Today we celebrate the great festival of the Epiphany. Epiphany. What is the big deal about Epiphany? Well we, who have worshiped this past quarter century in the Chapel of the Epiphany should surely know by now. But just in case our memory fails we stop once each year to be reminded. What is the reason, we wonder? To which the lector responds by reading from the letter to the Ephesians:“This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” (vs. 1) Epiphany has to do with Jesus Christ. It has to do with being a prisoner. It has to do with Gentiles. Paul is the apostle of the Epiphany. Which is to say that he is the messenger of the great insight, the holy “aha”, the incredible revelation that is the mighty good news called the Epiphany.
Paul is a prisoner for Jesus Christ. Paul is in prison because he will not stop telling people the good news of the Epiphany that has broken open a whole new world. He is the first in a long line of Christians jailed for refusing to shut up about the Epiphany. What did the presbytery in Ephesus say when it received Paul’s police records check? Did his criminal record disqualify him from ministry or was it proof of his integrity? It was hotly debated in the early church. In the end, the church came to see that announcing the gospel of Jesus who was crucified by the authorities as a criminal would regularly bring faithful Christians into trouble with those same authorities. Being the people created by the Epiphany of Jesus Christ will not be all sweetness and light. There will be trouble.
But, notice this, the biggest trouble may not come from the authorities after all. The Greek text that is translated here as “I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus” can equally be translated to mean “I Paul the prisoner of Jesus Christ”. Yes, Paul is literally in jail. But he is, in a much bigger way, imprisoned for life by Jesus Christ. Jesus has taken control of Paul’s life. Paul is not a volunteer. He is a draftee. He says “I am the very least of all the saints”. The Greek reads: “I, whom am less than the least of all the saints.” Paul is not being modest. He is telling the truth. He is not in ministry because he is a spiritually gifted person with a great pastoral presence. He is not a preacher because he has the gift of a golden tongue. Paul does not look the part of a minister because, well, he’s not cut out to be one. But Jesus ignored Paul’s obvious inadequacies just as he overlooked Peter and James and John’s spotty backgrounds and inconsistent faithfulness, just as he called unsuspecting Mary, Martha and Salome and the other women to carry the Message. To be the people of the Epiphany is to be drafted into the movement in spite of ourselves. Oh, there was a time when I was led to imagine that I was a minister because I could speak well. How foolish. I am not in ministry because I have special gifts. And we are not called into this congregation because we have unique capacity and talent. No. I am prisoner of Jesus Christ. I cannot escape, even if I want to. And, yes, I have wanted to. This congregation is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. It is not free to make up its purpose or to reinvent its mission, to make its message somehow more relevant or trendy or acceptable. Paul says it this way: “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.” (vs7)
Paul is the servant - literally the “slave” - of this gospel, this message, this Epiphany. What message? What Epiphany? We hardly have time to announce it. We have a lunch to get to and an afternoon and a schedule. It is the reason that our Bible study in Lent will spend six weeks reading the letter to the Ephesians. This letter explores and announces the impact of God’s Epiphany in Jesus Christ. A people of the Epiphany should know this letter well. Yet, in nearly thirty-two years of ministry this will be my first time reading Ephesians with a congregation. I am so grateful to have been given the time to finally do what I should have done long ago. I hope that you will find a way to participate as we host Ephesians together - by joining our conversations at Janet’s each week or by following along online. This morning we have time for a foretaste - an appetizer - of the banquet that we will enjoy when reading Ephesians together. Where to begin? The problem is a big one. The letter and the message revolve around the shocking news that Gentiles are welcome at God’s table. Paul says that the Gentiles are fellow heirs. They share the inheritance. God’s will has been altered. Outsiders now receive an equal share with blood relatives. It is hard for us to rekindle the passion that this Epiphany aroused when it was first announced. Paul says that it is the revelation of a great mystery that has been hidden. And the revelation of this mystery is now creating a people - an ekklesia, a church - that embodies the wisdom of God in such a way that the invisible powers in the heavens take note. He means that the hidden forces that shape nations and cultures and neighbourhoods and families are confronted by a counter-force in the church. It is the power of God to make a new kind of people, a people shaped by the Epiphany.
What kind of people? Paul says it powerfully a chapter earlier. He reminds the recipients of the letter that they were once “dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived”. “Remember”, he writes, “that you were at that time without Christ ... aliens ... strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (ch 2. vss. 1,12) This is what it means to be a Gentile. It means to know what it is to look alive on the outside but to be dead on the inside. It means to be without hope, without promise, without God. Many addicts are Gentiles living hidden lives, filled with shame, sure that if others knew they would be shunned, excluded, banned. But, of course, not only addicts fit the profile of a Gentile. Many Christians, even ministers, play the game of keeping the faith on the outside while they live a desperate, lonely journey on the inside. They have forgotten or maybe never really heard the message that is the great shocking Epiphany.
It is this: “But now in Jesus Christ you who were once far off have been brought near ... He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near ... So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (ch 2, vss 13ff) It is a lot to get your head and heart and soul around. The church is not our doing. This is not a community of especially gifted spiritual people living exceptionally spiritual and virtuous lives. The church is made up of a flock of souls who were at one point lost, broken, outcast, desperate, ashamed, alienated people. It might have been a long time ago. Or it might have been yesterday. Or maybe it will be tomorrow. At some point we learn that we’re not here because of our merits. We’re here by the grace of God. When we finally learn the lesson we become prisoners of Jesus Christ who cannot keep silent about the Epiphany.
And, oh yes, if you want to see it - to see the Epiphany of Jesus Christ with your own eyes - watch. Watch what is about to happen. In the wisdom of God we do not only tell the message, we act it out. Here the curtain of heaven is drawn back. Here God’s own table is set. Jesus Christ is the host. He invites all who wish to come to eat with him, to take your rightful place at this head table. Watch while all manner of lost, broken and desperate souls come to the table. See what the powers in the heavenly places glimpse. These are not people who have their act together, whose lives are all neatly sorted out, who don’t know the meaning of trouble. These are Gentiles who were once dead but who are coming to life by the grace of God. If you find yourself joining them, taking your place at the table of God’s kingdom come where God’s outlandish will is done, don’t be surprised. We’re not volunteers. It’s a draft and your name has just been called.