In this passage (Ephesians 3:1-12), Paul is writing to the Ephesians – a group mostly made up of non-Jews. I love the book of Ephesians because it has so much to say about how we live together in a faith community in the midst of difference and conflict. The Jewish Christians really struggled with how people who were not culturally, ethnically or religiously Jewish could still be God’s people. Paul is telling the outsiders that they are welcome and that they can be part of Christ’s body even though they think, look and act differently from the Jewish Christians. What connects and holds the faith community together is a faith in Jesus.
As a minister, I have had many opportunities to reflect on and learn about my faith. Sometimes where my belief has taken me is a natural fit. Sometimes it has been more of a struggle to change and let go of beliefs that no longer fit. In the passage, Paul has had an experience of faith which he has shared with the community. His belief that Jesus had come to all people, not just the Jews was radical. It was a departure from the belief of the early church. As a minister, I often find myself in a place where my beliefs no longer fit with what I was taught as a child or what seem to be common assumptions about Christian faith.
As a minister, I am called to share my faith with you from my own learning and reflection. This task is a gift but sometimes intimidating. There is a fine line between sharing and learning together and an arrogance that dismisses other belief. As I read this passage I hear Paul saying he knows something that no one else does. He has a new message that no one else has heard. He is clearly grounding this message within the context of Jesus message but reshaping it so it has meaning for the congregation with which he is corresponding.
Paul recognizes his own insignificance but that the Spirit is working through him. He also recognizes that there are many different strands of wisdom within the church tradition. What he is offering as a message is only one strand. This tension between many different beliefs has been part of the church since its earliest time and continues to be a part of our own context.
Throughout the history of Christianity there have been many different strands of faith. It seems a bit like a like a kaleidoscope with many shapes and colours. Everyone who looks at a kaleidoscope sees different things, is reminded of different things. What we see may depend on the what’s happening in our lives or world at any given moment. Our scripture and the theology we draw from it functions in a similar manner. This is why we have four gospels in our Bible—all of which are different. They tell the same stories in different ways. They tell different stories and have different focuses and emphasis. There has never been a single right way of understanding the gospel message or of practicing faith. However, attempts have been made to force “right” belief at the expense of other strands of faith. That’s how our cannon of scripture—the books we now simply call the Bible—came to be. Marcion was raised as a Christian but disliked anything Jewish or material. Somewhere around 144 C.E. he organized a church following his own beliefs and using only Luke and Paul’s writings.
Other congregations used a variety of writings. We know of at least 21 known gospels that were in use in the early church. Because of Marcion’s beliefs and that of some other fringe groups like the gnostics, the mainstream church, decided that they needed to clarify what it was they believed and what was appropriate reading material for learning and instruction. Out that we end up with the canon of scripture (containing only four gospels) and the Apostle’s creed, the first draft of which appeared somewhere around 150 C.E.
Throughout the history of the church there have been different interpretations of scripture and theology. When one group goes too far one way or another, another part of the church tries to draw them back. There is a history of feeling so strongly about particular beliefs that groups leave denominations and start their own church. That’s how we have ended up with so many different denominations.
Within modern Christianity there is sometimes a tendency towards an assumption of common beliefs. As United Church people we are sometimes accused of believing in everything or in nothing. I think that the reason for this accusation is that as a denomination we have tended to not stay within the prescribed notions of single belief. It is hard sometimes for people who have been taught that there is a right way of believing to recognize that there are multiple ways of interpreting scripture, of practicing faith and of living faithfully.
I want to share with you some of my beliefs that I wrote in the form of a personal creed. Some of the things in it you may agree with. Some of it you may disagree with. Some of it may raise questions for you. I offer this recognizing that what binds us together in the body of Christ is our sense that God and Jesus are central to our lives.
I believe in a loving, just, compassionate God
who cries and laughs with us,
This God creates
and is beyond what we can know or comprehend
is within us and
we are within the Creator
All creation is God’s body,
When we harm creation, we harm ourselves and our creator.
The Wise Ones call us to dance and celebrate all life with this Creator.
In Jesus, this Creator was and is made known.
He was fully human and fully known by God as all of us are.
He cared about each person individually
and knew that all must be free for one to be free.
As Political Lord, he challenged structural violence
and empowered people for transformation.
Jesus is known as
prophet, guide, protestor, activist, healer, teacher, witness.
Jesus died because there is sin in the world
which separates us from each other and from God.
Jesus challenges that separateness.
There is witness to his life, his death and his resurrection.
It is because of this witness that he is known to us today.
Jesus calls us to continue the witness that points to a
God of justice, love and compassion.
The Holy Spirit gives courage and passion to continue the witness.
She is known in dancing life, in laughter and tears,
in grace and compassion.
She is the breath of God that offers creative movement in the world.
God calls all creation to live in justice and peace together.
Not in some distant time and place but here and now.
We live as though the Kingdom of God is already among us.
The Kingdom of God is made known:
in healthy, respectful relationships, in risk and in trust.
God is a God of relationship so in relationship there is hope for all creation.
What’s most important for me in my faith is that God is embodied in each of us. Sometimes we are very good at living faithfully. Sometimes we are more challenged in how we live. For me, belief is important in that it shapes how I live and how I see the world. I believe in a God of hope, a God of transformation therefore my life and speech and actions must reflect hope and transformation. If I believe in a God of hope, I cannot live in fear. If I believe in a God of love then I cannot spread hate. The belief points me in the direction of life that I want to live.
Over the Christmas break, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about hope and fear in the context of our own faith community. If we believe in a God of hope then many things are possible. If we believe in a God of fear, we are doomed. The Christmas angels remind us “be not afraid.” This is some of the best advice that our scripture has to offer.
We cannot live in fear of beliefs—Christian or otherwise—that are different from our own. God is bigger than our belief. Ephesians reminds us that we need variety in our belief. The variety challenges us and helps us grow in our faith. You won’t always agree with everything I say here and that’s OK but I hope that when you hear things that differ from your own beliefs it will deepen your own faith. Sometimes, it is tempting to only want to hear what affirms our own belief. It’s comfortable and in many ways easier but if our faith is never challenged by others then it doesn’t deepen and grow. As we become grounded in our own faith—not necessarily more rigid or certain—it often becomes easier to tolerate difference.
This isn’t to say that we want to believe everything or nothing. What is essential is for us to be able to discern which aspects of our faith are most central and which we cannot compromise on. For me, these are my belief in a God of justice and compassion, that God works through all of us to transform the world and that we experience God through our relationships. These core beliefs are what give me hope and help to maintain my faith in a world that sometimes feels like it is falling apart.
I often wear a cross. The cross connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection. For many, a cross is a symbol reminding us that Jesus died for our sins and of the need to believe in Jesus so that we will abide with Christ after death. That’s a particular variety of belief.
For me, the cross is a reminder of the people who stood and watched Jesus die and could do nothing. It reminds me that there are many people in our world who continue to live with injustice and death. Sometimes it feels like a can do nothing. This particular cross was a confirmation gift and when I put it on it connects me to the minister who gave it to me and her commitment to justice. It reminds me that there are many people around the world who continue Jesus’ work today. It reminds me that death does not have the last word in our world. I’m not terribly concerned with what happens after we die because my faith is grounded in God’s activity in this world. This is also a variety of belief.
Neither of these beliefs is wrong but they shape how we see the world and the emphasis we place on our interactions with others. Both are grounded in Jesus and scripture. In our faith, we need to make room for each other even when we see the world differently. We need to listen to each other and be open to be being shaped and touched by belief that is different from our own. That’s part of the richness of wisdom that comes from being part of a faith community.
We need more than just the wisdom that has been handed to us from previous generations or that comes from those of us trained as ministers and theologians. We need the wisdom of the collective faith community. You are part of the rich variety of God which is made known in all of us together.
People often make New Year’s resolutions. I encourage you to spend time reflecting on your faith and how it shapes your world view. I encourage you to resolve to join a Bible study or other reflection group. Your faith is what grounds you in God’s spirit and that faith always needs to be deepening and growing. Open yourself to be challenged and learning as well as sharing your own wisdom with faith community.