Grace’s Epiphany

Paul writes from a city full of people who, to you and me, might have seemed beyond the reach of the gospel. Paul writes from Rome, and you might expect him to complain about all the paganism and godlessness in that city in language that might go something like this:

My dear Ephesians: Well, in case you haven’t heard, I’m stuck here in Rome. Of all the rotten luck! There aren’t enough followers of Jesus here to make a difference in this giant pagan circus. Romans don’t have clue about God. The place is chock-full of idols–they have gods for everything from breast feeding to bee keeping, from wine to war. The worst of it is that I have to spend my days chained by the wrist to one of these Roman soldiers, not known for their careful bathing habits, by the way. I hate it here. I hate their ignorance. I hate them. I await God’s judgment of them all. May it come right soon!

If Paul had written such a letter, it would have been roughly in line with the atmosphere in which he grew up. Paul had long been taught that Jews only were God’s special people. What’s more, God hated pagan idolatry such that the day was coming when God would punish the pagans and restore the Jews to their intended place of honor and privilege. While they awaited that day, the Jews had had to learn how to tolerate living in close quarters with pagans, first in Babylon and more recently back home under Roman occupation. They learned tolerance but never pretended to like pagans. As someone once put it, pagans were “cordially despised.”

Occasionally, you might detect a similar attitude in the church. We, too, can be tempted to suppose that there are people who are pretty much beyond the reach of the gospel. We wouldn’t say it out loud, but in the quiet of our hearts we may be inclined to cordially despise certain people. We know God can touch whomever he chooses to touch, but it’s easy to get in the habit of behaving as if certain people are pretty much beyond God’s reach.

But the good news of the gospel from Ephesians is that God is in the business of welcoming people from far and wide. God is working in the hearts and lives of people all over the place. It’s Epiphany after all, a time to recall that most unlikely group of divinely led folks: the Magi. From the point of view of God’s people back then, those Magi were as culturally despised a group of people as you could hope to find. They were palm- and star-readers, horoscope columnists for the Persia Daily Star. They were idolaters overtly called an “abomination” in Deuteronomy. Yet these pagan outsiders were given front row seats at the birthday festivities of Jesus. Could God be working more broadly than we think?

Paul thinks so. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says God showed him that his plan was to reach out to all kinds of people. Before Jesus came, God’s people just didn’t see the scope of God’s plan, writes Paul. If God had anything better than hell planned for pagan humanity, it was a mystery long kept hidden. But now God’s plan has been revealed and it shows God at work all over the place.

When Paul tells his story, it’s difficult to tell which floored him more: the Damascus Road revelation that Jesus is Lord or the subsequent revelation that God was reaching out to Gentiles (and that Paul was his new point person to do so). As it turned out, God was interested not just in the already-righteous but in the potentially righteous, too! “God loves the whole world and is extending himself to everybody,” Paul wrote. “This is big news! In Jesus Christ, God loves every single person, and even sin cannot put a person beyond God’s reach.”

There is a bar in Stoney Lake, Michigan, where I would occasionally go for lunch years ago. The motto of the place was printed on their match books: “There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met yet.” I used to think that would be a good motto for the church, but from what Paul says in Ephesians 3, to think of just the church is to think too small. The world is full of people in whose lives God is at work already now. We have a whole city, a whole country, a whole world not of strangers but of friends that may not have met God yet. Every person we meet is one whom God is inviting to follow Jesus and to whom we may be privileged to deliver God’s invitation.

John Rottman is associate professor of preaching at Calvin Theolgocial Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.