Articles, Essays & Sermons

Epiphany of the Lord

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

by Ken Sehested

(From "Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1," David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminister John Knox Press, 2009)

Although the Apostle doesn’t use epiphany (“manifestation”) in this text, he likely had something similar on his mind. Something new has happened in Jesus. Better yet, the Word—God’s “eternal purpose” (v. 11)—can now be “seen” (v. 9) in ways previously unimagined. This “mystery” is news even to the heavenly hosts (v. 10). There is something of a Copernican Revolution underway. The entire universe of God’s Providence has been revised: not only in the context of a Roman imperial venue (the Apostle is again writing from jail) but also in the redemptive story centered in Israel’s promise.

In the church’s history, Epiphany has three traditions. One is to commemorate Jesus’ baptism. Another, signifying his birth. And the third, the arrival of the magi, of “We Three Kings” fame, so often enacted in annual congregational Christmas pageants by children in bathrobes. In each case, though, the context inaugurates a confrontation with the way things are, between the Incarnate One and those who presently define reality.

As a baptismal occasion, this manifestation inspired Jesus’ first sermon in the temple at Nazareth, and eventually so enraged the faithful that they attempted to launch him over a cliff (Luke 4:29).

As a birth announcement, this manifestation so infuriated Rome’s Herodian rule that infant boys in the region around Bethlehem were exterminated. The threat prompted Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus to Egyptian political sanctuary (Matt. 2:13-16).

As an announcement of international import, the manifestation implicated visiting dignitaries (“from the East”) in a web of political intrigue, forcing them to take back roads out of town and out of reach of despotic revenge.

Common to each variant, however, is the insistence that this manifestation of God’s Intent will disrupt the world as presently defined. Those for whom this “world” is “home”—all who profit from current arrangements, from orthodoxies of every sort—will take offense at this swaddling-wrapped revolt. Something new is being built; a new cornerstone (Eph. 2:21) is being laid. That’s the good part. The bad part is that existing structures may be razed to make room.

To understand the goodness of this news, one of our first pastoral tasks is to ask: For whom is this news bad?

The primary scandal on which the Apostle focused within the early Jesus movement involved something akin to racial/ethnic discrimination. The Law-of-Moses party had long ago inverted the Hebrew people’s “election” by God for redemptive purpose into the assumption of being God’s elite. The world had become divided between Jews and non-Jews (as today we divide the population between white and non-white). The Gentiles—goyim—were the others. Much like the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention which agreed that each African American slave would count as three-fifths of a person, the Gentiles came up short in the alleged divine apportionment scheme.

No wonder, then, the shock over the Apostle’s insistence that the others were no longer strangers and aliens but now fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise. For some, the Apostle’s “dividing wall” of “hostility” (2:14) was actually a retaining wall, a provision of sanctuary, a needed safeguard and essential security “fence.”

And the religious overlords of the day were not happy, even within significant parts of the Jesus movement. Their world was being deconstructed. The Apostle was assaulting sacred demarcations, breaching holy boundaries, challenging the “historical understanding” of the faith; and, by implication, threatening the very character of God. It was a lot to swallow—probably even for some Gentile Christians who, in their new-convert enthusiasm, wanted to be completely immersed in the inherited protocol of righteous standing.

This new thing God is doing, the Apostle emphasized, wasn’t absolutely new. It was embedded from the beginning of God’s “eternal purpose,” now becoming manifest—brought to the light, revealed—in Christ Jesus. Maybe the Apostle, steeped in Torah training, was stumbling onto the obscured implication of the promise made by God to Abram: that Sarai was not forgotten, was “known” by God, and that together they would be a blessing to many nations.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor is credited with this startling paraphrase of the well-known line from John’s Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” Immersion in the “mystery” of Christ is surely an odd-making adventure. But there’s another factor at work as well, indicated by another reworking of John’s line: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free. But first it will make you miserable.”

The misery factor in spiritual formation is an implication of the new cornerstone being laid, of the dividing wall’s crumbling, of the “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) emerging. This dislocating, deconstructing experience does not mean God is a sadist and likes to see us squirm. It’s simply the detoxifying process that accompanies the recovery from addiction to “the way things are.”

For pastoral leaders charged with guiding congregations into this new creation—bringing down hostile walls both within and without—one comprehensive way to imagine the task is by asking: What are the borders that need to be crossed, the boundaries that need to be broached, the walls that need to fall? What are the “human traditions” (Col. 2:8) that are confusing and confounding the believing community’s confessional practice? Given our habits of trusting only what we can see with our eyes, how can we strategically locate ourselves in compassionate proximity with those who are battered, bruised and broken by the world’s reigning disorder? Where, and how, can we intentionally place ourselves in ways that allow our blinders to be loosened, expanded, and eventually removed?

Good teachers know the truth in this aphorism about learning: I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand. How do we develop in our congregation a thirst for being doers of the Word and not hearers only (Jas. 1:22)? What does it take to help our folk make the transition from being convinced to being convicted? How can we recommend the “ministry of reconciliation” so that it is embraced as a spiritual discipline—a way of exposing ourselves to the grace of God through Christ Jesus—rather than merely an occasional effort to do kind things in the world?

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©ken sehested @