollywood gets a glimpse of the gospel. Because it does from time to time, and this was one of those moments.
So the movie ends with what is actually a beautiful picture of the power of love to heal, restore and reconcile people who are different as Jews and Gentiles, and who have as many reasons to hate each other and go on blaming the other group for their own sin and suffering.
But there’s something about their common experience of suffering, and the way they each are presented with the opportunity to have compassion on each other, that leads Yellow Hawk at one point to say, “your spirit is in me, and mine in you. Thank you for your kindness.”
One of the most famous lines that Paul writes elsewhere in the New Testament shows up in 1 Corinthians 1:23. It reads:
But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
The Gentiles (or Greeks) believed that their “salvation” came through knowledge and understanding (Paul explicitly states here that the gospel is a mystery that surpasses understanding. Indeed, because it is rooted in the love of God in Christ, and this love too surpasses understanding).
The Jews, on the other hand, even though they knew God, tended to believe, at least many of them, that salvation came at least in some way through their identity as a nation and chosen people by God, and by keeping God’s law. But as we know, the gospel scandalizes, causes stumbling, is foolishness to both of these views of salvation!
The 20th Century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has a comment about this verse that is one my favorites favorites, in his book, The Nature and Destiny of Man:
Christianity is preached to both “Jews and Greeks” though it develops on the ground of Judaism and not on the ground of Greek philosophy. It is a greater “foolishness” to the Greeks who do not expect a Christ at all, than it is a “stumbling block” to the Jews, who expect a different kind of Christ.
This last point is especially important for the purposes of understanding what Paul is saying here, I think. The gospel is a foolishness to the Greek because they don’t think they or the world need to be saved at all. That just wasn’t their religious expectation. They believed in knowledge — that which could be known philosophically, and so understanding and freedom from ignorance was its own kind of liberation or salvation.
This is actually the same kind of salvation that you find in many Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. Which isn’t all bad! It’s just not the Christian gospel, and so it’s missing something crucial.
On the other hand, the gospel was not only foolishness to Greeks but a stumbling block to Jews because the Jews expected a different kind of Messiah than the one Jesus proved to be! They wanted somebody who could restore the kingdom of Israel to its rightful place in the world — like the good ole days! Under King David, when Israel was on top. Many of them wanted a revolutionary messiah, or at least a messiah who would be a real, worldly king.
But of course we know that this is not what Jesus was. Rather, the kind of mystery and gospel announcement that Jesus proclaimed surpassed all knowledge and could only be understand as a mystery rooted and established in love — a love that is so long, far, wide and deep, it’s really unfathomable.
It’s unfathomable. It’s unforeseeable. And unknowable — unless God makes it known to us, as he does through Christ. It’s glorious in its riches. And it’s a total mystery too because, as Paul says at the end, it means suffering. But this suffering is not in vain. In fact, Paul says, it is for your glory. It’s glorious suffering, just as Christ’s suffering was glorious.
Because it will involve suffering, won’t it, to be the kind of community, the kind of people, and to lead the kind of life, that welcomes and embraces those who are different from us — there’s going to be conflict and pain and sacrifice when that happens.
Those who are different politically. Those who are different socially and economically. Those who don’t speak our language, or with whom have troubled racial and ethnic histories of oppression and exclusion — or just those who are very different from us culturally.
I’m sure you all know in a city like Austin, this is already happening. Perhaps to some extent even in your church. And it’s hard, it’s challenging. It’s a mystery, how it works. But the gospel, through Christ gives us the power to be rooted and established in love — a love so long, so high, so wide, so deep, that it makes us capable of being reconciled and having right relationship, true community and communion.
This is not the shallow kind of unity that you might often hear about the media. The kind of unity that tends not to be based on anything other maybe individual freedom or civil rights. Now, civil rights, human rights — all of that is very good! As MLK Jr. said, the law can’t make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me. So amen! We need good laws.
But Dr. King knew that the kind of unity offered by the gospel is something different from what society can hope to accomplish with legislation or government intervention.
Paul is indeed here writing, as you’ve been talk about, about something that is the unique responsibility and role of the church. He’s literally saying that, the world will know, the rulers and authorities in the heavens, he says — all levels of reality and existence — will know the wisdom of God, which is to say the love of Christ, this mystery — they will know it through the church’s embodiment, practice and proclamation of it.
We’re the ones, friends, who can actually have life together with people who are radically different from us — not because we’re enlightened, modern, postmodern, secular humanists or anything else like that — but precisely because we are Christians. Because we are followers of Jesus and because of what God has accomplished for our sake through Christ — his incarnation, life, death and resurrection.
New Testament scholar FF Bruce says about Eph. 3 that here the church is said to be God’s pilot plan for the reconciled universe of the future. And the church is a foretaste of a time when all the mutually hostile elements in creation will be united.
So the church becomes this picture of what a new society, not just fellowship, in every area of social life, should look like — Government, race relations, you name it. God wants to heal all the harmful effects of sin — Psychological, social, physical — and the place where that will be most visible is the church.
And Now! Not just in the future. And through the community, not just individuals. Because that’s how we become who we are. We are formed by community, not just buy our individual decisions.
And the word manifold (as in “manifold wisdom” from v. 10) here means brilliant and multicolored. Aren’t those good words describe what the church can be — what it’s supposed to be. It’s something important keep in mind you’re too is that Paul knows the churches are not. perfect if anyone knows he knows that! And yet still, the church is the site where the gospel is the most able to be proclaimed and demonstrated to the world.
How can this strange story of God made flesh, of a crucified Savior, of resurrection and new creation become credible for those whose entire mental training has conditioned them to believe that the real world is the world which can be satisfactorily explained and managed without the hypothesis of God? I know of only one clue to the answering of that question, only one real hermeneutic of the gospel: a congregation which believes it. — Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks
Originally published at William A. Walker III.