I am preaching on the first reading today, for a mid-day prayer service. The reading is Ephesians 3:2-12, and can be found here. And here is my reflection!
When I was in graduate school, there was another student who was agnostic, studying theology but from the outside looking in, while the rest of us were on the inside looking at something we already believed. She was a great student, very bright and eager to learn. When she started teaching, she gave it her all, and became a good teacher. As we got to know each other, our friendship taught me two things. First, she was a seeker, always looking for God, even though she would not have spoken of her search in that way. It was like she could see that the beauty of creation pointed to the divine, but she wasn’t yet ready to say that the divine exists. That seed of desire for God was deeply implanted in her heart, even though she did not recognize it as such.
The second thing I learned from her came when we had both started teaching. When she didn’t know the answer to something she became flustered and felt like a failure. While I sometimes did that (don’t we all), there were other times when I knew it was okay not to know. Sometimes I was able to tell the students that I didn’t know but I would find out. At other times we were able to start a conversation about mystery. There are things I don’t know because my understanding of God has not yet grown that far, and there are other things that are simply beyond the ability for human beings to know. (That conversation usually comes up during a discussion of Trinitarian theology.) For me, that was a joyful moment, to see the mystery beyond my knowledge, hoping that someday more would be clear to me.
Today we hear Paul say, “I figured it out.” He is speaking of the mystery of God, and tells us of his “ah-ha” moment, when the light bulb clicked on and he gained a little insight into that great mystery. You can hear the excitement in his words. In fact, it moves him so powerfully that he is sent on a globetrotting mission to tell the world what he has learned, with (as he says) “boldness of speech.” His message is that of unity: that God is not just the God of the Jews, but the God of all peoples, even the Gentiles! To Paul, this is very exciting, a revelation to him and a catalyst for his new way of living.
Paul’s message brings with it the challenge of overcoming societal barriers and of teaching others of the value of the diversity and unity of the whole human race. Society in Paul’s world was not so different from our own. We have a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them,” into groups that seem to form opposing sides. Those who are like us and those who are not like us; Jew and Gentile; white and not-white; clergy and laity; Catholic and Protestant; Christian and atheist (or Christian and Muslim); Democrat and Republican; and on and on. We do it all the time. Sometimes we divide in order to understand our roles, such as when we distinguish between teacher and student or parent and child. Sometimes it’s about our identity, such as when we distinguish between religious orders or ethnic background. But often, especially lately, we seem more likely to divide in order to know that “we” are right, and “they” are wrong. Rather than highlighting and appreciating the diversity, we are distinguishing in order to separate ourselves from others. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in the election season, when the one I disagree with not only differs in opinion, but also rides a black horse, wears a black hat, and carries a bayonet.
It’s somehow impossible to co-exist with those who see the world differently. But is that not exactly what Paul’s insight is about? Here he tells us that “they” (the Gentiles) are coheirs, copartners in the promise of God—even members of the same body. Not only should we get along, but we need to work together in order for things to work out. We’ve seen in our political system what happens when opposing sides refuse to work together. Nothing. Time wasted. Frustrated efforts.
Paul calls us even one step further than simply working together and recognizing diversity in our unity. He calls us “coheirs” – we are children of the same God, called to live out God’s promise of salvation united. There’s only one heaven—no separate rooms for “us” and “them.” We must co-exist, to share together in God’s Kingdom. There is room for each one of us, even the ones who are so very “other”. When I think of all human beings coming together in that one Kingdom of God, when I see all the different sizes, shapes, and skin tones, I too get excited about Paul’s insight into the mystery of God.