During this last year we witnessed a remarkable event as hundreds of thousands of people – most of whom are Muslim – have been making the trip from their own country to western Europe. Although it has just now received attention here in the United States, it is actually something that has been going on since 2011 when Sub-Saharan Africans who had migrated to Libya, began fleeing the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
The ongoing war in Syria has prompted people from that area to come to Europe as well. And while that has been the focus of much media coverage, the crowds making their way into Europe have included large numbers of individuals from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and elsewhere.
They have been drawn to northwest Europe where in particular Germany and Sweden have openly welcomed them and promised to provide a host of social services. Certainly those nations are free to handle the matter as they wish. The problem is that in order to get to Germany and Sweden many people from the Middle East and Southwest Asia must pass through Southern and Eastern Europe. These less affluent countries have found themselves inundated with a sea of humanity.
Unable to care for these large numbers of now homeless people, and fearing the crime and even terrorism they may bring, nations have responded by building fences. Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria have all built barbed and razor wire fences that are intended to keep immigrants out and to control the flow of people. The European Union that had worked so hard to have open borders among its member countries now finds itself divided by fences that crisscross the southeastern part of Europe.
In the Epistle lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, the apostle Paul is describing the remarkable thing that God has done in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God had united Jew and Gentile into one. Paul has just reminded his Gentile readers about what they used to be. He wrote, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
The Gentiles had not been part of God’s people. They were not part of the covenant God had made with Israel. They were not included in the promises that God had made to the nation. Instead they were without God as they worshipped the false gods of paganism.
The Jewish descendants of Israel lived a life that was separate from their pagan Gentile neighbors. They were marked off from them – quite literally when it came to the men. Circumcision was the sign of the God’s covenant with Israel, and it was something that physically marked off Jewish men from Gentiles. As those living according to the Torah that God had given to Israel, the Jews were also marked off by the food that they ate, the religious festivals that they kept, and by the fact that they did not engage in the pagan worship in which the Gentiles participated together.
The Jews and Gentiles were separate. At the temple in Jerusalem a colonnade marked off the area that was called the Court of the Gentiles. Signs warned that any Gentile who entered the temple area past that point would be put to death.
Just before our text, Paul has stated that in Jesus Christ, God had united them and brought peace. He acknowledges that there had been a dividing wall of hostility. But now this had been broken down through Jesus’ death on the cross. He said about Christ, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
The sheer size of the influx of people into Europe this year is not something that people saw coming. In the same way, in our text Paul asserts that the unity of Jew and Gentile is not something that people saw coming either. Instead, it is something that God alone could reveal because it had been hidden from eternity. He says, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Paul says that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. He calls this a mystery hidden for ages in God, but now revealed through his apostles and prophets. It is a mystery that he began to reveal in the event that we are celebrating tonight – the visit by the magi to the Christ child. Magi from the east – the scientists of their day – had perceived from an astral sign that the King of the Jews had been born. Most likely the words of Numbers chapter 24, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” prompted the journey.
Most of, if not all of us, are Gentiles. Paul proclaims to us the good news that through the blood of Jesus – through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead – we have now been made part of God’s people. The Son of God whose incarnation we just celebrated during the season of Christmas, died for you in order to give you forgiveness. He rose for you in order to give you life. And because of this, Paul tells us that Christ is the One “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” We have bold and confident access to God. We have it now. And we will also have it on the Last Day when Christ raises the dead and we stand before the judgment seat of God. We have confidence because in Holy Absolution tonight we have already heard what will be spoken on the Last Day.
In our text Paul emphasizes the unity that now exists between Jew and Gentile. He says that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. When read in Greek the thing that jumps out at out you is how Paul has piled up words that all have prefixed to them the preposition “with.” He leaves no doubt that Jews and Gentiles are together in this. They are heirs together. They are part of the Christ’s body together. They are sharers in the promise together.
The question that Paul’s words address to us is whether we really view things this way. And to be honest, I am not talking about whether we think of Jews and Gentiles in this manner. Instead I am referring to the question of whether we view our fellow Christians in general this way. Do we view the members of our family this way? Do we view the members of Good Shepherd this way? Do we view Christians around the world who differ from us in race and culture this way?
Do we really understand what God has done in Christ? He has acted in the death and resurrection of his Son to unite all as one forgiven people. Through faith in Christ he has given all of us what we don’t deserve. As Paul says in his famous words found in chapter two: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
In Holy Baptism God washed away your sins through water and the Word. He joined you into the Body of Christ. But the life of faith is not simply one in which you get something – in which you have won the spiritual lottery and get forgiveness and eternal life. This faith has meaning for the way we live.
In the next chapter Paul writes: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Through faith and baptism you are a fellow heir, a member of the same body, and a partaker of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. But as Paul says, this fact calls you to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” The unity you share with other Christians in Christ and the undeserved love you have received in Jesus prompt you to live in ways that show forth this unity and love. It leads you to view your fellow Christian differently and therefore to treat him or her differently. Paul describes this when he says, “ Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The Holy Spirit leads you to do this because, after all, you are a fellow heir, a member of the same body, and a partaker of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.