The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 3:1-12.
One of the things that motivated Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes was that he hated mystery stories that relied on coincidence or sudden hunches on the part of the detective. Consequently, he created Sherlock Holmes in the mold of his medical teacher Dr. Joseph Bell who could diagnose patients before they sat down by observation and logical inference. Doyle wanted to have his detective solve mysteries by using his intelligence to put together the clues. In the world of mystery writing, laying out all the facts is called “playing fair.” The writer is supposed to share all the information needed to solve the mystery with the reader, albeit in ways that are not obvious. Diverting the reader's attention from telling details are legitimate provided the crucial facts are there or can be worked out by the truly attentive. Ideally the clever reader should be able to figure out whodunnit or howdunnit before the detective reveals the solution. If the reader doesn't, he or she should be able to go back through the story and see that the clues were there all along. Unfortunately, Doyle wasn't always good at this as Holmes would sometimes get vital information from personal investigations or in telegrams he did not share with Watson, and therefore the reader, until he revealed his findings at the end. But subsequent mystery writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or J.K. Rowling have been scrupulous in laying out the clues that will reveal the solution to the discerning reader.
The word “epiphany” goes back to the Greek word for “revelation.” It is the day that the church celebrates the Jewish Messiah being revealed as the savior of the Gentiles as well. We remember the wise men or magi arriving at Bethlehem. We remember the prophesies that this would happen in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. And we remember Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, which initially came as a surprise to him.
In our passage from Ephesians Paul is playing with an idea that was current in the pagan world; namely, that the truth about existence was only known to initiates in what we call mystery religions. One of the most insidious was actually a philosophy called Gnosticism. Gnosis is Greek for knowledge. The core of the Gnostic mystery is that the material world is evil and only the realm of the spirit is good. Therefore the material world was not created by God who is pure spirit but by a lesser being. The divine spark is imprisoned in our bodies and could only be liberated by learning this secret knowledge, which was revealed only to the elite. Thus it is not about sin so much as ignorance. And some Gnostics were ascetic in an attempt to be as spiritual as possible while others, figuring that you couldn't avoid the body and material world in this life, indulged in anything they desired, while mentally trying to stay above all that.
These ideas were attractive, even to certain Christians, and I think they crept in and damaged the church regarding attitudes towards sex and the body. But they go against our basic beliefs. For instance, we believe that the material world is not inherently evil but was created by God and pronounced good by him. Evil is rather the misuse, abuse or neglect of those good gifts. While gaining knowledge is good, using that knowledge wisely is more important. And salvation comes not from merely knowing things about God but by putting your trust in him and in especially in Jesus who reveals what God is really like.
So Paul is using the then-popular idea of mystery differently. But he is using it appropriately. The Tanakh, the only Bible extant at the time of the apostles, was widely seen as God's message to the Jews, his chosen people. But like any good mystery the clues that God was interested in saving the whole world were there all along.
It begins in Genesis when God first calls Abram. “The Lord had said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.'” (Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis mine) So God may be choosing the descendants of Abram but not merely as recipients of his favor. He is choosing them as his instrument to bless the whole world.
Again, in Isaiah, God says to his servant, the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel, ie, the Messiah: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) God intends to restore and save not only his people Israel but people from all nations. Like any mystery, the clues are there for the perceptive person to find.
But the mystery goes deeper and might surprise even the cleverest puzzle-solver. It is not that God has a different plan for non-Jews than for Jews but that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The largely Jewish church is not to provide a “separate but equal” ministry to the Gentiles but welcome them into the same group, that is, the body of Christ.
A lot of Jews missed the clues in the Tanakh that the blessings of Abraham were to go to the Gentiles as well, and that God's salvation was for all the nations of the earth. (“Nations” is the literal meaning of “Gentiles.”) Some even thought the purpose of the Gentiles was simply to fuel the fires of hell. But even the most charitable did not see that God would make one people of the Jews and the Gentiles. Indeed Paul did not see this at first.
When he entered a city on his early missionary journeys, Paul would go to the local synagogues and preach from the scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 13:5; 18:4) And while he did convince many Jews, he had more response among the God-fearers, Gentiles who, without quite converting to Judaism, nevertheless were attracted to it enough to come to the synagogue. When opposition from the leadership in the synagogues was fierce, Paul would turn to such Gentiles. (Acts 13:44-52) Eventually those who followed Jesus were no longer welcome in the synagogues and met in the houses of believers, usually those with homes big enough to accommodate such a gathering. There were churches that met in the house of Lydia, the first convert in what is now Greece (Acts 16:14-15, 40), the house of the husband and wife ministry team of Aquila and Priscilla (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:9), the house of Nymphas (Colossians 4:15), the house of Philemon and others. (Philemon 1:2) Indeed we have a lot of evidence that the way the number of believers grew was through the social networks of friends and families and so we have entire households who converted. (Romans 16:10-11; 1 Corinthians 1:11, 16) It is probable that on subsequent journeys Paul visited these house-churches more than the synagogues and they became his bases for his operations in the areas. The first buildings made specifically for Christian worship don't appear until the 2nd half of the 3rd century. Most were destroyed in the first half of the next century during the last great persecution of the church under Diocletian.
So hosting a church meant inviting both Jews and Gentiles into your house to worship and to dine together. Christian worship originally involved an agape or love feast, from which we retain the Eucharist. So do you serve only kosher food, so as not to offend Jewish Christians? Do you not serve meat, so as not to offend the consciences of new Christians who can't get over the fact that most meat markets sell the surplus of pagan sacrifices? These are some of the issues the churches had to deal with. And having people from different cultures complicated things.
But Paul would not back down on this. Not even when the self-described “least of the saints” saw Jesus' right hand man waver on the issues. In Galatians Paul describes how Peter, who baptized the Gentile household of Cornelius, withdrew from eating and associating with Gentile Christians because of Jewish Christians visiting from Jerusalem. Paul confronts him about this, reminding him that we are not saved by following the law but through trusting in Jesus. (Galatians 2:11-16)
Even though he was called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13), Paul seems to always be conscious of the amount of difficulty this brought to the church. Thus he exhorts believers to unity and peace in practically every letter he sends to the churches. He wrote that Jesus went to the cross not only to reconcile God and humanity but to reconcile human beings of different types. (Ephesians 2:11-22) After all, our divisions are also the result of sin. In fact, God's plan ultimately is “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:20)
We are given the “ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) And so Paul says, “...from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view...if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17) What a person was before coming to Jesus is no longer relevant. And it goes beyond racial and cultural differences. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) And that statement of equality in Christ was quite radical.
In his book The Triumph of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that “Women were especially drawn to Christianity because it offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led.” Stark explains that Greek women lived in semi-seclusion, not only largely confined to the home but forbidden access to the front rooms in the house. When they went out they were covered from head to toe and accompanied by a male relative, very much like women today in very conservative Islamic countries. Roman women had a bit more freedom but not much. And even Jewish women, who were not sequestered, were under the control of men. Based on Roman funerary inscriptions, we know that half of pagan women married before the age of 15, with 20% aged 12 or younger. But nearly half of Christian women were not married until they were 18. At that time there were few if any barriers to men divorcing their wives, nor in the case of non-Jews, forcing them to have abortions (and there was no such thing as anesthesia!) In an era before soap or antiseptic technique, this led to the death of many women, with the survivors often left sterile. Husbands could decide to have a child “exposed” or left on the side of the road, if it was considered too sickly or if it was a daughter! Few Romans raised more than 1 daughter. Consequently there was shortage of pagan women.
On these matters Christianity dramatically differed from the culture. Christians did not support divorce, abortion or the exposure of infants, so more girls got to live and women lived longer. In fact, so lopsided was the ratio of men and women that Stark writes, “Many Christian girls had to marry pagan men or remain single, and for many pagan men, it was either a Christian bride or bachelorhood.” This led to secondary conversions of husbands to the Christianity of their wives, as well as more children raised in the faith of the more religious parent, which holds true today.
In addition early Christianity offered women a role in religion that most pagan religions didn't. In the last chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul sends personal greetings to 18 men and 15 women. Among them are Phoebe, a deaconess, Priscilla, who with her husband are called “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus,” and Junia, whom Paul calls an apostle! (Romans 16:1-3, 7) There are also 4 women who we are told “work hard in the Lord.” (Romans 16:6, 12) Women held positions of leadership rather like their Jewish counterparts. Stark writes, “in some Diasporan communities (beyond the reach of patriarchs in Palestine) women held leadership roles in some synagogues, including 'elder,' 'leader of the synagogue,' 'mother of the synagogue,' and 'presiding officer,' as is supported by inscriptions found in Smyrna and elsewhere.” We know that in early Christianity women held similar positions, whereas only in a few temples devoted to goddesses were pagan women allowed any significant religious roles. Stark concludes “The rise of Christianity depended upon women.”
In addition, though scripture did not call for the abolition of slavery, Christians could pick up on the clues on this issue. Paul tells slaves, whom Rome allowed to make and save money, that if they could buy their freedom they should. (1 Corinthians 7:21) He tells masters not to mistreat or threaten their slaves, because they are their siblings in Christ and both have a Master in heaven who will judge all. (Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9) He hints pretty heavily that Philemon free his runaway slave Onesimus, rather than punish him. (Read the whole of Philemon.) It became so common for Christians to free their slaves, or buy fellow Christians out of slavery, that the practice was prohibited by the emperor Diocletian under the last great persecution of the church. Slaves were also allowed to become clergy, including 2 popes, and even a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus!
God is love and love brings people together, including combinations of people you wouldn't think would go together. A good example is the House of All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA church started by recovering alcoholic and stand up comic turned Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Originally, it was for people who did not fit in at your average church. Preaching a message of God's radical grace and forgiveness, word of her church, which met in the parish hall of an Episcopal church, started to spread. And when people who look like they normally go to church began attending, Bolz-Weber was afraid it would lead to the dilution of her unique congregation. Then an LGBT parishioner said he liked that their church included people who looked like his parents but who accepted him. That convinced her that God was indeed at work in her mission.
Spoilers! The mystery of Christ has been revealed: God is love and there are no limits to whom God loves. So it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out that as followers of his son, we should not exclude anyone from access to his grace. The body of Christ is open to all who respond to his call. The first few generations of Christians understood that and practiced radical inclusiveness and self-sacrificial love. It looks like we have forgotten the very thing that made the early church grow. In order to fulfill the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us, we need to go out of our comfort zones and invite people of every variety to join us in following Jesus. As he said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Any sheep who hears the call of Jesus and comes must be welcomed into the flock. We mustn't second-guess the Shepherd. He came to save the lost at any cost. As someone has said, Jesus leaving 99 sheep to find just one seems illogical, irrational and senseless...until that one is you.