I, like many of you, made a special pilgrimage to the movie cinema this season to witness something that only has occurred 6 times in history so far. That’s right, I watched the 7th installment of the Star Wars franchise.
It definitely lived up to and exceeded my expectations for what it could be. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but I will tell you to go watch it if it’s up your alley, or even if it’s not, because it’s just a good film. It did, however, inspire me to go back and re-watch the original 1977 Star Wars, and it made me watch it with fresh eyes.
For those who don’t remember, the main plot of the original movie revolved around a rag-tag group of rebels, a farmboy, a smuggler, an aging knight and a young princess, off to deliver secret plans that could save the galaxy. These secret plans were pursued by an evil Empire, and were whispered in back alleys, exchanging hands from person to person until it winds up in the hands of our heroes, who use it to save countless lives.
The new one follows a similar outline: secret plans, idealistic heroes on a quest to save lives from doom. It’s an old story, which is why it feels so timeless.
The idea of secret plans being the key to salvation is in fact so timeless, it pops up in our scripture reading for today. To be fair, the word we read as “secret plans” in Ephesians, is usually translated as “mystery,” and that has a history all its own in the Christian tradition.
When I speak of mystery, we get an idea in our head that we should interpret it as a puzzle, because that is how we often think of it these days. A mystery in the theological sense is not a puzzle though. A mystery in the Church is often something that describes a holy truth that is usually logically impossible. That Jesus is both human and divine is considered a mystery, because how can one thing also be something different at the same time? That God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one, trinity, is a mystery, for how can one 1=3?
Our faith is filled with these logical impossibilities, these mysteries that are not puzzles to be solved but truths to be in awe of. Today, however, we think of mystery as a secret plan, for it is in this way that it is presented to us. It is a plan that was kept a secret until it was revealed through Jesus Christ, and through the apostles. And, on this day when we celebrate the Epiphany, we realize through the incarnation that the secret plan was that salvation would not be a secret reserved for only a few chosen people, but for all and for everyone.
Stage 1:Re-distribution of Grace
To begin, I think we need to tackle some difficult ideas, primarily the idea of redistribution of grace.
The speaker in Ephesians who identifies as Paul, but who was more than likely a student of Paul and wrote on behalf of Paul, starts off with this: “You’ve heard, of course, about the responsibility to distribute God’s grace, which God gave to me for you.”
The writer of Ephesians starts us off with a puzzler: why would God need this distribution effort? What reason would God have to make this decree? The reason is one of historical context, but with longstanding ramifications. The God we are talking about was primarily known in as the Jewish God of the Jewish tradition, and in that tradition, salvation and deliverance belonged to the Jewish people. Therefore, God’s grace was already distributed, and distributed to a certain people, and nobody else. Paul, then, in a revelation that revealed the mystery of grace, this new secret plan, understood this grace through Jesus Christ was no longer only restricted to Jews. This grace was now available to gentiles, or non-Jews, as well.
To us, this may seem like well-worn territory. Of course, that’s also because we have 2000 years of history between us and when this revelation was made known. It was a revolutionary, controversial statement Jesus was around, and it was even more controversial when Paul doubled down on it and preached to the Gentiles.
Think about it this way. Up until then, it was rare for someone of a certain nationality or ethnicity to take on the religion of another group of people. Sure, there were some outliers, but for the most part, people stuck to the religions that “belonged” to their ethnic groups. Greeks stuck to Greek religion. Romans to Roman religion. Jews to Judaism. Now, however, this religion, and this God, was no longer region locked. Now, not only Jews could believe in this God, but all people, and it was done through Jesus Christ.
That said, after Jesus ascended, the hard work of explaining this new reality to people began, and it was a difficult one to do. Then again, nothing worth doing is ever that easy. There was significant resistance to the idea that following Jesus was something that anyone could do, and that salvation was made available to not just one people, but all people. This is especially difficult to explain to the people who were used to being the only ones that salvation was made available to. They were used to being the privileged, and now that same privilege is no longer something that only they get access to.
But that’s now progress works, isn’t it? Walls being torn down, barriers destroyed, and what was once hoarded and walled off being available to everyone, right? Things are better when everyone has access to it. Just because I am a certain way, or was born to a certain ethnic group, should not restrict me from access to something. Now, I recognize that because I’m a white guy, there isn’t much that is restricted to me. It’s my task, though, to make sure that everyone has access to the same things, even if I don’t always recognize what it is. What I can do in my role here is reiterate and make sure that salvation is available to be distributed, so to speak, to anyone who seeks it.
Now, that access does have some restrictions–salvation does come freely, but it doesn’t come cheap, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grace comes at the cost of your whole self, everything you are, and everything you hope for. Grace comes at the cost of a self-centered universe, to be replaced with a God centered one. By default, we are self-centered, and what matters most is what we want for ourselves. Grace then is what we experience when the unselfishness of God is made known to us in Jesus Christ, who gave his son so that we may know that we are reconciled to God. Understanding what was done on our behalf, we then can begin to understand what it is to be Godly, and to be Godly is to be unselfish, gracious, and filled with a desire to share that grace with others. In other words, to be Godly is to want to redistribute the grace.
Stage 2: Varieties of Wisdom
If you thought that this was the end of the plan, you are dead wrong. Distributing grace was only stage 1. Stage 2 is even better, because once you’ve redistributed grace to people it was unavailable to previously, then you get to see what comes out of it.
Verse 10 says: “God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church.”
See, there’s good reason for making it available to all people, more than just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s to further the grand experiment known as the Kingdom of God. If more people have access to grace, then it only stands to reason that through all these new people, new means will be discovered to share that grace with others. With new means of grace, new people will be able to experience grace. And as more people experience grace, they in turn will hopefully share that grace with others, and the cycle continues.
This is where all the fun comes in, because this is where we not only receive grace, but become participants in grace. We participate in the salvation of all creation, and if that’s not exciting, then you aren’t paying attention. You get to help save the world. Isn’t that an amazing opportunity?
To see just a smattering of what new ways we can share the grace of God, I decided to go online and ask on Facebook different ways people have found to share the good news of God’s grace with others. Here are some of the responses:
One said this: “I have noticed it in the form of insight into past events, such as understanding why difficult things were necessary for the future God wanted for me.”
Another person said: “Everything from Heavy Metal Christian Bands to coffee house churches with folk singers have been part of my experience. Sometimes what seems new (feeding folks on the streets of a city) are actually very old and harken back to former times – just practices that seem to have been forgotten by some and now seen as new and “unusual”.”
Another, and much more controversially: “Holding Bible Study in an open bar back in the corner until the group grew large enough to use a room. Then the owner offered space on Sunday for worship.”
This only a few ideas from people. There’s no telling how many new and exciting ways God is showing grace to others.
Stage 3: The Kingdom of God Draws Near
Through Jesus Christ, we experience grace in new and exciting ways. There’s a variety of ways we can exhibit this grace given to us in Jesus. However, the goal always remains the same: The Kingdom of God draws closer to us.
We can’t see it in it’s entirety now. We only get a glimpse of what it’s like, but in experiencing grace, we get to see a little bit more of it. Like a grand puzzle, we each have a little piece of it, and only when we come together, we see the puzzle come together. So I encourage you, get out there and share the grace you’ve received with others, so that we may in turn see God’s grace in new and exciting ways. Amen.