Paul was a Jew amongst Jews. His whole life and identity revolved around his ethnicity. Prior to his uncovering of ‘the mystery’, Paul would not have considered a gentile his equal any more than he would have considered a monkey his equal, but listen again now to the way he speaks in Ephesians 2, with unparalleled passion:
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
You who are ‘called the uncircumcision by those who are called the circumcision’, using a turn of phrase that is entirely dismissive of these real differences! Surely?
You who are called ‘black’ by those who are called ‘white’, you who are called ‘immigrants’ by those who are called ‘Australians’. Paul treats these distinctions with contempt!
Yes, we were separated in the past, but now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ!
Yes, we were as dissimilar as black and white, and we did not talk to each other, and we did not eat with each other, and we certainly did not pray with one another, but now you who were once far off have been brought near through the blood of Christ, and now we can share our lives together in love and in community.
This is what Paul discovered on the road to Damascus, where he met Jesus.
It’s painful if you think about the road to Damascus today – again an area of violence and upheaval with Syrian government and rebel forces shedding so much blood!
So much of the violence going on in Syria today is tied up with racial, ethnic and religious tensions, just as so much violence we see around our world is tied up with this sort of ethnic, racial and religious tribalism. And of course St Paul was on his own mission of violence – trying to wipe out the embryonic Christian community – when he was struck down on the road to Damascus and met Jesus.
And why did Paul (then normally referred to as ‘Saul’) hate the Christians so much? It was because they were trying to open their doors and their hearts to people who were not kosher and were starting to water down the Jewish legal framework that made his people ethnically and religiously distinctive. And then Saul met Jesus, and Jesus opened Paul’s eyes to a much larger world!
And if we want to understand the full significance of Jesus’ revelation to St Paul, we need to appreciate that the distinctions that he had previously based his life on were not simply ethnic and racial distinctions. Non-Jews for the early Paul were not just ethnically different, but they were immoral, idolaters, unholy, irreligious, and they smelt funny! In other words, they were all the things that people we don’t like are!
And that’s why when the distinction between Jew and non-Jew fades for Paul, all the other distinctions fade too – between rich and poor, between male and female, between slave and free, etc. Because in the end the only real distinction that Paul knew was between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Either you’re ‘one of us’ or you’re ‘one of them’. And now, Paul says, there is no more them, but only us!
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and yet all are loved by Christ – the Jew and the non-Jew, the rich and the poor, the slave and the free, the gay and the straight, the good, the bad and the ugly! All have sinned and yet all are loved, and so all are one in Christ!
This is the deep and enduring truth upon which our community is based, but rather than have me eulogise on this further in my own words, let me rather conclude with some further words from St Paul in Ephesians chapter two, as he speaks again of the mystery of Christ.
14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.Visit http://www.fatherdave.org for more information.