1I, Paul, who, for the sake of you Gentiles am now a prisoner of Christ Jesus, pray for you, 2for surely you have heard how God’s gift of grace to me was for your benefit, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation. I have already written you a brief account of this, 4and by reading it you can see that I understand the mystery of Christ. 5In former generations that mystery was not disclosed to mankind, but now, by inspiration, it has been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets 6that, through the gospel, the Gentiles are joint heirs with the Jews, part of the same body, and sharers together in the promise made in Christ Jesus.
7This is the gospel of which I was made a minister by God’s unmerited gift, so powerfully at work within me. 8I am less than the least of all God’s people, but to me He has granted the privilege of proclaiming to the Gentiles the good news of the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9and bringing to light how this hidden purpose was to be put into effect. It lay concealed for long ages with God the creator of the universe 10in order that now, through the church, the wisdom of God, in its infinite variety, might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. 11This accords with His age-long purpose, which is accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we all have freedom of access to God, with the confidence born of trust in him.
Text ©The Revised English Bible, alt, published by Oxford and Cambridge University Press and used with permission.
The Greek word “Epiphany” could be translated as “manifestation”, or, better for us in considering this passage, “a sudden and great revelation.” Though this contribution from Paul is used every year when we celebrate the epiphany of Christ, with the arrival of the wise men in Matthew’s gospel, we might remember Paul’s own epiphany on the road to Damascus. I can’t imagine what happened that day, for Saul/Paul, but it must have been far more than an imagined encounter. Saul, the persecutor of Christians, became Paul, the bringer of the good news of Jesus Christ, and particularly including the gentiles in the collection of people who could be called to be ‘the church.’
For me, Paul is so transformed by his experience on that road that he is willing to do anything to spread the word and show that everyone is welcome in the House of God, not just the Jews. Throughout the centuries of Jewish worship there was a sense that the Jews were the chosen people, and that no-one else had any claim to be part of God’s kingdom. From the time of his conversion, in stark contrast to before it, Paul always was the humble man, and always made it clear that he was the messenger carrying the good news from God to anyone who would listen. How could anyone not listen to this man who had been so transformed and energised? Unfortunately, though many people heard Paul speak, or heard his letters being read, many of them refused to listen to Paul – note the difference between hearing and listening; many have refused over the following centuries to listen; and many still refuse to listen to him today.
As a grammar adviser, when I considered this passage in the New Revised Standard Version my blood began to boil as I read about the mystery not being disclosed to ‘humankind.’ The English word ‘mankind’ has never had a meaning other than generic, so there is no reason for us to add ‘hu’ to it.
As the least of all God’s people – his claim, not mine – and the perpetrator of much trauma in the early Christian community, it could only be by the grace of God that Paul received his commission to spread his new-found understanding of what God had been about for a long time, and what the Jews had been ignoring for far too long.
Paul’s stress on the infinite variety of those who are part of God’s kingdom has hardly ever been recognised as requiring significant change to the way we treat each other. People who are different are still part of the kingdom; people who speak, dress, or think differently are welcomed by God; but do we welcome them? Following an incident in an Australian parish some years ago, one astute young person noted that “the church will never grow while they keep kicking people out.” Grammatically, the ‘they’ has to refer to people controlling aspects of the church, or the comment would have been “… it keeps kicking people out.” Paul’s description of rulers and authorities can include anyone who has power or authority to discharge their responsibilities, whether in the church or outside of it, and it effectively extends to all of us who have any contact with people making early enquiries about the nature of our faith, visitors to our parishes, or those seeking a new spiritual home. Many parishes I know have mission statements which say they are inclusive and non-discriminatory, but would a new person with some form of difference agree with us? The answer might hurt, but the truth will set us free.