We began our reflection on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians last week. The theme of last week’s sermon was “God’s Grand Vision”. Paul somehow saw God’s grand vision for humanity – that out of two, one new humanity is created. Paul saw God’s beautiful vision for humanity and this world.
God’s vision for the world is reflected in the Hebrew word “shalom”. Shalom at its essence means peace, harmony and wholeness. Shalom has been the purpose of creation, and God created human beings to be partners with God in bringing about shalom.
God made a promise to Abraham to bring shalom to the world through his descendants, the Jews. For many generations, this mission of shalom was the special and exclusive calling of the Jews.
But Paul received a new revelation from God. This is how Paul describes his great discovery: “In 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: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:5-6)
His discovery was that this mission was now expanded to non-Jews as well – to Gentiles. In Christ, Gentiles were to share in God’s blessings, and they were to share in the work of bringing God’s shalom to this world.
The Ephesians were mainly Gentiles. They were outsiders to God’s calling and promise. This is how Paul described them: “Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in this world.” (Ephesians 2:12)
Aliens. Strangers. No hope. Without God. Gentiles were outsiders coming into the Jewish story. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples were all Jews. The early church was composed of Jews. But Paul is making the radical statement that they are now one and a part of this story.
Where there were two – Jew and Gentile – there was now one. This was at the core of Paul’s gospel. Whereas we were once separated, now, there is no separation, but oneness.
What kind of oneness is he talking about? I reflected on this question.
What does it mean to be one?
There are two ways to become one:
- Absorption and assimilation of one party into the other; or
- Both parties change and become something new together.
In the first way: one side has to change while the other doesn’t.
One side has to change, adapt and accept the way of the other. There is usually a power imbalance, and it is the weaker party that must become like the powerful party, or subject themselves to the ways of the powerful party.
In the second way: no side makes the other become like them. Both are willing to change in order to make room for the other. Where there is a power imbalance, the more powerful party takes the first step of letting go of that power to make genuine room for the other, and is willing to change. In coming together this way, both sides change, and together they become something new.
Paul saw clearly that God’s vision was for us to live this second way. This is why he said that in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, male nor female – they are now something new altogether.
In the very early church, the Jews were the stronger party, because it was their covenant, their blessing, their promise and their Messiah. Gentiles were outsiders coming in. Jews had the law from Moses. The law was at the core of Jewish identity. It was unfathomable for a Jew to be a Jew without the law. But for the sake of true unity, Paul makes a radical declaration: “He (Jesus) has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two…” (Ephesians 2:15)
The Messiah of the Jews abolished what was central to his own people so that they may be one with the Gentiles; in order that God’s vision of one new humanity may become real.
What Paul saw was that when two parties come together, the stronger party no longer absorbs the weaker party and expects them to assimilate. The stronger party gives up their power, privileges, and everything else they have staked their identity on, with an openness to become something new by joining with the other party. Of course both parties have to undergo change, but the onus is with the more powerful party to take that first step.
That takes a very secure, confident and strong person to do that. A weak and insecure person cannot do that.
A weak and insecure person needs to absorb or assimilate the other person to my way in order to feel less weak and less insecure.
When the earliest Korean immigrants came to Canada, there were literally just a handful of Koreans here in Toronto. When they met at church, there was such happiness at meeting fellow Koreans and worshipping together in their language, praying together and supporting one another. Their loneliness and struggle in this new country bound them together. There was a oneness from sharing this difficulty. But over time, conflicts and divisions soon became a feature of church life.
Conflicts arose over who would be in power. To overcome the pain of weakness, they fought to assert their way. When one party could not get their way, they would leave the church, thus creating a split. It’s only half a joke that Korean churches increased in great numbers because so many were born from splits.
St. Paul saw this conflict first-hand in every church he started. One group was always dominating over another. One group always fought against another to have their way.
He saw clearly that human beings always struggle for power, and try to create unity by imposing uniformity with that power.
The Ephesians were Gentiles who lived in a world soaked in power. The Roman Empire, with their raw might and power, had created the largest, most powerful empire ever known to the Mediterranean world. Power, status, wealth, and influence were used to impose their way and absorb others into their realm of control. When everyone is surrounded by this kind of power, it makes people feel weak and vulnerable. The way to overcome that weakness is by gaining and using that power for yourself. This was true back then, and this is what we see in our world today.
St. Paul’s Prayer
How can there be shalom in such a world?
St. Paul knew that a greater power was needed to have real shalom and unity. After articulating God’s grand vision for humanity as one new humanity out of two, and his revelation that Gentiles are joined with the Jews in God’s plan for shalom, he offers a prayer for the Ephesians that is today’s passage.
Here is St. Paul’s prayer for them:
“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:16-19)
St. Paul is praying that the Ephesians may have the power for unity that brings about God’s vision for a new humanity.
He knew that becoming one by giving up one’s power, rather than lording it over others, would require God’s power.
When we are weak, we seek power to overcome it. St. Paul’s prayer is that we may be filled with God’s power and fullness, rather than seeking the world’s power. When we are filled with the fullness of God, we are secure and confident, and do not need to dominate others. Rather, we can let go of our human power to make room for the other. With God’s fullness, we are confident and open to change. With God’s fullness and a strengthened inner being, we are ready to be part of the new humanity.
In Our Lives
This new humanity will not be created in the halls of power.
God’s grand vision for humanity will be lived out in common people like the Ephesians, and common people like us. It is in our daily life together that we struggle to live out and make real this vision of true oneness.
Now that we’re slowly emerging out of this pandemic, we’re starting to encounter people again. Human relationships were dormant, kind of on a pause. We missed the interactions, but we were free of human dramas. With interactions resuming, so will the dramas and conflicts that come with human relationships. The struggle to be one will resume.
The church is the place we come to try and live out God’s grand vision for humanity. My prayer for this community is that we are filled with the fullness of God, and with that, be open to change and let go of our own comfort, our own ways, to make room for others.
Last Saturday, we had a Session meeting. At that meeting, we talked about life after the pandemic. We believe we have a beautiful community, and that we are called to share the blessings of this community with others. We prayed that God may lead us to others with a spirit of love, that we might grow and change as new people become part of this community. Somehow, the day after, all these new people came to our church!
One of our happiest surprises was to meet Florence and Taka, and their children, Vaniah and Vanessa. When I saw them, I thought they came through an invitation from someone in our church. But it turns out that they knew no one! They moved to the neighborhood last fall and decided to look for a church close by, and found us on the internet. They’ve been in Canada from late 2019 after immigrating here from Zimbabwe, and spent most of their early days in COVID lockdown. But I was so blessed by their desire to continue the faith they cultivated from their home country.
They shared how they felt the love, unity and warmth in our congregation during the worship and afterward, and that all they want is a church to share their Christian walk with and raise kids in a Godly way. And with that they said they will start attending our church. I asked if I could mention them during the sermon, and they said yes, they are here for God and that getting to know people helps them in their Christian walk. How refreshing that is! So Florence and Taka: we welcome you and your children. We are so blessed that you found us. We know from our own experiences as immigrants and children of immigrants, how difficult it is to transition into a totally new place, especially during a time like we had the past year and a half. We come from different places, but God has brought us together. I pray that we will be a blessing to you in your journey with us, and I pray that we too may be open and willing to change as we get to know you and others who join this community, so that we may be one.
My friends, we are called to live out God’s vision and create one new humanity, and bring God’s shalom to this world.
This may seem like an impossible dream, but I stand with St. Paul as he closes his prayer:
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)