Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ephesians 3:1-6 part 2

A Special Note: I recently started a new job that occupies much of my time. As a result, I will not be able to post new lessons as often as I used to -- or would like to. Thanks for your patience and please check back periodically. I will, however, continue posting at my contemplative site with a fair degree of regularity.

. . . When you read this you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to human beings in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:1-6).

When St. Paul uses the word mystery in this context – as in something hidden, or a secret counsel of God – he does not mean to imply the Jewish nation had not been given earlier insight into God’s plan to bring the Gentile nations into His Body. Paul, Pharisee as he was, well understood Old Testament passages such as these here, here, here, and here.

But the concept of God giving uncircumcised Gentiles equal standing with Jews was hidden from them. Indeed, the New Testament apostles' teaching on the subject was a veritable sea-change in their theology.

An example of how serious was the division between the two groups is illustrated, for example, by the physical barrier that existed in the Temple area separating the Jewish inner courts from the Gentile outer court. An archaeological discovery in 1871 unearthed this inscription concerning that barrier: No man of another race is to enter within the fence and enclosure around the Temple. Whoever is caught will have only himself to thank for the death which follows.

No wonder the twelve apostles of Jesus – each Jewish and raised within that culture of separation – at first thought it unthinkable that God would make non-Jews part of the same Body as they. No wonder St. Peter needed a vision from God – three times! – before he consented to enter the house of Cornelius. No wonder the other apostles demanded Peter to explain his unorthodox actions in eating with Gentiles. And no wonder Paul almost lost his life in Jerusalem after he was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple.

And so, St. Paul, in dealing routinely with the prevailing culture of separation felt it necessary to drive home his point several times in this epistle (here, here and here) that yes, God loved Gentiles just as much as He loved Jews – and that Gentiles were actually “members of the same body and copartners in the promise in Jesus Christ.”

French novelist Alphonse Karr seems to have been the first to use the proverb: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Unfortunately, the proverb proves true with regard to the Church.

Many Bible scholars believe the Church, in the early decades after Christ’s resurrection, was nearly exclusively Jewish. But within 30 years a shift in the majority representation occurred, and Gentile Christians outnumbered Jewish Christians. And with the shift came another division spouting an attitude of “We Gentiles are more beloved by God than you Jews.”

Needless to say, such an arrogant attitude began to affect the unity of Christ’s Body, and St. Paul spent three chapters in his letter to the Romans (chapters 9-11) to forcefully speak against such divisiveness. Indeed, he issued a stern warning to his Gentile readers that continuing in their “holier than thou” attitude places them in jeopardy of losing their own place in God’s kingdom (see here).

Clearly, there is no place in the Church for such arrogance -- which is why, I am sure, St. John wrote this: The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:9-11).

Which brings us to the 21st century. I’ve noted before in our study – and this is a good time to note it again – what the Catholic Church teaches about division – especially between Catholics and Protestants. This information is so important to the unity of Christ’s body, I include the texts here, along with the links to the site:

. . . "in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame." The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism - do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers. (Para 817)

"However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church" (para 818) (bold text is my emphasis).

"Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements." Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity" (para 819) (bold text my emphasis).

Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: "For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church. Baptism therefore constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn" (para 1271) (bold text my emphasis).

So how then ought we as Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Christians live? Many months ago, in our first lesson studying Ephesians, I wrote this:

In light of the growing anti-Christian sentiment rising in many areas of America, Canada and Europe, if we do not stand together we face a very serious risk of falling separately. A house divided against itself still cannot stand, and it is prudent to remember the words of Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor during the Nazi years:

"In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me — and by that time no one was left to speak up."

Niemoller’s warning is no less dire today than it was when he first penned those words. If Christians – members of Christ’s Body, all – do not find a way to focus on what unifies us instead of what divides us, we will fail in Christ's charge to the Church to evangelize the world because we have spent our energies and resources fighting each other.

Questions for Reflection:

1. If you are a Protestant or Orthodox Christian reading this study, have you ever researched answers to your questions about Catholic theology? If not, why not?

You may have difficulty finding Protestant-friendly internet sites for information, so feel free to ask me your questions.

2. If you are a Catholic Christian reading this study, have you ever researched why Protestants and Orthodox Christians believe as they do about the Eucharist, the papacy, Confession, the Blessed Mother, and other distinctively Catholic concepts? If not, why not?

You may have difficulty finding Catholic-friendly internet sites for information, so feel free to ask me your questions.

No comments: