The Wisdom of Diversity
Last Sunday we read in chapter two of Ephesians that the dividing wall between Jews and Greeks has been broken down in Christ, creating one new humanity. Then we read in chapter 3:1-12,
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.
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 through the gospel. 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. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. (NRSV)
When I preach, I often debate how much to get into the weeds of biblical scholarship. Biblical scholars are a peculiar brand of human beings. You have to be a bit of a masochist to become a Bible scholar, learn an ancient language that no one speaks, study scholars that no one understands, write books that almost no one reads and develop theories with which nearly no one agrees. It’s a tough life.
William Tyndale, the first to translate the Bible into English, was burned at the stake in 1536 for such heresy, though in an act of kindness they strangled him first so he wouldn’t feel it! David Strauss, who began the modern quest for the historical Jesus with the publication of his book, The Life of Jesus, in 1835, was banned from teaching and haunted by his critics for the rest of his life. Though Marcus Borg gained a popular following and his books became best sellers, our own Glen Campbell says that when he took courses from Borg at Oregon State before Borg became well known, he was hounded by fundamentalists in most of his courses.
I once received a threat because of my public writings on religious topics which I felt compelled to report to Eugene police out of an abundance of caution. They reported back that it was more of a generic “may you burn in hell” kind of threat than anything specific. Very comforting!
I do think it is important that we are a biblically literate church and that includes being at least aware of contemporary Bible scholarship which I trust will not threaten our eternal souls and may even benefit our present lives. Case in point: I mentioned two weeks ago that this letter was likely written a couple of decades after Paul’s death and therefore probably (!) was not written by Paul. And here we have the author quite clearly claiming to be Paul, writing from prison. So why do 80% of scholars, according to Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown, think this is someone else writing in Paul’s name?
Paul does not have a particularly high view of apostles. Recall that he specifically condemns Peter, supposedly the most influential of the 12 and closest to Jesus, writing to the Galatians that he opposed Peter to his face for his hypocrisy when he ate with Gentiles until the Jewish followers of James showed up, and then Peter suddenly is like, “Where did this meat come from? Is this kosher? ” Shocked he was!
For Paul there may be a differentiation of gifts, but all are from the same Spirit, no one gift is greater than another, even the gift of apostleship, with the exception of love, the highest gift (1 Cor. 13). Thus to refer to the apostles as “holy” as in this text is quite uncharacteristic for Paul. Furthermore, that conflict Paul had with Peter and James and the other leaders of the Jerusalem church over the inclusion of the Gentiles was a constant struggle throughout his ministry. To speak then of the complete reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the church as a fait accompli is much more likely a reflection of a later context after Paul’s death.
This is not simply a minor footnote in Biblical scholarship, but a major principle in our understanding of scripture, theology and the development of the church. And it is also why I consider Ephesians to be among the most important letters of the New Testament, even if not from Paul himself. For Ephesians is a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel which took the church the better part of a century to put into practice, what Paul or this inspired disciple of Paul calls “the mystery of Christ”—that Gentiles are now heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ. That revelation did not come easy and it did not come all at once, but took decades to work out before Gentiles were fully included in churches everywhere throughout the Mediterranean world.
From our modern perspective we don’t fully appreciated how big that was at the time, but in the first century world in which the church was born, there was no divide bigger than that between Jews and Gentiles. One of the brilliant adaptations of the Roman system of governance was to simply adopt the god of a conquered nation into the Roman pantheon, thereby co-opting foreign religious tradition as a way of unifying the empire, but they could not do that with the God of the Jews, and so Jews were regarded with great suspicion by Romans.
Likewise the monotheistic tradition of Judaism did not allow for the polytheism of other nations and so Jews regarded Gentiles with great suspicion. And now for Gentiles and Jews to be brought together under one roof was truly a radical change and simply too much for most Jews and many Gentiles to accept. To be told that this other group—whom you had been told your whole life were different, not one of us, now could be one of us—changes everything.
In our efforts as a denomination to be a pro-reconciling church that breaks down some of the more modern dividing walls that separate people into different groups, one of the things we have learned from anthropologists and sociologists is that the whole concept of race is a human construct which changes over time. White supremacists talk about preserving and protecting the “white race” when in fact, . Just ask the Irish, Italians or Scandinavians who came to this country in the 19th century. They were not seen as “white”, welcomed as “one of us” by other European-Americans, rather they were given all kind of derogatory labels and treated with great suspicion as unwelcomed immigrants, foreigners told to go back where they belonged. I just learned in the news this week, thanks to the use by our President, that “paddy wagon” was a derogatory term used against the Irish, suggesting that police wagons were intended for the Irish because of their drinking habits. You might not want to use the term if you want to gain any support from the Irish. Just a suggestion.
The same is also true for all those we labeled in this country as being of the “Negro” race. There really is no such thing. The racial diversity within Africa is actually as great as on any continent, witness the horrible conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rhwanda. And so race, we are learning, is not something written into our DNA, rather it is something we learn from our culture, often as a means to conquer and to subjugate those deemed inferior based on a particular trait such as the color of skin or slant of eyes.
It is striking to me that when Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, he specifically cited the Apostle Paul as his role model. Like Paul, King wrote, he was compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond his home town. King, therefore, was no more an “outside agitator” as charged than was Paul. In the very next paragraph Dr. King writes, I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. … What ever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And then he makes this incredibly bold, radical claim very much in the spirit of Paul and the letter to the Ephesians: “.” Do we believe that? What if we put that into practice?
This was the remarkable wisdom of Dr. King to show us that diving our country by any kind of us/them thinking was contrary to the founding principles of this nation. Either every citizen of this country has the same rights as every other citizen or no one can be assured of those rights. And when we do not protect the rights of the minority, democracy is a farce.
This is the proclamation of Ephesians to modern Gentiles, the outsiders, of today’s world: That , no one is excluded from the love of Christ. It was an incredibly bold, courageous claim to make in the first century, and it is still an incredibly courageous claim to make today, a claim the church is specifically called to make.
Unfortunately, Christians have been just as guilty in the 21st century as were the colleagues of Paul in the first century in assuming that the message of Jesus was given to us believers and therefore intended only for us believers, the insiders of faith. That was the wrong assumption then, and it is the wrong assumption now. Ephesians clearly states that there is one humanity in Christ, no insiders and outsiders, all have been reconciled to God. If a Jews must become a Christian in order to be reconciled to God and united with Gentiles, that union would be superficial and meaningless. That would be like saying Beavers must become Ducks to be true Oregonians. Hmm, on second thought…(!) nah.
Only when the Jew remains Jewish, the Muslim remains Muslim, the Buddhist remains Buddhist, the Hindu remains Hindu, will the union of a new humanity have any meaning and we can affirm that divine spark of God’s image within every person. This is the bold proclamation I believe we are called to make, that the wisdom of God in its rich diversity might be made known to the rulers and authorities in high places.
Unity is not uniformity. In fact, true , for true unity is when we come together in all of our diversity as one people, united in our common humanity. So let Irish American celebrate their Irish heritage, African-Americans celebrate their African heritage, Japanese and German Americans celebrate their heritage. Let Jewish Americans celebrate their Jewish heritage, Muslim Americans celebrate their Muslim heritage and Christian Americans celebrate their Christian heritage. For that is what makes this a great country, that we can all celebrate the rich diversity of our heritage, our faith traditions and our identities.
When the Justice Department says that Civil Rights legislation does not apply to the LGBTQ community, giving green light to discrimination based on gender orientation and identity in the work place and public square, contrary to this great tradition, we have just taken one giant step backwards in the progress of human liberty and equality. And when our military personnel and veterans are required to keep their gender identity in the closet to protect the freedoms we hold dear, freedoms they may be asked to protect with their lives, we will have made this country less great, less equal.
We in the church are called especially now to take a higher road, to stand for a greater unity that breaks down those walls of division, fear and hate. Theologian Letty Russell wrote over 25 years ago, “The church is not a new Israel” (as we sometimes claim), “a holy assembly set apart to the Lord, but the beginning of a new humankind commissioned to show forth the new inheritance offered to all.”
We are not the end of God’s reconciling work, we are but the beginning, to give a glimpse to the rest of the world of what this new humanity looks like, unity amidst all its diversity, standing together as one people working for the rights and dignity of every person , created as they are in the image of God.
I have a new image for this calling from a beach in Florida. You probably saw the story on the news or in social media, an entire family caught in a rip tide and in trouble.
Then 80 people, complete strangers, formed a human chain into the water to pull them out, including the mother who was having a heart attack and was unconscious, but was saved from drowning by this human chain. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, gay or straight, citizen or immigrant, Christian or Jew, or even if you believed in God. What mattered was that you were willing to get in the water and to link arms with your fellow human beings.
That’s the new humanity envisioned by Paul and echoed in this letter to the Ephesians. That’s who we are called to be.
So . May it not be a secret kept within the church, but the wisdom of God revealed through us for the world in all its rich, wonderful, beautiful diversity that we are called to proclaim in the name of Christ for the salvation of the whole world.
July 30, 2017
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)