The beginning of Chapter 3 of Ephesians calls us to consider our response to the Gospel. Is it one of humility, or one of pride? Who is called to serve this mystery? And how are we to take heart when faced with such a difficult task?
Ministry in Humility
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.
In the previous section, we have just heard of the wonderful citizenship with the saints that life in Christ brings, and the character Paul, masking the anonymous author, is a perfect example of how much that citizenship with the saints, that life in the Church, is worth. “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (v.1). The Apostle Paul, in his own letters, writes at length of the trials and sufferings, including imprisonment, which he has undergone in order to bring them the Gospel and to build up the churches to whom he addresses his letters. So, says Ephesians, remember what your membership in the Church is worth, and what it has cost both Christ and those who have gone before you.
The bearers of this message do not work for themselves, but receive a “commission of God’s grace” (v.2) which is not for them but “given to me for you” (v.2). And they do not tell their own story for their own glory, but receive “a mystery” which they only know “by revelation” (v.3). Ephesians then points the reader to reread chapters 1 and 2, to see the remarkable nature of the faith it proposes, “a reading of which will enable you to perceive” “in a few words” “my understanding of the mystery of Christ” (v.4). The first portion of Ephesians, everything we have explored so far, was a summary of what Christians believe, as the writer of Ephesians saw it, and as he could state in a short space.
I am struck by the humility here. The Apostle Paul is rarely so reserved, and prefers to represent himself as an authority, a necessary role for him to adopt if he was to achieve his aim of supporting several disparate and fledgling communities. And yet, although Ephesians lays the same claim to the authority of “revelation”, perhaps setting down another link to the Apostle Paul, it is remarkable that Ephesians holds itself out as offering only “my understanding” of what, for us, will always remain a “mystery”.
Most of us have experienced hurt or mistreatment at the hands of church leaders who claimed to have an authority which God had not in fact given them, who claimed to speak with a revelation which God had in fact not revealed to them. Ephesians sets out another model of Church leadership: one that is humble, and defers to the reality of the mystery of what God has truly done in Christ. And it works for us as well. Just as church leaders can put themselves in the place of the Apostle Paul, so we too can idols of our own ideas, thinking them to be from God, and can be insensitive and uncharitable to our fellow believers. Ephesians suggests that humility at all times is the key to thinking well about God.
Bearers of the Mystery
5In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. 8Although I am 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, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;
The mystery of God’s work in Christ, as Ephesians laid out in 2:11-22, is that “the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v.6). All people, whoever they are, have access in Jesus to God’s good promises and can become members of Christ’s body, the Church.
But Ephesians reminds us that this has not always been the case. I am struck by the analogy between the fact that “in former generations this mystery” of the unity of Jews and Gentiles “was not made known to humankind” (v.5), and the experience of so many queer people coming to faith. The mystery that we too can be united to Christ and to the cis- and hetero- etc. from whom we have at times felt so isolated, can come as a shock to many of us, and I certainly am still working through it. The profound mystery of God that those who have been excluded can always be included in Jesus is difficult, for those who learn to include others as well as those who learn to be included. But we are reassured that this mystery “has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (v.5). This shocking and far-reaching inclusion is at the core of the Gospel message.
And of this Gospel, teachers and leaders, as well as the least among us, are called to be “a servant” (v.7), and this not by our own powers but “according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power” (v.7). We so often feel that those called to minister the Gospel must be the most able, the loudest and the strongest in the Church, and for so many of us who are queer in the Church that doesn’t feel like us. So it is reassuring that the writer of Ephesians uses the character of Paul, who reminds us often that he was “the very least of all the saints” (v.8), and that the vocation to serve God and his Gospel is not a right owed on account of our abilities or social standing, but a “grace… given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ” (v.8). Christians, queer or not, do not serve God by their own power or for their own enrichment, but by God’s grace and for Christ’s riches.
And this last verse sums up for me the essence of Christian evangelisation, for at the heart of the Christian love for God is the desire to share that love with others. It is a desire “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery” (v.9), neither seeking only to share with those who are like us, nor seeking only to convert those who are other than us, in order to make them more like us. We receive our faith as a gift, and we want to share that gift with all people, whoever they are.
This mystery of unity and reconciliation in Christ is for everyone, and Christians are called to reflect that in our relationships with those around us. For this mystery is an eternal mystery, “hidden for ages in God who created all things” (v.9). This is how profoundly God has always desired our union and unity, how profoundly God has desired to tear down the dividing walls between us, and how profoundly he wishes to use each and every one of us to that end.
Encouragement for the Difficult Task
10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. 13I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.
The call to work for unity in Christ and the breaking down of barriers is a difficult one. The Church is called to enter some of the toughest spheres for peacemaking and reconciliation, “so that through the church the wisdom of God… might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (v.10). We as members of the Church are called not only to break down the dividing walls immediately around us, but to engage with the powerful, the rich and the influential. These are the people who most closely guard many of the walls that divide God’s children. And we are called to bring the Good News to them as well, in a “rich variety” (v.10) of different ways, as each of us is called.
The powerful and influential have a great hold on us. Every time we read the news there is something to shake our confidence in the Church’s power to change the world as we see it now. Every time we flick through facebook, we see another leading figure preaching hatred and division and heads nodding in agreement. And Ephesians knows the sort of pressure we are under to despair and give up hope.
Ephesians reassures us that the God’s plan to break down the barriers that separate us is not just our lonely challenge, our impossible task, to perform. This mission is nothing less than God’s “eternal purpose” that he has already “carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.11). This mission is already in motion. Victories have already been won. And we do not act alone, for in Jesus “we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him” (v.12). This is why Ephesians can say, “I pray therefore that you may not lose heart” (v.13), lacking in confidence that God has our backs. For the “sufferings” (v.13) that we experience ourselves, that we see in those we love and those like us around the world, are not our shame, our defeat, or our destruction. The difficulty of the task of breaking down barriers and uniting people in the love of Christ is no reason to stop. Rather, “they are your glory” (v.13).
The task the Church faces in breaking down barriers is great. The task that queer people in Church face in doing the same is even greater. But we are called not to lose heart, for God is in our sufferings. He has laid the foundations of the final victory when all people shall be one in Christ. And he gives us grace to continue to be voices of wisdom and unity in a world and Church that desperately need to know those things.