Paul's big mysteries
This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
- Ephesians 3:6
Paul, this is your big cliffhanger? We already knew this!
It’s easy for us to breeze past the impact of this revelation from Paul’s letter. In today’s inclusive society, it would be almost unthinkable for us for someone to be excluded from a religious community because of their race or ethnic background.
But remember what the world was like in Paul’s day.
The great mystery Paul wanted to share with his readers was that Gentiles could join Israel … and remain Gentiles. They didn’t have to surrender their ethnic identity to participate in the community of the people of God.
Cross-ethnic relationships so often stumble at just this point. This is how white folks who have good, healthy, meaningful relationships with black people find themselves using the “N-word.” They lose touch with their own ethnic identity in that cross-ethnic space. And this is how people of color end up “passing” in the white world, sacrificing their ethnic identity in order to fit in.
Gentiles remaining Gentiles in the community of God would have been a radical idea. Everyone at the time would have understood that if a Gentile wanted to join with God’s people, he had to participate in Jewish cultural practices and take the Jewish ethnic markers upon himself (we use male-centered language here since the chief ethnic marker at the time would have been circumcision).
The promise of Jesus loops all of us into his body. We don’t have to jettison our ethnic identities in order to fully participate. In a world full of ethnic conflict, this is good news.
All too often the tension around ethnic preference threatens to split communities of faith. Ethnicity rumbles beneath the surface of so many conflicts in church life. But the body of Jesus Christ is large and inclusive enough to include us all.
What does it mean to you that you don’t have to surrender your ethnic identity in order to participate fully in the family of God? What do you think this means about the way God sees and values your ethnic identity?